Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Last Few Films I've Seen, Winter Edition

1. As I Lay Dying (2013)- Perhaps the biggest surprise of this list... a competent, weary, sadness tinged and 'complete feeling' adaptation of a William Faulkner novel that seems to muscle in on the beating heart of the destitute poetics of the original work. And all from California boy James Franco. Much has been made of the distracting split screen Franco routinely employs, but for me, it worked, distilling Faulkner's almost fractured style of prose into quadrants that force us to concentrate on action and reaction. With this film and Franco's "Child of God", his adventurous spirit to tackle grimy, unpleasant Southern fried folk is quite revelatory.

2. Life and Death of a Porno Gang (2009)- I don't know why I continue to expose myself to the rigors of Serbian exploitation. I hated " A Serbian Film" and now Mladen Djordjevic's film follows suit with more stomach churning excess. The idea- that a failed filmmaker gathers a group of dropouts and travels the countryside putting on porno cabarets for the rural villagers- sounds like the opportunity to create something halfway tantalizing, at least on a purely subversive level. Instead we get gratuitous penetration shots, numerous scenes of rape and even bestiality. Shock for the sake of shock.

3. Mortdecai (2015)- I really want my two hours back. Reviewed here for Dallas Film Now.

4. The Hitch Hiker (1953)- Ida Lupino's taut social thriller turns the vagrant hitch hiker, once so emblematic of America's expansive freedom to explore, into a traumatic sociopath nightmare around the corner. How two men , kidnapped by the the hitch hiker, deal with their horrific journey makes up the bulk of this great underrated film.

5. Christiane F. (1981)- The ravages of heroin take 14 year old Christiane (Natja Brunckhorst) from partying teenager to strung out zombie in just over two hours. Like an abbreviated after school special throwing everything at you, I have to give the film credit for not only staying true to its savage immersion into the repellent world of Germany's public restrooms, prostitute pick-up train station tunnels and ram sacked apartments, but its unflinching portrait of an obviously young actress dealing with it all. Based on a true story, it's amazing anyone made it out alive.

6. R100 (2015)- Destined to be some type of midnight classic. Reviewed here for Dallas Film Now.

7. La Scoumoune (1972)- Jean Paul Belmondo is laconic and debonair as Borgo, the mid level criminal the film tracks from his early days strong arming local businessmen to his stint in prison during the war and then struggling to maintain his relationships afterwards. "La Scoumoune" (meaning rotten luck) is one of Jose Giovanni's better films. Plus seeing Claudia Cardinale is always great.

8. I Am Curious, Yellow and Blue (1968)- Interest was piqued after I read somewhere these films would make a neat double bill with Lars vonTrier's latest "Nymphomaniac". Not even close. A Godard knock off, full of on screen inter titles, an uneasy blend of meta fiction and a lead character (Lena Nyman) whose exploits I didn't give a hoot about.

9. Cake (2015)- Jennifer Aniston goes ugly. Besides her central role, the rest of the film feels like something warmed over from 1998. Full review here

10. The Guest (2014)- Starts off strong but ends up in complete action parody. Perhaps that's the point. Regardless, new face Maika Monroe really stuns as the daughter who figures things out. Part punk rock and mostly ballsy, she inhabits her cliche role well. I really look forward to "It Follows" now.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Current Cinema 15.1

Mr. Turner

What's most passionate about Mike Leigh's depiction of famous painter JMW Turner is the passing of time and its expectations of an artist. Full review can be read read here.


Mann is still a cinema god to me, but his latest doesn't sizzle like previous efforts. No one quite does shoot outs and stabbings like him though. Full review here


Ava DuVernay's "Selma" features several kinetic set pieces and even more electric conversations as we witness the formation and organization of the civil rights march through Alabama in 1965. It's well crafted, at times moving, yet left me a bit distanced. The film is at its best when it slows down and examines the diverse group of people- homegrown grass roots organizers, out of town leaders, victims of violence and MLK himself- hammering out their varying sentiments and methods for the movement. It's in the discourse that "Selma" differentiates itself, becoming more of a philosophical debate on the "whys" and "hows" rather than the documented travesties of law enforcement and government. That happened, of course, and must be shown within the context of the film, even swelling the outrage, but the film really strikes at its intelligent heart when its just people, ideas and conflicting emotions behind those ingrained black and white images.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Moments of 2014

1) The unnoticed tear that falls slowly from a woman’s eye as she lies comatose in a bed and the man beside her holding her hand…. Farhadi’s visual gut punch in “The Past”.

2) In “Snowpiercer”, the slow-motion scream and wide eyes of a young girl (Ah-Sung Ko) as a set of doors opens up, and we see the terror lying in wait.

3) The final scene and conversation between father (Benecio del Toro) and daughter… the way he slightly hunches towards her, trying to mend the mistakes of the past in Arnaud Desplechin‘s “Jimmy P.”

4) A reflection through a cold, dirt window as we see a woman (Marion Cotillard) sailing away and a man (Joaquin Phoenix) watching her…. “The Immigrant”

5) As director Alejandro Jodorwosky talks about the special effects of his never made film “Dune”, the way he picks up and quiets his cat, then without missing a beat, continues his story. “Jodorwosky’s Dune”

6) In Anton Corbijn’s austere spy thriller “A Most Wanted Man”, the primal scream that Philip Seymour Hoffman lets out once he realizes he’s been duped at the end… and the way he staggers around without direction in the street. 

