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.