Thursday, December 31, 2015

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Current Cinema 15.10


I said it last year after seeing his complete oeuvre, but Paolo Sorrentino is the finest European director working today and with his latest film, "Youth", that definitive statement still rings true. It's starting off point is the mundane relaxation stay of two life long friends Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel, but Sorrentino's penchant for specks of life and perfectly coiffed image making soon become a visual poem all to itself. As if the men were trapped in a haunting purgatory full of ghosts past and present, "Youth" is certainly not an ironic title. It's a film that understands life and art sometimes should be messy and beautifully unkempt. And its dedicated to the great Francesco Rosi. How beautiful is that?

The Danish Girl

I have nothing against Eddie Redmayne. Seriously, I don't. It's just his last two films (this one and "The Theory of Everything" which garnered him an Oscar) feel like real acting from someone who knows he's really acting. Plus the fact "The Danish Girl" deals with themes of transgender identity that are front and center in both the cultural and political arena these days, and it all feels a bit much. Every smirk or canvased grin he flashes feels premeditated and actually dishonest. The best moments, such as when the film focuses on the intimate struggle for identity between Redmayne and wife Alicia Vikander, are overshadowed by the need to check mark every big drama plot point. External prejudice in the form of gay bashing? Got it. Weepy sentimentalism in the final reel? Check. Cloistered period piece atmosphere? Yep. "The Danish Girl" is a film that understands its weighty significance and then hammers the point home every chance it gets.

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict

A documentary that focuses on the curator rather than the creator. Full review here.


While not all of Spike Lee's latest film, "Chi-Raq" is successful, one can't deny the very angry and potent place it derives from. The opening- with the lyrics of its self titled song sprayed across the screen in bright red letters followed by a foghorn warning of "this is an emergency" - certainly places one in the uncomfortable framework of a conscientious filmmaker trying to change something... anything... in this fucked up society. By grafting a Greek tragedy, poetry dialogue and all, onto the shoulders of a gang war in modern day Chicago, it takes some getting used to at first, but the lead performance of Teyonah Parris soon commands attention as she tries to lead her fellow women in a sex strike until the bloodshed ends. Social satire, Lee's continual breaking of the fourth wall and straight up comedy blend into a fascinating mess that signals Lee hasn't quite given up on utilizing his cinema for more than entertainment.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Regional Review: Jackelope

Any film that features several fleeting shots of landmarks and buildings that stood just a few hundred yards from my childhood home is bound to enamor itself to my heart, which is exactly what Kenneth Harrison's 1976 documentary "Jackelope" has done. Those images- captured while one of the film's subjects is making a pilgrimage down I-35 from Dallas to Austin- only last a second or two, but they serve as a monochrome reminder that no matter what happens to those structures later in life (one of which now has been torn down), they'll be preserved in the cinematic ether for a brief instant... somewhere. Beyond that tangential personal connection, the film also excels because it's an eccentric time capsule of early 1970's Texas through the visionary work of three diverse artists who mold, cut, paint or fabricate their "outsider" folk art. Rarely does a documentary so neatly blend interesting people with the atmospheric poise of the times.

Originally prepared and shown on Dallas' public access channel, KERA, in 1976, "Jackelope" recently received a restoration and became one of the many great entries presented at the 2015 Dallas VideoFest. I wrote in the primer to the festival about "Jackelope", calling it aimless, entrancing and fascinating and a film that highlights the against-the-grain philosophy of the snooty art world paradigms. Patting myself on the back, that's about as apt a description one can muster for it.

Opening on artist James Surls as he scavenges and ultimately finds the perfect tree within an overgrown field on one of those obviously blistering hot summer days we're known for here in Texas, "Jackelope" follows a certain procession of creativity. In Surls' portion, more attention is given with the actual sawing down of the tree and its eventual shape through his endless whittling of the wood into a tall figurine. We're shown the birth of his art from idealized vision to tactile representation. The second portion of "Jackelope" picks up with painter George Green in his Houston studio as he hobknobs with friends and reflects on his past. Glimpses of his art are shown, but the focus in this middle portion lies within the comfortable surroundings of an artist content and at peace with his lot in his life. The third and most rambunctious portion of the film follows sculpture Bob Wade as he roadtrips to Austin, making a pit-stop in Waco, Texas to enjoy a friendly round of shotgun mayhem and car explosions. Just like his art (which has graced so many Central Texas institutions and businesses over the years, including my college grounds), Wade is a colorful and country-funky-steampunk figure who gives "Jackelope" a boundless energy. In this third and final portion, its as if director Harrison is saying that art- come full circle- is an experience that doesn't need to be constipated or retained for a certain percentile of people. It can be wild, joyous and a completely passionate expression of someone who lives life the same way.

An obvious crowd favorite at the festival, my only regret was not hooking up with director Harrison for a chat about his work and the film. I'm sure his memories of crafting such a loving documentary are just as infectious as the buoyant personalities shown on-screen.

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Current Cinema 15.9


Navigating all the emotional turbulence magnificently, John Crowley's film is a richly observed tale about a young woman's tenuous emergence into both a startling new culture and her own awkward adulthood. Anchored by the heartbreakingly real performance of Saoirse Ronan as Eilis, the newly minted New Yorker by way of Ireland in 1952, "Brooklyn" traces all the usual setups of such a film (homesickness, tragedy, young love) and then proceeds to defy commonplace logic and craft a film that's absorbing and luminous despite its very classical roots. The relationship between Ronan and Italian boyfriend Tony emits a certain wild innocence reminiscent of Eva Saint Marie and Marlon Brando in "On the Waterfront". They're that good together. But it's Ronan's face and eyes that carry the film, often holding the camera's gaze as the world and its uncontrollable impulses of love, regret, confusion and expectation bounce off her.


Infuriating is not normally the adjective one would apply towards one of the year's best films, but it fits Tom McCarthy's "Spotlight". Raised in the Catholic faith, I'm not the most devout practitioner these days, but it still serves as a guiding force in my life to try and do right. Watching the fictional rendering of the 2001 Boston Globe journalist team that brought to light the systematic issue of child abuse by priests for decades, "Spotlight" is a crackling, intelligent journey littered with amazing performances from top to bottom. In fact, some of the characterizations by actors in single scenes (such as now adult victims played by Neil Huff or  Michael Creighton) reverberate long after they're gone and provide articulate points of reference for the evil committed years ago. There's no fancy camera work. The pacing is taut and every inflection or eye twitch (especially from Mark Ruffalo) suggest just as much internal intelligence as outward. This is simply great ensemble filmmaking. And the part that got to me the most- watching the way Rachel McAdam's beloved and devout grandmother slyly asks for a glass of water upon reading the story her daughter helped to break. The victims of the actual abuse deserve the closure, but "Spotlight" also reveals the abuse of trust penetrates worldwide.


Oh those Germans. First "Run Lola Run" and now this. Full thoughts on Dallas Film Now.


Like an Arabian Robert Louis Stevenson adventure story. Very good stuff. More shameless self promotion at Dallas Film Now.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Last Few Films I've Seen, November edition

1. Love (2015)- A sobering elegy about the disastrous decisions made just before and after sex. Close to Noe's masterpiece, "Irreversible".  Full review on Dallas Film Now.

2. Polytechnique (2009)- Denis Villenevue's black and white dramatic retelling of the 1989 Montreal Tech school massacre is austere and shocking, but most surprising is the way it ends on a somewhat uplifting note that defies the misogynistic reasons for the shooter's rampage. Weaving back and forth in time to follow several students before and after the incident, "Polytechnique" was made just before Villenevue began to score in Hollywood with "Prisoners", "Enemy" and now "Sicario" and its worth tracking down. Like these other films mentioned, it delves into aspects of damaged psychology that, ultimately, ends on a pitch perfect resonance and proves one of the victims (played wonderfully by Karine Vanesse) chooses not to be defined by the tragedy itself but the decisions she makes with her life after the violence.

