Sunday, November 28, 2021

Conspiracy Theories: "City of Lies" and It's Unloved Status

Unceremoniously dumped into barely recovered pandemic-era theaters earlier this year after almost 28 months on the shelf, Brad Furman's "City of Lies" probably didn't deserve that fate. It's also a film probably not bolstered by the presence of a socially embattled Johnny Depp. However, despite all these pejorative factors, "City of Lies" is a smart and involving police procedural that swims in conspiracy theories and haunted Los Angeles megalopolis intrigue. Oh, and it features a host of good performances, led mostly by a restrained Depp as the embodiment of real life L.A. detective Russell Poole who sacrificed his career and livelihood trying to legitimately solve the infamous 1997 murder of Christopher Wallace, aka Biggie Smalls. 

Now the stuff of urban legend and jailhouse rumors, "City of Lies" is based on the book by Randall Sullivan, which purports that the infighting between rival rap labels resulted in the death of both Smalls and singer Tupac Shakur weeks before. And not only was this a war waged between high profile music industry types, but aided and abetted by the Los Angeles police department itself. All of this is vaguely digestible since the specter of malice and distrust that hung over L.A. law enforcement was so fresh in the minds of the world, from the Rodney King case to the Rampart division corruption that came to light just six months after the Smalls/Tupac murder.

I say it's easily digestible in theory, but what Furman does in "City of Lies" (alongside a script by also actor Christian Contreras) is blend all of this professional treason and moral distrust into 110 minutes of highly entertaining drama.

Invoking a temporal structure that begins with the now retired Poole virtually living in the evidential waste of his investigation 15 years later, his babbling constructs of truth are given some legitimacy when a journalist (Forrest Whitaker) doing an anniversary piece on Biggie Smalls comes calling. Given an ear to rehash his story, "City of Lies" bounces back and forth in time as Poole explains the many routes and byways his investigation took, and the frustration of always hitting a departmental roadblock when his clues led him too close to the actual truth.

As Poole, Depp gives a fine turn. From the moment he walks into a fresh crime scene where an undercover cop (a particularly scuzzy Shea Whigham) has shot and killed another undercover cop (Amin Joseph), the confidence and intelligence is on display. Naturally, the iconic template for any great Los Angeles crime film is the glacial sauntering of Al Pacino in "Heat" (1995), and while Depp doesn't quite reach that plateau here, the sense the film gives his curiosity is striking..... from the way he takes methodical control of the scene to the way he carefully steps and curls his body to take his own Polaroid shot of the murder scene interior without disturbing anything around him. It's the kind of tactical care rarely seen in films today where the process of solving murder is nothing more than visceral browbeating.

From that innocuous event, Poole is drawn into a netherworld of corruption that will see him taking down crooked cops, bank robbers, and eventually destroying himself in the jagged process of law enforcement. Also good is Whitaker as the innocent reporter who thinks he has a grasp on the events of late 1997, but finds himself in way deeper (and more emotionally connected) than expected. His role is the classic avatar for the audience, absorbing the abundance of information as Poole tells it in episodic fashion each time they meet. In fact, if anything's problematic for "City of Lies", it's the amount of story it has to tell. Bleeding into the Rampart corruption and the host of ideas around who actually killed Smalls threatens to sink the film in its second half, and the event that brought Poole into the picture at the beginning (i.e. the cop on cop road rage) only come into clear focus if one has done research on these stories to begin with. For the first time in a while, I hesitantly feel a limited series (yes, I know, be damned Netflix) would be the template to give this story an exhaustive treatment.

Regardless, what "City of Lies" does have to reveal is continually fascinating and peppered with the perfect casting. Hey, look the great Peter Greene! And even if the truths Poole sought will probably never be discovered, the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, tangential whispers, and has-been ideas is probably more interesting than closure anyhow. As the films ensures to point out in a remarkably tender scene between Depp and Biggie Smalls' real producer/actress mother Voletta, we realize the relationship between the actual Poole (who died in 2015 of a heart attack while visiting the L.A. police department about new leads) and those who are now cultural ghosts extends far beyond recognition and attention. He wants the truth and she understands that. I can't think of a more altruistic path for a good police procedural than that. 

Monday, November 01, 2021

Freaks and Geeks: Nightmare Alley (1947)

Thinking back several days after absorbing Edmund Goulding's bleak psychological thriller "Nightmare Alley", I don't recall a single ray of sunlight penetrating its mass. Even the opening carnival scene- typically a sun drenched affair for families to frolic and glare at the attractions- takes place at night. And this is where we first meet carny Stan (Tyrone Power) and his single minded intention to ascend to the very top of society. First, we think it'll be with the charismatic and clairvoyant Zeena (Joan Blondell). Then his attraction turns to perky Molly (a wonderful Coleen Gray, and pretty much the central person we root for to crawl out with her sanity). But no matter who he chooses, the darkness of night has already penetrated our souls and we seem to understand that no one will get out of the carnival alive.

Based on a novel by William Lindsey Gresham (whose real life seemed like a mirror to the hard drinking and pessimistic outlook of many of the film's characters), "Nightmare Alley" seems to fit in a variety of genres. It's been called horror (as one scene towards the end certainly has "The Innocents" vibes), film noir (where it seems to be slotted most of the time) and postwar thriller since its release in 1947. For my money, its unclassifiable because it handles so many of its twists and turns with mastery. 

After certain events have temporarily but successfully removed Stan from the humdrum of carnival maintenance to his own stage in a respectable town, the real mind screw begins. Favored by wealthy clients in the club who believe "Stanton the Great" actually can read minds, he comes in contact with psychologist Lilith (Helen Walker) and the deception grows deeper.The duo hatch a scheme that's more complex than a carnival scam, but whose consequences have even deeper tragic consequences. Just because there aren't tents and barkers angling for one's money, the deception is just as real. Everyone has an ulterior motive and everyone is playing some sort of game. "Nightmare Alley" juggles all this psychological warfare with precision.

Since sleight of mind is the central deceit in the film, "Nightmare Alley" seems like the perfect vehicle for a modern day re-imagining, which is exactly what we'll get in a couple of months, courtesy of even more Big Time Stars. Hopefully, it will maintain the original film's spirit of ironic sympathy and hardened immoralism that makes it such an amazing feat.

Monday, October 18, 2021

The Current Cinema 21.3


I'm a sucker for dance sequences in movies, where narrative stops and the only thing that exists is the inebriated will of a filmmaker to melt body and sound in a swirl of motion. Julia Ducournau's "Titane" has 2 or 3 of them. But beyond the stop downs of muscular/shirtless firemen dancing to Future Islands or a woman throbbing to the techno beat on the hood of a hot rod, "Titane" is also immensely buried in the pathos of the people doing the dancing. Toggling between a slasher film, then a psychological thriller and ending on something akin to body horror, she never loses touch with any of the touch points as to why something is happening. As Alexia- the hugely troubled and on the run young woman who may be carrying the demon spawn of a car- Agathe Rouselle is tremendous, speaking with her eye and pummeled body as she forms a perverse but tender relationship with Vincent (Vincent Lindon), also reeling from recent trauma. Ducournau holds it all together with a clear vision, and although the film is described as extreme, "Titane" ultimately tackles some of the most simplest emotions of all- inclusion, forgiveness and acceptance- and in its own sublime way makes everything else the extreme.