7) The face of forgiveness….. A daughter (Kelly Riley) meeting her father’s killer in prison and the way her face shatters with emotion. “Calvary”

8) A young girl (Lika Babluani) literally dancing away her sorrow at her best friend’s wedding. “In Bloom”

9) The girls breaking into “hate hate hate Vasteros!” when the crowd turns on their climactic performance. This is certainly no 80’s slow clap moment in Lukas Moodyson’s “We Are the Best!”

10) In one of the most entertaining big budget spectacles of the year, the monster literally ripping open the throat of his nemesis and spewing fire down it in “Godzilla”. 

11) Emmanuel Seigner, deftly orchestrating the house lights of the theater, then removing the gum from her mouth and sticking it under the desk as she walks away, not only deconstructing sensuality but playing a big game in Polanksi’s “Venus In Fur”

12) The way Shasta Fay (Katherin Waterston) playfully collapses her leg against the wall and she and Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) make out in the corridor of a building during a rainstorm- the happy driver of past times in a sinister new world  “Inherent Vice”

13) A group of Robert de Niro impersonators outside the window in “Neighbors”

14) In “Interstellar”, the rescue of Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway) by TARS, a moment that literally made me squeal with excitement in a crowded movie theater 

15) The zombie-like walk of a group of weary soldiers, hunting a runaway slave amongst a canvas of tall pine trees in Chris Eskin’s “The Retrieval”.

16) To calm her down and fully virtually record her range of emotions, the story Harvey Keitel spins about how he got into the business of talent agent at the age of 12.  “The Congress”

17) In the best horror film of the year, the ominous darkness that barely lights the face of Sarah (Alex Essoe) beneath her gray hoodie in a derelict kitchen and the downright terrifying blood spillage that occurs next  “Starry Eyes”

18) The way sunlight slowly, very slowly creeps up on the face of Juliette Binoche as she sits outside during one of her numerous sessions to her herself, trying to make sense of her situation and enjoy some remnants of normal life in “Camille Claude 1915”

19) Just a month after that picture was taken, me wife was taken away to heaven by the angels.”  “there must have been a lot of them”.  Quick wit in “Alan Partridge”

20) The first interaction between the judge (Robert Duvall) and his granddaughter…. Completely turning a jaded old man into something touching and tender.  “The Judge”

21) The glare and shoulder twitch that emanates from Fletcher (JK Simmons) as his drummer (Miles Teller) launches into a drum solo. “Whiplash”

22) Revealing a warm glow of yellow sunlight through the station windows and then a deliberate pan down with American flags positioned on both sides of the frame as a host of people mill about aimlessly… the first image of America after her sister has been taken away.  “The Immigrant”

23) In “Calvary”, a boy drawing the ocean, and when he’s asked who the two figures in the forefront are, he replies “I don’t know…. I’ve been reading a lot of ghost stories lately”. Then those two figures appear on the beach later with devastating consequences.

24) Ranting away at her dad (Michael Keaton) and then the slow resignation that falls over her face after the harsh words have ended. Emma Stone in “Birdman”

25) In “Inherent Vice”, the way Jade (Hong Chau) says, “these people are freakin’ me out….” in reference to a sprawling party, as if her previous scene of voyeuristic lesbianism was totally normal.

26) The slow, almost unbearable tension as a man (Guy Pearce) makes his way through a quiet house, then stumbles upon a sleeping man. "The Rover"

27. Watching himself in a department store two way mirror, then the jolting cut to black- Jesse Eisenberg studying his own mortality in "Night Moves"

28. In "Interstellar", 23 years worth of messages and the heartbreak that cascades over Matthew McCoughnay's face.

29. "Inherent Vice" Bigfoot Bjornson’s (Josh Brolin) look off-screen followed by “what the fuck?” as Doc’s maritime lawyer (Benecio del Toro) gallops into the police station.

30. “Birdman”. The various whip pans to the stage hands, quietly observing the wheels coming off on Broadway in Michael Keaton’s Raymond Carver adaptation.

31. That final glance of uncertainty between two teenagers sitting on a desert cliff and the endless possibilties for twelve more years.  "Boyhood"

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Favorites of 2014

20. Life Itself

I’m not sure director Steve James needed to do much when tackling a biography of influential film critic Roger Ebert, especially in the absolutely stoic manner in which he dealt with his waning mortality. Ebert was so well loved and respected in the film going community- both in his reach with artists themselves and the people who paid money for that art- that any old slap dashed documentary probably would have opened the tear floodgates and goodwill towards the writer. But “Life Itself” purports more than. It not only deliberately studies Ebert the man- hard drinker, cantankerous newsman, eventual husband and step father/grandfather- but exemplifies the downright goodness in his actions. As a fifteen year old boy, eagerly watching “Siskel and Ebert” each week for glimmering peeks of films that would never play in my area, his legacy for me personally, is undeniable. His writings (and those of Andrew Sarris) impinge my own thoughts every single time I sit down to write about movies- as I’m sure it does for millions around the world now. Hopefully, his bravery and humor in the thrall of death will be just as lasting for us.

