Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Last Few Films I've Seen, early 2018 edition

1. Princess Cyd (2017)- Had I made time for this in '17, it most certainly would have placed pretty high on my 'best of the year' list. Gentle, knowing and heartfelt tale that slinks along with intelligence in dealing with the fumbling emotions of a 16 year old girl (Jessie Pinnick, wonderful) spending a few weeks in Chicago with her aunt (Rebecca Spence). There's no huge moments, just perfectly realized characters finding their way through this certain time together. And the speech given by Spence to Cyd in the kitchen after a party feels ten times more real and moving than the speech given by Michael Stuhlbarg in "Call Me By Your Name"..... which earned him an Oscar nomination by the way.

2. Flower (2018)- can't say much. review upcoming at Dallas Film Now. Zoey Deutch is the real shit, though.

3. The Devil, Probably (1977)- Robert Bresson's second to last film, highly regarded by most and still so hard to see today. Dry is an understatement. Watching this group of social and environmentally active group of teens sleep with each other, fall in and out of love, question God, then ultimately question themselves is not without its blessings.... it just also feels very self-serving. I love the way Bresson remains entrenched on watching hands, bodies and objects more than the faces of his characters, though. I also see where Bertrand Bonello probably drew his inspirations for last year's "Nocturama".

4. Brawl In Cell Block 99 (2017). What I said about "Princess Cyd" applies here as well. I can't even recall this thing playing in Dallas last year. Maybe a midnight Alamo Drafthouse event? Regardless, it's a relentlessly hardcore exploration of the decisions made when pinned between a rock and a hard place. Vince Vaughn is amazing as the ex-boxer pinched for dealing drugs, then forced to sink lower and lower into the pits of confinement hell when given an ultimatum. It all becomes quite exploitative, but in the best way.

5. Mustang Island (2017)- One of the films I missed at last year's Dallas International Film Festival, which it went onto win the Texas Jury Prize from. Head scratching mistake if you ask me. Filmed in that deadpan, black and white early Jarmusch way, even its aesthetic screams precocious. It's story? Not much better. Macon Blair drags two buddies on a stalker-esque quest to find his recent ex-girlfriend at her beach home on the Texas coast. Of course, life lessons and new loves are earned. Everything in this effort has been done better and more sincerely.

6. Gideon of Scotland Yard (1958)- What a day for Chief Inspector Gideon (Jack Hawkins) of Scotland Yard, who has to deal with crooked cops, murder and a payroll robbery all in one day. Handled deftly (if not fairly pedantic) by Ford, the film is worth watching only for his handling of the stiff, tight-lipped manner in which most British film of the 50’s and 60’s were shrouded in.

7. Gator (1976)-  Burt Reynolds directed southern-action flick about an ex convict named, yes, Gator (Reynolds) enlisted by the feds to infiltrate and bring down old buddy Jerry Reed. The seven year old in me would have loved the opening 20 minutes of speed boat chases along the Louisiana bayou.

8. The Whispering Star (2014)- Either one likes Sion Sono's films or not. "Tokyo Tribe" anyone? The man is a true punk rocker in a long line of cinematic Japansese saboteurs. "The Whispering Star" is yet another deviation in his work. Quite slow, reflective and featuring one sequence of breathtaking visual acuity, the film tracks a robot delivering mail packages to people around various solar systems are her brief interactions with them. Though the worlds she ultimately lands on look like post apocalyptic wastelands of Earth (for good reason since Sono filmed in areas around the Fukushima power plant meltdown), the small beauty lies in their interactions that range from obscure to heartbreaking.

9. The 1517 To Paris (2018)- Very confused by this. I've liked Eastwood's efforts less and less since his masterpiece "Mystic River", and this one features the real life men who stopped a terrorist attack onboard a French train a few years back. The problem is, none of these guys can act and Eastwood chooses to begin with their friendship in grade school, which comes off just as tone-deaf and hackneyed as one would imagine. It doesn't get any better as it goes along, either.

