Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Killer Eilte

*Part 5 in a series of reviews on random films playing for 2 euros in Brussels

The opening text for Sam Peckinpah's uneven take on a 70s style action pic hints at both the seriousness and playfulness intended. The first line of text tells us that the film is based on a fictional organization called Comteg that is used by the C.I.A. for matters that are too delicate for direct government involvement. Oh, cool, maybe like Blackwater, or something to do with rendition. This could be interesting and certainly relevant. The second line (paraphrase): "This film does not insinuate that the C.I.A. uses such organizations because that, of course, would be preposterous." Okay, so they're going to have some fun too.

Let's start with the fun. Both James Caan and Robert Duvall appear to be having a blast here as onetime friends, now enemies, Mike Locken and George Hansen, employees for Comteg charged with protecting a Russian defector. After an opening job set against some groovy 70s music, Hansen quickly turns bad, killing the Russian (presumably for money) and shooting Locken in the knee and shoulder. Only twenty minutes into the movie, and the narrative is laid out; the rest of the movie will feature these two highly trained soldiers against one another in a battle of wits.

But first...well, but first we have to see a good twenty to thirty minutes of Locken's recovery as Caan walks up stairs, falls over at restaurants, and tries to work his way back into shape. His employers at Comteg tell him to forget about coming back, that maybe he can have an office and a pension, but that his fighting day are over. Locken, of course, does not buy this and so we get to see him work with various exoticized ethnic figures in San Francisco to get him back into shape. This whole section is emotionally draining as you just know there is supposed to be some excitement and violence coming up, but instead are watching Caan cry with the nurse and hobble around on crutches. I think Peckinpah probably liked lingering over recovery from violence as much as lingering over the violence itself, but enough.

Things pick up when we hear that Hansen is back in the game, operating as an assassin to kill a visiting Chinese politician Yuen Chung (played by Mr. All-Around everything Asian Mako). In one of the cooler sequences of the film, Peckinpah alternates between a liaison from the C.I.A. explaining a failed hit on Yuen at the airport and scenes from the fight itself. The latter scenes are Kung-Fu light, but they are done in silence and (of course) in slow motion while we hear the C.I.A. guy talk about it. Immediately Comteg realizes that Locken is the man for the job, and second in command Cap Collins is sent to find the rehabbing Locken.

After the necessary, and always fun, process of putting the team together - the insane Jerome Miller (Bo Hopkins) and the retired Mac (an awesome Burt Young) - Locken sets out to find Yuen before Hansen does. From this point on, the movie is pretty much non-stop action, as all sorts of improbable and gratuitous gunplay breaks out across the Bay Area (yes, there is at least one scene of a car flying over one of the city's hilltops). Nothing really interesting to see here, as I've seen better from the 70s, or even the A-Team, but it is enjoyable, specifically Mac's constant chatter, Miller's desire to shoot just about anything, and the overall light touch.

Unfortunately, interspersed among the action is the kind of ham-handed and pat speechifying about power and responsibility that would put Batman to shame. As the voice of reason, Mac keeps asking Locken why he is representing his evil bosses, and it becomes increasingly clear that Comteg was not altogether forthcoming about its continued relationship with Hansen. The overall tone of the movie certainly doesn't justify it as a serious meditation on power, and I'm not sure if this was all Peckinpah was allowed to get into a studio picture, or if this was all he had. I'd guess the former, but either way, it's a bore.

As the two antagonists get closer, the picture drops off in action and the talking returns to the point that you are ready for things to wrap up already. By the time Yuen decides that he must battle his assassins directly (in one of the worst sword fights ever put to screen), the movie has lost even the ability to entertain. Really, other than Burt Young, I could have found more entertainment and political commentary in two episodes with B.A, Hannibal, and the gang.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Fellini's Casanova

What was that about White Elephants?

Dir: Federico Fellini
Viewed From: The Balcony

*Part 4 of a series of reviews on old and random films playing for 2 euros in Brussels

Last week, Sean forwarded me a notice by the Village Voice critic J. Hoberman on the death of his mentor, Many Farber. Farber's approach as a critic basically seemed to be to take down the directors who were full of themselves (the pale pachyderms), and who had replaced the joy and spontaneity of cinema with a monotonous hammering of one or another of their pet themes...er, I mean, important ideas. I haven't read Farber's full take, but after enduring 150 minutes of Fellini's Casanova (yes, that's the full title), an absolute mess of a movie that consists of one elaborate and impressive scene after another in the sake of making one point, I might have an idea of what he is talking about.