Cry Macho 

There's not much complexity in the late career films of director Eastwood. Even the ones I love, such as "Mystic River" (2003) and "Million Dollar Baby" (2004), handle their themes with a sledgehammer rather than a fine pen. It's beginning to work against Eastwood, as his latest about an ex-rodeo rider sent into Mexico to retrieve the young son (Eduardo Minett) of his boss (Dwight Yoakem), follows the same beats as his other less-than-stellar efforts about hard edged men seeking forgiveness in a world that seems to have passed them by. Like the worst tangents of "The Mule", Eastwood can't resist the awkward progression of a possible love interest in restaurant owner Natalia Traven. Borne from either tone deaf solipsism or stubborn vanity, "Cry Macho" does the least to preserve the grit-toothed cinematic visage of Eastwood the Great through terrible choices, risible acting and a narrative that lurches along with pretend subtlety.

Bergman Island

What begins as a film about the looming spectres of cinema soon turns heartbreaking and reflective as writer-director Mia Hansen-Love explores the relationship between a filmmaking couple (Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth) and their venture to a Swedish island. In what feels like her most autobiographical film to date in a career of achingly prescient explorations of first loves, family, and childbirth, "Bergman Island" also could be read like a rebuke to everything, charting instead how she overthrew her past and became her own person. It's a film full of small moments (what exactly is so amusing to Krieps in the first half, giggling but never explaining) that shifts between layers of meta-fiction with astounding grace. This fiction is the second half where Krieps' idealized script becomes real and embodied by Mia Wasikowska and Anders Danielsen Lie as their stories fold into reality with delicacy. How much of the film overlays Hansen-Love's own entanglements is debatable, but the fact that "Bergman Island" dangles these threads with a keen sense of character and place is telling. It's a film that feels personal and lived-in and all the more beguiling for the things it doesn't say.





Lots of new reviews available at Dallas Film Now including Amazon horror films, Dallas VideoFest roundups and films "The Rescue" and "I'm Your Man".



Saturday, October 02, 2021

The Current Cinema 21.2

The Card Counter 


Playing as mannered as one would expect from a Paul Schrader film about self-imposed loneliness and twisted redemption, "The Card Counter" hooked me from the beginning when it explains how counting cards works, and then spends the rest of the film with a gambler named William Tell (Oscar Issac) who fails to accurately read all the cards being turned up in front of him. When Tell meets a young man (Tye Sheridan in a role equally as elusive) bent on vengeance, he takes him under his wing. Along with an entrepreneur (Tiffany Haddish) who bankrolls Tell's entrance in the World Series of Poker, the trio form a kindred family against the nocturnal backdrop of casinos and gambling halls across the country. Rarely stepping into the real world where people have families, go to work or simply enjoy themselves, Schrader has crafted a hermetic universe just as enthralling as that of New York's Times Square in the 70's or the cloistered, hushed reverences of upstate east coast churches that have dotted his previous masterworks. Everything about this film has a purpose.... even the way Isaac tidies up his room with sheets or the way Haddish holds her various drinks. It all builds to a quietly devastating finale that, in typical Schrader fashion, denies the audience flash and gore of a climactic standoff, choosing instead to hold on fingers as they touch glass. Always the Bresson devotee, "The Card Counter" does right by him.

Blue Bayou

Director Justin Chon's films trade in high sentimentality. "Blue Bayou" is no exception, but his instincts as a filmmaker and the folds of humanity built into the margins of his sometimes stereotypical characters are what makes his films feel earnest but not forced. I loved his previous film, "Ms. Purple" for the way it etched survival and poignancy into the troubles of an immigrant family just trying to survive in the California wasteland. "Blue Bayou" shifts its perspective to the humidity of the Gulf Coast, but survival is still the goal as adopted Korean Antonio (Chon himself) tries to keep his head above water (literally) by outlasting his past and creating a thriving future for his family (played perfectly by Alicia Vikander and newcomer Sydney Kowalski). Pushing headlong into overtly melodramatic territory as deportation and echoes of his criminal past loom, "Blue Bayou" expertly weaves together a secondary narrative thread as Antonio meets a sickly Vietnamese woman (Linh Dam Pham) and forms a relationship that not only feels authentic, but gives its finale an extra amount of oomph. I've long been a fan of Chon's work since being introduced to "Gook" at the 2017 Dallas International Film Festival. "Blue Bayou" may be his most widely distributed work so far, but the heart-on-his-sleeves urgency of his preoccupation with the immigrant experience has never felt quite so electric.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

An Appreciation: Anthony Mann

Dr. Broadway (1942) ** - Mann's debut film is more of an hour long comedy that doesn't quite hit all its marks as a lawyer has a very busy couple of days, saving a woman from jumping off a ledge and then dealing with local crooks. It all feels more like a pilot for zany adventures of said Dr. Broadway than a fully realized effort.

Strangers In the Night (1944) *** - Mostly interesting for the way it blends soap opera dramatics with glimmers of small town noir as a war veteran comes home expecting to meet his beautiful pen pal, then getting wrapped up in a mysterious relationship with the girl's scheming mother. It never quite breaks the way one expects which is refreshing.

The Great Flamarion (1945)  ***1/2 - Erich von Stroheim is characteristically stiff as the titular showbiz whiz caught up in a black-hearted tale of female duplicity and murder. Hiding nothing from the viewer and taking place as a deathbed confession, "The Great Flamarion" is ultimately a terrific little gem hiding under its abysmal title.

Two 'o' Clock Courage (1945) **1/2 - Amnesiac thriller/comedy in which a cabgirl (Ann Rutherford) helps a confused man (Tom Conway) piece together the fuzzy remnants of his evening. Far less concerned with any reality around the mystery and aiming for broad laughs and generic stereotypes, it lands awkwardly due to its bipolar tone.

Sing Your Way Home (1945) ** - The musical numbers aren't stagey and the characters are even less interesting as a New York journalist is assigned to chaperon a musical troupe back across the Atlantic after the end of WW2. It all feels like a Mann-for-hire job.

Strange Impersonation (1946) *** - It hustles through a variety of genres pretty early on- from doppelganger crime thriller to body horror, even managing to work in romance!- and shows the nimbleness Mann controls as each furtive plot twist falls into the next. Entertaining and dare I say an influence on later psychological thrillers like "Eyes Without a Face" and "The Face of Another".

The Bamboo Blonde (1946) ** - Another musical/romance hybrid, this one just as lackluster as "Sing Your Way Home" for the way it tries to place a rainbow temperament over everything from the trials of war to the oscillations of love. A WW2 pilot (Ralph Edwards) meets cute a singer (Frances Langford) and then inadvertently has her image painted on his bomber plane, which becomes a good luck charm and earns them national acclaim. More distressing than the facets of war, however, is the war for the pilot's heart that erupts once back at home between the cabaret singer and his gold-digging fiancee. I'm sure this was meant as a charming balm for the post-war era, but it just comes off hollow.

Desperate (1947) *** - With tinges of noir creeping into his work for the past couple of years, Mann goes full out with "Desperate", including expressionistic and menacing close ups and the omniscient swinging overhead lamp scene for good measure. Visuals aside, the narrative isn't as compelling when innocent truck driver Steve Brodie becomes embroiled in a robbery and manhunt that causes him and his newlywed (Audrey Long) to make some dubious choices along the way. Raymond Burr is excellent is as the pursuing gangster, but overall, the film is much more interesting for its immersion in the young noir aesthetic.

