Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Le Bonnie and Clyde: Sam Fuller's "Thieves After Dark"

In a fairly benign and early scene in Sam Fuller's second-to-last film titled "Thieves After Dark", Isabelle (Veronique Jannot) is walking down a French street when a motorbike scoots by on her left side. Giving the cyclist a quick step into the street towards him before slyly pulling away and back into her straight-line stroll, her playful action causes the motorcyclist to swerve briefly. Neither one looks back at the other as they continue on their destined paths, and it's quite uncertain whether this is a scripted provocation or an improvised moment of playful aggression. Either way, its a moment that seemingly distills Fuller's cantankerous and gruff worldview of characters and their inner warfare.

Released in 1984 and financed/shot/released in France after an especially negative experience with his Hollywood-backed film "White Dog" in 1982, "Thieves After Dark" is a tough one to find. Never released on DVD and relegated to shoddy VHS copies (which is the source I finally tracked down), the film isn't one of Fuller's best, but it still retains glimmers of his prowess as a filmmaker reflecting the European sensibilities through an Americanized eye (as he did so ludicrously with the German financed "Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street" almost a decade earlier).

Hewing close to the crime genre, "Thieves After Dark" stars the aforementioned Jannot (Isabelle) and Bobbi di Cicco (Francois) as a couple who meet after Jannot violently turns on her welfare office worker. Observing the whole event and befriending her in the street afterwards, the two commiserate on their downtrodden status and hatch up a plan to rob their respective city officials as a sort of class struggle retribution. The cross-hairs for Francois becomes Tartuffe (deliciously played in a perverse performance by legendary French filmmaker Claude Chabrol). As the duo carry out their robberies, the police become involved after a murder derails their seemingly low-grade acts of burglary which causes Francois and Isabelle to hit the road and become fugitives. What seems like ordinary noir fodder (based on a novel by Olivier Beer), in the swerving vision of Fuller becomes a sweaty, high pitched variation on Bonnie and Clyde complete with a leering Chabrol condemned to crazily stitched together close-ups, a police chief who doesn't do much besides smoke and a penultimate scene that features Francois using a dead body to protect himself from gunshots as the young daughter of the dead man cries in the distance. Basically, its everything you'd expect from Fuller throwing caution to the wind and producing a French crime picture that, perhaps, he felt was a middle finger to the establishment of rules and order in Hollywood. And if that's not enough, watching Chabrol leer and hang from a six story window in order to spy on a woman shaving her legs in the apartment next door should cater to any fix one may have.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

The Current Cinema 17.10

Roman J. Israel, Esq.

In choosing to title itself after the main character, Dan Gilroy's lacerating study of an eroding man awash in a concrete jungle of legal jargon and human indifference, "Roman J. Israel, Esq." holds true to this singular vision by never straying too far from Denzel Washington's increasingly distracted view of himself. Highly reminiscent of wiry 70's films like John G. Avildsen's "Save the Tiger" or Robert Mulligan's "The Nickel Ride", Gilroy's intelligent script places a decent man at a moral crossroads and then slowly tightens the atmosphere around him. Diversions are explored- especially in the role and performance of activist lawyer Carmen Ejogo who forms a tentative relationship with Roman- but the film stays locked on the increasingly bad decisions made by Roman after his basic support system fails him. I've heard some call this a slow-burn fizzler, but for my money, this is exactly the type of perceptive, oft-forgotten film that doesn't quite get made anymore.

Lady Bird

I think the moment Greta Gerwig's lovingly detailed and emotionally attuned coming-of-age masterpiece "Lady Bird" completely wrecked me is the moment Saoirse Ronan finds a handful of crumpled papers in her luggage... placed their surprisingly by her father (Tracy Letts) to let her know the complicated and unsung emotions her mother (Laurie Metcalf) was never able to convey. The same type of thing happened to me once..... a letter of compassion, remorse and half-spoken truths written by my parents at a crucial age in my life. I imagine people will find other select moments within Gerwig's film that relate to their own confused, tumultuous experiences in life which is exactly why "Lady Bird" feels more like a communal memoir than a single film. There's so much tiny beauty and personal affectations riddled throughout "Lady Bird" that it becomes a monumental ode to a certain time in life where everything feels exaggerated and explosive. And its performances are so perfectly realized and its mood so assured that it speaks volumes about actress turned director Gerwig and her natural ability to coax something at once personal and universal. I could gush about this film for days.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

While Martin McDonagh's latest film keeps in step with his black-hearted, vicious characterizations, it also manages to pierce through with some insanely honest moments as it careens through an angry tale of inherent racism, police brutality, and the sneering reverberations of violence.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Current Cinema 17.9


The absolutely stunning recreation of New York City circa 1927 and 1977 alone would be enough to praise Todd Haynes' magical ode to childhood. But his latest film goes even deeper than that, opening a playful pandora's box of cosmic attachment between a young girl (Millicent Simmonds) and young boy (Oakes Fegely) both exploring the same dusty corners of the city (and its museums) fifty years apart. How they're connected (one story told in silent black and white and the other funky fluorescent) slowly weaves into focus with forceful magic realism, culminating in a finale that's both cathartic and tonally perfect with Brian Selznick's original source material. At its core, "Wonderstruck" is a kid's movie, but Haynes makes it feel vital and nostalgic at the same time, fit for both the ten year old and eighty year old. After all, its a film that says the past is on constant repeat like a record player skipping over and over. It's bold, moving and well, wonderful.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

For the first half of Greek provocateur Yorgis Lanthimos' "The Killing of a Sacred Deer", he ably casts an air of stilted, mannered weirdness that has one teetering on the edge of the disbelief. As the second half of the film's machinations come into focus, all of that tenseness slips away and it becomes another ugly, dark hearted entry in his universe of spiteful characters and emotional sacrifice. I just don't seem to be on this guy's wavelength.

The Florida Project

I'm not sure why, but I didn't equate the "project" in this title to mean a literal low-rent housing unit until about halfway through this film. Director Sean Baker is slowly becoming the the poet/puveyor of the disenfranchised and forgotten. While this film doesn't quite energize like "Starlet" or "Tangerine", it hits at something deeply rotten at the core of America in the trio of young Brooklyn Prince (the naive), trashy single mother Bria Vinaite (the lost) and hotel manager Willem DaFoe (the just getting by decent heart). None of these characters really expand into something greater than their characters, but the film's meandering authenticity and tiny moments of shattering heartbreak are more than enough to make amends.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Midnight Madness 2017, Part 3

The Old Dark House (1932)

Perhaps the inspiration for Tobe Hooper's extremely dysfunctional family in "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre", James Whale's 1932 classic is much more an uneasy chamber horror than an outright horror film. When a group of travelers become stranded at an old mansion, they must deal with ominous shadows, weird behavior, and a possibly deranged man locked up in the attic. It's all deliriously framed and performed, teetering on the edge of new found talkie staginess and a genuine penchant for unease. I'm just disappointed it took me this long to finally see it.

The Devil's Candy (2017)

Sean Byrnes' "The Devil's Candy" is so repetitive and exploitative, it becomes a complete bore. The scariest thing about it? Another slovenly, crazy dough-eyed performance by Pruitt Taylor Vince as a possessive child killer being haunted by the demons in his head. Yea, it's that boring.

The Neon Maniacs (1986)

And to end October viewing on a high note, we have Joseph Mangine's mid 80's latex horror "Neon Maniacs". Certainly belonging to the class of "so bad its good", the film is a slapdash comedy of errors whose latex covered monsters are the stuff of Garbage Pail Kids legend. Just enjoyable and fun.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Midnight Madness 2017, Part 2

The Devil Rides Out (1968)

As the introduction to this film on TCM explains, part of the reason it may not have been the big hit is because it had the unfortunate timing of being released after Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby". Both films deal with the circumference of fear when a young couple are slowly initiated into a satanic cult, What "The Devil Rides Out" has going for it (besides being a tremendous Hammer production) is its sincere attempt to unnerve AND entertain. Christopher Lee is the rare good guy fighting the powers of black magic and while it does contain some of the inherent kookiness of late 60's Hammer films, it more often than not hits its mark with simple scares and imaginary creatures.