3. Heaven Knows What (2015)- Belonging up there with "White Star" and "Christiane F.", Josh and Benny Safdie's heroin-junkie drama is filled to the brim with hollow eyed people and a pervasive atmosphere of desperation that (I only imagine) must encompass this lifestyle. Based on the memoir and starring the ex-junkie herself Arielle Holmes, "Heaven Knows What" starts on a histrionic note and never quite lets up after that. It's strong cinema though and lingers in your mind.

4. Armor of Light (2015)- Documentary on two hot button topics (gun control and religious rhetoric) that never quite fully develops into a cohesive whole. Reviewed on Dallas Film Now.

5. Marfa Girl (2014)- Larry Clark's latest film tones down the risque teenage sex a bit, but it's no less incisive into what makes his awkward protagonists click beyond smoking pot and hanging out. I suppose I should quit looking for substance in his films. But the greatest omission "Marfa Girl" makes is completely alienating the wondrous West Texas landscape of Marfa in favor of shabby home interiors and concrete skate parks. His hippy characters nip at the edges of the progressive lifestyles there yet it fails to leave an indelible impression.

6. Dark Places (2015)- After the success of "Gone Girl", the scramble to 'cinematize' more Gillian Flynn novels ensued and this was the next. Not in a position to judge its relevance to the novel, the film itself is a hodge-podge of thriller aspects that feels overwrought. Also, the lead character played by Charlize Theron, tries to come off as some sort of moody, empowered 'everywoman' but the nuance isn't realized.

 7. The Wicked Go To Hell (1955)- Robert Hossein's directorial debut is a cool blend of prison escape drama and crime exploits once the two escapees hole up with a beautiful hostage in her seaside home. Like a dry run for his later film "Falling Point", Hossein is obviously enamored by the languid darkness that hides just beneath the pleasant surface as the beach itself, eventually, literally swallows the men whole.

8. Truth (2015)- The problem with James Vanderbilt's journalism drama about 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes and anchor Dan Rather's flawed reporting on W. Bush's war record isn't the backlash it's received since, but its utter sense of self importance. Every scene between Rather (Robert Redford) and reporter Topher Grace is monumentally strained. The usually wonderful Cate Blanchett acts as if the entire effort is a noble act of self sacrifice. Director Vanderbilt telegraphs every emotion and scene with sledgehammer authority. A huge disappointment.

9. Fedora (1978)- Billy Wilder's swan song is a terrific inversion of the noir genre.... the scandalous Hollywood darkside drama.... and one of William Holden's finest performances as the private dick caught in the middle.

10. Lan Yu (2001)- Working my way through most of Stanley Kwan's films. I can see why he never gained major international acclaim and overshadowed by the more prolific Wong Kar Wai, but "Lan Yu" (and even more specifically "Everlasting Regret") are interesting explorations of identity and shifting cultural paradigms that he probably should have gotten more notice.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Francesco Rosi Files: La Sfida

Two of my favorite films from the 1970's- Robert Mulligan's "The Nickel Ride" and John G. Avildsen's "Save the Tiger"- contain a similar theme about the dogged determinism of a business entrepreneur to keep his business afloat. They're exhaustive, fluid films that feature stressful performances by Jason Miller and Jack Lemmon, respectively, and certainly accentuate the oncoming tide of later 70's films that wallow in the American recession and "New Brat" school of thought. And even though both men in these films straddle the line between moral and decent business practice, they signify upright men trying to maintain control of their visions, regardless of the legality of their trade.

A straight line can be drawn back to Francesco Rosi's 1958 "La Sfida" (aka "The Challenge"). Not only does it enable the simple Italian Neorealist themes of a lowly person desperately trying to overcome a singular hurdle, but it feels like a direct interloper to the films of Coppola, Scorsese and the above mentioned pair in its scope and intimate ambition. Sarring Jose Suarez as Vito, "La Sfida" observes his growth from the town hustler to fruit and vegetable mogul in short order. Setting up trucking routes, organizing his men to make deliveries and, eventually coming into conflict with the local crime boss, Vito seems to have it all figured out. Things get even better when he marries young Assunta (Rosanna Schiaffino). And, like all great Italian films, their wedding day becomes a lengthy affair that not only takes up a good portion of the film's final half, but morphs into a cerebral exercise of power and control as Vito's enemies decide to attack his interests.

"La Sfida" was Rosi's first solo directorial effort after co-directing an anthology film in 1952 and assisting actor Vittorio Gassman with his project entitled "Kean" (which isn't a bad film, but ultimately a comedic 'audience pleaser' that looks and feels like nothing else Rosi would do). Stunning in its assured measures and complex in the way it manages to highlight the almost bureaucratic steps ambitious Vito has to take to build his hard-pressed empire, "La Sfida" is really a film about the in-between moments of Italian Cosa Nostra culture and the uncontrollable fits and starts of creating something out of nothing. Like the long walks Jason Miller takes around the dilapidated warehouse district of Los Angeles or the sweaty, out-of-breath decisions Jack Lemmon has to make on the fly, "La Sfida" raises a strong case that the effort is hardly worth the pensive payoffs. But, Vito does it anyway. Partly out of neighborhood pride, but mostly because he enjoys the nice cars and pampering beautiful Assunta, "La Sfida" follows his trek through the good and bad. If it's ironic that he initially gave up peddling cigarettes for the more expensive and healthy produce shipping, "La Sfida" shows no favoritism. The end result is the same. And like the rest of Rosi's career, his anti-hero rarely walks away unscathed, beaten either by the system or his own ambitions. "The Challenge" could be the title of any later Rosi work, and I imagine he liked it that way.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Hacktober #3

Crimson Peak

The best film I've seen in this month of October horror movie binging, "Crimson Peak" is a Gothic romance horror couched brilliantly against del Toro's demented landscape of ominous ghosts, histrionic emotions and Escher-like collapsing mansions. That pale-skinned Mia Waskowski is at the center of the madness only makes it more bittersweet as she's the perfect innocent reflection of the malevolent gestures of Jessica Chastain. Even though its antique idea of a murderous/incestuous couple is anchored in cliche trappings of 20th century tragedy, the film's wonderful visuals, art design that seems to be lacquered down to the inch and some truly scary images make this film one of del Toro's most fully realized works.

The Nightmare

It's a bit disingenuous to label Rodney Ascher's "The Nightmare" a documentary on sleep paralysis since it not only dispenses with any critical examination of the topic, but resolutely refuses to do anything beyond vividly fictionalizing the subject. If you want any explanation on the idea, listen to Coast To Coast AM or look elsewhere. Regardless of that, the "documentary" does contain its share of scary imagery and hammers home the fact that there are so many unexplained phenomenon out there.


From the screwed-up mind that brought us "Calvaire" a few years back, Belgium filmmaker Fabrice du Walz returns with more provocative subject matter, updating the 1940's "Lonely Hearts Killer" case to modern times as Lola Duenas and Laurent Lucas are the murderous couple who pass themselves off as brother and sister and systematically kill the women he shacks up with. Pieces of fetishism and Duenas carefully unhinged performance strike the right balance of morbid and strange and du Walz again proves his blunt and dirty gaze during the act of murder are some of the more bone-chilling realizations out there.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Hacktober #2

We Are Still Here

Deceptively simple but effectively creepy, Ted Geoghegan's haunted house horror relies on old tales and careful framing to elicit its jumps and thrills. It does follow some inane genre techniques (i.e. the now infamous Ebert coined BADF theory) but its heart and mind feel like they're in the right place.