19. Foxcatcher

While simmering tension and dread is there right from the beginning in Bennett Miller’s true tale “Foxcatcher”, the resounding impact from the film remains its stillness. Many scenes are shrouded in quiet, almost hushed conversations, all of which makes the emotional explosion towards the end that much more shocking. Tracking the doomed relationship between wrestling brothers Mark and Dave Schultz (Canning Tatum and Mark Ruffalol) and wealthy Olympic supporter John E. DuPont (Steve Carell), “Foxcatcher” is a dense study in repressed emotions from all sides. While Carell undergoes the most physically transformative of the roles (and he is really, really good), the best acting comes from Tatum and Ruffalo. With statures like apes and lacking the ability to fully express their sentiments outside of casual positive reinforcement or the comfort of each other’s body in practice, “Foxcatcher” soon becomes a pointed attack on the ‘haves’ versus the ‘havenots’. This widening gulf eventually swallows everyone and director Miller orchestrates the quiet apocalypse with deft precision.

18. Whiplash

Who would of thought a music school for jazz prodigies could give us the most compelling psychological thriller of the year? Writer/director Damian Chazelle does just that, assaulting the viewer in many ways as a young drummer (Miles Teller) is given a ticket to the chocolate factory, then has it taken away by a sadistic teacher (JK Simmons).

17. The Internet's Own Boy, Aaron Swartz

Careening to the top of 2014’s current event stories involved the hacking of Sony by (insert your theory here). No doubt viral warfare is on the precipice, looming as the new frontier in corporate espionage and financial insecurity. But Brian Knappenberger’s documentary on the brilliant but brief life of web design pioneer Aaron Swartz shows us that the new frontier can also be used for the positive enforcement of internet freedom of speech and the open access of knowledge. In charting Swartz’s early internet fame and eventual destruction by the US government bringing fraud charges against him, “The Internet’s Own Boy” tracks some of the same murky regions that “Citizenfour” explores. Both films ask us to question the extent modern technology should be allowed to go when faced with the discovery of moral outrage, but “The Internet’s Own Boy” and its diligent portrait of Swartz succinctly gives that technology a human face. What we do next is now up to us.

16. Starry Eyes

The best horror film of the year, sorry “The Babadook”! Both films weave a terrifying yarn that may (or may not) take place inside the mind of a frazzled, burned out woman, alternately casting horrid consequences on those close to her. As the waitress-cum-actress striving to make her big break in Hollywood, Sarah (Alex Essoe) ultimately makes a very bad decision with some very bad people. Essoe is amazing, giving a feral, vivid performance. Not since the French film “Inside” has a film made me gasp and recoil at the horror on screen.

15. The Skeleton Twins

Shame on the trailers for ruining would should have been the incandescent moment in Craig Johnson’s stellar “The Skeleton Twins”. Fortunately, the rest of the film is just as good as the impromptu lip sync between Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig that centerpieces the promotional marketing. And what’s even more surprising about the film are the performances from Wiig and Hader as estranged brother and sister who reconnect after Hader’s attempted suicide and spend a few weeks together. Both have deep familial issues they’re working through, and both actors reveal a stark humanity within cliched ‘indie’ paradigms. “The Skeleton Twins” excels at pretty much everything… even the secondary characters portrayed by Luke Wilson as Wiig’s husband and Ty Burrell as a past figure in Hader’s complicated love life. The emotions and repertoire stirred up throughout the film consistently reveal how messy, imperfect and, ultimately, affirming the curve balls of life routinely are.

14. Starred Up

Simply put, one of the most lean, brutal prison films ever made. 2014 breakout Jack O’ Connell stars as Eric, fresh blood in a prison where his father (Ben Mendehlson) serves as one of the top dog inmates. Director David Mackenzie shuttles most of the back story for these guys, instead choosing to hone in on the forceful, almost wordless quest Eric embarks upon to seek some sort of weird acceptance from dad. “Starred Up” dives head first into a savage, animalistic world of survival, made all the more striking when, in the first scene, after being strip-search and inspected thoroughly, Eric still manages to create a shank with a razor blade and toothbrush within five minutes. So many prison films, but not quite like this.

13. The Rover

David Michod’s “The Rover” frighteningly presents the apocalypse as a scavenged, bleak and instantly cutthroat procession of boarded up fuel stations, neon-lit motels and burned out vehicles. Swimming through the mire with a singular, propulsive purpose is Guy Pearce, intent on finding the men who hijacked his car. He stumbles across the wounded brother of one of the men, played convincingly by Robert Pattinson, and the two men embark on a journey of revenge. Like his previous film, the magisterial crime opus “Animal Kingdom”, “The Rover” is relentlessly violent and prone to sharp outbursts of gunfire that underline the power of the weaponry. But there’s also an undercurrent of emotion and silent moments of reflection that bring back the human element to this elemental narrative. Though Michod wrote this screenplay before “Animal Kingdom”, both films represent his desire to expose the hypocrisies of family and the manipulation of stronger man over a weaker individual. As the film winds down, it becomes a lean examination of these ideas and spares no one the western-style shootout its been promising since the beginning. With this second film, Michod truly is a bright spot in modern cinema.