Family Portraits (1993)

Essentially three short films (Cutting Moments, Home and Prologue) compiled into one bleak trilogy, Douglas Buck's ultra low budget efforts aren't "scary" so to speak, but they're disturbing at a basic level. Full of silent, seething rage between its characters and long stares into space, when the violence does occur, it's all the more shocking for how Buck frames and introduces it.... "Cutting Moments" especially. These are the types of stories where acts of violence play out, almost mutely, behind closed doors and when the acts are sprung into the world, the neighbor will say "I never saw it coming. They were such nice people". Buck's career is relatively short, but his work is well worth searching out.

The Bloodstained Shadow (1978)

Antonio Bido's lesser known giallo shoehorns so much plot into its first half, it threatens to implode on itself. Retarded children locked in attics.... a seance.... the ubiquitous black-gloved killer and a painting that may contain the key to the whole thing. It's needlessly convoluted which lessens its impact once the mystery winds to its conclusion. It is a giallo, after all and deserves a Halloween watch.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Midnight Madness 2017, part 1

Wishmaster (1997)

I can't believe I've never seen the "Wishmaster" series. Released in the late 90's- right smack dab in the middle of the years where friends and I would stay up all night, drinking to "Nightmare On Elm Street" and "Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man"- this schlock horror series should have been front and center. Alas, I watch it now, sans the swirling appeal of alcohol, and it's pretty bad. The idea of a 'djinn' has always intrigued me, but the transformation of such a nightmarish ideal into a wise-cracking white guy in a business suit (and prison jumpers for the sequel!) is far from the established terrifying history of said creature.

Ouija (2013)

A PG-13 rating and lackluster word of mouth always kept me from indulging in "Ouija". However, the PG-13 rating is perhaps the most interesting aspect of this film about a group of dope-headed teens who experiment with said evil contraption in order to find out what happened to their dead friend. Olivia Cook leads in an effective thriller, free of gore and normal-explicit-horror-film-stuff, relying on old fashioned jump scares and some expertly choreographed scenes to ring every amount of tension from its somewhat narrative. Still, this was a pleasant surprise. Now onto Mike Flanagan's part 2 which, with the same style of rating, hopefully entails some of the same pleasures.

Spontaneous Combustion (1990)

Tobe Hooper has his devotees, but his career is quite the schizophrenic one. By the time of "Spontaneous Combustion", I feel like he'd kind of lost his edge. Still entertaining for its woefully hectic performance by Brad Dourif and unique subject matter about nuclear age test-dummie parents giving birth to a man who can shoot fire and destroy others is very Stephen King-esque. There's not much schock here, but lots of schlock.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Current Cinema 17.8

Karl Marx City

Not only does Petra Epperlein's documentary shine a small light onto the cloistered history and political definitions of the East German Secret Police force (STASI) of the 70's and 80's, but it's also a highly personal exploration of her family's own hushed history during the same time. How these two spheres of time and place interact with each other is the central mystery. Intensely moving one second when Epperlein films her own family trying to come to terms with their father's mysterious suicide years ago, and coldly historical the next when interviewing ex STASI agents and how the compartmentalization of state always seemed to overrule their own better human judgement, "Karl Marx City" is the perfect example of utilizing a movable camera to peel back the layers.... no matter how painful they may be.


Go-for-broke cinema. No matter how one chooses to interpret Darren Aronofsky's parable of a tortured woman (Jennifer Lawrence) slowly going insane in a large old house when creatively-stifled husband (Javier Bardem) continually infringes on their partnership, "mother!" is daring and inciting. I choose to read it as a guttural feminist howl as every tiny recess of Lawrence's mind (including jealousy, paranoia, resentfulness and abandonment) is displayed- literally- onscreen. "mother!" represents a harrowing dissolution of family and self, eventually exploding into a carnal out-of-body trip through the violent dissonance of time where every mother's horror comes to inflict pain. Losing sons during war... losing daughters to carnivorous men.... and especially losing yourself in the midst of it all. One of the year's very best films.

American Assassin

Saw this on the same day as the 1997 horror movie "Wishmaster" and sad to report, that film is MUCH better than "American Assassin". I'm sick of the kick-ass mercenary fighting terrorist genre.

Plus, TONS of new reviews at Dallas Film Now including "Columbus", "Trophy", "Gook", "Rememory", "Gunshy" and more.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Recently Seen, Late Summer Leftover edition

1. The Glass Castle (2017) - Destin Daniel Cretton's "The Glass Castle" floored me on several levels. Emotionally, its genuine and heartfelt performances eliminated any hints of embeddd maudlin within Jeanette Walls' acclaimed memoir. Visually, its a carefully designed effort with a mise-en-scene firmly anchored to the mood and tempos of its characters. It's chaotic when the scene is chaotic.... patient when holding on the complex swell of emotions building (or being buried) within its faces... and subtly persuasive at mining the unspoken such as one shot of a young girl (Ella Anderson) framed at the far left side of a car's backseat, anxiously awaiting the reaction of her drunken father (Woody Harrelson) in the front. Adapting a cross cutting effect between time and place- focusing on the now adult Jeanette played to perfection by Brie Larson- could be disastrous in some films, yet here it works magnificently. "The Glass Castle" examines the unintentional bohemian fractures of family in a completely rewarding manner. And, anticipating the big climax between father and estranged daughter is prolonged, so when the moment does come, its impact is that much more powerful.

2. Peppermint Candy (1999)- With just five films (including greats like "Secret Sunshine" and "Green Fish"), South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang Dong has crafted a small but powerful body of work whose films simmer and eventually explode with devastating impact. "Peppermint Candy"- filmed in 1999 and released here in the States in 2001 where it premiered in the Film Society of Lincoln Center's prestigious New Directors/New Films venue that year- crafts the same powder keg sense of disillusionment. Beginning in 1999 with the suicide of an erratic and highly charged man (Kyoung-gu Sal), the film works backwards in time to reveal just why and how he came to this emotionally empty state of being. In the process of illuminating his mental state, from optimistic young love to crashing adult of failed marriages and poor business decisions, "Peppermint Candy" also surveys the entire country of South Korea along with him. This is searing, tough, and heartbreaking cinema of the highest order.

3. Crown Heights (2017) Justice gone horribly wrong. Full review at Dallas Film Now

4. They Were Expendable (1945)- Still working my way through all of John Ford's films. One of the few to touch on WWII directly, this one feels more fatalistic than anything else because it was made right after he himself returned from the war.

5. Salt and Fire (2016)- The great Werner Herzog directs a true dud. Something about environmental disasters, salt flats and blind Bolivian children.

6. Judge Fayard aka The Sheriff (1978)- France's answer to American workmanlike filmmakers such as Don Siegel and Michael Winner was Yves Boisset. This one is reeeaallly good about a determined judge (Patrick Deware) to bring down a shadow organization of ex-Algerian soldiers and money laundering CEO's. Lots of murders, paranoia and tricky French politics.

7. Whose Streets? (2017)- A timely documentary... a true anatomy of a riot that feels microcosmic of our current times. Thoughts at Dallas Film Now

8. Caged Heat (1974)- One of the few Jonathan Demme I hadn't seen. Women in prison cult classic that features more nuance than the usual fare. Also, I really love Crystin Sinclaire. Seems like she only did a few things in the 70's than fell off the cinematic radar.

9. The Sunshine Makers (2016)- Documentary about LSD producers in the late 60's. Kinda makes one want to boil up some LSD... until the prison sentences, hefty fines and forced hibernation to Canada.