Railroaded (1947) ** - Mann's predilection for an innocent rube to get drawn into criminal clutches appears here again as a young man (Steve Ryan) gets framed for a robbery and cop murder. Unlike his previous efforts, "Railroaded" isn't successful because of the completely unbelievable segues it follows as the man's sister (Sheila Ryan) inserts herself into the investigation.

T-Men (1947) ***1/2 - After a series of fairly lightweight crime thrillers (from "Strange Impersonation" to the previous year's "Railroaded"), "T-Men" is something altogether more proficient. It also signals a shift in his career to the more grimy noirs that would instill him as a master of the genre. This film is lean- oozing shadows and hard nosed characters who may or may not make it out intact- and its procedural roots feel revolutionary as two men (Dennis O'Keefe and Alfred Ryder) stalk a counterfeiting ring from Detroit to Los Angeles.

Raw Deal (1948) **1/2 - Tough but ultimately forgettable crime drama in which escaped prisoner Dennis O'Kefee gets to act like a jerk to not one but two women who've been roped into his on-the-lam scamper against the law.

He Walked By Night (1948) ***1/2 - Solid procedural about the hunt for a criminal who kills a cop, shifting easily between the sweaty psychology of the killer and the level headed thinking of the cops on his trail.

Border Incident (1949) **** - Made right before his run of noirs would be over and he'd embark on a series of westerns throughout the 50's, Mann's "Border Incident" feels especially dark, full of heroic compromise and real-world nihilism that cancel each other out. It's also quite the prescient film. If not for a somewhat tacked-on voice over that closes the film with a hint of optimism, "Border Incident" could be released today and we'd all nod and agree that the problem is as divisive and violent as ever.

Reign of Terror (1949) **** - Though taking place within the Robespierrian subterfuge of late 18th century France, Anthony Mann's "Reigh of Terror" walks, talks and looks like a 40's American noir. With barely a frame of sunlight to brighten the elusive motivations of its various double and triple agents- all searching for a little black book of names that could derail or save France's future- the film is heavy in both mood and tempo. It's also a white-knuckle ride of close calls and searching deception. One of Mann's best films. 

Side Street (1950) *** - Evocative use of night and shadow, which of course epitomizes most of the great film noirs, but Mann really spins it here as the darkness seems to be encroaching on the hapless man (Farley Granger) who makes a very bad decision.

The Furies (1950) *** - Beginning to transition from noir to nifty westerns, "The Furies" is an interesting bridge between both styles of film, keeping some of the arched melodrama of film noir against the expanse of the open range. Highly watchable.

Winchester '73 (1950) ***1/2 - The west as seen through the passing of a death maker (a Winchester rifle) and all the greed, blood and jealousy it holds. Interesting for how it stars Jimmy Stewart and then basically forgets about him for half of the film, instead focusing on the parameters of violence that ensue once he loses his prized possession. It's easy to see why this is a landmark 50's film, let alone a landmark western.

Devil's Doorway (1950) *** - What's most dispiriting about "Devil's Doorway" is the modern cancel culture shade of lens that has to be cast upon the film for using a pretty standard buff white male (Robert Taylor) as the lead in the film's otherwise sharp portrayal of society's  greedy/burning desire to eliminate Native Americans (and specifically the land of Taylor's Indian homestead) from the Wyoming landscape. The film looks terrific.... features some especially thorny characterizations, but ultimately suffers every time it chooses to elevate Taylor as the brooding, sacrificial "red man".

The Tall Target (1951) ***1/2 - Applying the same veneer of shadowy film noir to an historical drama like he did with "Reign of Terror", this film pits an officer of the law tracking down a supposed assassin of Abraham Lincoln the night before a big speech. Taking place solely aboard a train and the steam-filled shadows of various midnight stops along the way, "The Tall Target" is expressive for how Mann maneuvers in tight quarters and pinches the tension to excessive heights. 

Quo Vadis (1951) *1/2 - It's debatable how much of this Mann directed (credited fully to Mervin LeRoy), but regardless, it's a stodgy and infinitely boring recollection of the troubles in Rome just after the persecution of Jesus and Emperor Nero's bamboozled reign. Overacting is just one of the many problems, including a stolid Robert Taylor performance that see him as a protagonist we don't care about in a setting that feels like a cardboard stage. Pretty atrocious all around.

Bend of the River (1952) *** - Interesting for the way its more of an ensemble film about western expansion and how greed and politics rapidly divided the virgin territory. As a cowboy escorting a group of land squatters in the deep Northwest, Stewart is able again and "Bend of the River" continually surprises for the relationships built (and destroyed) by avarice and greed.

The Naked Spur (1953) **1/2 - Another in a line of westerns Mann made with Jimmy Stewart, "The Naked Spur" feels like the weakest of them yet (admittedly seen out of order with "The Man From Laramie" before this one). Yes, Stewart is tortured and relentless in his search to return outlaw Robert Ryan while romancing Vivian Leigh along the way, but all the beats of repressed guilt and laconic racism have been better expounded upon in far better films... and far better ones by Mann himself.

Thunder Bay (1953)- ***1/2 - More so than the Jimmy westerns, I much prefer this (never mentioned) oil-infested tale of Stewart as a wildcatter coming to the bayou of Louisianan and stirring up volatile tempers and long shot romance as he builds an off shore oil rig. The close-up of his face with electric eyes and a huge crooked smile as oil cascades over his entire body, was surely an inspiration for the single-minded fury of Daniel Day Lewis in "There Will Be Blood".

The Glenn Miller Story (1954) ** - Quite the rosy portrait of big band pioneer Glenn Miller. No warts at all, it's almost sunshine to the point of nausea.


The Far Country (1954)  ***1/2 - A sense of jazz infects most of Mann's westerns with this one and after. It follows a certain plot (this time sees Jimmy Stewart trying to homestead in Alaska with the gold rush) but sort of drifts along as a tale of anti-hero protection as more corrupt forces impinge along the virgin landscape and threatens its honest citizens. Of course, Stewart finds himself doing the protecting. Characters drift in and out.... situations arise and fall back.... it's all handled very delicately and deliberately with a fine sense of landscape and hushed heroism.

Strategic Air Command (1955) ** - Re-teaming fictional husband and wife duo Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson from "The Glenn Miller Story", "Strategic Air Command" is all about the shuffling and dangerous duty of a 50 year old baseball player (?!) called back into active duty. Stewart seems especially in full Stewart shrift here and the film never raises above low-level pulse.

The Man From Laramie (1955) ***1/2 -  Continuing on his amazing run of morally shaded westerns, "The Man From Laramie" is unique for how Mann (and actor Jimmy Stewart) manipulates the simple story of a drifter arriving in a new location into a complex examination of said man's influence on the society's black hole of greed, violence and contemptible familial lineage. 


The Last Frontier (1955) ** - Victor Mature is poorly cast as a fur trader wrangled into the US Army as a scout during a territorial dispute with warring Indian tribes. It's said to be Mann's interpretation of "Fort Apache", but it's a film that sputters and stops every time Mature's maniacal interpretation sidles onto the screen. 


Serenade (1956) ** - Following the life of a field worker who ascends to great heights as a vocalist (Mario Lanza), "Serenade" was probably a great film for all those mob guys to take their girlfriends to see on Saturday nights. For everyone else, not so much as flat acting and sleepwalking direction pretty much sinks everything else here.

Men In War (1957) *** - Tough vision of war that feels like a step brother to the films of Sam Fuller.

