Thursday, December 22, 2016

Big Band: My Favorite Music of 2016

7. Postiljonen "Reverie"

Swedish band Postiljonen is a newcomer for me, being introduced to their ethereal music by the great Gorilla vs. Bear. Culling the best parts of synth wave bands like Beach House and Chromatics while echoing Sigur Ros in small doses, their second album, "Reverie" ispure joy from start to finish.

6. Tindersticks "The Waiting Room"

English band Tindersticks (having been around since the early 90's) need no introduction. However, they still fly so far under the radar- composing lilting soundtracks scores now and then- that when they do release a full album, it's almost a minor miracle that I want to shout it from the rooftops. Every song on "The Waiting Room" is near perfect, alternating behind loud thrash and atmospheric doop-dips. It's a wondrous thing.

5. Mogwai "Atomic"

Yes, it's a soundtrack, so its audible intention is to mix with image and narrative, but Mogwai's sound is so immersive and transportive that it can exist on its own, allowing our brains to supply the images. Low key and droning one minute then full of space and room to breathe the next, each song expertly draws out unexpected emotions. I'm very curious to see the film now.

4. Mitski "Puberty 2"

An adrenaline rush of tunes that, initially, feels abstract with its crushing guitar-heavy backdrop against indie rock singer Mitski's beautiful and lamenting voice, "Puberty 2" eventually becomes an anthem about identity, self worth and, yes, pure indie rock fun.

3. Explosions In the Sky "The Wilderness"

I doubt one of my favorite bands of all time, Austin's own Explosions In the Sky, will ever release an album I don't completely fall in love with. "The Wilderness" is no exception, managing to wrangle a series of sounds and rhythms (some people aptly call it post-rock) into such a emotionally devastating swirl of sound that if often becomes the soundtrack of my life.

2. Bon Iver "22, A Million"

The first 2 songs on Bon Iver's experimental new album place his current mood somewhere between playful and alienating. The first typifies his soft, melodic side while the second bleeds into the first as if it were some 90's house song being played on fuzzy, worn out speakers at their highest volume. I knew I'd love this creation and it only deepens and absorbs upon repeat listen.

1. Radiohead "A Moon Shaped Pool"

Even though a majority of the songs on Radiohead's ninth studio album have existed in one form or another for years now, having them spruced up and officially released (with a few startling changes, looking at "True Love Waits") is a fever dream. No other band is producing music as soul-cleansing.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

The Last Few Films I've Seen, November edition

1.. Los Punks: We Are All We Have (2015)- Documentary about the grassroots underground latino punk scene in Los Angeles. Could have been great, but it gets stuck in boring profiles and brain-fried people sloshing about.

2. Black Rose Mansion (1969)- The always interesting Kinji Fukusaku attempts film noir with a cabaret singer who seems to attract and destroy every man she meets. Psychedelic 60's Japanese stuff. Way cool.

3. Doctor Strange (2016)- Walked out halfway through. I just can't take these CGI superhero films anymore.

4. The Cut (2014)- Turkish filmmaker Fatih Akin's ode to Elia Kazan with a sprawling exploration of one man's survival from the Armenian genocide and his propulsive search for his missing twin daughters. Sad, humane and infuriating.

5. No Blade of Grass (1970)- Surprisingly brutal Cornel Wilde apocalypse film that doesn't shy away from the rape of a young girl, the main character murdering when needed and a pretty hopeless trek across a collapsing society. Not on DVD but can be found on the world wide web if you look hard enough.

6. Salute (1929)- Working my way through all of John Ford's films and this one, so far, is the worst. The worst, Jerry! The Worst!

7. Audrey and Daisy (2016)- Like "The Hunting Ground", this Netflix documentary casts an infuriating light on teen sex assault and the constant barriers, both emotionally and bureaucratically, that exist in dealing with the problem.

8. The Sea of Trees (2016)- Gus Van Sant's mediocre tale about a man (Matthew McCoughnay) trying to end his life in the infamous Japanese 'death forest' is so rote and predictable that not only did the 'twist' ring hollow, but it managed to end good 'ol Matt's string of trenchant performances.

9. Loving (2016)- One refreshing theme from 2016 involved directors working proficiently. Not only did Pablo Larrain have two films open within a few weeks of each other, but American filmmaker Jeff Nichols started the year with "Midnight Special" and ended it with "Loving". While the former is a very good film, it doesn't compare to the nuance and sublimeness of "Loving". Ripping its story from the civil rights headlines- in which an inter racial couple bucked the Jim Crow ways and got married in late 1950's North Carolina- "Loving" contains an emotional force precipitated by lead actors Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton. Negga especially. Rightly deserving an Oscar nomination this year, her mixture of country humility and steely reserve shines through her eyes and crimped face in every single scene. Nichols also does the unthinkable and crafts a legal thriller (as their case eventually winds its way to the Supreme Court) that wisely avoids stepping foot inside a courtroom, maintaining its humane gaze on the couple's reactions and their unending wish to simply 'exist' as man and wife.

10. Writhing Tongue (1980)- Yoshitaro Nomura brings his elegant sense of procedural to the medical melodrama (complete with day and time stamps as the film progresses) with this odd but moving tale about a young girl's journey with a paralyzing illness. Almost punishing in the lengths it goes to portray her endless days in the hospital and even more honest in the way Nomura slowly tightens his gaze on the helpless parents (Tsunehiko Watase and Yukio Toake) as they watch their little girl suffer, "Writhing Tongue" ultimately becomes yet another stirring and competent entry in Nomura's largely unrecognized work here in the States that demands more of an audience. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Current Cinema 16.20


After his last few films (and really since "Polytechnique" which is a shame so few people have seen), filmmaker Denis Villeneuve is, quite simply, working a higher level than most around him. With "Arrival", his plume of visual poetry becomes married with a heartbreaking piece of human fiction that gives to birth to a staggering science fiction film that left me breathless and gasping for my senses. Reaching far beyond the simple establishing premise of aliens visiting Earth and our clumsy, inconsequential methods of communication with them, "Arrival" is a riveting exploration of memory, language and compromise. As the linguist who unlocks the secret, Amy Adams delivers a wonderful performance, allowing herself no show-off moments and almost losing herself in the murky blacks and blues of Villeneuve's vision (shot by DP Bradford Young) before emerging as one of the year's strongest characters on screen. It's been said that "Arrival", whose screenplay is based on a story by Ted Chiang, is the closest we have to Tarkovsky-esque science fiction (or Russian sci-fi mind melts in general) and I tend to agree. Beautifully rendered in every moment and gesture, "Arrival" ranks as one of the most magisterial films of the year.

The Love Witch

A star is born in actress Samantha Robinson, the perfect embodiment of carnal treachery... sculptured cheekbones and all.  Full review on Dallas Film Now

The Edge of Seventeen

Equal parts formulaic and refreshing, there's certainly an honesty to Kelly Fremon Craig's debut that echos back to the 80's teen film in which everyone is either awkward or popular and the pitfalls of adolescence that erupt on either side. Led by Hailee Steinfeld in a performance that only shows how terrific a career she has ahead of her (as if "True Grit" didn't already solidify that), "The Edge of Seventeen" navigates in a precise and humorous manner, ably evoking those pimple-induced days of high school and the swirl of emotions that comes with it. Even though Steinfeld portrays a girl whose way-too-beautiful-to-be-this-awkward (aka the formulaic part), the film more than makes up for it in unexpected and moving ways.


Isabelle Huppert imbues the film with a perverse girl-power logic, seemingly more comfortable buying pepper spray and sharp objects than groceries. And I wouldn't want it any other way.  Full review can be read at Dallas Film Now.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Musical Interlude

RIP Leonard Cohen.

One of the single most moving soundtrack themes ever composed.