12. Wild

Jean Marc Vallee’s film does the improbable…. it takes a well worn treatise on self exile and eventual self fulfillment and makes it feel vital and organic. A lot of this has to do with the source material by Cheryl Strayed, whose life and journey the film is based upon and performed magnificently by Reese Witherspoon. Deciding to escape her troubled life and hike 1000 miles from New Mexico to Canada, “Wild” intercuts her spontaneous and tough walk with the events that landed her in a dark place to begin with. Playing like a patchwork of flashbacks, conversations, moods, memories and sounds that ebb and flow brilliantly into a stream of conscious-like scrapbook, the film coalesces into a cathartic experience. As he proved with “Dallas Buyer’s Club”, Vallee expertly handles the material and elicits vivid portraits from even the smallest secondary roles. But even more than that, “Wild” is a moving exploration of why we sometimes need to fall off the grid and allow life to catch us somewhere below

11. Chef

Jon Favreau’s low budget “Chef” is an unassuming, refreshingly real labor of love that hits all the right notes, both in its storytelling and its food porn. Starring Favreau, the film tells the mid-level rise and hard fall of a Los Angeles chef after a scathing food review sends his self esteem spiraling out of control. He loses his job and has to start over, both professionally and personally as he deals with an ex-wife (Sofia Vergera) and young son (Emjay Anthony). There are just enough starlet cameos (Dustin Hoffman…. Robert Downey Jr) and wish fulfillment girlfriends (Scarlet Johannson) to remind us that Favreau is still an A-list director, but “Chef” hooked me from the get-go. It feels honest and authentic, not only in its kitchen bantering between Favreau and co-stars John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale, but in its sprightly outlook on family and the tenuous bonds that often draw us back and forth from one another.

10. The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderdson’s latest jaunt into his storybook world of old European set design and anachronistic characters crossed between real and half imagined is a sheer delight. Brimming with humor (led by a wildly unpredictable Ralph Fiennes) and 40’s style Hardy Boys adventure, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” tells the tale-within-a-tale about how Zero (F. Murray Abraham as adult and Tony Revolori as his younger self ) came from nothing to eventually own the cavernous place. Along the way, lecherous family members, Cistern monks, war mongrels and cold blooded killers dot the fetishized landscape that has become the coup de grace for Anderson. Any fans of his work will be immediately drawn to the way “The Grand Budapest Hotel” maintains its air of theatricality while still mining real, genuine emotions among its characters. After seeing this very early in the year, I watched it again recently and laughed just as hard the second time.

9. In Bloom

Nana Ekvtimishvili’s debut film is a stunning observational tale of two 15 year old Georgian girls dealing with the turmoil of daily life in their Eastern bloc country. As Eka and Natia, Lika Babluani and Mariam Bokeria give soulful and naturalistic performances. Their sudden growth from giggling schoolgirls to forced adulthood in a lingering atmosphere of loveless marriages, cramped classrooms and streets littered with jeering boys and jealous men is charted by Ekvtimishvili’s fluid camera and unforced narrative. Yes, a gun does play a huge role in the story, but the film refuses to turn generic and stays focused on the truthful relationship between the two girls. It’s this type of film- largely undiscovered on the margins of world cinema- that gives me most hope for the future of movies.

8. Boyhood

Richard Linklater is the undisputed master of documenting time passing and the longueur of life. and with “Boyhood”, he undertakes his most ambitious marking of time yet. Filmed over the course of twelve years with the same core actors, “Boyhood” is a remarkable exploration of not only our preconceived notions of time in the movies, but how the tired clich├ęs of a family drama can be inverted with truth and generosity. As Mason (Ellar Coltrane) grows up literally before our eyes, he deals with puberty, an annoying older sister (Linklater‘s own daughter Lorelei), introduction to the opposite sex and finally flying the nest for college. All these themes have been prolific in the annals of movie making, creating entire dramas out of each individual portion of life. In “Boyhood”, Linklater manages to craft an enveloping experience with them all. And it’s not only with the children, but in the failures, frustrations, and missteps of the parents as well. Ethan Hawke and especially Patricia Arquette provide strong roles as mother and estranged father, trying to hold things together as best they can in an ever-changing environment of spatial differences and asshole husbands. The word “experience” truly describes “Boyhood”.

7. Snowpiercer

It’s a far-fetched idea, yes, but any film based on a popular graphic novel stretches the limitations of logic. “Snowpiercer” is no different, presenting a world frozen over by global warming with the remainder of the world’s inhabitants idling their time and surviving on a powerful train that criss-crosses the globe. Within this compartmentalized dystopian universe are classes divided by sections of the train and kept in line by armed forces serving the train‘s inventor, and it’s here that the eternal struggle between the haves and have nots plays out with kinetic, brutal force. “Snowpiercer”, long delayed and rumored to be a victim of widespread studio interference, emerges as a strong film with dazzling visual style, embedded humor and everything the fan-boy base could hope for…. Including a cute-as-can-be but kick butt young Asian girl (Ah-Sung Ko) and the everyman (Chris Pine) in which we can envision ourselves. I’ve long been a fan of Bong Joon-Ho, and here he continues to fascinate and elevate his material in unique and energetic ways. The violence is swift and brutal, continually challenging our expectations of who is the center point of the film. Just when we connect with someone, life in this rolling hell delivers a punch. And even though the comment on class divisions and social stratus is belabored, “Snowpiercer” eventually has a lot more on its mind.