10. 31 (2015)- I used to like Rob Zombie horror movies. "House of 1,000 Corpses" is all kinds of funky. This one.... terrible. If psychotic dwarf Nazi's are your bag, then have fun.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

On "Wind River"

With three efforts in a small amount of time ("Sicario", "Hell or High Water" and now "Wind River"), writer-director Taylor Sheridan is slowly bringing intelligence back to the action thriller. While stepping behind the camera for his sophomore film in "Wind River" and lending only his writing abilities to the other two, a clear pattern of sublime understanding for complex characters in a deadly, shifting and unrelenting environment. It's also becoming clear he loves to shade half of his films from a somewhat feminist point of view. In "Sicario", Emily Blunt was the audience's naive entrance into a world of conspiratorial government machismo and nocturnal desert drug deals. In "Wind River", part of the perspective falls on the shoulders of Las Vegas FBI field agent Elizabeth Olsen.... so out of her element that she first arrives to the Indian reservation whose name the film derives its title from wearing only a windbreaker and high heels. But this spare choice of clothing certainly doesn't define her attitude, intelligence or will when it comes to solving the crime laid at her feet. Instead, she (like Emily Blunt) becomes the beating heart of an affair that will see her constantly checking her emotions, acting with confidence and smarts when the time is right, then lamenting the sadness of the whole thing once its over. She gives yet another tremendous performance in a film that's stunning, shocking, brutal and eventually wise about the patterns of violence that continually rear its ugly head in a winter wasteland where the margins of a culture have been confined for a century.

The other half of "Wind River's" grand perspective falls on the stoic but dented Corey (Jeremy Renner), a Fish and Wildlife tracker suffering from his own personal family trauma when he stumbles across the dead body of a family friend. It's this body that summons Olsen's FBI Agent Jane Banner to the blustery Indian reservation, immediately coming into conflict with both the customs and procedures of the territory. Teaming up with Renner, the two embark on a quest to find the killer or killers.

Part of the film's poetic success- besides its highly attuned care to make every bullet and punch resound with a thunderous thud- are the quiet moments interspersed throughout. The conversations had throughout "Wind River" are often just as incisive as the action. A quiet moment between Renner and Olsen when he explains why he's doing what he's doing for her is one of the seminal moments in film so far this year. Likewise, the way Olsen bottles and chortles up her emotions for a good majority of the film- finally allowing them overtake her in the penultimate scene- is so moving because its timed perfectly to allow the breathless, swooning violence of the previous few scenes gently settle over her. Like Emily Blunt shaking and washing the blood out of her hair in "Sicario", its okay for women to cry in Sheridan's universe.... just not when the shit hits the fan or when other people are around to judge your frazzled self.

If, ultimately, most of the wisdom is dispensed from Renner's Corey and he enjoys some of the more applauded moments of last-minute entrances, "Wind River" remains a companion piece about two people from vastly different worldviews learning that the world can be a literal and figurative cold place. It's also an extremely sad film about loss. During the opening of the film, a girl's voice recites a poem. Only later do we learn its probably not the voice of the girl violently running through the snow, but the disconnected voice of another lost person. It's said it doesn't matter who the poem is written to, only who its from. With "Wind River", Sheridan has crafted a masterpiece with the same prevailing wisdom.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

The Current Cinema 17.7


As he's so masterly done since his debut feature almost twenty years ago, Christopher Nolan's penchant for the manipulation of time features prominently in his WWII feature, "Dunkirk". Literally suspending the rigors of war across three distinct and overlapping timelines (land, sea and air), it's a technical gambit that, in other hands, could be problematic. However, in Nolan's radical conceptualization, "Dunkirk" is essentially a silent film with sporadic bursts of dialogue that imposes the idea of time being the strictest enemy against his relatively anonymous cast of men desperately running away (and towards) the waning vestiges of combat. Refusing to carve out a central figure of empathy (although Tom Hardy's ace fighter pilot comes the closest thing to a hero the film has, including a momentous bow), "Dunkirk" is even more radical for the way it drops us in the midst of war and allows us to experience the waves of anger, desperation, intelligence, cowardice and loyalty that ebbs and flows over its young men facing a dark hour of the war. I find this more honest and revealing than so many other war films that impose a facade of heroism on its characters. In a war that spanned so many years and re-wrote both the internal and external geography of so many men, women and landscapes, "Dunkirk" feels all the more courageous.

Atomic Blonde

Suckered into this twisty, fluorescent thriller because of the trailers featuring a butt kicking Charlize Theron is just one of the many pleasures of David Leitch's "Atomic Blonde". Technically, the film is pretty spectacular. And if spy thrillers derived from a pulpy graphic novel featuring the skulduggery of Berlin's waning Cold war days, then its even better. Highly enjoyable.

A Ghost Story

As a David Lowery devotee- from his early experimental short films to the languid, country-fried fatal romanticism of his masterpiece "Ain't Them Bodies Saints"- I've willfully absorbed everything he's done. Yet, with his latest film "A Ghost Story", he leaves me wanting for the first time. When it focuses on the patient yearning between young couple Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, it soars. Watch as Mara listens to Dark Rooms "I Get Overwhelmed" and the way her eyes and face subtly hold back the ruptures of emotion that threaten to overtake her. When the film wanders into a ponderous meditation on time and the residual emotions of those left behind (i.e. the now infamous image of Casey Affleck wearing a bed sheet with holes for the eyes), it becomes woefully pretentious and strained. I understand the grand gestures filmmaker Lowery was reaching for, but it mostly left me cold.

First Kill

Low grade thriller with Bruce Willis. At the very least, it's one of the better things director Steven Miller has done. Full thoughts at Dallas Film Now

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Cinema Obscura: Demons (aka Shura)

Toshio Matsumoto's follow-up to his avant-garde-shot-across-the-bow "Funeral Parade of Roses" (1969) was this bleak, nocturnal samurai revenge epic titled "Demons". Released in 1971, "Demons" couldn't be more different than that debut feature. Where that earlier film seemed to exist as a fly-on-the-wall experiment- blending Godardian nouvelle vague and queer cinema theatrics into a student film like adrenaline rush- "Demons" is measured and even patient at times, wallowing in its inky black and white images as if Akira Kurosawa wanted to get very dark....literally and figuratively. But this patience is often shattered by shocking acts of violence. Always a fan of the spurting squib effect, Matsumoto and "Demons" uses the sword and its devastating impact on the human body to angry effect. Throat slashing and quick swipes to the chest are felt and experienced quite unlike any other samurai film. And then there's the twisting Shakespearean acts of deceit and revenge that ultimately take hold and push the film's unrepentant ronin Gengobei (Katsuo Nakamura) farther and farther into the darkness. "Demons" may be a sophomore film for a director who left behind only four feature titles, but it places Matsumoto in the hallowed echelon of Japanese New Wave directors who not only successfully regurgitated an emblematic moment of their nation's history, but managed to graft something exciting onto the shadows of the past as well.

And shadowy may be the best description for "Demons". Without a hint of daylight observed once during the entire film, "Demons" is a film whose characters exist in a netherworld or purgatory. Gengobei himself is a lost samurai, devoid of his rightful place serving his master and involved with a geisha named Koman (Yasuko Sanjo). When Gengobei comes into possession of money that will buy back his rightful place in the ronin contingency, Koman spins an elaborate charade to rob him along with her lover Sangoro (Juro Kara). Unwittingly setting in motion a series of violent confrontations, double-crosses and seething retribution, "Demons" obliges its dark aesthetic by pulling no punches in its savagery. Just witness what fate Matsumoto (and writer Nanboku Tsuruya whose play the film is based on) hold for even the most innocent of children.