Friday, November 04, 2016

On "The Handmaiden"

Being unfamiliar with the novel, entitled "Fingersmith", that Park Chan Wook's "The Handmaiden" is based upon, I can't ascertain just how much of its eroticism and psychological deviancy is transposed to the screen. If it's half as good as Wook's adaptation, then I can't imagine why it didn't reach soft-core-female-thriller status like E.L. James (the "Fifty Shades of Gray" series) or Paula Hawkins ("The Girl on the Train"). Regardless, the current film itself is not only one of the best films of the year, but a masterstroke of filmmaking by Wook whose no stranger to shocking, abrupt narratives that turn on a dime and whose undercurrent of broiling social commentary remain hidden just enough to become subtext.

The subtext here is the uneasy relationship between people of Korean and Japanese descent and how they use the barriers of language and identity to leave behind the past. When one character wants to hide something snarky or condescending to another, they speak in one of the languages the other cannot understand. And Wook wisely claims up front that one set of dialogue will be subtitled in yellow while the other is in white. Matching this cultural war of words, the deviant and shocking aspect comes in the form of a steamy, convoluted relationship that forms between Korean handmaiden Sookee (Kim Tae-ree) and Japanese Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim). Initially devised as an elaborate scheme to force Lady Hideko to marry a swindler named Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) and steal her large fortune, of course, things don't go as planned and Sookee finds herself torn between her corrupt assignment and a growing attraction to her Lady.

"The Handmaiden's" formal brilliance is matched only by its scathing wit in the way it feverishly peels back layers of deception and perspective. And it just wouldn't be a Park Chan Wook film without a dash of violence, revenge and shifting alliance that constantly jerks the expectant rug out from underneath our careful toes. A rope hanging from a tree one moment becomes a casual visual joke in another. A set of large beads on a rope found in the drawer of Lady Hideko in the beginning become a device of supreme pleasure at the film's end. And each character ends up in a drastically different place than where they started out, both in emotional variance and cultural identity. It'd be quaint to call the film a thriller, but it so succinctly turns the screws on the viewer that it reminds one of the impending dread and malaise of "Oldboy"... with a bit of lesbianism thrown in for good mix.

And "Oldboy" is the voice in which "The Handmaiden" resembles the most after Wook's more recent efforts like "Thirst" and "I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK". Yet, instead of retreading the past, "The Handmaiden" feels vigorous and fresh, like a Merchant-Ivory production washed through the lens of David Cronenberg. And by the time Lady Hideko cuts her hand with a knife to feign bodily harm elsewhere, its pretty clear body horror can invade even the most uptight sectors of Japanese society. It's just yet another deception in a film built around them.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Shocktober '16 #3

Nightmare Detective

Fashioning a narrative around dream logic allows one to play by their own rules, inserting visuals and modes of storytelling that are counter-intuitive and surreal. So is the case of Shinya Tsukamato's "Nightmare Detective" in which a killer communicates with (and kills) people in their dreams. The ultimate J-horror spin on "Nightmare on Elm Street", the drawback of this unique dream logic is that the portions of the film that take place outside the dream setpieces rarely make much better sense. Filmed on DV and featuring the very basic paradigms of J-horror filmmaking (i.e. herky jerky cinematography and a confused backstory of childhood trauma), "Nightmare Detective" starts out promisingly before deteriorating into a jumbled mess.

Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell

"Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell" is a delirious carousel of fantasy/horror film tropes. Touching on oozing slime, vampirism, alien invasion and the simple deceptive tragedies the human race perpetrates upon one another, it also takes a stance against the Vietnam War! After a plane crash, a group of survivors has to deal with all of this in a pop colored universe of blood red skies, dancing camera filters and sandy dunes. It can be eye-rollingly bad at times and indicative of the easy potswings of late 60's Japanese cinema, but its fun and ends on a perfectly great image.

The Theatre Bizarre

The good thing about anthology films is each new episode can swerve in a different direction, exploring the depths of humor, drama, surrealism or grotesqueness. The great thing about anthology films is the length of each episode. If it sucks, it'll be over soon. This template is followed in "The Theatre Bizarre" in which 6 short films dart between the above mentioned motifs and offer a bevy of ideas and emotions. Featuring somewhat famous directors (Richard Stanley and Buddy Giovinazzo) mixed with relatively unknowns, the stories are just as varied. The best, including one called "Vision Stains" in which a killer finds a way to transfer the victim's final sights into her own eyes, explores an idea that could be extended to feature length form with perverse intelligence. The worst- including the bumper episode with Udo Kier as some sort of mannequin controlling the stories, probably belong in 20 minute versions only. I can say this film is at least better than recent anthologies like the disingenuous "Southbound" or lackluster "ABC's of Death". 

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Shocktober '16 #2

Witching and Bitching

Pretty typical Alex de la Iglesias hyper-confection of comedy, horror and action. It's never meant to take itself seriously and, judging by the 4-5 other Iglesias films I've seen, he fancies himself a sort of Spanish John Waters. There are a few scares in this heist-film-turned horror when a group of bank robbers (with one of the men's young son in tow) run into a coven of witches intent on eating them. Compared to "Day of the Beast", this one is definitely more interested in the wham-bam aesthetic.

Return of the Evil Dead

In the second film of four "Blind Dead" entries, more isn't better. In fact, after the quasi-fun of seeing the first 'skeletor' Knights Templar exacting revenge from the grave, "Return of the Evil Dead" is pretty lackluster in every facet this time around. I think the same footage of the undead rising from their graves is used here, which reveals alot of the motivation and creativity involved.


After the unmitigated success of their international shocker, "Inside" (2007), which still ranks as one of the best horror films of the last 25 years for me, the sky was the limit for French filmmaking duo Julian Maury and Alexndre Bustillo. "Livid" is that follow-up and while it's not the violent masterpiece of their debut effort, it is a spellbinding exercise whose scattershot ellipses to black and perfectly attuned atmosphere feel like someone breathlessly whispering a gothic fairy tale into your ear. It's also the home-invasion-turned-horror-house that Fede Alvarez's "Don't Breathe" so desperately wanted to be. It's calm mixture of gory shock, palpable dread and wisps of the fantastic all add up to a hugely satisfying and underrated horror flick, barely released here in the States and still only available on a Region 2 DVD. Seek this one out.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Current Cinema 16.19

Deepwater Horizon

With two disaster films this fall (the other being "Patriot's Day", which deals with the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing), Peter Berg is quickly becoming this generation's Irwin Allen. Before "Deepwater Horizon" devolves into mindless pyrotechnics and fireballs, it maintains quite a masterful tone of intelligence and even a lean procedural tilt as it builds up to the reasons for the BP oil rig disaster in 2010... all of which means I much appreciated its first half infinitely more than the second when it becomes forced to uphold its blockbuster trappings and create superheroes out of its ordinary 'Mericans. Yet, despite its faults, the film slightly won me over in its clear-eyed explanations for the faulty science and corporate inefficiency (personified by John Malkovich as a BP executive so smarmy, he can't even remember to hold his cajun accent throughout) that ultimately doomed the working class on board the mechanical giant. Bad accents notwithstanding, "Deepwater Horizon" is probably Berg's best film since "Friday Night Lights".


Not only does Mick Jackson's drama effectively stand up as a courtroom thriller, but it hones in on an especially nasty subsection of World War II- that being the revisionist (and utterly racist) view that the Holocaust didn't happen. Top performances from Rachel Weisz and Timothy Spall aside, "Denial's" real ace-in-the-hole is Tom Wilkinson who, by this point in his career, does this type of sturdy, solemn turn with ease, yet here he mines a resonance and gravity in the role that should earn him an Oscar nomination. Rooted in fact and based on the book by Deborah Lipstadt (who herself went through this process), "Denial" weaves together a variety of ideas about the forensic proof of the Holocaust, yet its ultimate message is the one that cannot be proven, which is to say the scars on so many people who experienced it.