6. Under the Skin

“Under the Skin” is a minimalist science fiction thriller that could pass as an experimental avant garde film if one walked into it during the middle. Rapt attention is needed as Glazer plays with all sorts of nerve-inducing, shrill soundtrack cues and a perfectly realized mise-en-scene. Scarlet Johansson is some sort of alien being wandering the frigid wastelands of Scotland in a white van, picking up men and then leading them to a dark room where they mindlessly walk into a black ooze. Her only other interaction is with a motorcycle riding “handler” who supports her along the way, then becomes her hunter when things go awry. Not reading the novel the film is based on- though initial reviews describe the film as a complete “paring” of the novel- the force of “Under the Skin” is its complete tone and mood. This thing is entrancing from the beginning, and it only grows its spell as the narrative takes a few science fiction twists, namely the alien’s desire to be human. While “Under the Skin” may puzzle some, its downright adventurous attitude and brave refusal to play anything by the rules is breathtaking.

5. Burning Bush

Long form expression on the small screen has reached ecstatic heights over the last dozen or so years, as evidence by master filmmakers making the jump to its cozy format (see Soderbergh and Scorsese). Agnieszka Holland’s four and half hour miniseries gives the time and weight a subject as convoluted as “Burning Bush” deserves. The 1969 self immolation of Prague student Jan Palach is simply the jumping off point for Holland’s infuriating and devout study of Palach’s family quest for justice. As the lawyer fighting against the dynamics of a Communist regime, lead actress Tatiana Pauhofova exerts so much with her eyes and guarded body language. She adds a steely justice fighter to the mix. No intricate understanding of Polish politics or culture is necessary. “Burning Bush” leads one into the foxhole of paranoia, injustice and good ‘ol boy Eastern bloc suffocation with clear eyed determination and just how easily the institution can crush the individual.

4. The Immigrant

The themes of Catholic guilt, familial violence and moody Northeastern settings that have dotted the James Gray cinematic landscape for years now gets cross pollinated with 1920’s New York in “The Immigrant”. Marion Cotillard is splendid as Ewa, a Polish immigrant who’s immediately separated from her sickly sister at Ellis Island, then manipulated into a life of showmanship and prostitution by small time burlesque owner Joaquin Phoenix (in his fourth collaboration with filmmaker Gray). Glimpses of happiness appear when Phoenix’s cousin, magician Orlando (Jeremy Renner), enters the picture and Cotillard is pulled between her obligations for financial status and the potential for a normal life. “The Immigrant” succeeds in developing the three characters with depth and feeling. They are all flawed but acutely drawn people. Even the small roles of Ewa’s aunt and uncle, who make an uncompromising decision, resonate with honesty and moral ambiguity. Filmmaker Gray, so strong with each new passing effort, has crafted an intimate epic that not only gives Cotillard one astounding monologue in a confessional booth, but an ending that both devastates and uplifts its corresponding couple. I’m so glad this film is getting numerous year end accolades.


3. Interstellar
Christopher Nolan’s science fiction epic travels a long way to reveal the personal foundations that anchors us so firmly to our home. It’s unapologetically his most emotional film to date, tossing a lot of scientific jargon at us while remaining true to not only the cinematic corridors of Kubrick, Tarkovsky and those way-ahead-of-their-times-but-obscure Polish sci-fi flicks of the 80’s but also to the warm embraces of Capra-esque human connectivity. All of this to say “Interstellar” was the film I saw four times in the theater… and each time its power and resonance struck a deeper chord in me. Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway and all involved give tremendous performances within a CGI framework that could have easily suffocated genuine emotion. Instead, Nolan again hatches a mind-warping tale that magisterially settles on the most elemental principle- a father and his daughter.


2. Inherent Vice

Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” is sure to polarize and challenge the expectations from a film noir. It’s a fuzzy mosaic of gung-ho cops, mysterious drug lords, disaffected Flower Children, fringe political anarchists and lots of marijuana use by its lead private investigator, which only casts a wider sense of paranoia and murkiness around the whole affair. It’s also about the tenuous moment in time when sunny California, as the template for America at large, changed from the Summer of Love into something decidedly more sinister. The logistics of its plot may not come to a fully explainable finale (although I feel like I could decipher the who’s who), but rather the mood and very sad transition of a generation are the real mechanism behind the plot. Haunting, laugh out loud funny, and completely committed to its stoner logic, it’s a majestic ride and yet another brilliant layering on Anderson’s America unfiltered.

1. Birdman

The struggling artist on film has been an especially ripe subject for filmmakers since the medium learned how to refract the light back onto itself. Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu’s “Birdman” joins that procession, and not only does it create a visually stunning universe of backstage politics and shifting emotions among actors in a New York play, but it pinpoints something deeper in the psyche of leading man/writer Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton). Battling his own inner demons while trying to maintain the week leading up to his opening night, things aren’t made simpler by his inner voice… a stream of conscience rally that wants him to return to his glory days as action film star Birdman. Thrown into the chaotic mix are controversially edgy co-stars (a wonderful Ed Norton), a daughter fresh out of rehab (Emma Stone) and an arts critic just itching to take down his play because Hollywood actors don’t belong in the theater. “Birdman” balances the natural with the supernatural, sometimes with Keaton’s head games taking over the film. But regardless of its flights of fancy (literally at times), “Birdman” is a real triumph of human emotions, anchored by a tremendous performance from Keaton.