10. Norwegian Wood (2009)- Based on acclaimed author Marukami's novel of the same name, Tran Ahn Hung brings the story of young star-crossed lovers to light with ethereal beauty and texture. Friends since childhood, the always splendid Rinko Kinkuchi and Kenichi Matsuyama react to the suicide of their best friend in different ways... ways that pull and push them together for years afterward. This is a film that reminded me of the early films of Julio Medem in the way life is messy and rude and beautiful each time we meet someone new. Not to mention, this features one FANTASTIC score by Jonny Greenwwod. Yes, even better than most of his P.T. Anderson films.

Friday, February 09, 2018

Cinema Obscura: Costa Gavras' "Shock Troops"

One of my favorite films of all time is Jean Pierre Melville's "Army of Shadows" (1969). A masterpiece of murky atmosphere grown even murkier by the way a hushed betrayal shatters the once-trusting bond between comrades and lovers, it's a film that distills all the madness, loyalty and violence of the French Resistance into a seamless potboiler thriller.

If that film is the austere entry in the genre of Resistance films, than Costa-Gavras' "Shock Troops" (produced just two years prior to Melville's film) is the 1980's Cannon Films meathead production of the same events. That backhanded praise aside, "Shock Troops" is no less an important statement about the travails of France during World War II than Melville's more prestigious effort. It just goes about things in a much broader (and more violent) way like an aggressive cousin to Melville's masterpiece.

Instead of focusing on the underground (yet highly visible) people of the urban French Resistance, "Shock Troops" follows the band of the Maquis, which were the groups of armed French Resistance fighters who gave German troops the most trouble during their occupation of France. Residing in the mountainous terrain around the state and moving in swiftly, killing hordes of soldiers, bombing railroad lines and government offices, the Maquis would then retreat to their hillsides safe zones which the German military controlled little insight or strategy around. It worked for awhile. One of these swift actions opens "Shock Troops" wherein the group (including Jean Paul Briarly, Charles Vanal and Bruno Cremer) stage a brash infiltration of a prison and free the group of French men inside. One of the men, played by Michel Piccoli, comes under scrutiny by the group as to whether he's a double agent or not. Not only does his presence complicate the trust and civility of the Maquis, but it clouds their judgement as German troops slowly begin to encircle their encampment in the hillsides.

Marked by several strong episodes of violence- including the finale as the group does battle with a Panzer tank that methodically zeroes in on their coordinates- "Shock Troops" is much more yell than whisper, which ultimately sets it apart from Melville's more interior rationalization of the French Resitance's ultimate 'fait de acompli'.

However, its also a film that gives amazing honor to the story of French Resistance through its unabashed glee in gunfire and explosions. Not all of the Resistance were satisfied in subtle cloak and dagger. They were armed, impatient and just as ready to crush their occupiers as their occupiers were zealous to crush them. As Costa Gavras' action-infused early film shows, there's certainly room for both comments on this time in history on the spectrum.

Friday, February 02, 2018

Moments of 2017

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 (19 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.

- Rooney Mara listening to “I Get Overwhelmed” by Dark Rooms on the headset her husband (Casey Affleck) carefully places over her head, and the way her eyes try to avoid showing the emotion welling up inside her.  “A Ghost Story”

- The casting of Peter Verby as a psychiatrist in Josh and Benny Sadie’s “Good Time”. He’s the type of real life person who would be at home in a Frederick Wiseman documentary.

- In “Call Me By Your Name”, the needle drop onto the Psychedelic Furs “Love My Way”…. the impetus to get Elio (Timothee Chalamat) onto the dance floor.

- A flash of lightning in the sky and a long, slow pan down the city landscape, eventually settling on an alleyway as a man (Denzel Washington) creeps in the shadows.  “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”

- A handheld shot of a man hustling through a crowded newsroom and laying a piece of paper on the desk of a copy editor, muttering “you’ve got ten minutes”…. and then pencil begins making marks on the paper. The distillation of the urgency and intelligence of Steven Spielberg’s “The Post”

- “What is this… a compatibility test? Like what some people do with Vonnegut or “The Big Lebowski?”  Zoe Kazan in “The Big Sick”

- In Charlie McDowell’s “The Discovery”, Will (Jason Segal) turning back to the woman (Rooney Mara) and child on the beach, beginning to say something when the film cuts to black and leaves us imagining what life comes next for him.