Marcin Wrona's Polish language film begs the question: who's really possessed? The groom, seemingly inhabited by the spirit of a dead girl whose bones he uncovers or the numerous wedding goers, lubricated by drink and dance and whose bodies twist and contort in the same way as the groom?

Full review on Dallas Film Now

Limo Ride

A country-fried bender to end all benders. Full review on Dallas Film Now

Monday, October 10, 2016

Shocktober 2016 #1


Mickey Keating's obviously micro-budget black and white horror doesn't tread any new territory in the genre, but its so ominously spliced together and jarring in its music and shot placement, that it feels somewhat inspired. Yes, it begs, borrows and steals from everyone ranging from Polanski to modern indie maestros like Ti West, but "Darling" still managed to creep under my skin. The story- about a young girl (Lauren Ashley carter) whose mental state slowly deteriorates while house sitting a lavish but haunted New York apartment- grows more discordant and eerie as things progress. Couple that garish visual style with quick subliminal editing and terse music and "Darling" succeeds in generating low-fi terror without explaining (or showing) a whole hell of alot.

Tombs of the Blind Dead

The first film in Amando de Ossorio's "Blind Dead" series sets the stage for its twisted spin on history by turning the revered (but curious) Knights Templar legacy into a line of blood-drinking vampires who rise from their tombs at night and wreck havoc on the Spanish countryside. The usual horror tropes aside- i.e. a pretty girl who goes it alone in the chapel, some pretty awful decisions made by people running from the VERY SLOW moving creatures- "Tombs of the Blind Dead" is effective in its image making of shadows and skeleton bodies slinking in the night. 


Not since Rob Zombie's "House of 1,000 Corpses" has a horror movie shocked me quite like "Baskin". It progresses- in its final third- into something so violent and demented that it's nightmarish landscape of hell made my stomach churn a bit. That's tough to do. The story in and of itself about five Turkish police officers who answer a distress call and become unwitting witnesses to some sort of devil incarnate gateway isn't the progressive thing here. It's the embodiment of evil that one mini-man character inhabits and the sheer willingness to hold nothing back in its provocation of torture and disturbing images. It's one of the few times I wholeheartedly recommend the warning of "not for the faint of heart".

Sunday, September 25, 2016

70's Bonanza: Max and the Junkmen

A slight parallel can be drawn between Claude Sautet's "Max and the Frenchman" and Michael Mann's 1995 epic crime masterpiece, "Heat". Both leading cops in the film (Al Pacino as Vincent Hannah in the latter and Michel Piccoli  as Detective Max in this one) are singularly determined to bring down a group of thieves. Outside of the domestic upheaval in Hannah's life (and a step daughter who threatens to bring the violence he works with daily in the streets crashing home), he cares about very little other than achieving his goal of solving crimes. Likewise, Max is given even less enjoyable backstory, other than a check that arrives monthly from his family from their riches of wine producing. It's alluded to that he doesn't even need to work, but chose this profession due to some jilted sense of injustice as a magistrate years earlier. The likeness between the films deepens even further when both cops become exposed to their respective "crews" when the progression of confidential information unwittingly gives them leads into a much bigger series of events. The way Pacino as Hannah spins on a dime when his C.I. mumbles, "man, this Slick ain't no joke" is a marvel of "ah hah" procedural that rarely gets noticed in modern movies. Likewise, Max is poking around the garage of a known car theft front when he sees a recognizable face downstairs. The owner of the garage, under pressure from Max and his partner, fingers that man named Abel (Bernard Fresson) as someone whose supplied cars to various thugs in town. Using his past as a fellow soldier to reunite with his old friend, Max slowly perpetrates a series of double crosses and roleplaying with the man's prostitute girlfriend to steer the man and his crew into a bank robbery. Endlessly fascinating for the way in which "Max and the Frenchman" undulates between crime film procedural and slowly invading romance drama, it's an unheralded great film that, besides its marginal re-release here in the U.S. back in early 2013, deserves a wider audience.

But that's where the similarities between the two films ends. While Robert DeNiro and his crew in "Heat" are intelligent, coiled professionals.... ready to drop, kill or run with brutal precision at any moment... Max is chasing a rather lump-headed and sullen crew. Living in the junkyard of their boss (who takes most of their money from their random 'scores' of stealing copper wire), its rather clear where their destinies are headed from the get-go. These are not successful, career criminals. What filmmaker Sautet is essentially after is the relationship that develops between Max and Abel's girlfriend, played to perfection by Romy Schneider. The moral complexity that eventually grows between them is the core of the film, and it's a hugely impactful moment that occurs between them in the film's finale.

French 'policiers' of the 70's have a distinctive flavor and tone. Either they end up as muscle-bound, illogical sleaze-fests such as some of the latter day Alain Delon films, or they strike the perfect balance of intelligence and pathos. Of course, the gold standard are the films of Jean Pierre Melville. And while Sautet's "Max and the Frenchmen" isn't quite "The Red Circle" or "Un Flic", it is a well crafted and devious procedural that understands truth is in the hushed details of a conversation over car chases and grand shoot outs. It does feature a pretty awesome shoot out at the end, though.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

On "The Light Between Oceans"

Filmmaker Derek Cianfrance seems to be preoccupied with consequences and all the messy, time-lapsed emotions that come along with them. In his previous film, the masterful "The Place Beyond the Pines", he quickly aborts the gritty, burned-out-looking crime thriller premise about halfway through and jumps ahead in time more than a decade to ponder the fate of two children helplessly caught up in the maelstrom of their parents decisions. And with his latest film, titled "The Light Between Oceans", (based on the novel of the same name by M.L.Stedman), the innocent are at the mercy of another bad decision by two people hopelessly dealing with grief and loss. It's certainly a prestige picture... full of handsomely mounted purpose and sweeping drama.... but it also defiantly stands its own ground as a film imprinted with the soul of its filmmaker and deserves its hard-earned whimpers and eye swells.

Somewhat battered by critics and avoided (thus far) by audiences, perhaps its a film done under by its tell-too-much-trailers or the convenient Labor Day weekend schedule release. Too early for the fall and way too heavy for late summer. Or perhaps its subject matter.... about a despairing lighthouse-tending couple who find an abandoned baby and keep it as their own despite the fact the real mother shows up years later.... felt like standard Lifetime TV drama stuff. Regardless, Cinafrance's foray into mainstream filmmaking (after the very independent "Blue Valentine" in 2010 and the aforementioned "The Place Beyond the Pines" in 2012) hasn't landed him the unadorned praise of his earlier work, which is a shame because the film often reaches and maintains a level of excellence that's been sorely missed so far this year.

As the isolated young couple, living on a coastal plateau and cut off from the rest of the Australian mainland after World War I, (Tom,) Michael Fassbender and Isabel (Alicia Vikander)- who's so marvelous again here, able to convey so much depth and emotion with the delicate canvas of her beautiful face- quickly become antiheroes of this noirish period piece in which her despair over losing two pregnancies due to miscarriages sees them make a very tough decision when a baby and dead man wash up shore in a small boat. She talks her strict, rule-regarding husband into keeping the baby and they live happily for several years. It's only when they return to town that they stumble upon the real mother (Rachel Weisz) both grieving and desperately searching for answers to her German husband and baby's disappearance.

Working it's way through a series of guilty note passing and sublimated blame, "The Light Between the Oceans" pivots in its second half and becomes a mournful examination of the bad decisions and its life-altering impact on the three people at its center. Even more moving is the film's final few minutes as its skips even farther into the future and, like "The Place Beyond the Pines" or this year's other treatise on missed expectations and deep-seated regret titled "Indignation", the film honestly pulls on the heartstrings and drastically alters the perception of the right-or-wrong actions of  Tom and Isabel in the eyes of the person most affected by their decisions. I'm a sap for this type of generational storytelling, and "The Light Between Oceans" hits the solid spot there.