The point: the unceasing drive for sex prevents the ability to find true love. And so we learn, early and often, that Casanova's pursuit of various women - nuns, giants, aristocracy, automatons - all, in the end, will leave him bitter and alone. To underscore this point (underscore puts it mildly), we not only need to see Casanova in action - which we see, a lot, in non-erotic and stylized fashion - but we also need to see him in his final miserable years, bleary eyed and miserable, friendless and alone, and incapable in his advanced age of both sex and love.

Reading up on the movie, it seemed that Fellini detested Casanova, and the film was intended as a hatchet job on the man from the beginning. Some notes have suggested that the tone was softened by a dream sequence at the end, in which Casanova finds some happiness, dancing with the 'robot' woman he had met in the court of Norway, but this seems unlikely. After dozens of years with every shape and size of woman, the one whom he thinks back to isn't real? This hardly seems like a man who has come to terms with anything, and I think (or at least hope) that the final shot of Donald Sutherland and the robotic woman dancing was meant as a parting joke, and not as an indication that the he had found salvation.

Wait, what's that you say about Donald Sutherland? Yes, oh yes, should I have mentioned that perhaps the greatest lover in history (Don Juan gets some votes), and certainly the greatest Italian lover in history, is played by Mr. 'Public Radio International,' just two years prior to him donning the sweater vest as America's favorite pot-smoking prof in Animal House? It's true, but with some overdubbed lines, a prosthetic nose, and lots and lots of white powder (for the face!), Sutherland is actually quite good in the role. While hardly the dark and swarthy type that one might associate with an Italian lover, Giancomo Casanova was from the north of Italy (Venice), and nobody of the aristocratic class in eighteenth-century Europe would be caught dead with a tan. Not only looking the part of European nobility (who were quite ugly), Sutherland also has the proper amount of enthusiasm and uninhibited joy for the role, realizing that seduction and sex should be, at it's root, fun. Though he does bear a startling and distracting resemblance to The Black Crowes' Chris Robinson, I was buying it.

But unfortunately Sutherland is forced to do the same things over and over again to get Fellini's point across. It's too bad really, because there are some incredible set pieces here: the opening celebration in Venice should be (if it's not already) a classic of establishing setting and mood; the dueling sex scene (a public contest to see who can have more orgasms) is rendered with such enthusiasm and attention to detail that you believe they really took place all the time; and the scene in the court of Norway, with its raised pianos and drunken orgies, is a technical marvel. There are also some wonderful shots of great period detail, such as the elaborate banquets and costumes, and my favorite scene showing how all the candles are extinguished after an evening concert performance, but nothing to link them together. This is a problem with a lot of episodic plots, but it's even worse when the only bridge between scenes is an intentionally unlikeable and vacuous character.

I won't allow Fellini's Casanova to turn me off the director entirely, but after reading a quote from him explaining one scene, I'm beginning to think Farber's designation may apply. One of the early scenes in the film involves Casanova rowing in the ocean, but an ocean crafted out of black garbage bags taped together. This was done, according to Fellini, to represent the "plasticity" of Casanova's life. Yeah, okay Federico. Somebody on the set should have been reading Orwell.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Il Futuro e Donna

Dir: Marco Ferreri
Viewed: From The Balcony

Part 3 of a series on old and random films playing for 2 euros in Brussels.

It isn't often that one returns from a double feature thinking "Hmm, the Lynch movie was good, but wow, that other movie was strange."

But so it was last week, as the master's Wild at Heart was forced to play second fiddle in the WTF department to Il Futuro e Donna (The Future is Woman) by Italian provocateur/director Marco Ferreri. Ferreri apparently was quite the strange and notable director in the 60s and 70s - racking up some awards in Berlin and Cannes - but I was completely unfamiliar with his work. Maybe Sean knows about La Grande Bouffle, where four men have a pact to eat one another, or The Ape Woman, which needs no description, but this came as a complete shock.