Choosing to call itself "Demons" seems perfectly apt. The opening scene of the film observes a group of people running through the darkness carrying lanterns..... discombulated bodies swallowed up by the night as the only thing visible are the lanterns bobbing and weaving as they move. This eerie yet calculated image sets the tone for a film that refuses to give light to anyone. It's as if everyone involved has already sunk into the netherworld, becoming remorseless carbon copies of themselves. Demons. And like his transvestite youngsters in "Funeral Parade of Roses", they're living a life they've accepted on the margins of reality. It may not be pretty, but at least its true to them.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Current Cinema 17.6

Baby Driver

Billed as the best heist/getaway movie since.... well name any one from the past 25 years and that's the reception being given Edgar Wright's latest adenalized feature, "Baby Driver". It's also a musical, of sorts, combining an impressive swath of pop/rock/hip hop and classical tunes against a violent narrative of bank robbers and lonely getaway drivers in the concrete jungle of Atlanta. It's still not a very good movie, despite all those things just mentioned. Any pleasures to be gained from Wright's finger snap editing of image and musical notes is overwhelmingly drowned out by monotone characters, cheap diversions of the crime genre and a sadistically overwrought final third.

Endless Poetry

A singular vision from a singular filmmaker like Jodorowsky. Full review on Dallas Film Now.

The Little Hours

Written and directed by Jeff Baena, The Little Hours owes much to the comedy of Monty Python or the sanctimonious subversion of Luis Bunuel and Pasolini. Loosely based on a couple of stories from “The Decameron,” it doesn’t make much sense to try and make literal connections. The film is its own beast. Deftly paced and breathlessly acted by all involved (especially a late appearance by Fred Armisen that had me in stitches), it’s a film that understands its purpose of fully formed characters and well designed situational laughs.Full thoughts at Dallas Film Now.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

If I Programmed a Film Festival #5

Haven't done one of these in quite a while. The mood has struck.

The Itsamadmadblog Film Festival, July 2017 edition

Day 1

Opening Night Premier: "A Ghost Story" (2017), directed by Texas native David Lowery

Regional Filmmaking Feature: "Bomb City" (2017), directed by Jameson Brooks

The Auteur Series, Japanese Master edition featuring Yoshitaro Nomura: "Castle of Sand" (1974)

Midnight Madness feature: "Family Portraits" (2003), directed by Douglas Buck

Day 2

Quasi science fiction from Europe series: "Deathwatch" (1980), directed by Bertrand Tavernier

Premiers day:

"Wind River" (2017), directed by Taylor Sheridan

"GoodTime" (2017), directed by the Safdie Brothers

"You Were Never Really Here" (2017), directed by Lynn Ramsey

Regional Filmmaking feature: "A Teacher" (2013), directed by Hannah Fidell

The Auteur Series, Japanese Master edition featuring Yoshitaro Nomura: "Writthing Tongue" (1982)

Quasi science fiction from Europe series: "Until the End of the World" (1991), by Wim Wenders

Midnight Madness: "Inside" (2007), directed by Julian Maury and Alexandro Bustillo

Day 3

The Auteur Series, Japanese Master edition featuring Yoshitaro Nomura: "Village of 8 Gravestones"

"In the Fade" (2017), directed by Fatih Akin

Quasi science fiction from Europe series: "France, Inc" (1973), directed by Alain Corneau

The Auteur Series, Japanese Master edition featuring Yoshitaro Nomura: "The Incident" (1978)

Quasi science fiction from Europe series: "On the Silver Globe" (1988), restored edition directed by Andrzej Zulawski

"Call Me By Your Name" (2017), directed by Luca Guadagnino

"Radiance" (2017), directed by Naomi Kawase

Closing Night Film: 70 MM presentation of "Dunkirk" (2017) with Christopher Nolan in attendance

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Current Cinema 17.5

It Comes At Night

After the flairs of rough-hewn brilliance that occasionally bubbled to the surface in Trey Edward Shults' debut feature "Krisha", it shouldn't be a complete surprise his sophomore effort is so there as well. What is tantamount in "It Comes At Night" is the elongation of tension throughout the entire film, sustained by Shults' perfect accentuation of camera movement and lighting (which at times feels like its lit only by candlelight and lantern). Technical chops aside, "It Comes At Night" is also a pregnant, psychologically taut thriller that posits the idea of mankind's Armageddon as rendered through two sets of families in an isolated part of the country learning to trust, compromise and simply live together as an undefined sickness ravages the unlucky ones. Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Riley Keough, Christopher Abbott and Kelvin Harrison Jr. all give tremendous and tightly screwed performances. At one point towards the end, I found myself holding my breath as the consequences on screen tumble towards an inevitable outcome of confusion and violence. It's quite unlike any end-of-the-world scenario imagined by Hollywood in some time which makes it all the more joyful to behold.

Rough Night 

As an example of modern comedy- i.e. driven strictly by improvisational editing/acting and raunchy for the sake of raunchiness- Lucia Aniello's "Rough Night" is a typical sample. As anything more transcendental or original, it fails miserably. There are moments of spark, but overall its simply a gender twist on the inane, moronic bro comedies that have been invading the landscape since the wrath of Judd Apatow and Todd Phillips.

The Hero 

Full review at Dallas Film Now

Wonder Woman

As someone pretty uninformed on the dense histories and backstories of the DC (or hell ANY comic book franchise monikor), I can't speak to the relevancy to Patti Jenkins' "Wonder Woman" adaptation, but I can say it jostled and ravaged my senses quite unlike any recent comic book movie, made all the more urgent by its upheaval of the cultural and feminist blockades that tried to tear it down (a MAN buying a ticket to an all female screening than crying about reverse discrimination for one). The film does follow a formulaic narrative complete with expensive CGI battle at the end, but "Wonder Woman" packed more gusto and feeling into the moment leading up to that denouement better than most tentpole films. And wow the "Battle for No Man's Land" sequence is just thrilling stuff.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Monday, May 29, 2017

On "The Lost City of Z"

In the films of James Gray, nothing comes easy. Survival is often sought at a high price. Walloped in deep shadow.... or inky blacks of a midnight trainyard.... or the halcyon golden of a cramped New York City tenement... or especially in the oppressive and humid jungles of South America, his films are a litmus test for the human experience. In his latest film, "The Lost City of Z" (adapted from the book of the same name by David Grann), his survivalist instinct manifests itself in a literal uncharted adventure that sees British officer Col. Percy Fawcett braving the depths of the Amazonian jungle and getting lost both in body and spirit. Gorgeously framed and edited, impeccably acted and featuring a classicism whose power is often overwhelming, I find it hard to believe Gray can ever top himself after seeing one of his films. "The Immigrant" (2014), though it bombed theatrically and at festivals, was a masterpiece of fragility and trapped emotions in the visage of Marion Cotillard's single immigrant female status. I love that film with no bounds. And now, "The Lost City of Z" has made me love something even more rabidly.

As Col. Fawcett, Charlie Hunnam plays the explorer with a glacial muscularity, rarely belying the fear or apprehension he has with each successive visit to the Amazon jungle. Initially sent there to map out the terrain for a British geographical society, he begins to hear whispers of a lost magical city. He does see clues- pottery and elaborately carved statues of rocks- that are revealed to him like glimmers from God above before they're tragically taken away from him, either through natural causes or weak willed human stupidity. Three visits to the jungle in all, the final embarked upon with his growing son that has disastrous consequences Also along for most of the ride is his exacting aide, Henry Costin (played to perfection by a quiet, interior Robert Pattinson). Together, the duo represent explorers with intelligence, wit and careful consideration of their unknown surroundings.

Dotted with Rudyard Kipling or Robert Louis Stevenson anecdotes of native violence- one in which features a nasty spill into a piranha infest river- Gray overrides these random conflicts of culture with more fraternal moments, such as when one of the population the explorers meet drops a colored liquid into the water and fish slowly pop to the surface, allowing him to grab a few for supper. In seconds, the fish resume their underwater crawl, causing Costin to remark how amazing it is for these people to only take what they need and nothing more. It's these moments of gentle observation that feel so true and educational that sets "The Lost City of Z" apart from other films of its ilk. More low-key than any standard Hollywood production, its a film whose beauty is unassuming and it sneaks up on you.

