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.