Monday, January 12, 2015

RetroActive: The Best Non 2014 Films I Saw In 2014

15. Man Without A Map (1968), directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara

Of all the films by Teshigahara, this is by far the most difficult. It’s also the one that lingers with me the most. Calling it a detective mystery (like on IMDB) is very misleading. If anything, “The Man Without A Map” is an anti-mystery. Like the great neo noirs of the 70’s (“The Big Fix” and especially “The Long Goodbye”), Teshigahara’s film raises more questions than it answers…. never really solves anything… and devours the lead detective in a world of loose ends, digressive leads, and his own doubt about the missing person case. The unnamed Detective (played by Shintaro Katsu, who would go onto later prominence in the “Hanzo” series) is recruited by a woman to find her missing husband. Along the way, the detective is continually thwarted by the brother of the missing man who has his own agenda to follow (namely a violent workers clash), the unclear motives of a taxi driver service the missing man may have worked for, and the inability of the wife to recall any key details about the last days of her husband. Instead, the detective is haplessly relegated to mute witness as he scours the depths of Japan’s brothels and low level businessmen. Going into “The Man Without A Map” with a sense of narrative is probably not the best way to approach it. This is a film that deserves multiple viewings as you realize it’s an atmospheric psychological study of a nation rather than a thriller. It’d also make a dizzying double feature with “Inherent Vice”.

14. The Amsterdam Kill (1977), directed by Robert Clouse

Lots of 1950’s and 60’s Hollywood stars migrated to the cheapo European film scene during the cloudy 70’s, and Robert Mitchum was one of them. Produced by Golden Harvest- the Cannon Films of Asia- “The Amsterdam Kill” rises above its grimy production values and marginal place in chop-socky cinema towards something quite intelligent and involving. As a recently dethroned DEA agent, Mitchum finds himself wrapped back up in its international intrigue and spurting violence when a high placed snitch chooses him to act as middle man of information sharing. Of course, nothing goes as planned. Directed and written by Clouse (of “Enter the Dragon” fame) the film is marketed for the common denominator, yet “The Amsterdam Kill” is smartly crafted and highly entertaining in its double/triple crosses and ultra violence. It helps that Mitchum, looking ragged and worn out, seems to inhabit his laconic character with a sense of passive acceptance- something I’m sure the actor himself felt in taking on this project.

13. Bite the Bullet (1975), directed by Richard Brooks

Think of the madcap all-star race films of the 1960's ("Its A Mad Mad Mad Mad World") transposed to the American West with a bit of 70's melancholy and that's exactly what one gets with the Richard Brooks film "Bite the Bullet". Starring James Coburn, Candice Bergen, Gene Hackman, Jan Michael Vincent, Dabney Coleman and Ben Johnson, the film takes place over the course of one week as the various riders race across 700 miles of tough terrain and barren desert. Along the way, they find their feelings for each other, mend old wounds and generally lament about the passing of the Old West... all stalwart topics in the highly revisionist era of the woozy 1970's. Yet "Bite the Bullet" overcomes its oft cliches and ambles into a deeply entertaining, consistently moving exploration of people against nature and the choices we make, good or bad.

12. Desorder (1986), directed by Olivier Assayas

Olivier Assayas' "Disorder" (1986), which marked his formal entrance into the film making world after several short films and a celebrated stint writing for the esteemed French film magazine Cahier du Cinema, holds the best attributes for a debut. Not only does it pantomime so many of his future themes and shooting style, but it denotes the strong voice of an artist struggling to capture the naive and halcyon days of youth... something he's been chasing all these years. It's also very Gallic. His young threesome of lovers (2 males and 1 female) begin in an idyllic sharing relationship and then discover the oscillations of time, society and their own careless decisions continually tug and pull them apart. All of this against the backdrop of a bustling 80's pop music scene and "Disorder" lives up to its raucous title. It also reveals that Assayas has the knack for a knock-out finale right from the very beginning.

11. This Is Not A Film (2011), directed by Jafar Panahi

Jafar Panahi's self exploration documentary shows what's best about Iranian film making- the ability to turn 'meta' at any moment and transform fiction into stunning reality. The first hour of the film documents Panahi's secluded lifestyle in his apartment- forbidden to make films and awaiting his final appeal decision from an Iranian court where he's facing 20 years for anti political film making. He acts out scenes from an unfinished script.... talks to his lawyers... deconstructs his own films he shows on TV... and then a casual meeting between the building custodian outside his door turns into an opportunity for Panahi to invest his time in someone else. Freedom of speech has been under attack for a few months now, and Panahi’s vision shows just how cathartic that expression can be.   

10. Finger of Guilt (1955)  and 9. The Go Between (1971)

Two of Losey’s finest films at opposite edges of his career are excellent buoys for the prevailing winds of his various themes. In “Finger of Guilt”, the blackmail of studio executive Richard Baseheart feels like Losey’s first real condemnation of the society that kicked him out (Hollywood) and its artificiality. “The Go-Between”, which garnered him the most acclaim and a Cannes winner, is a rapturous film that also clearly established the direction he would travel in the 70’s- namely a sharp departure from the psychological inner demons of his men and women of the 60’s to a more geopolitical and conflicted state of mind in the 70’s.