Stephen King's It

Even though millions of people suffer from coulrophobia, there's still plenty of other things to really freak someone out in "Stephen King's It". I'm honestly not sure how I managed to avoid this miniseries based on King's 1986 novel, but it's well worth the wait. Marrying his two beloved thematic tendencies- one being childhood reverie of growing up during the 1960's and the second being his innate ability to terrify- King (and director Tommy Lee Wallace) have delivered a solid visual translation. The idea of a malevolent being taking the form of a clown and using a quiet New England town as his 30 year feeding ground is a spellbinding idea, and while parts of the movie are deadened by their television soap opera bearings, it more often than not succeeds. And, even more impressive is the basic idea about seven young friends suffering from psychological horror and then reuniting 30 years later to deal with them together. Those sections of the film alone would be enough to satisfy a full movie. But the real star here is Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown.... a character that's alternately full of cheap one liners and sublimely nightmarish. Alongside Wes Craven's "Nightmare on Elm Street" franchise, these are two primo efforts about the hellish reaches of our subconscious and the mind-bending ways in which reality and fantasy often overlap.

Dust Devil

Cult director Richard Stanley isn't really all that interested in making an outright horror film. Most of his stuff is a casserole of genres, and "Dust Devil" is a unique horror western with some South African mysticism tossed in. Besides its strong visual style, I can sense he was reaching for a franchise here as a shape-shifting devil runs amok on the desert highlands and local police try to decipher the grisly crime scene images. It's not always successful and suffers from the sorta-bad-early-90's costume theatrics, but its different.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Current Cinema 15.8

Steve Jobs

As a straight biography of the man, Danny Boyle's "Steve Jobs" is woefully neglect. As a pulsating backstage drama play to some of the most influential electronics products of the past half century- complete with conniving secondary characters, tainted relationships, high tension, and some serious daddy/daughter issues- it's a masterpiece. And honestly, how many more straight biopics do we really need? By capturing all the promotional hysteria and personal conflicts in three distinct realms of Steve Jobs' influential life (1984, 1988 and 1998), the film tightens its focus on the almost maniacal side of Jobs. Unrelenting in his purpose, unable to glorify anyone else but himself and yet still slicing up shimmers of humanity and emotional grandeur within him, Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin have crafted a film that zings with intelligence while maintaining a three-dimensional sense of the man. One may not like Jobs (brought to life by an Oscar worthy performance by Michael Fassbender), but it's a film that demands our attention and dares to steer away from the obvious inventions of the mind and instead examine the mechanism of power, regret, ownership and forgiveness.

The Walk

What could be more invigorating and informative than James Marsh's 2008 documentary "Man On Wire" about the tightrope walk of French performance artist Philippe Petit? Not much. So it seems a bit reductive (and borderline insulting) when Robert Zemeckis takes A-list actor Joseph Gordon Levitt, who is usually quite good, and dresses him up in faux 70's clothes and lets him run wild with an awful French accent in retelling the same events. Shrouded in 3D imagery and green screen theatrics, even the final third of the film which deals with the vertigo inducing walk between the Twin Towers, falls flat as if the film has morphed into some sort of Disney-like drama fun for the whole family. Terrible.

Field Niggas

Khalik Allah's "Field Niggas" was one of the last films to play at Dallas VideoFest last weekend, given a late Sunday night time slot because, frankly, not many people would probably know what to do with it. Sheer visual poetry in every sense of the word, Allah's mesmerizing hour long film would make a terrific art exhibit as well. Following the aimless, nocturnal denizens of homeless and scattered people on the streets of New York City, Allah plays with sound and image. Sometimes the people on-screen are the ones talking, but more often than not, its just the voices of the night overlapped onto the brightly saturated faces of those who happen to be in front of the camera. Holding steadfast on their scarred, weary and disquieted bodies, "Field Niggas" is a lament for those who don't have a voice, wandering the rainy night and rambling about police brutality, life on the streets and the daily grind of survival.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Christian Petzold, Part 2: The Mainstream (Sort of)

Released in 2007, "Yella" was the first real Petzold film to see a larger than limited release both here and in the U.K. And by that I mean outside of film festivals and into the elitist paying public of the 300 or so "art-house" theaters around the country. Again starring muse Nina Hoss, "Yella" is a frigid, tempered effort that begins with a woman being stalked by her ex husband and ends just as morosely. In fact, the title of Petzold's previous film, "Ghosts", is probably the more apt title here as Yella and her co-stars are moribund in some sort of steel and glass purgatory... a world where everyone's hotel room doors are inexplicably left ajar for anyone else to walk inside and the antiseptic offices where many of the inhabitants square off are sealed from the exterior sights, sounds and smells. It's an extremely interior and hermetic film, both physically and emotionally. See, Yella (Hoss) narrowly escapes the suicide attempt by this unhinged ex-husband when he drives his car off the road with her in it. Landing in water, Yella awakens on the water's edge and stalks off, seemingly unfazed, towards the new job awaiting her in a nearby town. Once that opportunity crumbles, new connections are made with Phillipp (Devid Striesow) and Yella's whip smart attributes to quickly size up accounting balance sheets comes in extremely handy for him, who happens to make his living bailing out fiscally unwise companies and turning their assets to his benefit. But all is not as it seems as Yella's ex-husband (also unconscious next to her when she awoke on dry land) begins to appear and disappear in her new life and odd sounds randomly pierce her fragile state.

"Yella" plays by its own dream logic for good reason. Why does she never remove the same red shirt and gray dress for the duration of the film? Why does no one seem to notice her immobile fits when she breaks a glass on the desk next to her? How does her ghostly ex suddenly appear next to her one moment when he seemingly wandered right past her the second before? Again fixated by economic mobility or the lack thereof, "Yella" is a tight yet unsettling psychological drama that bears all of Petzold's thematic stamps, especially his fascination with a loner couple awash in the German countryside that links the larger cities. But the real synonymous factor is the wide-eyed, graceful performance of Nina Hoss who feels as if she's just hitting her stride under Petzold's dour, nihilistic moods. And as the film winds to its somewhat expected but still striking finale, that mood prevails. And Petzold's vision doesn't even allow his characters to dream good thoughts.

Just as Petzold's vision on-screen became more confident and tantalizing, for the first time in his career, these visions were given confidence by numerous eyes around the globe as well. His next film, "Jerichow" (2008) even got a proper art-house release and did favorably well financially and even better critically. Loosely echoing the film noir classic "The Postman Always Rings Twice", Petzold dispenses with the potboiler atmosphere of the original, which is something the 1981 remake starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange dramatically amps up, creating a a wild and sweat-filled lust-noir that verges on camp. But in "Jerichow", everything is sedate and highly plausible. Even as the wife (Hoss) and her new workmate/lover Thomas (Benno Furmann again) engage in secret dalliances behind the back of her husband and his boss Ali (Hilmi Sozer), the canvas of blame is democratic. And, yet, when the duo plot to kill the husband, Petzold has built up such a shifting allegiance of paranoia and dead-end decisions that we almost don't blame the couple for conspiring to commit murder. Further still, the revelations in the final moments from Ali complete a triangle of casual acceptance that again shifts our preconceptions about the film noir genre itself and push "Jerichow" into a human drama more than a token genre name.

Reflecting back on it now, and having watched it again in the last few months after my initial theatrical viewing seven years ago, "Jerichow" strikes me as the summation of Petzold's evolving work. It's a film that, like the worn out cowboy boots that Nina Hoss dons beneath her lilting flowery dresses, consistently upends our expectations and presupposes there are invisible boundaries between 'good' and 'bad'. In "Jerichow", everyone is a shade of both these identifiers and their actions against each other are organic reactions to their situations. It's a marvelous tightrope walk of a film.