- A chimpanzee gently taking bananas from the silent hands of Jane Goodall.   “Jane”

- Really the whole performance of Willem Dafoe in “The Florida Project”, but especially the way his glances and body language slowly evolves as he begins and ends a conversation with a man talking to his group of kids, culminating with an outburst of anger that’s so real, startling, humane.

- A man (Alex Brendemuhl) watches his wife (Marion Cotillard) frantically run after an ambulance and the painfully altered reality that snowballs into damning focus for both.  “From the Land of the Moon”

- A potion being dipped into the water and lifeless fish gently rising to the top.  “The Lost City of Z”

- Fred Armisen’s appearance in “The Little Hours”. One scene is enough to send this film over the top as one of the year’s best comedies.

- In “BladeRunner 2049”, Two women- one real (Makenzie Davis) and one not (Ana de Armas)- intertwining and meshing their bodies. A spectacular piece of visual trickery made all the more poignant for the ways it exudes sensuality and dare I say ‘human’ emotion.

- “First They Killed My Father”. An explosion reflected in the black pupil of a little girl (Sareum Srey Moch) and the frightening confusion that begins.

- In “Columbus”, an explanation told from behind glass, gently withheld from us as Casey (Hayley Lu Richardson) describes her feelings to Jin (John Cho).

- An overhead shot of bullets ricocheting off a shield.   “Wonder Woman” and her battle for no man’s land.

- A girl, ambling slowly over to a hospital window and a young boy on the bed saying “I want to try and see to….” before his body rolls off the bed and thuds on the floor. Yorgis Lanthimos exploring the myths of the nuclear family and how easily they come undone in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”.

- The way Florence Pugh constantly squirms, writhes and bites her teeth in the background as the people around her try to ascertain the truth. Call it the ultimate bit of modernity infused into a Victorian domestic drama.  “Lady Macbeth”

- The fight in the fog and judging where the creatures are by the sound of the ‘whistle arrows’. “The Great Wall”

- The boorish way Kristen Stewart relents and tries on the harness dress after being urged on by the dresser… and then she seductively commands the screen for the next few minutes in wordless glances in the mirror at herself.  “Personal Shopper”

- The reaction of Nick Offerman to the line reading by Lee (Sam Elliot). Sci-fi schlock from the paper turned into poignant and real commentary.  “The Hero”

- Taylor Sheridan never met a row of speeding cars he didn’t like….. The swooping crane shot as four cars zoom across an Indian reservation in “Wind River”.

- In “The Lost City of Z”, several men jump overboard their small boat and the piranha attack that begins. That’s the reason they couldn’t catch fish in their nets.

- In Dee Rees’ “Mudbound”, the final voiceover from Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) and the moment he sees his son peer out from behind the doorway.

- “I’m gonna create some weird shit.”    “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”

- Partially obscured by a mesh screen, the thousand yard stare emitted by Connie (Robert Pattinson) from the backseat of a cop car.   “Good Time”

- Two men fighting, and then the muffled reverberating sound of a plate glass window from the inside as their bodies slap against it.  “Gold”

- The reserved, almost pathetic stare Lady Bird (Sairose Ronan) gives her mom (Laurie Metcalf) before retreating back into a dressing room and wondering if this is currently the best version of herself.  “Lady Bird”

- After spending an entire movie choking back her emotions, the way Jane Banner’s (Elizabeth Olsen)
body convulses into a wave of deep sorrow, lying on a hospital bed murmuring “she ran six miles”.  “Wind River”

- “Well, my story line’s disappearing. What. The. Fuck.” Alison Janney in “I, Tonya”

- The sunset in the sky behind Carey Mulligan as she showers for the first time in her exterior homemade bathroom.  “Mudbound”

- Casey (Hayley Lu Richardson) and her mad dance illuminated by the headlights of a parked car. “Columbus”

- With the camera poised inches from her face, the way Brea laments her pain is too much to endure on that given day and is she really invisible? Luckily, her documentary gives visibility to the invisible.  “Unrest”

- And the scene of the year: after finding “never cursed” sewn into the lining of a wedding dress, the cut to a fire-lit bedroom and Reynolds (Daniel Day Lewis) seeing his mother in the corner of the room and the short but heartbreaking confession he begins to mumble…. And we thought fathers were the problem in Paul Thomas Anderson’s universe.   “Phantom Thread”

Welcome 2018!