The Tin Star (1957) ***1/2 - Henry Fonda just adds gravitas to everything he touches. And so he does here in "The Tin Star" as a bounty hunter who saunters into town and ends up helping it and its green sheriff (Anthony Perkins) discover a moral compass. It's filmed efficiently and its themes of incorruptible manhood rank alongside the best of Mann's other films starring Jimmy Stewart.

God's Little Acre (1958) **1/2 - A prickly Southern soup of high emotions and sweaty horniness as a family comes apart at the seams while digging on the family farm for treasure. Robert Ryan is gruff as the patriarch trying to hold things together, and of course, it all goes bad.


Man From the West (1958) ***1/2- Revisiting the strong/silent type savior complex that's buried within most of Mann's westerns, "Man From the West: sees Gary Cooper embody the role as an ex-outlaw forced to protect a schoolteacher from his old gang. Lots of shifting tensions and cinematography that propel this film as one of the late highlights of Mann's fading interest in the genre.

Cimarron (1960) **1/2- Epic idea about the Oklahoma land settling rush starring a miscast Glenn Ford playing the all good hero fighting both Old West bullies and the array of problems that comes with starting a new life in an old land. Oddly, the film's supporting characters seem to draw more attention than its main ones.

El Cid (1961) ** - Bloated and tedious, "El Cid" suffers from old Hollywood and its penchant for telling ancient stories with old white men playing the leads. This time its Charlton Heston as the titular Cid, becoming a whitewashed hero of both Chrisrians and Moors. I'm over this type of thing.


The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) **1/2 - Mann continues his foray into big budget Hollywood spectacle with this telling of ancient history mirrored through the glances of glamorous superstars and impeccable set design. I liked it a bit more than the others, but its still an example of heartless storytelling mired in early 60's spectacle.

The Heroes of Telemark (1965) ***1/2  -Sturdy men-on-a-mission war film starring Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris that takes place in a part of the world rarely shown during WWII- the snow-covered landscape of Norway and military subterfuge as the duo try to take out a key outpost for the Germans. Featuring some thrilling set pieces and a narrative that starts and stops with energetic action and framing, "The Heroes of Telemark" should be mentioned more often when talking about war 'actioners'.

A Dandy In Aspic (1966) *** - Mann's final film as he died during production. It's a shame because this spy film is a cold hearted blend of groovy techniques and stone cold emotions as Laurence Harvey plays both sides of the law trying to hunt down (or protect?) a double agent during the Cold War. With Mann adapting to some of the swinging 60's aesthetics, it would have been neat to see how he marched into the early 70's and the burgeoning New Wave of American cinema that found the old Hollywood stalwarts fumbling (Otto Preminger) or thriving (Nicholas Ray).

Unable to view: Moonlight In Havana, Nobody's Darling, My Best Gal

Sunday, August 22, 2021

When the Bad Men Came to Town: Alain Cavalier's "Pillaged"

The French sure had a way of regurgitating film. Taking the stellar heist films of the 50's such as John Huston's "The Asphalt Jungle" and Jules Dassin's "Riffifi" and metastasizing them into a lurid sub-genre all their own, there lies so many hidden gems (and outright classics of their own) in the decades to come. From Jean Pierre Melville's ice-cold treatises on betrayal and meticulous technique to the bruised energies of the many Alain Delon titles, there's always a surprise to be had.

Alain Cavalier's "Pillaged" (1967) is one of them. If there weren't twenty more years of such films coming down the pipeline, I'd wager that "Pillaged" was a capsized attempt to wave down all the other entries. The very plot- about a group of men taking hostage an entire town over the course of one long night in order to rob all its cash dispensaries- seems like the stuff of graphic novels. It plays bold, fast, and tense and it deserves a wider audience (are you listening Shout Factory! or Code Red???)

Released in 1967, the film stars a who's who of French character actors (Michel Constantin, Daniel Ivernel, Phillipe Moreau and Irene Tunc) as a motley group of safe crackers, stick-up men and underworld roustabouts tossed together for the sole purpose of surveying a gorge-village town and robbing the bank, the local steel mill cash holdings and anything else that crosses their paths. Each man has a distinct job and within 20 minutes, "Pillaged" is knee deep in the overnight heist, carefully establishing its plan and then observing as most things go like clockwork. Of course, being a French film noir, something unexpected crops up and the job goes incrementally wrong before the sun rises.

Filmed by workmanlike director Alain Cavalier (and only his third film after the aforementioned Delon vehicle "The Unvanquished" and his startling debut "Le Combat dans I'il") "Pillaged" doesn't ascribe many sympathies to its robbers.... and with the exception of a Stockholm-syndrome induced female abductee, very few other personalities are brought to the forefront. This is a film that excels in examining the steps of a crime. It's hugely believable (at least in the mid 60's when all it took to kill any communication was a snip of the wire) and executed with keen skill and style.

Sunday, August 08, 2021

On "Lonely Are the Brave"

In David Miller's "Lonely Are the Brave", the wild west isn't in conflict with the modern world. It's already past... a distant, dusty memory as technological advances and "civilization" has already encroached on its manifest destiny boundaries. Cowboy Jack Burns (Kirk Douglas) is the one who refuses to relent. He's still playing a cowboy while- in the opening few minutes and a furtive harbinger for the finale- his horse tentatively makes it across a busy highway to arrive at his destination where he can kick off his chaps and settle into the role of maverick savior for his old friend Jerry (a wonderfully complex Gena Rowlands). And while he agrees to help spring her husband (and his mutual friend) from a local jail cell, "Lonely Are the Brave" never forgets it's dichotomy of something stuck in the past century. One side uses a horse, while the other uses helicopters and off road vehicles. The dye is set early on, but Douglas and filmmaker Miller do a fabulous job of drawing out the tension in mutating a simple idea into a lethargic lament.

As Jack, Douglas is all gristle and clenched jaw. He accepts the challenge of helping his friend with the gusto of an outlaw, first picking a (hilariously staged) fight with a one-armed drunkard in a saloon, then acting like the pied-piper savior for a cell full of locked up guys. Even that scenario goes sideways, further deflating the mythic qualities of the wild west anti-hero riding in and saving the day. From there, the second half of the film is a glorious cat and mouse chase in the mountains as the sheriff (Walter Matthau) tries to locate the escaped convict. As Dalton Trumbo's precise script belies, neither man seems to be taking the game very seriously, even as gunfire is exchanged and freedom (or failure) is just mere inches away.

Released in 1962, "Lonely Are the Brave" can, I suppose, be called a western. Like John Huston's equally brilliant "The Misfits" just a year earlier, both films represent a moment in time when the landscape was truly shifting beneath the feet of so many cultures. Some embraced the change with open arms while others remained fixated in the roots of their past, no matter how abruptly the winds were blowing. Both Matthau as the law and Douglas as the "outlaw" completely believe their outlook is correct. Even in the film's final, mournful moments, both men nod supremely that they're right. Honestly, it's hard to deny their worldview. "Lonely Are the Brave" posits that both can exist at the same time.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

The Current Cinema 21.1

 No Sudden Move

An ironic title for a film that involves so many stunning little shifts in loyalty between its characters, Steven Soderbergh's "No Sudden Move" is his best film in years. Beginning as a modest crime picture in which three men (Don Cheadle, Benecio Del Toro and Kieran Culkin) are assembled to conduct a straightforward kidnapping and extortion gig in 1950's Detroit and ending as a (naturally) cynical exploration of criminals who think they've got it all figured out, Soderbergh and screenwriter Ed Solomon wring so much subtle electricity out of the genre that the film ends up feeling downright revelatory. Co-starring David Harbour, Amy Seimitz, Brendan Fraser, Jon Hamm, Ray Liotta and Julia Fox as people spinning on the edges of the mistrust and deceptively-lined noir frame, "No Sudden Move" is the perfect project for Soderergh, at once a puff-piece of big star entertainment before it lines up all the cool whiffs of genre and settles into a brilliantly choreographed example of the genre's best.