8. White Elephant (2010), directed by Pablo Trapero

Trapero usually makes films for the common man. Label it his Argentinean call to arms. “White Elephant” is no less damning of the Buenos Aires government and its stance on the barrios that congregate in poorer sections of the city. Working with his usual cadre of personnel (actor Ricardo Darin, his beautiful wife Martina Gusman and writer Alejandro Fadel), Trapero has fashioned an intimately epic portrayal of a small group of Red Cross workers trying to maintain health and decency in a shantytown on the verge of revolution. Personal emotions come into conflict with nationalist pride, and “White Elephant” builds to a shattering conclusion. It’s no surprise it’s a dour affair coming from Trapero, yet the film reaches heights of hope.

7. StakeOut (1958), directed by Yoshitaro Nomura

Like Nomura's later masterpiece, "The Castle of Sand" (1974), "Stake Out" uses the police procedural genre to touch on larger themes in life. In that film, the body of an unknown man uncovers a disastrous history of one family. In "Stake Out", the damnation is more intimate to one person. Ostensibly about two policeman canvassing the ex-girlfriend of a wanted criminal, “Stake Out” follows this narrative thread until the policeman confront the woman with devastating consequences. Nomura typically deals with the implosion of the present due to the past, and with “Stake Out”, the apocalypse is all too personal.

6. Beyond the Hills (2012), directed by Cristian Mungiu

Mungiu’s exploration of the collision between old world puritanical faith and the modern ‘age of me’ results in an austere, perfectly reasoned work. The new age lies in Alina (Cristina Flutur), an emotionally unbalanced (and probably lesbian) young girl who comes to visit her only friend, Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) living as a nun in a bare monastery in the hills of Romania. Unable to deal with her old friend’s newfound appreciation of God, a war of wills evolves between Alina and the priest, resulting in a dire conclusion. Based on a true story, “Beyond the Hills” furthers Mungiu’s patient storytelling, framing faces and bodies for maximum effect and allowing the natural energy of a scene to ebb and flow. Sometimes this allows us to get lost in the big eyes of actress Stratan as she helplessly watches her friend slide into despair and anger, and other times Mungiu consistently interrupts the gentle nature of the nun’s life while policemen, nurses, doctors and outsiders quibble about insignificant events in their own lives. Again, its this unharmonious crash of two worlds that gives “Beyond the Hills” its magnificent power…. None moreso damning than in the final scene. Alongside “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”, “Beyond the Hills” firmly establishes Mungiu as a world class talent.

5. L'attentent (1972), directed by Yves Boisset

Like the best French thrillers, they move at their own pace, elevating scenario, dialogue and Machiavellian politics above action. Yves Boisset's "L'attentant" (aka "The Assassination" or "The French Conspiracy") is a clear example of this. There are some gunshots and chase sequences, but the ultimate pulse of the film lies in the complicated dynamics of how someone is set up and then the various machinations between state, police and general citizens conspire to see their plan to the end. Ripped from real-life headlines- the vanishing of Moroccan politician Mahdi Ben Barka- "L'attentant" mixes an international cast (Roy Scheider, Jean Seberg and every popular French male actor of the time) with a dialogue laden script whose serpentine authenticity feels just as modern today. I've caught a few other Boisset films, but none of them rise beyond cheapo French policiers quite like this one.

4. Anguish (1986), directed by Bigas Luna
Alongside Alexei German, Spanish filmmaker Bigas Luna was another world talent whose films I was introduced to this year with splendid results. “The best of his films was Anguish”, a bracing deconstruction of the slasher genre with something more important on its mind. And all of this is executed without a hint of sarcasm, irony or wink-wink fetishism. This is no 1980’s version of “Scream”. In fact, it plays the violence for dirty realism. Meta upon meta, “Anguish” takes several layers of voyeurism (people in a movie theater watching a horror movie that soon become part of their own horror movie) and spins a perversely weird and discomforting story. Utilizing a majority of his stock characters (including perennial Angel Jove), “Anguish” becomes a Chinese box of murders with the fictional film (art) imitating real life. Murders on-screen by the fictional son become intertwined with real life and Luna does a terrific job of mixing both time lines together so we (the real viewer in all this) become disoriented as to what’s real and what’s fictional. If the rest of Luna’s work doesn’t quite reach this apex, its only because “Anguish” is so genius.

3. My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1985), directed by Alexei German

Filmed in 1985 but not debuted until two years later at a Moscow film festival, "My Friend Ivan Lapshin" is German’s masterpiece. His visual schematic of cluttered, claustrophobic interiors and snow-laden exteriors, both barely able to contain the perpetual movement of bodies and the thoughts that spew from them, again represents German's snapshot of a particular place and time. Set in the mid 30's just before the Stalin purge of Russian Jews and the onslaught of World War 2, "My Friend Ivan Lapshin" takes its time in eventually focusing on the titular character, choosing to embellish mood and atmosphere before real narrative sets in. Like all of German's films, they can be hard to penetrate sometimes.... full of political allegory and off-hand lines of dialogue that explode with hidden anger or poetic jealousy. While "My Friend Ivan Lapshin" has its share of obfuscated moments, it's German's most accessible and tangible work.