After a short stint in TV work again (which will be covered in the third and final installment here), it was four years before Petzold would grace the big screen again. Released in the fall of 2012 after a hearty film festival circuit tour, "Barbara" continues Petzold's fascination with stasis. Again placing Nina Hoss at the center of the drama, she plays a Berlin doctor ostracized to the East German country after an unknown incident with the authorities. Living out her days in solitude and looking forward only to the clandestine meetings with her West German lover (who promises to help her defect), Barbara slowly finds her self worth in this rural community. But at a cost. Continually monitored by German authority figure Klaus (Rainer Bock) and completely unsure of the genuineness exuded by fellow doctor Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), Hoss gives her best performance to date for Petzold. Virtually holding her breath in many scenes, unwilling to compromise her inner thoughts or show weakness to a society virtually holding her hostage, she gives the film a powerfully mute force with her eyes and constricted body movement. If there were justice, she would have gotten an Oscar nomination that year.

The first film by Petzold to reflect openly on a specific time in Germany's past, "Barbara" feels like a razor sharp exploration of this paranoia and self delusion. In one particular scene, Barbara is waiting in the hotel room for her lover to finish his business meeting downstairs when, from the adjoining room, a young and beautiful girl sneaks into her room and they begin talking. She is the girlfriend of Barbara's lover's partner. The young girl talks about the budding relationship between them and tells Barbara he's going to help her leave. They peruse a magazine full of wedding rings and like little girls, each pick one out and try on the paper fitting. When the young girl asks Barbara "is it hard?", referring to the process of defecting to West Germany, Barbara's cold stare tells her (and us) everything about the daydreamed atmosphere they exist within. It's no surprise that later in the film, Barbara makes a particularly stunning self-sacrifice. This act of unerring kindness and fatalistic settlement back into her rural purgatory (there's that idea again) carry on Petzold's bittersweet outlook on life and its reflection in cinema.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Hacktober #1

The Boogeyman

How one can title a film the Boogeyman and not spend any time or effort inventing some sort of nightmarish imaginary being is beyond me, but that's exactly what director Ulli Lommel has fashioned with this one. Call it an interior horror film since the deaths come at the hands of an invisible presence which seems to transport into this world through fragments of a broken mirror, spurned on by the traumatic childhood of a brother and sister. I call it pretty lame. Outside of this brief description, there's not much else to speak about in a plot that's both nonsensical (one minute they're talking about seeing a long lost mother and then its forgotten, or the killer seems to be targeting everyone except the boy and girl) and forgettable. Let's hope the rest of my October watching is infinitely better.

The Green Inferno

Can't say Eli Roth's "The Green Inferno" is that infinitely better, but at least its straightforward and up front about its intentions- which is to gross out and shock a new generation of fans not familiar with the grisly/sleazy oeuvre of Italian shlocksters like Ruggero Deodato or Lucio Fulci. Basically a loose echo of "Cannibal Holocaust" (complete with New York liberal students receiving their gory comeuppance), Roth dispenses with character development outside of a few juvenile attempts at humor and a stoned, heroin-looking-infused Sky Ferreira playing reactionary friend to star Lorenza Izzo. As a friend of mine put it.... in the first 30 minutes I'm wanting that one to die and then that one. I've given up on Roth. Too amateurish for honest pastiche and too enamored by his own ideas of geekdom to ever really rival others like Kevin Smith or Tarantino (can't believe I just typed that), all of his stuff is torture porn... and not in the best way.


Horrible acting and ludicrous plot aside (which seems to be the norm here), "Pieces" is held together (huh-huh) by snippets of extreme gore ala chainsaw mutilations and lots of early 80's let's-have-some-erotica-then-get-killed subplots. Oh, and the killer is consumed by putting together a puzzle in between kills, which I can't say I've ever seen in a gore film before.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

The Current Cinema 15.7

Black Mass

In the final moments of Scott Cooper's "Black Mass"- as the fates of its varied criminals and dirty cops comes to a crashing halt after a decade of unbridled swagger and financial excess- the film reaches the arched, epic tone its been striving for the entire time. It's not a case of too little too late... as the fine acting and Cooper's grasp of mise-en-scene, mood and an almost hushed reverence for the sink bottom atmosphere of South Boston, permeated a good majority of the film up until that point. It all just felt a bit familiar and diffuse, as if too many filmmakers had already walked this darkened path. Still, "Black Mass" is sturdy, professional filmmaking that dares to hold on the menacing face of Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger, making us stare into the gray eyes of its protagonist with unflinching brutality and dispassionate rigor.


Even through the consistent morbidity of Denis Villeneuve's "Sicario", he manages to hone in on the textures of everyday life with dreamy precision. The flakes of dust that linger in the air as rays of sunlight whip through a set of curtains. The jagged exteriors of drywall that hide a mass of murdered bodies in the film's nerve-racking opening scene. And especially the face and eyes of Emily Blunt as she registers confusion, regret and doubt amidst a sea of unchecked masculinity. Over his last few films, Villeneuve has yet to shy away from some pretty dark-hearted matters, but these moments of human fragility set against a backdrop of political, jurisdictional and criminal violence place "Sicario" as an exceptional study on the parameters of justice and its screwed up moral compass. Oh and it's a pretty damn good action film as well, but not in the standard ways. Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan ratchet up the tension scene by scene. Just watch and admire the almost wordless "prisoner extraction" scene from Juarez. Or the razor sharp sweeps of dialogue that tell us little, but amount to so much in the end.  "Sicario" may be tale that's played out openly in the media and through CIA skulduggery fairytales for years, but its impact is no less resonant. One of the year's very best films.

Reviews available on Dallas Film Now:

Ashby- Mickey Rourke gives a pretty damn good performance in a rather uneven film.

Mississippi Grind- A somber character study that hinges on the roll of the dice.

Finders Keepers- A storage locker. A severed leg in a charcoal grill inside the locker. Two men and their fight over the leg. That's all I'll say. See this film.

Thursday, September 24, 2015


I've been terrible with film writing here lately, but rest assured, more articles are upcoming. The Dallas VideoFest is coming up in a few weeks and I've been given a unique opportunity to cover that this year for Dallas Film Now. 125 features, shorts and special programs should be amazing!

Also, I have been reviewing alot for the above mentioned site so head over there for a dozen or so reviews including "Cop Car", "Ashby", "Sleeping With Other People" and "Z For Zachariah".

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

In Praise of Maggie Cheung #3

 The following is an ongoing exploration of the prolific work from actress Maggie Cheung

 Comrades, Almost A Love Story (1996), directed by Peter Chan

Similar in theme to "Farewell China" made six years prior, Peter Chan's "Comrades, Almost A Love Story" not only provides Maggie the far better role, but it deals with the 'Mainlanders' struggle for social acceptance and financial viability in the hustling urban sprawl of Hong Kong in a much more realistic and less frenetic light than that earlier effort. Here, Cheung and fellow Chinese Leon Lai connect, almost become a couple, and then spend an inordinate amount of time almost connecting as their fates buoy over a decade in Hong Kong. Lushly romantic and heartfelt, Cheung becomes one of those female figures in cinema who seems too good to be true as she orbits around Lai. It's a tribute to her soft eyes and honed performance that she never comes off as anything but sincere. "Comrades, Almost A Love Story" is OOP on home video, but any fan of Maggie deserves the chance to see it.

Police Story 1 and 2 (1985-1988), directed by Jackie Chan

Perhaps the worst roles of Maggie's career in the 1980's is playing second fiddle to Jackie Chan and his Abbott and Costello hi-jinks as the supercop who flips, dives, and smirks his way across Hong Kong busting up organized crime and driving a car through a mountainside village way before the majestic stunt was dreamed up by Michael Bay for "Bad Boys 2". As the girlfriend to Chan, Maggie is either wasted as comic relief or dangerous bait after being captured. Still, it's hard to deny these roles in the megabuster series- both in Asia and here in America- didn't add to her growing popularity and international acclaim.