Summer of Soul 

I was already entranced by Questlove's sewing together of the long forgotten footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival- partly from the crisp footage of soul, gospel and R&B acts that danced their way across the hearts and minds of those present and partly for the immense joy in discovering such an event lost in time- but the moment Sly and the Family Stone took the stage, "Summer of Soul" became a transformative film. And as one of the people interviewed recollects, it seems right to call that one performance the crash-through of barriers from the old-school doo-wop paradigm of entertainment to the modern age of funk 'hippieness'. Beyond just a performance film, Questlove has surrounded this amazing documentary with reflective cultural significance. Yes, we get the music, but he also instills a deep sense of shifting history in the moment, from the sour celebration of the have-nots in America to the joyous walk on the moon to the overshadowing by Woodstock. "Summer of Soul" is a terrific film.

My review of "Val" can be found at Dallas Film Now

Monday, July 05, 2021

On Ettore Scola's "A Special Day"

Ettore Scola's "A Special Day" features an enthralling camera shot that does a lot more than map out the geographical terrain of the film's two central characters. It also establishes that Scola is deadly serious about making a statement on the serpentine nature of the historical and the personal colliding at the same time. The aforementioned shot happens early in the film after an introductory newsreel footage that shows Hitler and his Third Reich parading into Italy to meet Benito Mussolini and forge a relationship that would last until the end of World War II.  The camera begins in the courtyard of a tall apartment building complex, spinning upwards to reveal the concrete and windows that almost block out the sun before carefully panning across a row of windows and doors, finally settling on an illuminated opening where a woman (Sophia Loren) goes about her early morning chores in the kitchen. As we watch her dutifully wiping dishes and occasionally brushing the hair from her eyes, the camera glides into the apartment through the open window and proceeds to follow the woman around as she gets her children moving and wakes her husband (American actor John Vernon in a small role). This unbroken shot is not only a technical marvel for the way it slices through seemingly immovable objects, but reveals a typical woman in Italian society who will become irrevocably changed at the end of the picture.

Taking place over the course of just one day, "A Special Day" soon dispenses with every other character as they disappear into the streets to wave and cheer Hitler and Mussolini. The apartment building is empty, except for a solitary man working in his apartment directly across from Loren's view. When her pet bird escapes his cage and flies to his windowsill, the man (Marcello Mastroianni) and woman meet, talk, flirt and exchange ideas about the maelstrom of history swirling around them. While she chose not to go because she simply doesn't care about Italy's political strategy, he can't go anywhere for reasons that will become crushingly obvious before the end.

Loren and Mastroianni, who've been paired so many times before, have a casual elegance about them as they come together and fall apart, their dialogue rolling between them with the ease of professionalism both continually exhibit in all their work. Mastroianni, especially, is tasked with a conflicted character, at once attracted to Loren for her ideals and then forced to confront emotions that are hidden behind his true self.... emotions that have him writing with one hand and keeping a pistol close by with the other. And Loren, in the final image as she watches something across the courtyard, gives a full performance that suggests an alternate life would suit her perfectly.

It's not ironic that these two people meet and share each other's company on such a unique day. The film is a coded example of two people finding and accepting one another in a world increasingly redolent of tolerance and unity. That they ultimately can't live together happily ever after is the biggest tragedy of them all.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Hazy Days: Les Blank's "A Poem Is a Naked Person"

I can only imagine the reaction if Les Blank's "A Poem Is a Naked Person" had actually been unleashed on the movie-going public when it was finished in 1974. Following alt-rocker Leon Russell around for a three year period in the boondocks of Oklahoma during various recording sessions three years prior, documentary filmmaker Les Blank's film is a meandering portrait of backwoods culture and hazy rock and roll lifestyles that feels like the anthropological template for the films of Robert Minerva and even Harmony Korine decades later.

Rarely shown outside of personal events for more than 40 years, "A Poem Is a Naked Person" only saw the real light of day in 2015-2016 after Blank's death, when it was remastered and released through Criterion.... with the support of Blank's son and especially Russell himself. What emerges in this crusty document of early 70's rhetoric is a blast. Darting from a wedding of a band member in Russell's very Southern gothic mansion to interviews with a very entertaining man who eats glass at an Oklahoma air show, "A Poem Is a Naked Person" is just as weirdly poetic as its title suggest. One does get a ton of Russell's earthy alt-country/rock music (and even more cameos from friends as diverse as Eric Anderson, JJ Cale and Willie Nelson), but the intention of the documentary is to replicate a time and place not through aggrandizement, but a down-and-dirty synthesis of creative artistry and all the weird freedom that brings with it.

All of that freedom (and glass eating) aside, "A Poem Is a Naked Person" fills a documentary gap that had been brewing for some time. Even though the grandfathers of the genre, such as Frederick Wiseman, D.A. Pennebaker and Haskell Wexler, were playing hard and fast with the rules of the form, what Blank ultimately creates with his effort is an explosive step forward. Yes, in a sense this is a musical documentary, but one that continually side-steps the music for a loose interpretation of whatever else caught his (or Russell's rag tag fellow musicians) eye. In the basic sense of the word, unless one is crafting a History channel documentary meant to educate a classroom, isn't that what the truest documentaries are supposed to do? In the case of Blank's film, he not only captures some musical momentum, but also the wild, unpredicatble and hazy world around that momentum.


Sunday, May 23, 2021

Star Children: Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Before We Vanish"

A science fiction invasion film as seen through the (mostly) serene eyes of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, "Before We Vanish" brews at the same temperature as most of the auteur's previous work- that being part somnambulist before raging a bit brighter towards, in this case, ultimate apocalypse. Like Koji Yakusho in "Cure" (1997) or any one of the wide-eyed victims in his masterpiece "Pulse" (2001), the characters that populate "Before We Vanish" take some decoding before coming into sharp focus. But when they do, the film moves ahead with an entropic force that's hard to deny.

Opening on a mass murder as teenager Akira (Yuri Tsunematsu) stands over the bloody mess with pacified fascination, the echoes to "Cure" speak volumes. But before we get the chance to understand what this violent opening means, her story line is soon replaced by worrisome Narumi (Masami Nagasawa) as she cares for her husband, Shinji (Ryuhei Matsuda) whose mysterious sickness seems to be a neurotic imbalance that causes him to flop around and seemingly have to learn to walk again. Enter marooned news reporter Sakurai (Hiroki Hasegawa) snooping around the opening Akira murder story when he's approached by blank faced Suzuki (Ken Mitsuishi). It's here we finally get some explanation when Suzuki tells the report he's one of 3 aliens walking Earth, stealing "concepts" and ideas from humans in advance of an alien invasion. Sakuria begrudgingly agrees to be his 'guide' and chauffeur the stranger to various destinations looking for the other two body snatchers.