A pleasant shock though, as Il Futuro e Donna was delightfully free of cannibalism, sado-masochism, misogyny, or any of the other number of themes that seem to be a recurrent feature of Ferreri's oeuvre. Instead we have a story of three people - Malvina, Anna, and Gordon - trying their best to live like a family. Malvina, in her teens and pregnant, meets husband and wife Gordon and Anna at an end-of-the-world 80s nightclub in Italy as she is being dragged off by some thugs. Anna talks the guys out of whatever plan they had, and invites Malvina back to the couple's beautiful bohemian apartment. From here, things get strange, as the subtle hints of sexual attraction in every possible permutation are alluded to. What happens from here involves some spoilers, but the action among the three is intense, moreso emotionally than physically (although there is also plenty of the latter).

So, what to talk about? Well, for starters, how about seeing 2007 Couchie Award nominee Hannah Schygulla in hot spandex and Bride of Frankenstein hair. Doing her best Eastern European Darryl Hannah, Schygulla is fantastic in the movie as Anna, propping up the two lesser actors in the threesome (Another empty-eyed innocent Ornella Muti and the pudgy, often emasculated Niels Arestrup). Unable to conceive herself, Anna takes on the young Malvina as her own child, as the bearer of a child, and also as a lover. The range of emotions runs from passion to rage to stoicism and Schygulla is perfect at every one. Based on now seeing her in only two roles (well, maybe three...as I think I did see (gulp) Delta Force), she is my favorite actress of all time.

But I'll save my Schygulla love for the 2008 Couchies; back to to Ferreri. Like a lot of 60s/70s countercultural auteurs, Ferreri is long on ideas and putting very interesting visuals in front of the camera, but short on innovative technique. For a major critical award winner, his opening and closing shots are just brutal, weakly framed still shots of the nightclub and a shopping mall. There appeared to be little thought into where to set the frame, like it was just something to have up while the opening and closing credits rolled - it would not have looked out of place at all two minutes in the movie to see three little heads in the lower right hand corner. The crushing theme music can be forgiven - this was 1984 after all - but I was almost ready to leave a few minutes.

As the movie's narrative picks up steam, however, the force of the characters overwhelms the critical faculties and you are hardly ever aware there is a camera, as Ferreri manages to be intimate while limiting odd or forced close-ups (there are a few doozies though, mostly Ferreri lingering on Muti's expressionless and insanely beautiful eyes). For someone with such outlandish ideas, he was incredibly subtle behind the camera. I'm avoiding giving too much description - the futurist revolutionary side plot, the giant heads, the naked guy playing the recorder, the mass stampede at a new age concert, etc. - because it would make the movie seem out of control, but basically all of these elements are incorporated into a fairly normal story about three people trying to find love or some kind of connection in (sorry) a cruel cruel world.

Ferreri was quoted once saying that all the standard bourgeois values were gone, and that "my films are reactions (to this) translated into images." Unlike Bunuel, however, Ferreri didn't (at least in Il Futuro e Donna) just laugh off this radical change, or skewer it's victims, but instead tried to show how real people can go about creating new values, new arrangements, and a new world. He might have been wrong about the old values coming to an end, and maybe too optimistic about the possibilities of three-way relationships, but he deserves a lot of credit for an honest and sincere approach to telling this story. I'm of course still a fan of the completely detached and allegorical style (Wild at Heart was much enjoyed 20 minutes after this one), but Ferreri's realism was, strangely, refreshing.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Emir Kusturica

Every once in a while we here at RFC chime in on a director, actor, writer, or someone who we think deserves a spotlight. (You can read my brief and very incomplete ramblings about the undeniable kick assery of Paul Verhoeven here and Paddy's introduction to Nicolas Provost here) Today we'll take a look at Serbian filmmaker, musician, sometimes actor (all around John C. Reilly lookin' dude) Emir Kusturica, a guy who's work isn't the easiest to find here in the US. In fact, his one venture into American film isn't even available on DVD in the states. But that one film, Arizona Dream, stuck with me from the day I first saw it around 1994 until over ten years later when I found a VHS copy at Hollywood Express and made it a point to hunt down and watch everything I could get my hands on. (Translation: do a search on Netflix and queue up the other 3 films of his that are available on DVD in the US.)

Arizona Dream is a movie that a good number of people might remember encountering around the mid 90's. If you've seen it you surely don't have to jog your memory to recall it. No other movie sets loose the combined talents of Jerry Lewis, Johnny Depp, Faye Dunaway, Vincent Gallo and Lili Taylor and I doubt any movie ever will come close to capturing the singular anarchic spirit that results from this combustible collaboration. Arizona Dream is really only considered an American film since it was shot in Arizona and features an American cast. Aside from the fact that people are speaking English (and Innuit), everything else is pure Kusturica. In fact, it was given a European release before it was shown in American theaters and even though I can't get a DVD of the movie in my region, there are numerous DVD versions available in Europe. (I might have to dust off my weathered Polaroid DVD-PAL player and get my hands on one of these if there's any sort of decent making-of or interviews in the bonus features.)