Eagle Shooting Heroes (1993), directed by Jeff Lau

This is the first time I can admit having to suffer through a film for the performance of Maggie Cheung, which even then is so sporadic and limited, that she probably shouldn't even receive a credit. Lau's "Eagle Shooting Heroes" is emblematic of those 90's HK films that tried extremely hard to win over an entire fanbase on both sides of the ocean. Broad comedy, cartoon slapstick, cross-dressing and high-wire action fights are the common denominator to a fantastic story about queens, wizards, ninjas and magic shoes. Thankfully, by this point, Cheung was becoming well established in the films of Wong Kar Wai and Stanley Kwan, able to abandon these more low-brow efforts for serious minded films.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Christian Petzold: Part 1 The Early Films

In what may be the film of the year, Nina Hoss nervously swaggers around the red neon-lit Phoenix bar that gives director Chrisian Petzold's film its ominous title. Leaning against the wall, hoping to catch the eye of her unsuspecting husband who believes her to be dead, an American soldier boldly approaches her and lights her cigarette, leaning in aggressively and flirting with her. She barely flinches, less disturbed at his sexually omnivorous advances and seemingly more upset that this man has blocked her view. It's not long before another soldier comes over and pulls the man away, muttering, "that's the wrong girl." The soldier flicks his cigarette and begins his charade with another woman close by. Petzold's morbid rhetoric about the power vacuum of Europe immediately following World War II and everyone's scuffle to obtain a small piece of it- which his entire powerful film is about- has never felt quite so intimate and haunting. And that's only the beginning of poor Nina Hoss and her troubles in this bombed-out existence. "Phoenix" is Petzold's fourteenth film in twenty years (including TV work), and its taken him this long to break into the quasi-arthouse, but it's well deserved and overdue.

Beginning his career in the mid 90's and hailing from the Berlin School of filmmaking, Petzold's manner is hard to classify because it settles in-between the various styles and influences of his German predecessors. He doesn't employ the hyper-fatalistic style of Fassbinder and is even less concerned with the lethargic poetry of a Wim Wenders. Yet, his films do follow three distinct ideas that classify him as an auteur distilling themes sporadically around his body of work. One, even though some of his films feel aimless at times with characters lost in thought or pondering their social status, they always lead back to a carefully realized progression. His strict diagram of emotions, memory, and painful loss often propel his narratives into sticky emotional territory. Secondly, the idea of one's place both economically and socially often drive his men and women to shadowy depths and morally ambiguous actions. Lastly, and this has been a more common theme in his later films, but a reconciliation with the past has been a major influence on his work, especially life immediately after World War II and Germany's obliteration from major power to shredded nation. Heavy themes, indeed, but ones that have been given devastating personal scope throughout his career.

Cuba Libre (1996)

"Cuba Libre", one of his three early TV films I've been able to see (the other two unavailable include "The Sex Thief" and "Drifters"), pretty much offer all three ideas in one opening salvo. Starring Richy Muller as Tom and Catheine Flemming as Tina, two homeless ex-lovers who precariously intersect at a German bus station, the specter of financial collapse and hopelessness seeps at the edges of every frame. It'd be easy to dismiss the film as yet another dour, stifling expression of German 'miserablism' if it weren't for the unusual streaks of comedy, such as Muller's incessant beatings by another man he keeps running into at the bus station or the keystone cops-like energy towards the end of the film as two thugs try and exact their revenge on Muller. In between those fleeting moments, though, "Cuba Libre" is dour. Eventually, the couple escape their lowly circumstances....Tina via prostitution and Tom with an older man whose initial interest in him seems sexually motivated but turns out to be a murky plot of identity fraud and possible embezzlement. They both end up in a sea-side resort town with hopes of building a better life, but Petzold's moral complexity doesn't allow for such a happy excursion. Like in "Phoenix", the film takes its title from a "Rosebud" type of actual structure (bar in that film, restaurant in this one) that stands mute witness as the malignant forces of humanity shatter any hope of "happily ever after". For most of the film, we sort of root for Tom and Tina to make it out alive. We should know better.

Wolfsburg (2003)

It's only minutes into Petzold's sixth film, "Wolfsburg", that darkness strikes one of its main characters when Philipp (Benno Furmann), distracted by an argument on the phone while driving, hits something with his car. It's only after pulling over that he realizes its a child on a bicycle. Afraid of losing his status as a well-paid car salesman AND the impending marriage to his fiance, Philipp drives away. Learning the child later dies, he slowly insinuates himself into the life of grieving single mother Laura, struggling not only to deal with the residual anger and disbelief of her son's death, but the meager factory job in which she has to spurn the sexual advances of her boss while devising shifty ways to steal food from the production line. Two people on opposite ends of the social spectrum, pulled together by the ghostly remnants of a dead child (albeit with vastly different interests) is the overriding theme in "Wolfsburg".

As Laura, Hoss is excellent...having already paired with Petzold in an earlier TV movie entitled "Something To Remind Me".... and the duo's creative synergy is already present. It would be easy to sink into melodramatic catharsis, but while there are moments of depression and extreme sadness, Hoss also brings a determined air about her aching mother. In between sort of falling for this new stranger Philipp in her life, she continues the search for the car of her son's killer- whose description he gasped shortly before sinking back into a coma he'd never awake from again. "Wolfsburg" becomes a tense treatise of 'will she or won't she' discover the man and it makes for a compelling drama that feels like a blueprint for Petzold's later films that examine the aforementioned "sticky emotional territory" with elegance.

Ghosts (2005)

The best of his early films, "Gespenster" aka Ghosts, dispenses with the middle-aged-miserablism of his earlier films, yet traces the staunch roots of unhappiness in two teenage girls who find each other at vulnerable times in their lives. Locked into a life of orphan status and living out her days in a controlled dorm room type housing, Nina (Julia Hummer) meets Toni (Sabine Timeteo) and the two find themselves attracted to each other. Nina's affection for Toni seems more genuine, though, exemplified by Toni's off-screen tryst with the host of a party they're later invited to and her free flowing independence that causes her to promptly leave Nina whenever she feels like it. Bracketed around this lecherous relationship is Francois (Marianne Baslar), a middle aged woman who comes to believe Nina is her long-lost daughter kidnapped from her when she was just a year old. This merry-go-round of stunted emotions, unspoken bonds and half delirious craziness spins around the narrative of "Ghosts", which gives us the impression Petzold's title is a literal allusion to the dead end hopes of everyone involved. And if that's not enough, the final scene involving Nina, only confirms his status as a filmmaker ennobled with the idea of missed connections and sorrowful circumstances that plague so many of the characters in his universe.

Armed with increasing praise and positive festival exposure, Petzold would next embark on a string of films that finally gave his work some mainstream visibility and audience viability. But the trademarks that marked his earlier work would not go away. In fact, they'd even grow stronger with added dimensions of hurtful history and pure genre infusion. It was an exciting time to be Petzold.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Corpus Criminalities: Abel Ferrara's "Welcome To New York"

(Note- this review is based on the 125 minute "director's cut" of the film)

It just wouldn't be an Abel Ferrara film without some type of controversy. Whether it's the use of an unlicensed Schooly D track ("The King of New York") or the absolute failure to find stateside distribution for his latest work (any of the last half dozen films, basically), Ferrara has settled into the role of a maverick pariah, still as prolific and challenging as ever, but unable to share his unflinching views with a wide audience. However, with "Welcome To New York"- his rendering of the rape charge incident against powerful French bank manager Dominique Strauss Kahn in 2011- Ferrara faced a new obstacle. After being dumped in very limited release earlier this year and surreptitiously released on VOD, Ferrara came out blasting his production company for re-editing the film and tampering with his artistic vision. Having not seen that slimmed down 107 minute version and only reading about the changes through various online sources, it does sound as if some of the story's perspective has been altered. Ferarra has been relentless in his distancing of that version and his motto that the best way to view his films is through nefarious online downloads never felt quite so relevatory. Yet all that rhetoric aside, "Welcome To New York" is not only a slimy, misogynistic character study of a man unable to distinguish between the barriers of decent behavior, but it's one of Ferrara's absolute best works yet and one of the most damning films of the year.