"Before We Vanish" certainly plays with lofty ideas. In the various scenes where the aliens come into contact with other humans, they engage in conversation (or create their own confrontations as Shinji does with one homeowner) forcing the human to focus on an idea (i.e. possessions, labor and the most complex of them all love) before stealing them away with a touch to their forehead like an innocent E.T. The only problem- the concept is then completely lost on the human being, leaving them a floundering soul in a world devoid of their understanding. Naturally, this begins a mysterious pandemic that sees the Health Ministry and the armed forces mobilizing to solve the unknown problem.


Suzuki does eventually meet Shinji and Akira, and the film devolves into more of an action parody with sub machine guns and rudimentary technological gadgets needed to communicate to the heavens than anything else as the trio struggle to complete their "mission". But before that (and as with all Kurosawa films) there's an attention to mood and style that's unmistakable. The film is at its best when its dealing with the tug and pull love between Shinji and wife Narumi. She wants to believe her husband is suffering from some sort of amnesia, but is finally forced to realize he really might be an idea-sucking extra terrestrial. And the way their relationship plays out to the very end is heartbreaking and complex, especially in her last request that may have saved the world after all.

There are some faults with "Before We Vanish", such as Kurosawa's forced world building of pandemonium breaking out across the city. Something tells me, for once, a tight focus (and perhaps a minuscule budget) prevented the filmmaker from truly expanding his canvas of panic and public menace outside of a single hospital scene.

Still, as a society who've just begin to marginally emerge from a worldwide pandemic, the unknown creeping horror presented in "Before We Vanish", and so many other terrific Kurosawa films does strike a deep chord of recognition. Released in 2017 but never proceeding further than the festival circuit, "Before We Vanish" may strike one as unnerving, but its central idea of someone losing their very sense of self to an inexplicable force is even scarier.As one alien explains to Sakurai, Earth probably would not have lasted another 100 years anyway. At times today, with the morass of greed, selfishness and in-fighting plaguing us all, perhaps now is as good a time as ever for an invading alien force.

Monday, May 10, 2021


My favorite moment from any Hou Hsiao-Hsien film.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

The Last Few Films I've Seen, Spring 2021 edition

1. Bloody Kids (1980)- Stephen Frears' film about two young boys (Richard Thomas and Peter Clark) surging through the nocturnal wasteland of new-wave dead end Essex, England after a prank goes horribly wrong is a masterpiece of anarchic energy. With a propulsive soundtrack that swaggers from inspired spaghetti-western theatrics to thudding heavy metal and a camera that swoops and glides around its characters with breathless energy, "Bloody Kids" captivates from the very opening. It only gets better when one of the young boys hooks up with a group of older men and women (led by the manics of Gary Holton) and the film sinks into an orgy of anti-establishment nose thumbing and petty criminality. Made for television and released in 1980, this is a film that deserves a rediscovery for its nervy ambition in representing the nihilistic attitude of punk rock Britain in the late 70's. For the record, the cops (and supposed adults) in this film don't get off easily either.

 2. Papa, the Little Boats (1974) -  One of four Nelly Kaplan films available on the Criterion channel. Psycho-sexual deception as screwball comedy. Not as good (or biting) as her previous assault on the bourgeoisie, "A Very Curious Girl". 

3. Dear Comrades! (2020) - Andrei Konchalovskiy, now in his 80's, is probably best remembered for his long ago Hollywood action hits like "Runaway Train" and "Tango & Cash". With this film, he retraces the appaling tragedy when Russian soldiers opened fire on a protesting factory group. The violence is swift and shocking, and its black and white cinematography adds a layer of grace to the whole affair.

4. The Taste of Violence (1961) - One of my favorite directors to discover over the past few years has been actor-director Robert Hossein. Producing a string of low-key thrillers and bastardized westerns with nary a hint of release on any video format (or streaming) here in the US, it's somewhat thrilling to continue finding small gems like this, as if I'm the only one who knows about them. This 1961 western tracks with the rest of his work, barreling though a variety of themes such as the almost wordless anti-hero Hossein himself plays, a Stockholm syndrome kidnapping, and superfluous camera moves that feel needlessly pompous and so freaking perfect at the same time. Hossein plays Perez, the leader of a band of Mexican outlaws who kidnap the president's daughter (Giovanna Ralli) and then tear themselves apart with jealousy and greed over her return to other revolutionary forces. Often filmed with searing landscapes behind them and never afraid to shy away from horrifying tableaux (such as a group of men hanging alongside a cobblestone street like heavy pinatas), "The Taste of Violence" is a western quite unlike any other.

5. Luz The Flower of Evil (2018) - It looks pretty and all, but the idea behind this slow-burn psychological horror film about a devout rural religious "prophet" and the hell he puts his 3 daughters through isn't pretty at all. I wanted to like it, but just couldn't connect.

6. All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (2011) - More Adam Curtis films will soon follow as I really dig the rabbit holes he often goes down. This three part, 3 hour documentary enraptures for the first two-thirds, and I don't quite always follow the strands he attempts to weave together, but his image selection and musical cues are second to none.

7. Love, Gilda (2019) - One sort of knows the mediocrity one will get from these CNN Films. I didn't know a ton about Gilda Radner besides her terrific Saturday Night Live presence and that wonderful childhood favorite of mine, "Haunted Honeymoon". It's a well meaning effort, but one that doesn't dig far enough beneath the surface, even when it uses her own words to describe the turmoil and humor.

8. Pretend It's a City (2021) - This is very old-man-screaming-at-the-sky stuff. Watched as an obligatory Scorsese completest.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Cinema Obscura: Bertrand Tavernier's "Captain Conan"

Towards the very end of Bertrand Tavernier's rambling but masterful "Captain Conan", the titular character (played with bull headed narcissism  by Phillippe Torreton), tells his sometimes adversary/mostly war buddy lawyer (Samuel Le Bihan) that the people in his small village where he's retired to "should have seen him when he was alive". 

Alive- in the mind and soul of Conan- involves his reckless bravery during World War I and the eventual French occupation along the Russian border when he and his small band of troops would run headfirst into gun fire and attack the enemy at close range, taking an almost gleeful pleasure in killing with knives and detached bayonets. The first third of the film deftly follows this in choreographed long takes up hills, around explosions, and into the shadowy depths of smoke and fire. In this role, Conan is a god.

Things shift a bit in the second part of the film when the violence is largely over and Conan and his French soldier cohorts are charged with occupying and maintaining order in Belarus. It's here that Tavernier's real motives emerge. The glorification of violence in the muddy, treaded trenches and hills of World War I turns inward and the film asks questions about masculinity and the toxic attitude that pervades during peacetime. Some of my favorite films are about this murky point in history when the war is over, occupying lines are crossed and no one seems to understand (or care) about the norms of society. Think of Christian Petzold's "Phoenix" (2014). Rosselini's "Germany, Year Zero" (1948) or Carol Reed's "The Third Man" (1949)- all films that exquisitely map the rubble existence of black marketing, self debasement and moral compromise in a world where everyone's scratching for something. Conan throws himself into this void of morality with the same ferocity he did in war, covering up for his soldiers when they commit atrocities or burying himself in alcohol. 

All of this contradicts the narrow view of law and life that Lt. Norbert (Le Bihan) is forced to deal with, whether he owes anything to the swaggering heroics of Captain Conan or not. Tavernier sets up a complex back and forth as the French soldiers grind against the accepted and its up to Norbert to see some sort of justice is meted.