In addition to the strong narrative chops, Cianfrance adapts his urgent handheld camera technique to strong results here. In one scene, very early in the courtship between Tom and Isabel, the camera hovers just on the opposite side of a carriage they've dismounted after their date and Cianfrance frames them perfectly in a darkened hue. No words are exchanged, but the mounting kinship and mutual attraction is felt through the lens. Its almost a throwaway snatch of time, but it's a voluminous moment. Even more adventurous for a prestige "weepie" such as this is the way Cianfrance and novelist Stedman etch the characters in realistic grades of reason. There are no grand villains or truly repugnant actions. Each motive, action and reaction are modulated carefully. Admittedly, Cianfrance errs on the side of Vikander's Isabel as the most damaged and empathetic character of the three, such as the aesthetic choice to cut from a cold medium shot of Fassbender's Tom being questioned by the police to a soft dissolve close-up of the weary and tear-stained face of Isabel in the same position. Not without her Shakesperian deviancy to fulfill her dreams of a happy family, even her actions can be understood, appreciated and mourned.

The same can be said for Rachel Weisz's Hannah and the complications she endures as the estranged mother whose daughter is ripped from her life. Serving as the persecuted figure in the film, even her third act motivations don't ring false or contrived. It's rare that three well defined, intelligent characters exist in a film whose primary undercurrents are supremely melodramatic.

Even though its failing to find an audience (and generating quite the snark from online blurbs whose presence is growing increasingly unwelcome in these lightning quick digital times), "The Light Between Oceans" deserves to be seen and recognized as a piece of proper Hollywood fall season bait done oh so right by Cianfrance and his attention to the complicated and treacherous decisions that ultimately save one life but destroy many others.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

The Current Cinema 16.18

A Tale of Love and Darkness

Starring in several Amos Gitai films, actress Natalie Portman proves that she's interested in some of the same knotty polemics that define many of his films, especially when it comes to the violence and rhetoric about Israel's foundation and its inhabitants struggle for peace both physical and emotional. Co-starring here, Portman directed and wrote the film based on Amos Oz's memoir of the same name. Decidedly splintered into two halves and filtered through the eyes of young Amos (Amir Tessler), the first part comes off as profound and episodic, such as when the film equates childlessness with losing memory and the many tales-within-the-tale spewed by Portman to Amos that feel like motherly fairy tales with an assured dark spin. The second half becomes more didactic and straightforward, detailing the family's life around the 1947 founding of the Jewish state and the ensuing violence between Arabs and Jews. Compounding the external strife, Portman's mother descends into her own hellish state, withering away before our eyes and giving "A Tale of Love and Darkness" its grim decor. Portman's direction is strong and all the performances are measured, yet the film feels as if it's trying to assemble too many ideas into its compact 97 minute running time.

Kaili Blues

First Jia Zhangke did it in "Mountains May Depart". And now Gan Bi- in his perplexing but undeniably original feature debut- has staggered the opening credit title until approximately 30 minutes into the film. If nothing else, it's a shock to the system. Drawing from the melancholic tempo of 1990's Hou Hsiao Hsien, "Kaili Blues" also takes its time in introducing any identifiable narrative until the latter half of his effort when a country doctor (Yongzhong Chen) decides to mount a trip to find his dislocated nephew. Following the trip (and its many longeurs and character tangents) in a remarkably staged 40 minute single tracking shot that sweeps and pans and snakes its way up and down a mountain, through a hilltop village and behind several various people as they carry on their own lives, its the real reason to see "Kaili Blues". Knowing such a technical marvel was in store and constantly waiting for it, perhaps, reduced its ultimate impact on me, but "Kaili Blues" is just mysterious and audacious enough for its other merits to seek this one out.

Don't Breathe

No amount of terror, suspended thrills or contrived/cutesy backstory (ohh that precocious little sister) can make me root for three dumb kids who break into someone's house to rob them. Nevermind that the old man has a young girl tied up in the basement either. Fede Alvarez's much lauded micro-horror failed to connect with me on any level, proving that true modern horror is only done right when one cares about the people involved.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

What's In the Netflix Queue #40

1. The White Darkness (2002)- Low budget auteur Richard Stanley's 'documentary' about voodoo doctors. I put a ton of his available in the queue a year ago and it's just now coming around. I was underwhelmed by Stanley's "Hardware" but recognize his cult status.

2. Rewind This! (2013)- Doc about VHS movies that got some pretty healthy talk a few years back from old fogies like myself who remember wandering the aisles of video stores in their childhood.

3. The Color of Time (2010)- Hmm, maybe because it stars Mila Kunis this one is here.

4. Oliver Twist (2005)- One of only two Polanski films I haven't seen.... the other being his obscure "What?" from 1972 that I'll be watching around the same time as this one. His take on the Dickens classic.

5. Plus One (2011)- Greek director Denis Iliadis did the remake to "Last House On the Left" a few years back and while his films reek of street-level 'degeneraism' (see his 2004 film "Hardcore"), I have to see everything available by a filmmaker when I get it in my head to do so.

6. Les Cousins (1958)- Early Chabrol that I feel like I've seen, yet somehow I don't remember a thing about. Time to rectify.

7. The Trip To Italy (2014)- Michael Winterbottom's follow-up to the immensely entertaining "The Trip".

8. Four Sons (1928)- Continuing on my appreciation of every John Ford film available. Check back sometime in 2017, probably, for a long post since he made about 500 films.

9. The Cut (2015)- Fatih Akin burst onto my radar when I saw his 2004 masterpiece "Head-On", but each film has been concurrently underwhelming for me. Perhaps this one will change my perception.

10.  H-Man (1958)- From the imdb description:  While investigating the mysterious disappearance of a low-level drug runner, Tokyo police discover that a race of radioactive flesh-eating creatures are emerging from the sewers and attacking civilians. Set in the criminal underground of 1950s-era Tokyo, this effort from B-movie maven Ishiro Honda is an obscure precursor to sci-fi noirs like Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner.

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Current Cinema 16.7


James Schamus' adaptation of Philip Roth's novel strives to encapsulate the post World War II generation's swirling mass of emotions which includes the disdain for parental over-indulgence, the groping for expected spiritual (non) identity, and youthful sexual abandon. Lofty ideas, indeed, and "Indignation" hits the mark and more. As young Marcus, Logan Lerman is spectacular as the Jewish boy swimming against the grain at a prestigious Ohio college, whose life becomes even more confused when he meets beautiful (and non Jewish) Olivia (Sarah Gadon) and they begin dating. College is certainly about new experiences, new attitudes and finding oneself, but "Indignation" soon charts the upheaval of conflicting traditional versus progressive ideas and actions in a carefully modulated manner. Not only does Marcus not understand the ways of love, but his very ideals come under insidious attack from the school's dean (Tracy Letts), none moreso than a long give-and-take scene between the two that proves talk in cinema can be just as tense as anything else. "Indignation" is verbose, powerful, moving and, ultimately, heartbreaking in the way lives are seismically altered by a few words. One of the year's best films.

Blood Father

Now this is what summer entertainment should be. And maybe a tiny morsel of resurgence for Mel Gibson. Full review on Dallas Film Now.

Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV

Kind of feel old after watching this one. Video game spectacle as fodder. And I didn't really understand a lick of what was going on. Review on Dallas Film Now.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Thursday, August 04, 2016

The Space Between: How Jia Zhangke Sees the World

There are a select few directors whose work is porous with a distinctive milieu. Martin Scorsese and New York City. Richard Linklater with Texas. Victor Nunez with Florida. A good majority of their films frame a narrative around the living, breathing atmosphere of a specific region with breathtaking results. Yet, even fewer filmmakers absorb their city and make it a wondrous extra, at times upstaging the flesh and blood people inhabiting it. I'm thinking of Thom Andersen with Los Angeles.... a city so cannibalized by Hollywood that it takes a dirge-like documentarian to bring out its real ghosts and phantoms through stationary shots of the city's abandoned architecture. In both "Los Angeles Plays Itself" and "Get Out of the Car", Andersen shows us a Los Angeles seen everyday on the big screen but rarely seen.