As the Strauss-Kahn like figure, Gerard Depardieu plays him as a base animal, all grunts, groans and deep gestation bubbling up from the bowels of his entitlement. As Devereaux (Depardieu) arrives in New York (under the airport banner that spells out the film's title), he retires to his hotel room where friends are waiting for him with women in tow and the night becomes an orgy of sex, food fights and drinking. It's not long after they leave that two more prostitutes arrive and are ushered upstairs to the sleeping Devereaux, who doesn't fail to miss a beat and embarks on more episodes of ass-slapping, voyeurism and a threesome, all filmed with a murky sense of observation from Ferrara. The bedrooms.... half-lit and cavernous.... feel like partially remembered memories and almost unreal. Alongside this film and "Pasolini" (still unreleased here in the States), DP Ken Kelsch and Ferrara have tapped into the inky margins of their frame even more deliberately than in previous films. Simply put, they look wonderful.

Having immersed himself in this flesh-filled wasteland for the past twelve hours or so, its not surprising that Devereaux crosses a thin line when, the next morning, he emerges from the shower and sees a hotel maid (Pamela Afesi) standing in front of him. We've seen her enter the room and call out "housekeeping" several times with no response. Devereaux approaches, emits more guttural sounds and forces himself on the maid, who manages to fight him off and escape. It's an incredibly sad and disturbing scene for several reasons. Is Ferrara excusing the real life Strauss-Kahn as an unwitting symptom of his excessive environment? Does it simply proliferate Ferrara's well documented sense of male dominance within his films? After all, this is a fictional re-imagination of a real life incident (that was eventually dismissed in court), so how close to the truth does it cut? All of that seems secondary to the main theme of the film which is power corrupts completely. Rest assured, there's no catharsis for Devereaux or release for the audience.

From there, "Welcome To New York" deals with the arrest, court proceedings and house confinement of Devereaux and narrows its focus on the relationship between him and ex-wife Simone (Jacqueline Bissett). Resembling the jagged verbal sparring between James Russo and Madonna in Ferrara's 1993 masterpiece "Dangerous Game", "Welcome to New York" likewise examines the rancid foundation of Devereaux and Simone as they drudge up past indiscretions and their overall lack of faith. Even though he can be accused of extreme misogyny, Ferrara always manages to puncture the tug of war between the sexes with sharp fangs.

While it does have its share of miscalculations, such as an opening self reflexive moment that doesn't quite work, "Welcome To New York" remains an unrepentant look at a deeply flawed individual whose beating heart is as black as the night. This is comfortable territory for Ferrara and even in the final moments, when Devereaux should be thankful for his acquittal, his flirtatious personality emerges again. A leopard can't change its stripes, and a sex-addicted man with the money and means to avoid any penalty surely won't become a saint anytime soon.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

An Appreciation: Nagisa Oshima

A Town of Love and Hope (1959) *** - “Broken families often produced crooked children.” So says the wealthy brother of Kyoko (Yuki Tominaga) about her downtrodden, pigeon selling friend Yuji (Fumijo Wantanbe). And the class distinction that would infuse so much of Nagisa Oshima’s work is established within the first 30 minutes of his debut film. A simple effort, “A Town of Love and Hope” blithely observes the interaction between affluent girl Kyoko and poor Yuji. There’s never any hint of sexual attraction. Instead, Kyoko’s inherent desire to help Yuji stems more from her possible abjection of class structures. Also trying to better Yuji’s situation is his teacher Miss Akiyama (Kakuko Chino), desperately urging the local factory bosses- namely Kyoko’s own father and brother- to take on some of her students. Oshima narrows his focus on the relationship between these three, avoiding large sentiment or huge narrative moments. In fact, the most startling revelation has to do with the destruction of a pigeon cage. Like all of Oshima’s films, the emotion is often curdled in the most inanimate actions. A nice debut. Not available on DVD.

The Sun’s Burial (1960) **½ - When so many other New Wave Japanese filmmakers were still working in black and white, the most revolutionary idea about “The Sun’s Burial” is its incandescent color and signs of growth by Oshima through some startling tracking shots and strong mise-en-scene. The story doesn’t quite live up to the technical aspect, though. Charting the various relationships between rival gangs, its double and triple crosses feel like precursors to the more aggressive stylizations of Kinji Fukasaku and consequently, less impactful than Oshima’s barbed jabs at the squalid quarters of his cinematic inhabitants. Nothing is quite as desolate as watching an old man casually dump a dead body in the water, then nonchalantly salvage a half-destroyed wicker basket from a trash heap nearby. Oshima’s jaded ideas are intact, they just sometimes become overshadowed by a complicated roundelay of thugs and pimps posturing.

Cruel Story of Youth (1960) ***½ - If “The Sun’s Burial” studied the carelessness of Japan’s youth and their proclivity towards criminality, then “Cruel Story of Youth” takes things a step further and establishes a moral wasteland where its young couple (female Miyuki Kuwano and male Yusuke Kawaze) are doomed from the very beginning. After all their relationship, built on two rapes and the boyfriend’s bone headed scheme for his girlfriend to seduce and then allow the ’johns’ to be blackmailed, isn’t the epitome of wholesomeness. Regardless, this isn’t a film where anyone really cares for the other. It’s a tattered expression of indolence, stagnation and ultimately personal ruin and stands as one of Oshima’s great early works.

Night and Fog In Japan (1960) ** - One’s appreciation of “Night and Fog In Japan” will depend on how informed they are about the political landscape of Japan in the early 60‘s. It’s a highly intellectualized sermon about the divisive beliefs of two sections of people (the more Left wing student organizations vs. the middle class peace ‘treatyists‘) whose war of wills comes to a head at a wedding. This irony is not lost, of course, as Oshima sets his philosophical war at the most banal and supposedly happiest of all places. Still, it’s a dry meditation, with little to grab onto, and endlessly convoluted as its “Rashomon” style of storytelling tracks and backtracks through a series of past events between the political activists. If anything, though, it’s trendsetting idealistically, surely a huge influence on the radicalized efforts of filmmakers such as Godard and Bellocchio who would later infiltrate cinema’s passivity and create playfully aggressive political statements. Available on Region 2 DVD.

The Catch (1961) *** - The basic message here is no matter how much changes, everything stays the same. Even when talking about the loss of a nation in war. “The Catch” is a microcosm of this nation, played out in a mountainous village with a variety of people (men, women, children) and social stature (village elders, political bureaucrats and simple peasants). Their lives are upended when members of the community capture and bring home a downed American soldier who becomes unwittingly forced to participate in the village’s evolving moral ambiguities and lecherous relationships to one another. It’s all observed in Oshima’s mannered style of long takes, shifting bodies within the frame and a few moments of heightened tension that eventually explodes. Even though the American soldier (who happens to be African-American) is reduced to some unfiltered, racially charged sentiments throughout “The Catch”, Oshima is just as relentless against his own people in the end. Not available on DVD.

The Rebel (1962) *** - Oshima’s contribution to the samurai fold follows the seventeenth century uprising by farmers and peasants against the Shogunate after having their religious beliefs (Christianity) outlawed and deemed punishable by death. Also called “The Christian Rebel; Shiro Amaksu” (played by Hashizo Okawa), Oshima refuses to create a linear biopic, taking a much wider stance on the ideological clash by following a number of supporting characters such as Shiro’s old friend Shinbei (Ryutaro Otomo), his wife (Satomi Oka) and the various differences of opinion within the Christian sect. In fact, Shiro almost becomes a marginal figure in the film until the end. What slowly emerges is a violent history lesson… one in which the ideals of faith purport innocence but breed malevolence. Just like his previous film “The Catch”, Oshima seems to be defining the morose sadness of history repeating itself endlessly. Not available on DVD.