The theme of Arizona Dream is, naturally, dreams. And not just in the sense of bedtime dreams, although these play a part as well. All the characters in the film have longings. Uncle Leo (Jerry Lewis) wants Axel (Johnny Depp) to take over the family Cadillac business, to see his dream live on in Axel after he passes. At the Cadillac dealership, Axel meets Elaine (Faye Dunaway) and her step-daughter Grace (Lili Taylor) and quickly their dreams become his own. Axel moves into their huge house in the Arizona desert and tries to help Elaine with building a flying machine and even tries as best as he morally can to help Grace achieve her dream of dying and being reincarnated as a turtle. On the outskirts of the story is Vincent Gallo as Axel's cousin Paul who loves movies and dreams of becoming an actor (see his memorable talent show effort below). Axel is simply a dreamer, period. We first meet him as he's woken from a daydream involving Eskimos and one eyed fish -- and if he were to have one dream it would be to live in Alaska. He tries to share his vision with Grace but there isn't much in the way of happy endings for any of the characters in this film.


While Arizona Dream may rank somewhere in the middle of his filmography, it's a great gateway movie. It has more than a couple perfect Kusturican moments -- moments where the movie's wheels start rattling and you think it just might fly completely off the tracks and that's just fine because there's such an infectious, exuberant chaos going on that you simply want to throw yourself at its mercy. These scenes usually involve music and the camera barely being able to contain the action going on within its frame. In Arizona Dreams it happens early on when Axel and Paul first visit Elaine and Grace's house in the desert. The camera slides along the diner table as flirting goes on underneath. Soon, even with only four people in the scene there seems to be four separate conversations going on, escalating with the help of a pesky turtle and the words Papua New Guinea, while Paul and Elaine go from flirting to very bad table manners and Grace tries to hang herself by jumping from the hallway on the second floor into the dining room only to find herself bouncing, bouncing, bouncing until the ceiling fan comes crashing down. It's a scene of pure anarchy and Kusturica excels at capturing the live wire sparks in scenes like these.

Botched suicides by hanging is a recurring motif in Kusturica's films (along with a suitcase full of others including flying fish and red balloons). In his film When Father Was Away on Business one of the father's mistresses tries to end it all by hanging herself with the pull cord from a toilet. A character from Kusturica's undisputed masterpiece Underground fails with a darkly comic effect very similar to Arizona's Grace. I don't have too much to say about When Father Was Away, which along with Underground won Kusturica a Palme d'Or. It has some fantastic sequences, which I'm guessing all Kusturica movies do, but it is so rooted in Serbian history for me to connect with it like I do with the other films. Told from the perspective of a child during Yugoslavia's 1950's transformation away from Stalinism -- the story is about the father of a family getting sent to a labor camp due to an off-handed on-the-job comment. Perhaps out of guilt that this detention might be more the result of a vengeful lover, he tells his family that he is simply going away on business. The films of Kusturica, at least the earlier ones that I have seen are all very much concerned with the effects communism had on Yugoslavia. The idea of family and community are very much at the core of the Kusturica films I've seen (aside from Arizona Dreams) and there's always a line drawn between the adults who are 100% concerned with the politics that are surrounding them and the children who simply live their lives regardless. Politics of course do affect everyone to some degree and When Father Was Away on Business shows how it can trickle down to even the sleepwalking six year old at the center of it all.



(The sleepwalking is of course a not-so-subtle metaphor for a generation of Yugoslavians during this period but it also adds a bit of that surreal edge that would later become Kusturica's calling card. In fact the beautiful last shot of the film, with the 6 year old literally walking off into the sunset, could be seen as Kusturica saying goodbye to the kitchen sink melodrama and entering a new world of his own creation that follows his own rules.)