The same goes for Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke. His mixture of hybrid documentaries and fictional efforts rarely venture outside of his own China (or even his hometown province) and the devastating advancement of civilization at the cost of its people is never far removed from the central idea. Specifically, four documentary films including "Dong", "Useless", "I Wish I Knew" and the masterpiece "24 City", could more accurately be called postcards of a deteriorating city. Even when he chooses an original idea, such as the listless inhabitants of a theme park in "The World" or following the impetuous teens of "Unknown Pleasures", there's China and its corners, peeling paint and bustling streets barely contained behind his speaking actors threatening to high-jack the entire thing. Watching the edges of the frame can often be more entertaining in a Jia Zhangke film than anything else.

"Dong" (2006) begins Zhangke's fascination with the documentary form, although its feathery relationship with the genre is tenuous at best. Following Chinese painter Liu Xiaodong as he initiates several of his pieces, Zhangke ultimately shifts the perspective from a typical painter's bio to the way Xiaodong sees the landscape around him. Much more attention is paid to Dong as he stumbles through the apocalyptic brick and mortar remnants of the Three Gorges Dam- a setting also explored in his film "Still Life" released the same year- than celebrating the piece of artwork created. Zhangke's camera becomes fixated on the tanned, weary-faced men posing for Dong on the edge of a concrete barrier that resembles the idyllic vista of Jean Luc Godard's "Contempt" more than a hollowed out section of Earth. We follow Dong to Bangkok where he paints a scantily clad woman as she lies, suggestively, like a Sleeping Beauty. Then its back to the Three Gorges area where Dong and Zhangke visit with the family of one of the men who posed for him earlier as they deal with his death due to an unspecified accident. In its short (66 minute) running time, "Dong" becomes an evocative bio of the land rather than the person. It's a bold move for a film named after the person.

In "Useless" (2007), the same digressive attitude is taken. Ostensibly about a female fashion designer of earthy and wild styles, it takes about 25 minutes before Zhangke even decides to include her in the film. The first half is full of patient lateral pans around and across concrete beams as an assembly line toils away at creating the clothes. Exterior shots of the province of Guangzhoa and the daily, minuscule activities of its people inform portions of the middle half and then, finally, Zhangke focuses on Ma Ke, the designer/artist whose line of clothing evokes the film's title. Not quite as powerful as "Dong" in its meditative rhythms, "Useless" does expand Jia's sense of time and place over subject. The best parts of the film lie in the blank expressions of the factory workers as they barely notice the camera penetrating and capturing the lived-in spaces around them.

Rounding out his triptych, "24 City" (2008) is a damning critique of society-as-ghosts. Once a sprawling, mammoth factory known as Factory 24, urban revitalization and 'progress' sees the Chengdu structure being torn down to build a series of high rise condos and mixed-usage business. Part talking head interviews with people who worked in the factory or shared joyous moments there with family members, Zhangke's film is an overwhelming snapshot of time and place whose forward movement feels like a slap-in-the-face. Alternating between carefully timed tracking shots, lateral pans out to the city and powerful stationary shots as even the huge letters of the factory are sent tumbling to the ground, "24 City"- like Thom Andersen's films mentioned earlier- becomes a bittersweet portrait of a city in flux. Music and image marry with quiet and unsuspecting grace, such as the melancholy way an older man slowly makes his way around a worker's room and Zhangke's camera almost floats along the ceiling, simply observing the process. It's a scene that doesn't have any ancillary meaning, but it speaks volumes about the angelic quality Zhangke holds for these people and their crumbling exteriors.

In "Useless" Ma Ke's fashion show in Paris is shown briefly at the end. Instead of the typical runway with models sauntering up and down, a huge curtain drops and all the models are wearing her clothes, perched ever so methodically on lighted pillars placed strategically around the room. The patrons simply walk around and look up at them. It's this interactive idea of looking and observing that informs all of Zhangke's work. China is the model and I don't get the sense Zhangke is going to stop observing anytime soon.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Grand Canyons: Guillaume Nicloux's "Valley of Love"

It's telling of the parabolic nature of Guillaume Nicloux's "Valley of Love" that the specified non-believer of the couple (Gerard Depardieu basically playing himself) is the one eventually shown the spiritual majesties of the other side. Guffawing and obese, he's been dragged to Death Valley by his ex-wife (Isabelle Huppert also playing a variation of herself) in the hopes of reconnecting with the dead spirit of their deceased son. For the first two-thirds of the film, "Valley of Love" concerns itself with the discordant nature of this middle-aged couple, divorced and basically unhappy in each other's company. To make matters worse, the setting is Death Valley's scorched barrens of land, offering nothing but repulsive heat and non-descript tourist motels. Nothing too extraordinary happens, yet part of the film's resplendence lies in the natural and lived-in performances from two of France's most recognizable movie stars. Then, things turn a bit metaphysical and "Valley of Love" slinks towards a conclusion that's both breathless in its audacity and mysterious in the way it can draw completely new variations on grief and the hollow center it often leaves behind.

Opening with a long steadicam shot that simply follows behind Huppert as she walks to her motel room across a winding sidewalk, "Valley of Love", doesn't get any more urgent after Gerard (Depardieu) arrives. This same unbroken, unhurried camera movement is duplicated later in the film, reversed to follow Gerard through the carpeted hallways of their motel and eventually outside to enjoy a smoke. The couple dine together, spend time at the motel pool (where Depardieu gets recognized by a man and then insults him by signing his autograph request with Robert DeNiro's name) and travel to select locations in the Valley where they await a sign from their son who committed suicide years ago and then promised to return on the given dates. The couple re-read their son's cryptic letters. They ponder on what type of person he really was, as both confess they didn't really know him after all. This lamentation of a child lost and a marriage imploded hang over the first half of the film. Completely devoid of fashionable performances, both Huppert and Depardieu exert a veteran calm that not only plays right into their roles as recognizable French faces lost in America, but adds gravity to the weary and low-key atmosphere of the entire film. Then, sudden unexplained events occur... once right after the aforementioned long shot that follows Depardieu outside Huppert's motel room window and the second at the very end.... and "Valley of Love" turns into something more than the study of a couple hoping, searching for answers and ultimately doubting their marital time together. 

The French are known for their penchant to fly outside the boundaries of reality-based cinema. Where "Valley of Love" succeeds in its metaphysical nature and other recent examples have failed miserably (such as Pascal Ferran's abysmal "Bird People"), a majority of the credit has to go to the methodical way Nicloux builds a sense of mounting frustration between Depardieu and Huppert. She calls him fat and he replies that, "yes, he knows he is". They are endlessly surrounded by clueless tourists or the oddball outcast who seems right at home on a scorched patch of earth yelling at televised baseball games in the motel restaurant. Life, love, habits and their own patience has run out with each other over the years. All of this is made candidly tactile throughout the first half of "Valley of Love" so that when narrative (and our own disbelief) about why they're there together begins to take shape, it washes over you with modulated force. Maybe there is something there or maybe it's all in the minds of grieving parents who simply begin to project their desires onto the blank canvas of Death Valley. Either way, "Valley of Love" proves to be a rewarding, evocative masterpiece.

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Last Ten Films I've Seen, Sweaty Summer Edition

1. Camp XRay (2014)- Otherwise known as the film where Kristen Stewart emerged into the lauded young actress she's become over the last 3-4 years, culminating with the cover of "Film Comment" this month. She's good here and all, but there's still a hint of her emo-scowl and the film suffers from a bit of staginess.