Part of that sneaking beauty lies also in the performance of Sienna Miller as Fawcett's dutiful and understanding wife. Left at home with their kids... more years apart than together it seems.... her role as Nina stands out among the boy crew. Soft when necessary and strikingly hard when pressed, Gray chooses to end the film focusing on her. It's a brave move. After spending so much time with Fawcett and his compulsive trips to the jungle in search of a possibly imaginative place, Nina becomes just as lost and mentally forlorn as her husband. Wandering off into an imagined jungle of her own, Gray seems to be saying that the greatest sacrifice was not the adventure itself, but the person who allowed the adventurer to test the fate of an unforgiving environment at the expense of his loved ones. It's a sobering idea and yet another achingly perfect finale to a James Gray effort.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Current Cinema 17.4

Alien Covenant

In "Prometheus", director Ridley Scott began an ascension away from the original scare tactics of the "Alien Trilogy" and layered in origin ideas and the base for countless sequels to come. "Alien Covenant" continues this theory with some pretty batshit crazy acting from Michael Fassbender wrapped around some even crazier ideas of creationism, trans humanism and the floundering inability of space travelers to avoid danger. Essentially a haunted-house-pick-everyone-off slasher film (really, the franchise has been building towards this for 30 years, now its fully embraced it), "Alien Covenant" has its moments of near greatness but its ultimately a victim of that horror film trope of too many people we don't care about biting the dust. Add to that, quite frankly, the menace and freak show energy of the actual alien creature is reduced to a nimble CGI effect. If anything, the film shows us that a robot can be just as manipulative and evil as the very creature the franchise is named after. Maybe the next one installment will be called "David".


Francois Ozon's "Frantz" is a beguiling effort that despite its arbitrary switching from shimmering black and white to bursts of color (that I still can't figure out why) genuinely grows as it winds along. Suffering from the loss of their youngest son in WWI, a German family's only consolation is the dutiful presence of the son's fiance played by Paula Beer. When Frenchman Adrian (Pierre Niney) appears, he slowly insinuates himself into the family, telling them he was a friend of Frantz in Germany. Of course, nothing is as it seems. Battling the disapproving glances of the whole town as well as the harsh nationalism and broken pride of their German defeat with a Frenchman in their midst, "Frantz" is quite the slow burn but whose mood and second half perspective shift makes for a consistently surprising effort from Ozon.

Plus lots of new stuff at Dallas Film Now:

A Quiet Passion

Black Butterfly

The Wedding Plan

The Dinner

Saturday, May 06, 2017

70's Bonanza: France, Anonymous Society

Alain Corneua may be one of the more under appreciated French filmmakers of the last few decades. Working right up till his death in 2010 with the Kristin Scott Thomas/Ludivine Sagnier potboiler "Love Crime" (which spawned a fairly putrid DePalma remake in 2012 titled "Passion"), Corneau's real mean streak came in the mid to late 70's. Alongside the very bleak "Serie Noir" and hard nosed cop flick "Police Python 357", "France, Anonymous Society" was his feature film debut in 1974. In the spirit of all brash first attempts, Corneau runs rampant with idea, style and social commentary. The main idea, as such, is a complicated web of sardonic posturing between a local drug dealer (played to cool perfection by Michel Bouqet) and an omniscient drug corporation who seem to substitute for the government in political reach and power. One viewing may not be enough to fully comprehend exactly whose side each person resides with as the body toll mounts, kidnappings of silent little girls compounds the tensions and dead-end-bug-eyed junkies may eventually rule the world. And did I mention the whole thing takes place filtered through the immortal memory of the Bouqet character 100 years in the future? It seems all the violence did help discover some sort of immortal health injection, which creates even more of a loopy and dazed tension to the entire film. I'd say "France, Anonymous Society" is ripe for  "rediscovery and release", but seeing as how its never been released on home video outside a now long out of print 10 film boxset, it's simply due for "discovery". See this if you can. It's been one of my unmitigated joys of the early year so far.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Produced and Abandoned #20

More titles deserving a general DVD release.

1. Remember My Name (1978)- Altman proselyte Alan Rudolph's debut feature is said to be a nifty Hitchockian rift. I think I saw this on shoddy VHS back in the day when I became fascinated by some of Rudolph's other films, but not a single image of it remains in my head.

2. Seven Beauties (1975)- Most of Lina Wertmuller's once available films are now long out of print and going for exorbitant prices online. Some were in heavy rotation on Bravo (remember when they played movies) or Sundance back in the 90's and I caught snippets of them, but "Seven Beauties", often called her neglected masterpiece, is nowhere to be seen any longer.

3. Spoiled Children (1977)- So little of Bertrand Tavernier is available, especially his early output. This film about a director trying to write a screenplay and getting involved with all types of diversions in a rented apartment sounds interesting. With Tavernier's recent film about the history of cinema, hopefully someone will look at his back catalogue.

4. Denise Calls Up (1994)-  The independent filmmaking boom of the 90's did so much for the art. It gave us a new wave of talent that, like the French Nouvelle Vague, redefined our expectations of how and why movies get made. It also got a variety of sub-par stuff green lit by studios in hopes of catering to the its new-found audiences. "Denise Calls Up" may be that, but I remember it fondly when I caught it late at night on Sundance Channel back in the day.

5. Land and Freedom (1995)- There's more Ken Loach on home video then isn't, however, this 1995 film (which I feel is one of his best) still hasn't found a stable home on DVD outside of a British release in 2001.

6. Involuntary (2008)- After the recent smash hit of "Force Majeure", there was some interest in unearthing filmmaker Ruben Ostlund's previous work, but there's been no headway since. This 2008 film, which seems to be about a cross-section of people old and young in yet another stressful situation, cements Ostlund as a purveyor of the social climate and all its inadequacies. It sounds terrific.

7. The Last of England (1987)- A surprising number of Jarman films are available (on Netflix no less), but this 1987 film, considered to be his best by some, is not one of them. This film sounds extreme- the rounding up and shooting of innocent middle class English families- and its controversial use of image and sound make this one that any adventurous film lover should be able to view.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Current Cinema 17.3

The Zookeeper's Wife

Niki Caro's rendition of the bestselling book of the same name is heartbreaking fodder for the overtly sentimental story of a husband and wife in Poland during World War II, yet she manages to craft a film that ears its sniffles with a purposeful eye and ear for the small nuances of character and plot. It helps that Jessica Chastain is the wife in question, stoically doing her part to help hide Jews while her husband (an equally great Johan Heldenbergh) gets drawn into the trenches of the Polish Resistance. Basically, the film had me from the very beginning when Chastain helps a young elephant back to life. Those tender moments of human frailty trying to save lives- no matter the species- serves as a cold rebuttal to the oncoming Nazi plague of human obliteration.

Personal Shopper

Sometimes, hype ruins a film for me. Hearing about Assayas' latest "modern ghost story" since wowing people at Cannes almost a year ago, the landmines were firmly established. Thankfully, "Personal Shopper" exceeds expectations. Starring Kristen Stewart in a restless, frazzled performance that makes her tenuous connection to the afterlife that much more electric, Assayas spins his drama in so many directions that it could fail at any one of them, but doesn't. Part metaphysical ghost story, part murder-mystery and part travelogue, "Personal Shopper" ultimately becomes a pregnant examination of all these genres. It also has something magnificent to say about the transience of life. As the titular personal shopper, Assayas has cast Stewart as the anonymous presence who shops and supplies clothing for a famous celebrity in Paris. Stewart hates the job, and she's stuck emotionally as well, waiting for a sign from the afterlife from her recently deceased brother. Problem is, something else attaches itself to her while playing in the wold of shadows. "Personal Shopper" is startling, perplexing, mischievous and subtly chilling.


Is it sacrilege to say I like this Schwarzenegger over Terminator Schwarzenegger?  Full review on
Dallas Film Now.