Pleasures of the Flesh (1965) **½ - The book title this film is based upon, “The Pleasures of the Coffin”, makes for a far more intriguing perspective since the main protagonist, Atsushi (Katsuo Nakamura), literally condemns himself to death the minute he begins spending the stolen loot he’s been entrusted to protect. And all because of the spurned love of young Shoko (Mariko Kaga). It’s interesting to see Oshima toy with a noir set-up, but, as usual, he has far more penetrating things on his mind such as the deteriorating effect money has on the soul and its alluring effect on women even when they don’t particularly like the man spending it. If there’s a fault, its theme becomes repetitive.

Diary of Yunbogi (1965) ** - Oshima’s experimental film that uses still photos to tell the story of ten year old Yunbogi and his travails as an orphan. It’s a bit repetitive and the voice-over, going for some sort of haikoo, feels over cooked. Available streaming.

Violence At Noon (1966) ***½ - A dazzling exploration of the sorted history and complex emotional reactions between four people (two couples) who love each other’s partner and then have to deal with the evolving consequences when one of the men (Kei Sato) later becomes a serial rapist and murderer. Full of raging passion, stifled sexual attraction and uncontrollable suicidal tendencies, this is certainly Oshima’s darkest effort yet. Besides the bleak subject matter (that even ventures into necrophilia!), “Violence At Noon” marks a radical departure in Oshima‘s formal style. Gone are the roving tracking shots and static long takes, replaced by sharp, almost harsh, edits and perspective shots that fragment the story and character psychology even more.

Band of Ninja (1967) **½ - The first filmed graphic novel? No one can ever claim Oshima is nothing if not adventurous in his cinematic choices. A sword and samurai tale told through filmed stills of cartoon drawings that somehow exert energy and movement in their black and white lines and bold framing. The story itself is a bit lackluster (and even confounding at some points) but visually its terrific. Not available on DVD.

Sing A Song of Sex (1967) ****- A completely unusual, amorphous effort that, regardless of Oshima’s sordid and challenging history so far, feels like nothing else he’s done yet. Four male students, fresh out of school, go on a trip with their teacher and three female schoolmates. Their main purpose is to screw around, maybe get laid and dwell in their imaginary sexual flights of fancy wherein they rape another attractive female student (Kazuko Tajima) they only briefly witnessed leaving school the previous day. Refusing to foreground the male students with anything resembling a personality, “Sing A Song of Sex” becomes an aimless assault on everything from structured relationships to the war in Vietnam. Not quite as overtly violent as “A Clockwork Orange” or aggressively provocative as Lars vonTrier’s “The Idiots”, Oshima’s vision is still that of numbing, disaffected youth and the careless bile they spew outward onto society. This is the Oshima film one never hears about, but deserves to be seen.

Double Suicide (1967) *½ - If “Sing A Song of Sex” alienates some people and reveals the experimental Godardian slant in Oshima’s visual and thematic polemics, then “Japanese Summer; Double Suicide” is his take on the challenging Dziga Vertov years. A completely abstract assault on violence, lustful disobedience and the media’s representation on said violence, it’s a film that sounds more intriguing than it really is. A sexually starved 18 year old (Keiko Sakurai) runs into suicidal Otoko (Kei Sato) and they inadvertently become mixed up with a group of socially dangerous mobsters and murderers, watching as an American grips the city in fear as he goes on a shooting spree. A major product of its time, “Japanese Summer; Double Suicide” just feels like Oshima straining to make his points, laboring them intensely. I have to admit, this film felt like a three hour chore, even though it only runs a little over 90 minutes.

Death By Hanging (1968) **½ - Rendered like an absurd play (only a few spare settings and the camera bouncing among a host of principal players), “Death By Hanging” is a complex and layered work that deals with the botched execution of a rapist (simply named R), then spends the next 90 minutes parlaying the question of just exactly who is crazy here. The police, doctors and hangmen desperately try to convince the now awakened R that he really is a criminal and should be re-executed even though his “soul” doesn’t remember his actions. Mordantly funny and visually disorienting in the way it blends fantasy and reality, the film’s only deterrent is its unequivocal dryness in hammering home its political agenda. Not available on DVD.  

Three Resurrected Drunkards (1968) *** - After lacerating the Vietnam War, capital punishment, and the media in his last few films, what’s left for Oshima to fry? Well, look no further than 1968 and Beatlemania, or rather that weird, sprightly genre where 60’s British rockers were turned into Chaplin-esque actors. Here, three bell-bottomed soldiers go for a swim and have their clothes switched out by two AWOL Korean soldiers. Their travails- mistaken identity, political subterfuge and random bullying- is played out in three concurrent scenarios with the same characters yielding drastically different outcomes. The mod hairstyles, emphasis on innocent violence, and Oshima’s use of music all add up to a trippy experience.

Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1969) ** - This story of a kleptomaniac and the girl who continually pushes his desires further and further coalesces Oshima’s experimentation and oblique social commentary. It’s just no fun. Available on Region 2 DVD.

Boy (1969) **** - Oshima’s masterpiece, mostly because he finally breaks free of his rigorous anti-establishment filmmaking prowess and crafts a humanistic portrait of a young child (simply called Boy) caught up in the amoral greed and sexual dissatisfaction of his parent figures as they teach him how to fake being hit by cars then extort the drivers for money. Based on a true story and told through the perspective of Boy (Tsuyoshi Kinoshita), Oshima’s spare cinematography is economical and precise and the unnerving score (at times sounding like a cosmic soundtrack to a sci-fi movie) weave a transfixing sentiment. And through it all is the innocent, confused gaze of Boy, desperately trying to understand the deviant emotions of father and stepmother and haunted by the images rooted in his memory by their evil transgressions. The moment he tackles and destroys the snowman he built is as powerful as anything yet in Oshima’s oeuvre. Not available on DVD.

The Man Who Put His Will On Film (1970) ***- Seeing as how the film takes place during the tumultuous student protests of the day, Oshima’s “The Man Who Put His Will On Film” could be read as a statement on cinema’s place in documenting those rowdy times. The story, essentially about a student who has his film camera stolen by another student right before he commits suicide, spins in so many directions without being anchored to one cohesive idea that it forgoes the usual explanations and turns into a messy, ambivalent affair about what’s real or not. Needless to say, it’s a heavy watch and may grow in stature over repeat viewings. Not available on DVD.

The Ceremony (1971) ***½ - Like his earlier film “Night and Fog In Japan”, Oshima institutes a rigorous ideological and moral decimation of a tightly knit group of people during a supposed harmonious event. In “The Ceremony”- which is a far better film than “Night and Fog In Japan” incidentally- those events are various weddings, funerals and celebrations over the course of twenty years with the Sakaruda family. The youngsters in the clan, led by young Masuo (Kenzo Kawaraski) Ritsuko (Atsuko Kaku) and Terumichi (Atsuo Nakamura), are the expressive heart of Oshima’s generational confrontations, rallying against their elders social wealth and falling in and out love and infatuation with each other. It all comes to a shattering conclusion as the film is bracketed by Masuo and Ritsuko’s journey back home to grapple with the harsh realities they’ve been running from the entire time. Alongside “Boy”, this is probably Oshima’s most well rounded effort simply because his radical aesthetic is matched with a story that pulsates with human emotion and grounded feelings. Not available on DVD.