2. Go Go Tales (2007), directed by Abel Ferrara

Ever since the early 2000’s, Ferrara’s work has become increasingly difficult to see, barely receiving theatrical distribution and ascertaining his financing from European companies. When even Ferrara himself states he doesn’t care if his films are viewed only through bit torrent sites, then we know there’s a problem. “Go Go Tales” certainly doesn’t deserve that fate. A consistently funny (Ferrara called it his first comedy) while maintaining a melancholy tempo, the film stars Willem DaFoe as a strip club owner desperately trying to keep it together through one fateful night. In between the bickering of his dancers (namely because they haven’t been paid in two days), the sudden appearance of his brother threatening to shut the place down and his landlord wailing for the rent, DaFoe is burning at both ends. Ferrara’s roving camera…. the dialogue that overlaps and seethes from every corner of the screen… and the encompassing presence of the almighty dollar perfectly rooted into the g strings of its dancers, “Go Go Tales” is an exhilarating effort. This is Ferrara’s best film since “The Funeral” a decade ago.

1. The Collected Works of Paolo Sorrentino, This Must Be the Place (2011), The Family Friend (2006) and The Consequences of Love (2004)

After falling head over heels with “The Great Beauty” last year, I made it my mission to track down other Sorrentino works. Some were easy and some not so easy, but well worth the energy. As a filmmaker, Sorrentino paints woozy, messy tapestries of life, love and memory that burrow into your head and stay there for days. Sean Penn searching for a Nazi death camp soldier in “This Must Be the Place“…. a cheapskate money lender who falls in love with a beautiful woman with stark consequences in “The Family Friend“…. a hitman spinning through a mid life crisis as he awaits his task in a European hotel in “Consequences of Love“- all generic storylines that Sorrentino spins vivaciously outward through musical cues, a roving camera and deadpan emotions that furiously unfurl towards the end of each film and become wholly original works of art. Sorrentino is the most exciting filmmaker working right now.


Friday, January 09, 2015

The Current Cinema 14.12

Wrapping up a few year end releases, things will look a little differently here in 2015. Select films will be featured on Dallas Film Now, a growing site run by Peter Martin, editor of the versatile TwitchFilm site. Peter has graciously accepted me as a contributor there. Surveying the cinematic landscape in the Dallas Fort Worth area will be an exciting challenge as we look at new releases and repertory screenings within the area.

This blog has been my home for a decade now, and, although a few films will now feature links to the new site, I still intend to maintain this blog as a lively and honest depiction of my cinematic exploration for years to come. Thanks to everyone for reading and here's to a productive 2015!

"American Sniper", reviewed here

"Inherent Vice", reviewed here. I really, really liked it. Haunted me for a week now. Not everyone's cup of tea, though.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

70's Bonanza: Natural Enemies

In the opening scene of Jeff Kanew's "Natural Enemies" (1979), the lead character named Paul Steward (Hal Holbrook) brazenly tells the viewer via interior monologue his plan for the upcoming day- which is go to work, take the train home and shoot his wife, three kids, then himself when she calls him down for dinner. From there, his misery-filled odyssey is the remainder of the film. He tries to rationalize his upcoming actions with several people he meets throughout the day, and one, a friend played by Jose Ferrer, sees the upcoming internal apocalypse and takes him out for a drink. There are moments when we feel the crisis may have been inverted. During lunch, he visits a brothel and arranges to be with five women at the same time. In keeping with the film's verbose patterns, Steward ends up talking more than screwing, lying naked and facing his prostitutes as if they were a Greek chorus, lamenting his loveless marriage and searching for acceptance in a life filled with little physical passion. In flashback, we see the deteriorating, almost spiteful marriage he shares with his wife (Louise Fletcher). Dealing with emotional problems of her own, neither wife nor husband are shown to be completely blameless. Basically, "Natural Enemies" is a trenchant assault on the nuclear American family of the late 70's. Scripted in a novelistic fashion, full of rambling stories by its characters, and unafraid to hold its unflinching gaze on Hal Holbrook's slowly dissolving moral core, "Natural Enemies" strikes at something raw. It belongs in the same category of disturbed nihilism that bore "Joe", "Taxi Driver", and Gaspar Noe's "I Stand Alone"- films that place the viewer firmly inside the hermetic, dangerous mind of its unhinged protagonist with little hope for escape.

Written, produced, directed and edited by Jeff Kanew, it's no surprise "Natural Enemies" has yet to find its way to mainstream home video distribution. Even for the liberal 70's, it's a dark and almost rotten experience from the beginning, but one that certainly shakes up the senses and challenges the viewer. It also feels strangely European in tone and pace. Privy to Holbrook's thoughts running underneath the entire film, we begin to wonder how much is true and how much is being sickly reflected through his own memories and unbalanced recollections. Case in point- towards the end of the film (and assuredly the film's finest scene) Holbrook takes the fateful last train ride home when its suddenly frozen on the tracks due to a fire up ahead. The emergency lights kick on and bathe him in a woozy, red light as the woman next to him (played by Patricia Elliot)  starts up a conversation. She talks about the lost attraction to her husband, writings in a diary that will never see the light of day, then plainly asks Steward to make love to her "right here right now".The consecutive abrupt cut shows Steward leaving the train as normal. Either this is one of the many unfulfilled fantasies banging around his head or the film is showing us the pervasive unhappiness seeping into the entire universe. Either way, its a gentle respite in the oncoming hurricane of emotional turmoil.