After the Storm

The best word to describe the films of Hirokazu Koeeda would be generous. This is yet another. Full review on Dallas Film Now

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Cinema Obscura: La Prisionnaire (aka Woman In Chains)

Released in 1968 at the height of power pop and love, French director Henri Georges Clouzot's final film plays like he knows it'll be his last. Opening with a smorgasbord of subliminally placed bright colors amidst free-flowing jazzy editing , "La Prisionnaire" (or "Woman In Chains" as it was marginally released in the States) is a vibrant gasp effort from the aging (and ailing) filmmaker. Halted several times during production due to Clouzot's health, "Woman In Chains" ultimately feels like it should be recognized alongside Antonioni's "Blow Up" or "Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom" as a film that not only seems to understand the overall 'grooviness' of its day but one that subverts its inherent perversion and takes stilted joy in the ideas just lurking beneath the surface. And like both those films, "Woman In Chains" twists and turns the idea of watching and being looked at into a spry psychological game of who'll bluff and look away first. The fact that its Clouzot's first and only color film is also quite wonderful, and gets a lot of mileage from it.

As the free-spirited woman in an "open" relationship with her husband, Josee (a beautiful Elisabeth Wiener) falls under the spell of modern at dealer Stanislas (Laurent Terzieff). He introduces her to his hobby of photographing woman in bondage photos. An uneasy relationship grows between them. Both the aesthetic choices of bondage and modern art (here recreated as gaudy pieces of chandeliers, decadent wall paintings and psychotropic displays) gives Clouzot the opportunity to enter into a fun-house style of set design. More often than not, "Woman In Chains" feels like a late 60's performance piece documentary rather than a psychological thriller. Of course, this being a French film, l' amour fou develops between the couple and the film ambles towards a climax of self-loathing, repentance and one beautifully staged moment between two people on a rooftop with the Eiffel Tower careening in the background.

Gaining some recognition on the festival circuit a couple years back, "Woman In Chains" deserves a much wider re-release than its been given. While it may not be Clouzot's absolute best film (which still remains "Wages of Fear" and "Diabolique" simply for their genre-setting templates), "Woman In Chains" is a perverse, skilled and eye-popping rendition of how Clouzot saw the world in groovy 1968.

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Current Cinema 17.2

The Great Wall

I have a weakness for the late period Zhang Yimou films derided by most everyone else. While lukewarm on "Coming Home", I found his 2012 Christian Bale-missionary-stuck-in-war-torn-China "Flowers of War" an especially immersive and moving marvel. The same can be said for his latest project, "The Great Wall", again starring a Hollywood star (Matt Damon) who manages to save most of China. This time it's not marauding Japanese soldiers, but marauding creatures that bellow out from underneath a magical mountain every 60 years and do battle with humans. Yes, its preposterous, but its also an extravagant and visually stunning effort that features an unending number of imaginative moments calculated to shock and awe. Yimou's roving camera, his mise-en-scene within heavily crafted CGI backdrops and his fetishistic use of color are magnetic technical attributes that save the film from being yet another internationally produced Game of Thrones knock-off hoping to recoup its assets overseas... and then score whatever bonus it can with American audiences. It's spectacle, but its a glorious one.

A Cure For Wellness

Overblown in its length and overwrought in its trippy representation of madness and Lynchian weirdness, Gore Verbinski's "A Cure For Wellness" is a vacant ploy of commercialism masquerading as avant garde. And if the carefully composed images don't stir the feeling, then its narrative about a New York finance employee going to a mysterious Swiss sanitarium to bring back one of his firm's head honchos certainly doesn't move the needle either. As the employee chosen for this mind-bending mission, yet another misstep is Dane DeHaan, portraying our protagonist with about as much magnetism as the cold marble walls and floors ever present in the hospital. From top to bottom, "A Cure For Wellness" is an unpleasant, dour and alienating effort.

Bitter Harvest

Manages to wrap a tepid and forgettable love story around a moment in history that should be anything but tepid and forgettable.  Full review on Dallas Film Now.

The Salesman

Oscar winning Farhadi film again! One of the very best of the year so far. Review at Dallas Film Now.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Top 5 List: Films To Help You Deal With the Trump Administration (For better or worse)

5. Running Man- Stay with me on this one. A middle aged, white TV host with perfect white teeth and hair that's coiffed like a perfect toupee (Richard Dawson) and taking place in the years 2017-2019, forces convicts and under privileged people to fight for their lives in a sadistic televised game show. Poised somewhere after an economic collapse and a totalitarian police state, Paul Michael Glaser's futuristic 80's thriller was a staple for kids like me growing up. Looking at it now, in the shadow of the current administration, it feels more prescient than ever as the cultural, economic and idealistic divide is growing wider by the hour. Yes, at the time, it was simply an Arnold Schwarzenegger 'actioner' vehicle- based on a short story by Stephen King- but today (as with so many sci-fi efforts that deal with political events in the guise of imagination), it comes across as a chilling deconstruction of our dominating reality TV obsession and our President with the same empty smile and coiffed hair, just waiting for the chance to throw us all to the hungry wolves. Whether a television camera will track it all is yet to be determined. Stay tuned dear watchers.

4. A Face In the Crowd- While working my way through all of Elia Kazan's films last year, I'm not sure I was quite ready for this one. I'd heard about it, but watching it during the summer with the presidential primaries going on, it slowly gained a resonance that I don't think would have been there otherwise. About the film I wrote, ".....exhaustive from start to finish, Andy Griffith portrays a drunken bumpkin who ascends to stardom as a folk-singing cultural prohpet. Combining Peter Finch ala "Network" and pre-dating Beatlemania while mixing in some brutal stabs at political and media stalwarts, "A Face In the Crowd" has alot on its mind. It winds up being a pretty sorrowful reflection on hollow stardom". I've begun to re-think this assessment and see it as a sorrowful reflection on hate mongering and the empty spectacle of someone saying just what the insecure/insulated/insolent American wants to hear without a shred of decency or thought to back it up. So yes, this film is pretty damn topical right now. I wonder what Andy Griffith would have to say about things right now. Let's all sing a song about this.

3. Rashomon- I've said it once already, but stay with me on this one. Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece not only set the precedence for wonky timelines in narrative cinema, but its perspective and suggestive story is an endlessly fascinating example of art cinema at its highest. Depending on who is telling the story, heroes are recast as villains and victims become perpetrators. A single act is shattered into a million perspectives and ideas. I can't think of a better analogy to the Trump administration than this. It's not a travel ban, says one official. Trump himself tweets that its a "ban". Someone else says its not a ban. It's not a "Muslim" ban. So many people are talking out of seventeen sides of their mouths, becoming a clusterfuck of bent rhetoric and non-transparent ideology. Kurosawa's tale of a crime splintered looks quite baroque compared to the double speak of today. Watch this one again for an extremely jaded outlook on things. And it's one of Toshiro Mifune's best roles, which is saying alot for his long, illustrious career.

2. All the President's Men

Probably the most obvious film on this list, but also, perhaps, the most hopeful? That being the current administration will eventually step over an imaginary boundary that seems to be pushed further ahead every day and finally commit some sort of treasonous act that requires impeachment. And if that day comes, Alan Pakula's film (based on the brilliant book by reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein) serves as a tremendous reminder of the sweat and tears that goes into a journalistic investigation to get the facts sound and accurate.

1. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington- Frank Capra was Hollywood's most humanist director. He routinely found goodness in most people's actions, thoughts and reactions. In his classic "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington", an ordinary 'bumpkin' replaces a senator and comes against the forces of political skulduggery at its most venomous. He eventually "wins" by filibustering and shining a light on the improper actions of others around him. Oh, if only it were that easy. I doubt there ever will be a Mr. Smith in our present government, but if there is one, now would be the time for him to step up and whisk us all away into his Capra-esque fantasy and wipe clean the (now daily) mounting improprieties of the Trump Regime. Released in 1939, "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" was certainly attuned to the growing feelings of misrepresentation and dishonesty, but I think even Capra (and screenwriter Sidney Buchman and original story writer Lewis R. Foster) would shrink from the foulness of today. Ultimately, "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" is a triumph for the small man against a hulking, corrupt institution. Placed alongside the other nihilistic, sardonic and utterly prescient films on this list, I include Capra's film solely because of its illusion of decency and innocence. Lord knows we all can use some rays of hope nowadays, and this film provides it.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

The Damned: Christian Petzold's "Something To Remind Me"

In Christian Petzold's "Something To Remind Me" (2002), the air of fatalism hanging around the thing from the very beginning feels even more authoritative than any other in his long career. Tomas (Andre Hennick) sees a beautiful tall blonde Leyla (Nina Hoss) sharing his swimming pool and tries to start up a conversation. She ignores him but begins to slowly creep up into his life. She's there when his brother chats up a random girl having lunch at the same cafe. She eventually agrees to go out with him, leaving him breathlessly wondering where she went after a night of simple and unassuming exhausted sleep on his couch. The story abruptly shifts away from their relationship when Leyla begins working at a vaguely realized halfway house, again slowly but assuredly encroaching into the universe of one of the men housed there. Lurking, overweight and giving off the sense of a human teddy bear who often doesn't understand his own strength, Blum (Sven Pippig) can't help but notice Leyla's unsolicited flirtations. From there, "Something To Remind Me" crawls ever so carefully towards a climax that seems obvious and complex at the same time, firmly ensconced in the Petzold universe of Hitchcockian deception, social class divide and muted emotions. Not only is it a towering achievement of all these things, but further proof that Petzold is one of the finest directors working today.

Originally released on television in Germany, "Something To Remind Me" manages to elicit strong emotions of sexual persuasion and intense purpose without overtly showing anything... notably through the performance of Nina Hoss. Hiding so much behind her duplicitous gaze, the film gives off the feeling that everything is headed towards a shocking denouement by the way Petzold withholds certain information. And when that shocking finale does come- in typical Petzold fashion- it hits like a battering ram because the motives and decisions and consequences are so fraught with meaning and understanding. We accept why Blum does what he does. We feel for Tomas, a man who was thinking with something else on his body instead of his head, and we certainly can align with Leyla in her stoic, resolved plan. How all three come together is quite stunning.

"Something To Remind Me" marks the first collaboration between director Petzold and actress Hoss.... a partnership that will have lasted over 15 years now and five other terrific works, culminating with their masterpiece "Phoenix" (2015). It's like a match made in heaven as Petzold's camera seems to adore Hoss and the way she maneuvers around the frame and Hoss giving us just enough humanity to permeate from behind her typically icy facade. Like the best femme fatales, its easy to see why Tomas falls so hard for her and allows her to set her plan in motion. What isn't cookie cutter is the way Hoss makes us root for the femme fatale in serving justice to the injustices of the past.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Current Cinema 17.1

20th Century Women

Mike Mills' "20th Centruy Women" feels like an achingly real memoir about adolescence told not through the subject's eyes, but through the prism of the people around him whose voices and perspectives are given equal traction. At first, the film feels ragged and episodic, but it slowly gels into a magnificent ensemble full of life, fragility and casual wisdom. The beauty resides in its raggedness. Even though the women of the title (Annette Benning, Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning) are given moments of resplendence in the way they shuffle, dance, worry, react and interact with each other, Mills' screenplay and direction belie a gentle touch on everyone involved. It's also a film that understands the textures of an era in the way he flashes black and white photos to subliminally relay faces and images. And, just like a great novel, there's pain and reality in the way each person interjects their fate in voiceover, explaining future and past in one tumultuous gesture. It not only emphasizes the tangential nature of life, but breathes humanity in the present.

Patriot's Day

Part of my lukewarm appreciation for Peter Berg's "Patriot's Day" is for the film it could have been.... i.e. overtly sentimental and browbeating. It does go there for stretches, but for the most part, it remains a cool and measured procedural complete with investigative dead-ends and jurisdictional confrontations that lend a credibility. It does suffer some missteps, such as the seemingly amplified Watertown shootout that not only manages to flip exploding cars, but turn J.K. Simmons into a Rambo-style hero. Still, there's enough intelligent moments wedged in between the forced beginning and almost insufferable memorialized finale to make this worth it.

The Founder

A.k.a. The Great American Fast Food Heist. John Lee Hancock's "The Founder" continues Michael Keaton's recent surge of great roles, portraying Ray Kroc, the ultimate owner of the McDonald's fast food chain after fast-talking, hustling and out maneuvering the original owner brothers (Nick Offerman and John Caroll Lynch) and building an empire. There's very little sympathy and even less moralizing about Kroc here, which makes "The Founder" a dry, detached experience about the expansion of corporate America just when American families where coming out of their shells and exploring modernized attractions of the country. It's a good film, complete with the asshole standing at the top of the mountain with not only an empire, but a stolen wife (Linda Cardellini), unrepentant and basking in his own shadow. Too big to fail indeed.


I probably spend more time talking about "Jackie" because its the better film of the two, but Pablo Larrain's companion pieces deserve each other. Full review at Dallas Film Now.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Moments of 2016

Inspired by the now defunct Film Comment "Moments Out of Time" series and the great Roger Ebert's year end recap, this Moments of the Year list (18 years running now!) represents indelible moments of my film-going year. It can be a line of dialogue, a glance, a camera movement or a mood, but they're all wondrous examples of a filmmaker and audience connecting emotionally.

After ninety minutes of carnage, the way a man (Macon Blair) stumbles across a campsite and murmurs “We need the police.”   “Green Room”

An RV….a yellow raincoat flailing in the wind…. And the rush of music as a woman tries to catch up with a car on the road in “Tumbledown”

In Barry Jenkins‘ “Moonlight”, the sheer honesty and emotion on the face of Mahershala Ali as he silently answers a little boy’s questions at the dinner table

Emma Stone's audition scene in "La La Land"

“The Conjuring 2”. Hands slowly wrapping from around the edges of a painted picture, literally coming to life in the dark edges of the shadows. A scene just as spine tingling and eerie as the best Kiyoshi Kurosawa freak outs in films like “Pulse”

The first divergent strings of Scott Walker’s score to Brady Corbet’s weird and austere debut “The Childhood of a Leader” and a young boy, glimpsed from outside a window, wearing wings

Taika Waititi as a priest, eulogizing during a funeral about doors leading to other doors, and then his perfectly-timed aloofness when, after asking what is behind a second door, young Ricky (Julian Dennison) says “vegetables?”    “Hunt For the Wilderpeople”

The uncontrollable, girlish giggle let out by a nun as Mathilde (Lou de Laag) gently examines her pregnant belly, and then the way she quickly stifles the laugh as Mother Superior looks on in discontent.  A caveat of WWII history given grace and intelligence in Anne Fontaine’s “The Innocents”

In “Dheepan”, the elegant framing of two people in separate windows, surrounded by a sickly yellowish light- a little girl plays in the far corner of the frame while the woman (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) on the left pleads with her husband to return home

One of the more hypnotic transitions of the year in Gabriel Mascaro’s “Neon Bull” sees a man lovingly fitting a woman for her dress and head size, then the same woman bathed in red light as she dances a striptease wearing a horse-head

The way the camera patiently swings back and forth, POV from inside the wooden cage of a Jesuit priest (Andrew Garfield), as he's forced to watch peasants being drawn outside and killed in front of his eyes. "Silence"

“There looks like a man who could foreclose on a house…. I’m gonna go talk to him.” Jeff Bridges doing his best Jeff Bridges in “Hell or High Water”

Max Richter’s simply stunning music that bookends the more human aspects of Denis Villeneuve’s masterpiece “Arrival”

During a Day of the Dead celebration… and all the face masks that come with that…. An array of hands reaching up for Superman as he gently drops a little girl into their arms. One of the few poetic moments in an overtly stylized actioner. “Batman V. Superman”

“It’s easier in here without a penis. We don’t shank each other. We form self help groups.” The response by “Miss Sloane” (Jessica Chastain) when told she looks good in prison

A 50’s dance scene that transforms in front of young Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) as his band rehearses, momentarily washing away the sadness and disappointment of reality.  “Sing Street”

In Naomi Kawase’s delicate and aching “Sweet Bean”, the way Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase) quietly breaks down as he eats with Tokue, followed by the way she gently consoles him by saying “one should smile when they eat something delicious.”