2. The Infilitrator (2016)- Grimy and gritty undercover drug saga that manages to remain highly entertaining despite its been-there-done-that attitude and a relatively low-key performance from Bryan Cranston. The best part of it, though, is the casting of several unknowns in supporting character roles that not only represent the electric funkiness of mid-80's drug dealers, but emit a certain hollow eyed electricity found in the 70's films of the great Sidney Lumet.

3. Ryuzu and His Seven Henchmen (2015)- Takeshi Kitano's comedy, if it actually received some type of release outside of the random Asian film festival last year, would probably be compared to a Hollywood film like "Old Dogs"- that is paychecks for grey haired Hollywood stars a bit out of synch with the younger generation. Here, Kitano recruits a who's who of Asian film baddies of the 60's and 70's and has them reunite as "old farts" forming their old 'yakuza' gang to take on the new corporate sized gangsters of the neighborhood. Neither deconstructive of the genre or all that reflective, it does echo back to Kitano's sketch comedy style and probably only remains interesting for Kitano purists such as myself.

4. The Purge Election Year (2016)- I typically try and stay neutral in my communion of film and politics, but this film (and the entire trilogy) is a repellent example of a fictional work that contributes nothing but fuel to the current rhetoric of hatred, violence and divisiveness sweeping the globe.

5. The Professor (1986)- Been looking for this one for years. Guisuippe Tornatore's debut film stars Ben Gazzara as a mafia chief who rises to prominence behind bars and then takes control of the Naples 'cammorista' upon escaping. Lots of events and facts are compressed into almost 3 hours (culled from the original length of 5-6 hours as an intended TV miniseries) and it does feel long in the tooth at times, but its stark and ugly representation of violence and the role of Laura del Sol as the sister who actually runs things are inspired bits of narrative. It's also interesting in the way "The Professor" almost subverts the role of Gazzara into a secondary background character. He's the star and it's his film, yet he remains a deflected personality in this sprawling world of corruption, shadowy orders and political subterfuge.

6. Hello, My Name Is Doris (2016)- Sally Field is quite amazing in Michael Showalter's slightly berzerk little comedy about a 70'ish woman falling in love with her early 30's aged boss... how about that nifty age reversal for a comedy? Keeping some of its darker elements just at the edges (i.e. stalkerish tendencies) the film is a breezy 90 minutes. Plus it really makes me want a Baby Goya and the Nuclear Winter cd.

7. Cymbeline (2014)- Michael Almyreda is at it again, updating Shakespeare into a modern environment. Anachronistic and all, this one pits the bard's tale of deception, familial jealousy and star-crossed lovers into the world of biker meth dealer gangs and hipsters. It is quite fun to hear Dakota Johnson spewing Shakespeare.

8. Angel Face (1952)- Slight film noir about a young girl (Jean Simmons) and ambulance driver (Robert Mitchum) who fall in love amidst the death of her parents. Otto Preminger directs with a sure hand.

9. Heat and Sunlight (1987)- Coming off like a bad Henry Jaglom or Jon Jost, Rob Nilsson's surprising Sundance winnner reeks of everything pretentious and boring about early American independent cinema. Black and white photography. Self absorbed lovers fighting through their bouts of denial, self-doubt and solipsism. A tendency to carry on scenes way longer than patience allows. I suppose it;s early Sundance award is more about the time and place than the actual effort.

10. The Happiest Girl In the World (2009)- Radu Juda's film "Aferim!" has been one of the joys of film this year, and this sophomore feature length effort falls more in line with the typical traits of Romanian cinema. After a girl wins a car by sending in juice bottle caps, she's invited to the city to film a commercial. That's only the mind-numbing beginning of a day that sees her parents fight over the eventual financial windfall of selling the car, the pressing demands of a film crew who want the perfect commercial and an oppressive heat wave striking the city. To say the least, its one of the more ironic titles in recent film.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Current Cinema 16.6

The Neon Demon

Nicolas Winding Refn's latest film is a synth-infused mood piece whose narrative has strayed even farther and loopier than even the rudimentary progression of "Only God Forgives". Parceled out like a glam-pop music video with bits of David Lynch dreaminess tossed in for good measure, ultimately, "The Neon Demon" suffers from a wallop of rote ideas and well tread commentary. We get it. The Los Angeles fashion/model scene is cannibalistic and treacherous. As the film winds down to its conclusion, all I could stop thinking about is "where the hell is that house with the swimming pool and why hasn't it been featured more prominently in an L.A. film before?" I'm sure Refin wanted more reactive passion than that from his film.

Hunt For the Wilderpeople

I can think of a handful of films in which a young boy is pitted against a curmudgeonly old man and, slowly, they not only form a bond but come to resemble something close to a family. That formula is followed here in Taika Waititi's comedy, "Hunt For the Wilderpeople" and it succeeds thanks to the wonderfully etched relationship between newcomer Julian Dennison and Sam Neill, as well as Waititi's acerbic sense of editing and perfectly timed laughs. The film also eschews laughing "at" something (such as those zany New Zealand bush folk) and imparts a generous sense of zaniness all around.

Friday, July 08, 2016

Frederick Wiseman: Deaf and Blind But Not Dumb

Frederick Wiseman's documentaries are a collection of dialogue, compromise, anger, observation and, in the case of his 1987 film "Blind", an exercise in pure cinemas as discovery. It comes at the halfway point when one of the very young blind children featured in the film (known as Jason) is followed in an extreme long take as he feels his way downstairs into one classroom and then back upstairs to another to talk to his teachers. There's no expediency or montage juxtaposition to hurry up the act. We simply exist to observe this child as his newly taught sensory skills are put to the test. It's a moment both bracing in its honesty and awe-inspiring in the possibilities of film to capture something non manufactured and real. In essence, that's what Wiseman has been doing for forty plus years.

As a companion piece to "Blind", there's also "Deaf", released a year earlier in 1986 but taking place in the same Alabama area school for the Deaf and Blind. Culled from endless hours of footage and whittled down to approximately five hours of film, both "Deaf" and "Blind" follow the framework of Wiseman's now pattern formula... i.e.basic exterior shots of the city and school welded around the inhabitants, leadership and tangential elements of an institution. In between, there are one or two extended scenes of discussion or conflict that serve as the identifying setpiece. In "Deaf", its a 35 minute discussion between a principal, a teacher, a mother and a deaf child whose been causing trouble at the school. Threats of suicide and intentional fights with other boys has landed this young man in the hot seat and through a carefully worded and patient conversation, his animosity about not seeing his real father and his mother's supposed lack of communication become the root cause. It's as if we're watching an intense psychiatric session, punctuated by sign language and the genuine care of all involved to arrive at an accepted and humane compromise.

Separating the visual style of both films- while "Deaf" is in color, "Blind" is black and white, naturally- both films are interested solely in the mechanics of thought, learning, perception and discussion... even when we don't fully understand the discussion. Several scenes in "Deaf" feature students communicating outside or by themselves in the hallway in sign language. There's no attempt to translate or cheapen the moment. The viewer is present, fully, in their world. Likewise, in "Blind", Wiseman sagely dispenses with compassionate leanings and shows only the strong moments of the blind students. Jason's confident walk. A classroom lesson where children learn about textures and feel as linen cloths are placed over their prone bodies. And a carefree dance where the energies and vigor of youth take over, regardless of their inability to see.

In both "Deaf and "Blind", the overriding message is that, yes, these children do have handicaps, but their immersion in life, relationships, and the everyday ebbs and flows of emotions are just as pertinent. Perhaps more so because they're learning to adapt without a vital sense many people take for granted. Wiseman doesn't. And the men, women and children featured in "Deaf" and "Blind" certainly don't.