Before When Father Was Away on Business, Kusurica created a very similar world in Do You Remember Dolly Bell? And as it is his first feature length film, it is something of a stunner. Again told through the eyes of the youngest child in the family, this time in the 60's with a teenager named Dino, Dolly Bell is a more straightforward coming of age story; a genre of film that I hold in high regard -- which may be why I enjoyed it much more. Like the exquisite Austrailian film The Year My Voice Broke that came 6 years later, we have a young teenager in a small town trying to come to grips with his first love and first heartbreak while juggling all the other hang-ups of being a teenager and learning to grow up quickly. Just so happens this first love is in the form of a burlesque performer/prostitute that Dino is helping the local hoodlum stash for safe keeping in his family's barn. The few scenes of the two of them in the barn, Dino trying to comfort the young woman and at the same time come to grips with her brazen sexuality are remarkably touching.



The movie is filled with this type of delicate touch. It should be noted that Dolly Bell has some great comedic moments - much more so than Father (which was billed as "A Very Human Comedy"). The movie starts with one of its funnier B-stories involving the local town leader's getting together to discuss as seemingly dire situation only to have it turn out to be their desire to get a rock n' roll band started. "All the other towns have them! Come on, we have delinquent teenagers too!" It's an amazing movie filled with universal themes and situations: young teenagers spending their time lying and being confused about sex, forming a band, dealing with mortality, confronting your first girlfriend's pimp, etc. There's a humanity in how all these themes are dealt with that is frightening to think came from a 26 year old who hadn't made a film before.

Again, this being a very early film for Kusturica, it doesn't have that manic spirit of his later work -- but it does show his talent for nuance that might get lost (and according to some vocal dissenters of his more recent work is all but gone). His eye for detail in both Father and Dolly Bell that makes every character and every interior and exterior so completely organic and is something that stays solid through every film I've seen, even when the most bizarre moments strike.

Those moments come fast and furious, relatively speaking, in Underground. Kusturica's homecoming of sorts after Arizona Dreams is an epic filled to the breaking point with wildly imaginative allegory and anarchy and won Kusturica his second Palme d'Or (putting him on a very short list of six directors who've been able to accomplish that feat). Trying to describe Underground is like trying to describe 2001 to somebody. The movie goes everywhere. It's completely unpredictable and just when you think you've gotten a grasp on it it grows even bigger and stronger. The short, very short, story is that two ne'er do well friends (Marko and Blacky) are rivals for a beautiful actress (Natalija) during the beginning of the Nazi invasion. Blacky ends up in a coma from fighting the gestapo and ends up with the rest of their friends and family in a huge bomb shelter. They manage to create a somewhat self sufficient society while the other friend Marko, played by the amazingly expressive Miki Manojlovic (a frequent Kusturica collaborator and the Father of When Father Was Away on Business), keeps the rest of the community under the impression that the war is still raging while he rises the ranks of the liberated Yugoslav party with Natalija by his side. Blacky, who's being memorialized as a fallen hero above ground, eventually wakens from his coma and the movie really takes off from there. Blacky is played by a force of nature named Lazar Ristovski. He is a revelation in the movie -- when Blacky walks into a room there's a energy to his (often drunken) swagger that practically has people stepping out of his way.



Ristovski completely sells this power on screen and when he wakes up from that coma you know things aren't going to end well for Marko but you have no idea the lengths the movie will take you to get to that point. Like I said, the scope of this picture is epic. It's telling the rise and fall of Yugoslavia in this story about these two friends. If I knew anything about Yugoslavian history I'm sure I would enjoy this movie even more, but I have little to no knowledge and yet there is simply so much to cinematic exuberance and joi de vive in this and all his films that I can't help but be bowled over by them. In Underground Kusturica shows us a weird sort of anti-stylization. I can only think of Robert Altman as a comparison. You have this sense of the actors being given complete freedom and yet you know in the back of your mind that it's 100% Kusturica.



There has been a lot to read about people's opinions on his films since Underground and I wish I was able to take part in that discussion. Unfortunately US DVDs stop cold here. From what I've read his films since then have gotten more and more into simply capturing this anarchic spirit and less and less into telling a story. From what I've read his follow up to Underground, Black Cat, White Cat toed the line in this regard and is quite good but since then plot has gotten away from him. I could write a whole post about the difference of importance between plot and story and bore us all even more, and maybe I will some day. I get the impression some Kusturica fans want him to return to the fables of his early work while he wants to see how far he can go on letting loose with his brand of cinematic exuberance. I for one will be queuing up whatever I can.

Paddy, I know you were able to catch one of his latest films, Zavet/Promise Me This, during its release in Belgium. I know you aren't really familiar with Kusturica's work, and went because of some prodding on my part, but can you add any thoughts to this?