Eschewing any single point of view, Tavernier (who also wrote the impressive script) directs the hell out of the film. From the opening war images to the almost hilarious shuffling of bureaucratic duties among military leadership tired of nagging relatives or superfluous documents, "Captain Conan" takes the title of one man but slowly opens up to conflate the whole experience of war. It's easy to create an anti-war film, but Tavernier does the impossible and makes a statement that war is perhaps necessary for some people and then simultaneously corrosive for the same.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Moments of the Year 2020

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 (now in its 22nd edition) 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.



 Bill Nighy and his predilection for fire place screens in “Emma.”

A gunshot and a dog scrambling from the scene. Haunted memories and regret that plague an informer in “The Traitor”

In "The Sound of Metal", the single scene of Mathieu Almaric and Riz Ahmed in a kitchen together as a father who knows more than he says, and his silence speaks volumes as he allows a couple to reunite for the last time.

A woman (Mackenzie Davis) walking down a hallway, casting a shadow and another light shadow eerily stalking behind her.   “The Turning”

The way Fay (Sierra McCormick) says “stop smiling” twice to her friend when she asks about Everett (Jake Horowitz)    “The Vast of Night”

Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan) coming backstage to meet "Tesla" (Ethan Hawke) as if she's exiting a psychotropic rave

Black water slowly recessing in a toilet to reveal….. A thing.   “Amulet”

A kitchen pot rocking itself out after being thrown to the floor during a police raid.  “Mangrove”

The desperate faces fixated on an unknowing man (James Northern) as he peels an orange and then throws the peel to the floor, causing a small scuffle from the rabid group of poverty-stricken people.  “Mr. Jones”

Wisdom from Abel Ferrara in “Sportin’ Life” when he states “old keys don’t open new doors, man.”

Willem DaFoe initially going out to chastise a homeless man yelling in the street beneath his window, and the scene that unfolds afterwards between the two men.   “Tommaso”

In “Texas Trip”, the performance of body horror by Mother Fauker.

The badly drawn Obama tattoo.  “The King of Staten Island”

When Tutar (Maria Bakalova) states she wants a nice cage like her female neighbor. Cut to a woman in a cage giving us the finger in “Subsequent Borat MovieFilm”

The way the camera slightly shakes alongside Jean (Rachel Brosnahan) as she learns to shoot a gun in “I’m You’re Woman”

A wedding reception and the alleyway into a street. Regret and time passing slowly for two different people in “The Traitor”

"His House" and the anxiety of waiting for a flip of the light switch to a netherworld of terror

A dinner scene with a group of hearing impaired people having a conversation in sign language, and then an abrupt cut to allow us to hear the innate noise caused by all the hand gestures and mouthing. Just one of the ways sound design is used brilliantly in "Sound of Metal"  

Hands connecting from opposite sides of a subway pole. "Never Rarely Sometimes Always"

In "A White White Day", the simple time lapse of a house and field over an undisclosed amount of time as weather and the passage of time take its toll.

A radio controlled car.  "Train To Busan: Peninsula"

Sunday, January 31, 2021

We Are What We Are: On Chloe Zhao's "Songs My Brothers Taught Me"

On the receiving end of widespread acclaim with her latest film "Nomadland", it would behoove anyone interested in Chloe Zhao as a developing filmmaker to visit her feature length debut, "Songs My Brothers Taught Me". As a filmmaker wholly interested in presenting complex stories of individualistic wandering among a community rarely experienced on-screen, all of these tenets are present from the get go.

Like she did with her sophomore film "The Rider" (2018), "Songs My Brothers Taught Me" takes place with people mostly portraying themselves.... or at least thinly veiled fictional recreations of themselves. And it wouldn't be far off to wonder if that later film didn't rise out of the barren-land ashes of this film as Zhao's camera often becomes much more interested in the rodeo bucking community that fraternally rubs against her Indian reservation-set debut. But regardless of its foundations, "Songs My Brothers Taught Me" is an amazing film for the way it never seems to be in a rush of narrative. Things happen and great developmental arcs occur, but the film just captures a sense.... a time... and a place with generous acuity.

The story that eventually develops involves teenager John (Johnny Reddy) and his twelve year old sister Jashaun (Jashaun St. John) who live on a South Dakota Indian reservation. In the first few minutes, we learn their licentious father has died in an accident. It bothers the two siblings, but the film isn't about their sadness over his death. Instead, we observe as they figure out who they want to become in life. John is involved with a local girl (Taysha Fuller) and their amorous plans to leave town together loom. Meanwhile, young Jashaun observes her brother's burgeoning adulthood from outside, eventually becoming friends with her heavily tattooed stepbrother (one of about 19 children from her father around town), freshly released from prison and battling to stay afloat in a world that constantly offers little escape.

Beyond that, "Songs My Brothers Taught Me" is a mood thing. Zhao often frames the activity around the reservation in long shot, allowing for streaks of lightning to cascade in the background or curtains of sunset light to bathe the screen. The mixture of nature and man- that is so prevalent in all her work- gets first attention here. It's a beautifully rendered atmosphere for John and Jashaun to bounce around this big sky country with dour, internalized permutations of angst and unsuredness. We feel for them because although they reside in a place largely foreign to my experience, the emotions and depth of confusion in growing up are universal. Zhao seems to excel in creating these types of stories and I look forward to following her long and beautiful career.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

My Fav Movies of 2020

As posted at Dallas Film Now: 

My favorite movies of the year, in descending order:

15. Tesla

14. Zappa

13. Undine

12. Saint Frances

11. The Assistant

10. Miracle Fishing

9. Sound of Metal

8. Never Rarely Sometimes Always

7. To the Ends of the Earth

6. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

5. Mangrove

4. Crip Camp

3. The Vast of Night

2. Tommasso

1. The Traitor

Friday, January 01, 2021

The Best Non 2020 Films I Saw in 2020

10. Greaser's Palace (1972), directed by Robert Downey 

The story of Christ transposed to the American West.... where Christ wears a purple zoot suit and brings back to life the same man about a dozen times. Absurdism isn't quite the right word. Hysterical, it is. In one scene, two men try and ride away on a horse but continually fall off. I'm not sure if this was intended commentary on the trajectory of our expectations on the genre or just something that happened and director Downey decided to use it since the entire crew and cast were probably stoned The whole film is like that.... not quite a parody but wallowing in the excesses of hippie filmmaking to create something altogether unique. And the film stops down for not one but two extended song and dance sequences that only furthers its individualistic attitude about subverting things. I'm not as warm to Downey's other works, but "Greaser's Palace" is marvelous.


 9. A Vigilante (2018), directed by Sarah Daggar-Nickson

What drew me to Sarah Daggar-Nickson's film, "A Vigilante", was the star headliner Olivia Wilde. But what emanates from this film long after its over is the ferocious attention to sorrow and the unique/challenging ways that specific emotion can branch out into the world and provide relief for others. And I don't use the word "ferocious" lightly here. As an abused woman whose taken her harrowing ordeal to great heights, Wilde becomes a helper to other women who can't escape their own toxic plight. This sort of rationalization of violence has been the stalwart narrative device for lots of previous films (mostly male driven), but in "A Vigilante", Daggar-Nickson taps into a special force that Wilde embodies with passionate dedication and steely resolve. This is a film that will make you wince.... nervous.... angry..... everything Wilde experiences, the film mirrors in intensity. It's jagged timeline of events doesn't make anything easier. "A Vigilante" is a film with an unassuming title, but one that deserves its place in the catalog of lean, driven revenge films but asks that you don't necessarily cheer for its protagonist, but get just as angry with her about the culture of abusive violence. The least we can do is recognize the anger behind its action-film facade and do our best to listen and help those living this fiction for real.