Both films are available at

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Top 5 List: Standouts From Halfway Thru 2016

5. Stellan Skarsgard in "Our Kind of Traitor"

Though the film itself is sturdy, efficient but completely unremarkable, the real pleasure of Susanna White's spy thriller is Stellan Skarsgard as the "traitor" in question. Playing a Russian mob accountant who wants to go straight and get his family out of dodge before they end up like the rest of his compatriots, Skarsgard plays his role like a bumbling good natured giant who not only seems to understand the complexities of the international game in front of him, but is prescient about his determined attempts in protecting his family. The rest of the cast is solid. Ewan McGregor is Ewan MvGregor. Damien Lewis hams it up as an MI-6 agent playing by his own rules, but its Skarsgard who registers the most.

4. Rebecca Hall in "Tumbledown"

Allow my Jason Sudeikis moratorium to expire with "Tumbledown". Sean Mewshaw's romantic drama not only provides him with his best and most affable performance to date, but its also a film of surprising warmth, humility and carefully crafted emotional manipulations. Oh, and Rebecca Hall is pretty damn amazing also. Taking the narrative of cult-songwriter worship to varying heights, "Tumbledown" initially wallows in grief as Hannah (Hall) struggles to come out from under the shadow of her late husband's death. Added to her grief is the fact he released one personal album that (as mentioned in the same vein as Kurt Cobain) still resonates around the world as a lost musical genius. Obsessed with writing a biography of the man, Sudeikis enters Hannah's world as the two try to manage their expectations and accolades for the man from drastically different sides of his persona. Packing a huge emotional wallop, "Tumbledown" is a film that builds slowly. Part romantic comedy and part backwoods New York cultural war, I wasn't expecting the ultimate wallop it delivers. There are no big dramatic shifts or surprise secrets, just a cautious and searching tale about the lives we lead after unforeseen devastation. Just watch the scene where Hall listens to a previously unrealized song and watch the shadows of memory, love and loss sway across her face. In that single moment, "Tumbledown" hooked its claws into me and never let go.

3. Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe in "The Nice Guys"

Shane Black's loopy, irreverent 70's noir has been one of the genuine surprises so far this year both in how it manages to tell a story (i.e. "The Big Lebowski" would be proud) and for its high-profile star duo who bounce and repartee off each other like Abbott and Costello. The denouement is less important than the sly comedy and almost accidental way this pair of private detectives bob and weave their way around Los Angeles trying to solve a scheme of kidnapping, murder and political infractions. It's a joy from start to finish.

2. Anya-Taylor Joy in "The Witch"

It's a film in which the character speak in mid 18th century English. It's taken from the annals of witchcraft history. It's dark, a bit glacial and certainly not the Blumhouse production most audiences were expecting. But Robert Eggers' superb atmospheric horror features not only features skin-crawling dread in just about every scene, but a terrific lead performance from wide eyed Anya-Taylor Joy. As the oldest daughter of a family experiencing some profoundly evil attributes, she grounds the film in realism with her anger, disbelief and misunderstood adolescent behavior that today would pass as simple tween angst. 

1. The Ensemble Cast of "Mustang"

In the opening scene of Deniz Erguven's devastatingly real tinderbox of female-emotion-drama, the older three of five sisters are waiting outside the school for young Lala (Gunes Sensoy) as she says her goodbye to a teacher. The three stand, half full of swagger and attitude, knowing that their budding sexuality and natural beauty are but moments away from blooming when they meet their boyfriends by the ocean. It's as if they're poised to star in an 80's teen drama and they're most certainly Kim Richards or Lea Thompson... i.e. the bad girls. But it's exactly this risque attitude that lands all five sisters in trouble when they get home, subsequently beaten and verbally abused for being such loose women and flirting openly with men. "Mustang" doesn't reside in John Hughes middle America, but the restrictive culture of Turkey. Gradually, their freedom (both of personal expression and choice) are eroded as they're locked inside their home and kept prisoners by grandmother and uncle until, slowly, each one is given away to womanhood and arranged marriages. "Mustang", the debut feature film by Erguven, works methodically and brilliantly, canvasing the girl's suffocation in gentle overtones. There are night time escapes to freedom. Outward displays of retaliation. And of course tragedy. Even though it's a Turkish film, "Mustang" is universal in its depiction of smothered youth via overwrought and antiquated traditions. By the time it ended, not only was I reduced to tears for these girls to make it out alive, but ultimately resentful of so many nationalities whose backwards belief system chokes the life from sparkling eyes.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Current Cinema 16.5

The Conjuring 2

Following a tried and true horror formula, director James Wan carries forward his 'off-shoot' franchise of famous paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren with "The Conjuring 2". Transitioning to England in the late 70's (immediately after they assisted on the infamous Amityville horror case), part 2 establishes much of the same shock and awe any Wan devotee will recognize- that being a disconcerting soundtrack, voices and eerie sounds cranked up to propulsive levels and an acute eye for jump scares. Thankfully, the theatrics are far from cheap thrills, stringently earned by the atmosphere. Mix in some genuine character sympathy (in the case of young possessed Janet, played by Madison Wolfe), a truly demonic evil spirit in the form of an electric-eyed nun, and a reflexive sense of humor and "The Conjuring 2" paints a nightmarish palette whose images and sounds won't diminish inside your head for awhile.


Beginning as immigrant drama where Dheepan (Jesuthasan Anthonythasan) and his make-shift 'family' struggle for survival in a French slum, things soon turn very "Taxi Driver"ish as their congenial existence is routinely threatened by the nearby violence and poverty of the local gangs. In the hands of French filmmaker Jacques Audiard, "Dheepan" is a modulated study of eroding morals and trust, featuring a score of authentic, sensitive performances... none moreso touching then the way he frames a woman and child in two dimly-lit apartment windows, begging for their father figure to return home. As he did in his masterpieces, "Rust and Bone" and "A Prophet", the sly affection for these outsiders slowly creeps up on the viewer. If the finale seems overtly jarring in its violence, its only because a parable about immigration such as this can only result in baptism through fire.


Andrzej Zulawski's final film is, sadly, his most labored and strained. Punctuated by tangents that play like a cross-patterned puzzle of his greatest thematic hits, "Cosmos" spins and whirls and digests itself into a pretentious mess. There's the country estate setting ala "The Blue Note" where everyone's fears, paranoia and repressed lust plays out in hysterics. There's the attention to weird linguistics that gave "Mad Love" a truly manic feel. And there's the beautiful Lena (Victoria Guerra) at the (partial) center that sets young Witold (Jonathan Genet) into a confused tizzy of stumped creativity and obsessive reasoning as to why various animals are being hung around the house. Guerra- and pretty much every one here- lacks the inner sultriness that Sophie Marceau brought to so many of Zulawski's pained efforts about the ineffectiveness of personal connection. It's as if Zulawski tried to merge his collective concepts into the 21st century after his long hiatus, but ended up with a hollow recreation at best.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Produced and Abandoned #19

More titles that deserve some type of home video release.

1. Out of Bounds (1986)- Anthony Michael Hall and Jenny wright in an L.A. noir whose VHS copies go for decent money on Amazon, which means no DVD in sight. The box cover for this movie is ingrained in my memory from daily trips to the video store as a kid. It's also featured prominently in Thom Andersen's mammoth documentary "Los Angeles Plays Itself", which (in this case) is regarded fondly.

2. Decoder (1984)- German horror sci-fi and overall weirdness. If nothing else, Code Red or Shout! Factory need to make this available for a whole new generation of trash lovers.

3. Boris Godounov (1989)- The only Zulawski effort I haven't been able to track down is this late 80's musical that, apparently, does some pretty nifty fourth wall breaking as he chooses to reveal the filmmaking process of this staged presentation.

4. Thieves After Dark (1984)- Now that Sam Fuller's "Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street" has finally crashed it way onto Region 1 DVD, how about someone make this French production available. It's one of the last Fuller's I need to see before I can check the auteur off the list.

