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.