Cassavetes > Morel, in verse (Taken)

Taken
Director: Piere Morel
Viewed From: What felt like the seventh level of hell

Damn you Cinematheque Royale.
Damn you for not having the print of Minnie and Moscowtiz, and instead showing Faces, which I had already seen.
And Damn you watchmovies.com for having an advanced copy of Taken, an utterly forgettable and offensive film, which manages to both waste Liam Neeson and the entire city of Paris.
And Damn you especially first commenter on watchmovies.com, for claiming this is 'the best movie ever made.'
Alas, it's not even in the top 5.

And woe be unto American audiences come September 19, where you can see the man who played Michael Collins drive stakes into the legs of an Albanian and torture him for fun.
And woe unto thee who follows this man's obsession.
For what truth is there in art, if not that obsession leads to destruction, that pride comes before the fall.
But not for Bryan Mills, whose pestering, nagging, and truly creepy affection for his daughter is all rewarded in the end.
You are like Icarus, Mr. Mills, except you just keep flying higher.

Friday, August 15, 2008

An Old Classic with the Expected Punch (The Invisible Man)

Director:James Whale
Viewed From: The Balcony

Part 2 of a series on old and random movies playing for 2 euros in Brussels.

-The stranger came early in February, one wintry day, through a biting wind and a driving snow, the last snowfall of the year, over the down, walking from Bramblehurst railway station, and carrying a little black portmanteau in his thickly gloved hand.-


And so begins H.G Wells's The Invisible Man, one of the man's many books that almost no one (including myself) has ever read, but that everyone has heard of. Instead we know Wells today through the movies he has inspired - The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Invisible Man. The first three, all recently remade, have been of varying quality, but Wells's version of science gone awry seems to have been overtaken in Hollywood by Phillip K. Dick's more philosophical and well, fucked up, dystopian vision.

But still the adaptations seem surprisingly poor given the subject matter. Why, for instance, is the 2002 version of The Time Machine was so boring, despite some fine work by Guy Pearce? Dr. Moreau may be more understandable, with Brando out of sorts and surrounded by dreadful leads, and Ron Pearlman the only one seemingly having any fun, but why is it so bad? I missed Spielberg's War of the Worlds but even the guy's supporters seemed less than impressed. Is it possible Wells just isn't that interesting anymore? Or ever was?

Based on seeing the classic 1933 The Invisible Man last week, I'm going to say the answers are 'yes' and 'yes.' The story of the Invisible Man (played by Claude Rains in his first American feature) is one of the classic tropes of the horror genre - an idealist scientist hopes to do good, tries to buck the system, and ends up creating a monster. It is a story director Whale knew well, having made the iconic Frankenstein just two years prior. But unlike Mary Shelley, who blurred the distinction between man and monster, Wells's mad scientist is clearly the bad man, and those trying to track him down good.

Given little backstory, Jack ('the invisible one' as the credits coyly tell at the outset) simply arrives in the first scene close to mad. Twenty minutes later, he is explaining his plan 'to terrorize the world' with an 'army of invisible men.' The language and the presentation are chilling, especially given the year this was made (for non-history folks, the year Hitler became Chancellor), but there is no subtlety in the transformation. Rains does incredible work in one emotionally wrought speech after another, but he would have been helped had we seen more of the nice scientist he was before.

Some of this may be due to changes in the script, as according to the Wiki entry, Whale made Jack more crazy because "in the minds of rational people only a lunatic would want to make himself invisible anyway," but the basic outline was there in the novel. For Wells, unlike Dick or Shelley, the moral lesson is easy: scientists are basically just good average folks who, when staying within the line of the scientific method, do good things. But add hubris to the mix, and things go crazy. But the better understanding - or at least the one that might resonates more with moviegoers today - comes from Dick, or modern writers like David Foster Wallace or Margaret Atwood, who explore just how messed up and troublesome our everyday relationship with technology and science has become. Basically, there doesn't need to be a mad scientist for science to be mad.

Despite the shortcomings of the source material, I should reaffirm what most people have said about the cinematic qualities of The Invisible Man. The special effects and the performances are excellent and not (as some would condescendingly put it) just for their time. This is, in places, a riveting and frightening movie, especially when Rains's voice reaches its most insane pitch and the bandages start to come off. I cannot foresee ever forgetting some of the images of the Invisible Man himself, and I can only imagine the reaction of people at the time - he looks unlike anything else, even Frankenstein's Monster. Whale pulls no punches, and the movie is shockingly violent in a way that only an old black and white film can be, with at least one disturbing act of real violence taking a few moments to register.