In the middle of a spasmic dance to The Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue”, Harry (Ralph Fiennes) looks and dances straight into the camera.  “A Bigger Splash”

A stray bullet. A random man on stilts at a wild, orgiastic party being hit by said stray bullet. Just one of the many shocking and seriously funny detours in Shane Black’s wonderful sun noir “The Nice Guys”

In Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land”, after a long walk together, Sebastian (Gosling) returns to his car that was parked right in front of the valet all along

The way  Kevin (Andre Holland) licks his fingers and moves seductively around a kitchen, fixing a late night dinner for his friend.  “Moonlight”

In Chad Hartigan’s “Morris From America”, the gentle exterior pan around a moving car’s windows as Craig Robinson recounts, to his son (Markees Chritsmas) the time he traveled to Germany to meet up with his girlfriend. Life lessons expounded into a moving relationship between son and father, encompassing forgiveness and understanding

“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot”.  A night time raid set to the tune of Harry Nilsson

In the foreground, a man’s face in clear focus as he throws out questions… and in the background, out of focus, a little girl transforms into something hideous. Just one of the many unsettling tricks in “The Conjuring 2” and its nightmarish palette

In “Christine”, the way Rebecca Hall offhandedly remarks that the vase of flowers sitting on their news desk is fake.  Sometimes it takes a rare and sensitive person to notice the artificiality in the world and then a struggle to ignore it. It won't happen, but Rebecca Hall deserves Oscar support

Those final 4-5 minutes in “The Childhood of a Leader”. Words can’t do justice to the malestrom of images and music as a ‘leader’ comes into his own. God help us all

The final glance between  Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) and the way they nod at each other, their eyes encompassing so much forgiveness, regret, warmth and, finally, acceptance.  “La La Land”

The way the camera suddenly swings upward and a group of bodies are walking on the ceiling before our perspective is changed, I can’t imagine a better way to transcribe man’s first entrance into an alien spaceship than that in “Arrival”

"Indignation". The almost doll-like eyes growing a bit dimmer as Olivia (Sarah Gadon) quickly covers up the scars on her wrists.

While asking about his two children, the way Fahim (Christopher Abbot) remarks that his boy is “getting strong.” When asked about his little girl, he comments “she’s stronger”.   “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot”

The long sequence as Tokue (Kirin Kiki) and Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase) make their first batch of bean paste together.    “Sweet Bean”

One woman hangs by a rope from a tree while the other screams in jealousy, all captured in a serene long shot. "The Handmaiden"

That nervy opening credit sequence in Tom Ford's "Nocturnal Animals". From that moment on, expect nothing and suspect everything

In "Les Cowboys", the look between Kid (Finnegan Oldfield) and his sister in a small grocery store. No words are exchanged, but its crystal clear that this tale is far more devastating than its unexpected narrative turns suggest

Monday, January 09, 2017

Faves of 2016

15. 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 "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. Even though it largely failed 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.

14. Loving

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.

13. Two Trains Runnin'

Integral in crafting a masterful documentary is timing. And timing is something Sam Pollard's film has in abundance. It unites a fateful day in Mississippi of June 1964 in which two individual strands of outsiders descended upon the Deep South for wildly different purposes. One for the pure joy of music and the other, hopeful for real political change. "Two Trains Runnin" is majestically told, edited and visualized, including some nifty animation sequences that flesh out a story that would've normally been recounted and not seen. It's a film of immense resonance in our current climate of social and racial unrest. And while it features quiet breaks in the narrative to spotlight blues music legends such as Buddy Guy, Gary Clark Jr and Lucinda Williams performing blues staples, these excerpts not only emphasize the film's overriding theme of hope, but it marries the idea that the soaring power of music is harmonious with the indefatigable power of people to exact change. We need all of that in abundance now. 

12. Les Cowboys

Thomas Bidegain's re-imagining of John Ford's "The Searchers"- updated to reflect the post 911 uncertainties of Muslim and European relationships- hurdles through so many unexpected narrative permutations that its sleek 100 minute running time feels almost epic. It's an obsessive journey over decades (first from the father, eventually and reluctantly absorbed by the son) whose ending is so perfectly devastating that it dares to rival Ford's very patriotic and myopic view as something less substantial. That's certainly high praise indeed.

11. 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. 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. Like Andersen did with his best film, "Los Angeles Plays Itself" (2003), "The Thoughts That Once We Had" encompasses a filmmaker obsessed with film itself and how it often becomes ingrained in our subconscious and manifests itself in every day life.

10. Sweet Bean

Following up her heartbreaking and quiet adolescent drama "Still the Water", Naomi Kawase latest film, "Sweet Bean", is a delicate meditation on the simple connections that develop between three people in varying degrees of ages dealing with regret, loss and pivotal absent figures. It almost becomes too overwhelming towards the end as Kawase gently prods our affections and sympathies, creating a deeply moving exercise on the damning reverberations of past and present isolationism.  

9. Indignation

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. Of all the films on this list, this is the one I'm most curious to watch again, studying how it's ultimate impact will reveal itself and deepen on repeat viewings.

8. 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.

7. Valley of Love

The first two-thirds of Guillaume Nicloux's "Valley of Love" concerns itself with the discordant nature of a middle-aged couple (Gerard Depardieu and woman of the year Isabelle Huppert), 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. This is entrancing, evocative cinema of the highest order.

6. O.J. Made In America

For an eight hour documentary, I simply could not wait to watch each portion. That's the inherent pull of director Ezra Edelman's look at sports star-turned-media-circus person O.J. Simpson. Traversing his entire life, from low-income roots to whitewashed African-American personality cloistered in his Brentwood home and facing murder charges in the 'crime of the century', "O.J. Made In America" is a mammoth achievement. Not only does it easily transcend its ESPN TV documentary roots, but it becomes a stirring, clear-eyed expose of Los Angeles, race relations, politics and American-fairy-tale-gone-horribly-wrong. I'd be tempted to say this history lesson wrapped up in a true crime enigma should be shown in classrooms for years to come.

5. 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 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.

4. 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.

3. Silence

In Martin Scorsese's other curious exploration of religion, "The Last Temptation of Christ", there's a moment when Willem DaFoe as Jesus blurts out, ".....and they want to push me over the edge...." before the camera abruptly shifts its perspective and hinges on the side of a cliff. It's a shocking moment every time I watch that film. Well, here in "Silence", that same expressiveness behind the camera infuses every frame and simple camera move, extolling grace, doubt, conjecture and violence with each tilt or pan. Not only is "Silence" a devastating and austere piece of history observed through minuscule eyes, but the questions it stirred in me about faith, acceptance and personal resignation only come from true masters of cinema, using the medium to poke and prod for their own evolving belief system.  

2. La La land

Bracingly raw like early Scorsese, technically acute as P.T. Anderson and playfully movie-drunk as Jean Luc Godard, Damien Chazelle's technicolor musical-drama "La La Land" is a magnificent echo of the past while burrowing its own modern hooks into your head and heart. If Emme Stone hasn't already won a deserving spot in movie halls for decades to come, this is her grand entrance. From start to finish, this film slides, sweeps and ultimately breaks the emotions both through song and narrative drive as two young Hollywood-ites fall in and out of love while chasing their dreams. On any other given day, this film could be in the number one spot on this list. It's a levitational experience of cinema, deepened and expanded by the harsh realities of our current climate where song and dance really needs to overpower everything else. 

1. Arrival

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 the most magisterial films of the year.