Dear Summer Sister (1972) *** - A young girl (Hiromi Kurita) travels to Okinawa in hopes of finding her suddenly known half brother. Traveling with her guardian Momoko (Japanese actress Lily), not only do the young women become embroiled in the tenuous decades long post-war wounds of the island, but the almost aloof nature of the adults who haphazardly started the trouble both intimate and epic. Even knowing Oshima directed this, it’s a complete departure from the remainder of his work, eschewing any of his experimental style and somewhat composed shots for a completely nervous handheld aesthetic and performances that range from deceptively good to poor (in the case of young actress Kurita). Still, what does overshadow the film’s weaknesses is Oshima’s penchant for grafting a seemingly ordinary domestic story on the broad shoulders of a heavy metaphorical framework- as if each character (like in his previous film “The Ceremony”) are the idealized visages of some shred of post-war malcontent. One of his harder to find efforts, but worth the hunt. Not available on DVD.

In the Realm of the Senses (1976) *** - Even though it dwells on the sexually explicit nature of the relationship between Eiko Matsuda and Tatsuya Fuji, “In the Realm of the Senses” is a compelling examination of the consuming aspect of passion. Certainly deserves the “X” rating, though.

Empire of Passion (1978) ***½ - Film noir done Asian style- replete with rabid sexuality, village gossipers, and pale faced ghosts wallowing in the margins. All of this transpires after wife (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) and her lover (Tatsuya Fuji) kill her husband and have to deal with the hard part of denying their guilt for several years. Gloriously atmospheric and visually precise, “Empire of Passion” continues Oshima’s growth towards more mature works after the liberal and experimental works of the 60’s. With this film and “In the Realm of the Senses”, (plus the films that were ahead) he’s essentially grown from a look-at-me provocateur to a filmmaker concerned with mature people struggling with cultural and sexual identity. Without completely denying the audacity of his earlier films, I certainly admire the more mature Oshima.

A Visit to Ogawa Productions (1981) * - I’m not sure if Oshima staged this as a joke or not, but it has to be, perhaps, the most uninteresting documentary I’ve ever seen. Sixty-three minutes of a man talking about his documentary project in the mountains where he’s observed families, fields and the traditions of rice growing for the past eight years. It’s just a static shot of the man talking to Oshima while others look on about his theories on rice and his own pompous reasoning for the literal rooms full of footage he’s shot. Not sure where it can be found outside the bootleg I watched.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) **½ - Probably the film Oshima is most recognized for here in the West, it’s also one of his most passionless. The story of a POW camp of Allied soldiers on a Japanese island gives Oshima some opportunity to comment on the physical and mental tug of war that existed between captive and captor, but too much of it (especially the relationship between newcomer prisoner David Bowie and camp commander Ryuichi Sakamoto) is muddled and strained, yearning for something cosmic… which probably explains why he cast two pop stars as leads. More concise, heartfelt and genuine is the relationship exemplified by the titular prisoner Lawrence (Tom Conti) and camp sub commander Takeshi Kitano. If the film had focused on this pair, it might have ascertained the glorious humanity it strived for in other places. Terrific score though.

Max, Mon Amour (1986) ** - Oshima doing Bunuel… especially because the screenwriter of this film (Jean-Claude Carrierer) wrote many of the Spaniard’s surreal classics, yet “Max Mon Amour” is largely unsuccessful because it feels so intentional. Charlotte Rampling begins an affair, which is suspected from the very beginning by her husband (Anthony Higgins). A quick investigation reveals her lover to be a chimpanzee. What does a cuckold do but move the ape into their plush Paris home and try and live with him, of course. For the first time in his long career, Oshima feels a bit withdrawn here, as if he’s on autopilot, allowing the farce to play out on its own. Everyone plays their roles straight as well. There’s something in there about the absurd nature of marriage and jealousy, I’m sure, but the tone, flat images and disconnected acting (so emotionless by Rampling especially) all add up to a large bore.

Kyoto, My Mother’s Home (1991) ***½  - What begins as a documentary about Oshima’s mother soon turns into an elegy for something greater, such as the region of Kyoto, its customs and the defining personal tendencies of Oshima himself. Loving, informative and probably the film any Oshima viewer should start with since it strives to give a deeper meaning to the man himself.  Available on R2 Japanese import.

100 Years of Japanese Cinema (1993) **½ - Oshima’s swift condensation of Japanese cinema from the silents to his own work in the 80’s is a wonderful treasure trove of film images, yet it’s oddly cold and detached, far removed from the loving recollections assembled by other filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and even Jean Luc Godard. I understand Oshima wasn’t the most passionate person, yet his previous documentary “Kyoto, My Mother’s Home” managed to pierce the veneer and reveal an emotionally complex director behind the screen. “100 Years of Cinema” is all business. For entry level film studies, it’s fine, but someone searching for a deeper understanding of the artist and how these images correlate with his sensibility, look elsewhere.

Taboo (1997) *** - Oshima’s final film, aptly named, about the upheaval of a shogun society when one of it’s swordsman begins various relationships with other men in the group. Lushly old fashioned visually- full of wipe pans and gentle editing- clashes wonderfully with its progressive ideas about homosexuality and the overall impact of love regardless of the gender.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Current Cinema 15.6

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

As an unequivocal fan of writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, it's hard to find too many faults with his installment of the hugely popular Tom Cruise franchise. It features a couple of terrific car chase sequences (which he proved himself adept at in "Jack Reacher" as well), a fun cast exerting sparks of repartee, and a delirious eye for the old fashioned charm a spy flick should emit. There's a set piece at an opera. A mammoth secret underground water bank. Even the London bridge. McQuarrie tosses all these old tropes out with just enough style and wink-wink charisma to elicit knowing glances from stalwart fans of the genre while maintaining a silly Fast-and-the-Furious action vibe that settles the ADD nerves of its now festering teen audience. The best of both worlds. It's ludicrous, but ludicrously fun.

Black Coal, Thin Ice

Yi'nan Diao's "Black Coal Thin Ice" is an odd beast. At first glance, it makes itself out to be something akin to Bong Joon-ho's "Memories of Murder" in the way it begins a serpentine criminal investigation of a murder that stretches over several years. But, about a third of the way through (and just as the lead detective loses his own moral compass due to alcoholism and his failed marriage), the film takes some strange turns and focuses on the disturbing and morose relationship that forms between the cop and the murdered victim's wife. Conversations unexpectedly end as someone in the background begins beating up a slot machine, for example. Another possible witness to what exactly happened all those years ago ends up falling into a bathtub of water next to her go-go dance stage while being questioned. The violence that casually erupts reminded me of the subliminal bloodshed prevalent in Takeshi Kitano's great gangster films of the 90's. And don't even start with the ending- one that's so brazen and gleefully anarchic that it had me wondering if the film reel ended abruptly. Outside of these incongruous moments of humor, anger and bleak reactions towards the world around them, "Black Coal Thin Ice" also manages to wring a uniquely sad love story out of the mix. A strange film, indeed, but one that should be essential viewing this year.


German filmmaker Christian Petzold has paired with actress Nina Hoss five times now as his leading lady, and each time the two have evolved their craft to wondrous heights. Hoss.... whose large eyes and often half-agape, hollowed look as if she's barely escaped some type of emotional or physical trauma.... is spellbinding here in their latest film together, "Phoenix". In fact, it's their best work yet and one of the most haunting, deliberate films of the year. That hollowed look I mentioned earlier may have something to do with the fact Nelly (Hoss) has just returned home at the end of World War II after time in a concentration camp. Disfigured, she's given a "re-creation" operation and a partially new face. This obscures the recognition by her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfield), when she finally tracks him down. But before she can explain herself, Johnny has her dressing in his old wife's clothes and trying to imitate her in a scheme to reclaim the substantial inheritance now left to her. This gut wrenching charade is carried on for the length of the film and it soon becomes a devastating exploration of not only obsession and memory, but a morbid rhetoric on the state of Europe immediately after the war, left in shambles and desperately trying to ascertain an identity that was ripped apart by the war. This may be the film of the year.