5. The Lost River (2015)- So what's the status on Ryan Gosling's directorial debut? Trashed at Cannes. Played a few film festivals. Pulled from distribution. Sounds like a case of Johnny Depp and "The Brave"- a film in which its high profile actor turned director has backed away from criticism.

6. Farewell to the Ark (1984)- Shuji Tereyama is vastly underrepresented on DVD. I've only seen a small number of his films, but this one, about a village that lives by its own codes and mores sounds twisted and surreal.

7. Pennance (2011)- One of my favorite Asian filmmakers, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, has made 3 or 4 films in the last five years, yet none of them have made it onto DVD here in the States. His latest film, "Journey To the Shore", which certainly had its admirers last year on the festival circuit, may get a limited run this year, but "Pennance" and others are in limbo. Hopefully, that changes soon.

8. Farewell Friend (1968)- Alain Delon and Charles Bronson star as two friends who exit the army and then find themselves years later working to pull of a robbery. One of those weird French-American co-productions, but Delon and Bronson together? Needs to be seen.

Thursday, June 02, 2016

The Reconstituted Image: Thom Andersen's "The Thoughts That Once We Had"

Like Jean Luc Godard's mammoth series "Histoire(s) of Cinema" (1994), essayist and filmmaker Thom Andersen's "The Thoughts That Once We Had" is a shifting, breathless and ultimately personal didactic about what gives him inspiration and belief in the moving pictures. You may call it an elegy... albeit a very rigorous and philosophical one as the film frames its series of clips around the writings of Gilles Deleuze. Broken down in loose sections entitled "the affection-image" (faces), "the perception-image" (war and its ugly ideals) and "implied dreams" as well as other lofty excerpts from Deleuze's applied theories on cinema, "The Thoughts That Once We Had" is best enjoyed by film enthusiasts for its constant barrage of film clips... some esoteric but many immediately recognizable.

Andersen, whose proven himself a historian of both locale and film history since the mid 90's with his video essays and came to cult prominence in the early 2000's with his masterpiece "Los Angeles Plays Itself", again uses specific film images to create a reconstituted story. Devoid of voice-over and utilizing only intertitles of Deleuze's own text or typed examples of Andersen's droll sense of humor to question what we're watching, "The Thoughts That Once We Had" becomes both a cultural lesson and a personal diary of sorts. Towards the end, the focus shifts from film theory onto specific actors. Oddball character actors such as Timothy Carey. 40's Universal actress Maria Montez, who is listed as legendary underground filmmaker Jack Smith's "favorite actress". Or Andersen's confession to his own undying love for actress Debra Paget. If the excerpts of Deleuze's writing seem cumbersome or overly scholarly, it's because they certainly are, and Andersen seems to be stylizing a rhetoric of images as companion pieces for the writings. It's when the film appears to stray a bit from these formal, erudite moments and expose something personal "The Thoughts That Once We Had" turns truly magical.

Like Andersen did with his best film, "Los Angeles Plays Itself" (2003), "The Thoughts That Once We Had" encompasses a filmmaker drunk on both film itself and how film becomes ingrained in our subconscious and manifests itself in every day life. Just watching the "implied dreams" section alone gave me goosebumps as it not only features clips from some of my recent favorite films (those being Hou Hsiao Hsien's "Millenium Mambo" and Jia Zhang-ke's "24 City"), but it highlights one of the more superfluous- and in my opinion essentially intoxicating- pieces of filmmaking, which is the seductive expansion of time in film as we simply watch someone drift and walk along. With Jeanne Moreau lost in her delirious thoughts, narrowly dodging traffic in nighttime Paris or Qi Shu's neon tunnel strut, these 'drop downs' in cinema comprise a director's infatuation with their leading ladies, but they also turn film into a slow motion dream of image and music that gets me every time. "The Thoughts That Once We Had" is full of said moments and itself becomes a slow motion dream of image and music.

The Thoughts That Once We Had can be seen at the Oak Cliff Film Festival on Saturday Jun 18th and opens in limited release in New York and Los Angeles on Friday June 3rd.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Current Cinema 16.4

The Nice Guys

Deconstructive. Self deprecating. Knowingly subversive. Whatever one wants to label Shane Black's "The Nice Guys", I'm all for it. Finally, after so many knock offs, he gives us a stone cold, raucous 'sun noir' that not only dips into the 70's title font bucket, but seems to fall in love with the overall hazy, sun-drenched milieu of the times just as easily. Like the best of the genre (i.e. Altman's "The Long Goodbye", Aldrich's "Hustle", Mulligan's "The Nickel Ride" or Bogdanovich's "Paper Moon" which trust me will make more sense once you've seen both films), Black's film ambles, waddles and hints at so many prevailing winds of attitude, 'hippiedom' and culture clashes that the basic story of two private investigators (Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling) trying to locate a missing girl becomes secondary to the effort. It's the oblique journey and not the straight up conclusion that makes this and fellow neo-noirs so compelling and immersive. Like the visual style of the film- which is often more inclined to tail off from the narrative and hover over some Los Angeles landmark or take more joy in the nighttime valley of lights that is hypnotic 1977 Los Angeles- "The Nice Guys" challenges our expectations of a "thriller" and provides us something much more interesting and non derivative. Black's script is tone perfect, darkly humorous (i.e. a man on stilts receiving a very random bullet) and whip smart. Oh, and it does get around to solving the central mystery which is just another satisfactory tentacle to the film's pleasures.

A Bigger Splash

Luca Guadagnino's "A Bigger Splash" works best in the first two-thirds when it's unmoored from any real narrative drive, its camera careening and tracking and swiveling to follow four aimless, sensational and dance frenzied set of people in the Italian countryside. That two of the people were once lovers (Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes) and the other two include the new boyfriend (Mattias Schoenarts) and daughter (Dokata Johnson) of the ex-pat couple only heightens the slow burn tension. It's in the final act- when all the swirling aspects of jealousy and passive aggressiveness finally rear their heads- that surprisingly "A Bigger Splash" loses its spark. The image of a hidden restaurant carved into the side of a field mountain or the way Fiennes looks directly into the cameras as he preens and dances to The Rolling Stones "Emotional Rescue" give the film an embellished energy that can't be matched in its finale. Yet, like his previous film "I Am Love", Guadagnino's stylish creativity behind the camera reveal a talent who still has some great masterpiece inside him.

The Other Side ( Louisiana)

Italian Roberto Minervini seems to be one of the few international directors burrowing his foreign gaze on the marginal quarters of the U.S. His "Texas trilogy" of films (which includes the well respected film "Stop the Pounding Heart" which I haven't seen yet) will be highly circumspect from a native Texan such as myself, but his latest film "The Other Side" has me curious. Following a family of down-and-out grungy drug users, alcoholics and general roustabouts in the far reaches of the Louisiana bayou, it's a film that claims to be a 'documentary', but I seriously doubt its hybrid approach. Too many scenes feel compromised for dramatic effect... as if its one big bayou freak show put on for the red flashing lights on the camera. Even more dubious is the abrupt tangent the film embarks upon during its final twenty minutes, leaving the family behind and turning its focus on a group of military survivalists teaching each other how to deal with the impending apocalypse. There's plenty of drinking, shooting guns and Obama-swearing as "The Other Side" shifts towards a more radical approach of low-income American miserablism. As if the first half didn't hammer home the idea of suffocated lifestyle in this otherworldly part of the U.S. the second half doesn't provide much hope either. Maybe the whole thing is a Harmony Korine-like hoax.

The Lobster

A film I admire more than like. Review on Dallas Film Now

Belladonna of Sadness

Based on a mid ninteenth century about witchcraft and not released in this country for over 30 years, this "adult" cartoon weaves a heartbreaking and eye-popping tale. Full review on Dallas Film Now.