8. Laughter In the Dark (1969), directed by Tony Richardson

Like his best film "The Loved Ones" (and one of the truly great films to earn the moniker of black comedy), director Tony Richardson's adaptation of Nabokov's "Laughter In the Dark" is uneasily funny and consistently unnerving, especially in its final third after free-spirit Anna Karina has successfully and insidiously evaporated the posh lifestyle and marriage of an art dealer (Nicol Williamson). She's not fully to blame, since Williamson laser-sets his attention on Karina upon first a similar sexual compulsion that spins the eerie attraction within Nabokov's most recognizable work "Lolita". "Laughter In the Dark" is so good because it can be read as an attack on many things: the end of the 60's as free love and flower power turned dark and the hippies settled into the burgeoning halls of power and innovation around the world.... as sexual compulsion literally blinding someone.... and as a potent exploration of man and woman's shifting, destructive power over each other. This film deserves a proper release (seen here through a copy obviously spliced together from an old worn VHS tape). Anna Karina has never been better as sensual exploiter with a strong head for absurd manipulation. 

7. Reign of Terror (1949), directed by Anthony Mann

Though taking place within the Robespierrian subterfuge of late 18th century France, Anthony Mann's "Reigh of Terror" walks, talks and looks like a 40's American noir. With barely a frame of sunlight to brighten the elusive motivations of its various double and triple agents- all searching for a little black book of names that could derail or save France's future- the film is heavy in both mood and tempo. It's also a white-knuckle ride of close calls and searching deception. One of Mann's best films produced directly after "Border Patrol" and among a string of original noir films that feel effortless.

6. A Dark Song (2016), directed by Liam Gavin

Every now and then, a horror film comes along that understands the true value of slow burn. Liam Gavin's "A Dark Song" is one such effort. Like Rob Zombie's adrenalized "House of 1,000 Corpses", Gavin's film won me over in the final third when all the wicca magick and supernatural elements that provided a faint dusting of atmosphere in the first half give way to a mind-boggling climax of horror and outrageousness in its second half. In it's own twisted way, this is a film that has more to say about faith and the invisible lines between heaven and hell than most of those Christian produced I Believe films.


5. Fever (1981), directed by Agnieszka Holland

Agnieszka Holland's "Army of Shadows" and a bold early masterwork from a filmmaker whose had her definite highs and lows. Focusing on a roundelay of characters and never settling one just one, the film follows each revolutionary socialist in their relationship to the possession or harboring of a bomb intended to assassinate the czar. Just as doom-laden as Melville's earlier Resistance drama, "Fever" is an apt title, representing either the fervor each character feels for his/her revolutionary temperament and ideals or the sweaty impulse it imbues in the viewer as a series of double crosses, internal expulsions and coincidental incidents continually stifle their violent purpose. Hard to find, but well worth the search.

4. To the Ends of the Earth (2018), directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Kiyoshi Kurosawa swerves in yet another endearing direction with "To the End of the Earth". Essentially a travelogue film about a young TV show host named Yoko (pairing again with K-pop star Atsuko Maeda) and her camera crew slugging around Uzbekistan searching for human interest stories and locales, Kurosawa slyly opens up a nuanced portrait of culture clash and homesickness. Initially a cipher for the direction of her cameraman and producer instructing her what to do and say, Maeda's Yoko gradually becomes the silent beating heart of the film as she wanders around, gets into trouble for filming a restricted area and faces heartbreaking challenges from back home. And it's revealed that she, really, only wants to be a singer in life. But for all the film's stasis during it's first two thirds (with the exception of a freed goat and its ultimate repercussions), "To the Ends of the Earth" subtly shatters your heart in its final thirty minutes as Yoko breaks free from the constricted nature of her role and does something for herself. And the final moments are overwhelmingly sweet and hopeful in a film that, up until that point, made the case that leering eyes at outsiders and the inability to clearly communicate are terrifying ways to live day by day. Kurosawa has crafted a magnificent film that not only completely pivots from his other work, but reveals the master still hasn't lost a step no matter what direction he chooses to go. (edit: it appears this film has received a very quiet year end release in 2020.)

3. Seventeen Years (1999), directed by Zhang Yuan

Released in 1999- during the explosive and now legendary year of new Hollywood classics produced by expressive individualistic talents- Zhang Yuan's "Seventeen Years" deserves its overdue status as a masterpiece in the midst of this towering cinematic year. Essentially an observational travelogue film about a recently furloughed prisoner and the prison guard who unselfishly escorts her to her holiday destination, it eventually becomes an overpowering examination of regret and forgiveness. I dare anyone to watch the final few minutes and not get emotionally floored in the way Yuan stages a reunion scene where eyes, guarded body language and the gentle unspoken curl of lips says more about the inner workings of this family's trenchant relationship than any screenplay could ever deliver.

2. Border Incident (1949), directed by Anthony Mann


Made right before his run of film noirs would be over and he'd embark on a series of westerns throughout the 50's, Mann's "Border Incident" feels especially dark, full of heroic compromise and real-world nihilism that cancel each other out. It's also quite the prescient film. If not for a somewhat tacked-on voice over that closes the film with a hint of optimism, "Border Incident" could be released today and we'd all nod and agree that the problem is as divisive and violent as ever. The story, which delves into the illegal smuggling of Mexican labor forces across the US border, is half a cop story (as undercover agent Ricardo Montalban tries to infiltrate the criminal organization) and half brutal social commentary. This is the type of film in which a man is crushed by a tractor and it doesn't even blink an eye. With this film and "Reign of Terror", at number 7 on this list, filmmaker Mann reached his epoch of beautiful fatalism.

1. The River (1951), directed by Jean Renoir

Made smack in the middle of Renoir's second life in cinema, rooted in Hollywood after fleeing Europe during World War II, I'm repentant it's taken me this long to see this film (as if the case with so many late career Renoirs). Washing over one like a golden memory, "The River" introduces itself like an easy memorization  of languid colonialism, and soon transforms itself into an interior examination of what it means to actually remember those metamorphic moments that make us the people we are today.
Often praised for its Technicolor sharpness (and no doubt it looks incredible), but the real hook of the film is it's gentle spirit of the intimate. Focusing mainly on three young women- teenage daughter Harriet (Patricia Walters), friend Valerie (Adrienne Corri) and adopted Indian daughter Melanie (Radha)- the family lives in a sprightly existence. Prone to poetry and introspection, Harriet serves as the film's narrator, trying her best to objectify the subjectivity that happens along the way. And what happens along the way is the appearance of Captain John (Thomas Breen), a wounded war veteran who comes to live with the family, setting off fireworks between all three females on the property.
But far from a glib tale of unrequited love or possession, "The River" (based on a novel by Rumer Godden) is much too smart for such a thing. Each woman steadies a distinct relationship with Capt. John and the film carefully measures out the mood of each. With Valerie, the relationship is seductive and adult. With Melanie, it's tenuous since they both come from staggeringly different backgrounds. Their relationship feels like the one that would overtake the rest of a much more slight effort. And with Harriet, "The River" finds its true footing, which is an examination of a young woman trying to make sense of both her flowering adulthood and the cruel world around her. None of the three relationships drown the other out, and each compliments the film as something attuned to the gentle rhythms of growing up.