So it really is just Wells who doesn't keep up his end of the bargain, and you can thank him, rather than Spielberg or Frankenheimer, for the recent spate of middling flicks based on his novels, all vastly inferior to The Invisible Man. The idea of a pure science corrupted by the prideful may have played just fine in the early-twentieth century, but it's hard today, post-Heisenberg and post-Hiroshima, to take Wells very seriously.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Pineapple Express

Dir. David Gordon Green

Viewed: From the Balcony

Certainly my most anticipated movie of the summer. Ever since I read that David Gordon Green was going to make an action movie about a guy and his pot dealer, I was giddy. At the time Knocked Up was still happily buzzing in my head and the idea Seth Rogen was co-writer and he'd star with James Franco as the pot dealer was simply mind boggling. At this point Superbad hadn't even come out yet and the fact that Judd Apatow had tapped Greg Mottola for that one and David Fucking Gordon Green for this one was endlessly inspiring.

I'm happy to say that this is one of those rare occasions when my anticipation wasn't let down. Maybe it was the beers the amazing Somerville Theater serves its patrons, maybe it was the wonderfully drawn, relatable characters or maybe it was that organic touch that Green brings to everything he does -- the movie simply had me laughing the entire time. It does start out a little rocky, I'm not sure the Bill Hader 1950s intro properly sets the right tone for the movie, but the ship is righted pretty quickly and once we meet James Franco's pot dealer for the ages, the movie really does begin to sing.

James Franco's Saul is an singularly wonderous creation. While Seth Rogen can tend to play his characters a bit broad -- lets face it, the guy doesn't have the biggest of range -- Franco gives Saul so much soul and pathos that at times it is genuinely heartwarming. It's why I love off-beat genre movies like this so damn much. Anyone can tune into a old classic, something by a film festival darling, or a serious minded foreign flick and get that expected emotional punch. It's when that excitement comes from an action, horror or disregarded genre movie that really gets my mojo going. It's like they won one for the team and all us beleaguered cheerleaders get to do that ovation that simply so much sweeter since it doesn't come as often as we'd like it to.

Obligatory plot description: Guy witnesses murder by local drug kingpin who ties the witness back to Franco because of super weed Pineapple Express that he sold to Rogen. Guys have to go on the run. What honestly gets to me though is the truth to the Rogen-Franco relationship. Anyone who's bought weed knows about the hanging-out factor that you have to do with the dealer to buy the weed in a non-asshole way. Yes, it's been dealt with before in comedy (memorably in a Mr. Show skit where David had to hang out with the pharmacist to buy prescription weed) but to make it the relationship arc works surprisingly well and is even odds defyingly touching. Rogen just wants to buy his weed and be on his way, not deal with Franco showing off his entertainment system and talking about his Bubba, but I'll be damned if their eventual friendship in the story isn't earned twice over out of well paced characterization and the great chemistry the two actors have together.

Oh yeah, the movie happens to be a balls out action extravaganza too. Albeit a ramshackled one at that, but it is this unsophisticated brand of melee that makes it so much more enjoyable than another standard action movie. Punches hurt the guy making the fist, dustbusters are a viable weapon, guys feel sorry for making a hole in the wall with another guy's head. And that reminds me: This movie does feature on of the best, cringing, amazingly funny fight sequences committed to film in some time -- dare I say it made me recall a certain Roddy Piper movie in its hilarious extremes. For this 5 to 10 minutes of film I would gladly pay another 8 bucks to see this movie again.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

DVR-O-RAMA

Death to Comcast! Long live RCN! Of course this cable tv provider switcheroo left me with having to make some serious choices. I had a dozen or more movies saved up on the ol' DVR and about 12 hours to watch them. I quickly, painfully resigned myself to the fact that I'd be discarding the 5 episodes of this season's Venture Brothers I was planning for a sweet 'lil marathon. Other than that it was all movies on the DVR.

A cursory glance at the list made for few easy decisions. One was Apocalypto. I'd watched the first half, got sleepy and turned it off about a month ago. It may have been better letterboxed, but the Encore cropping made the DV cinematography look pretty crummy. And the cinematography was about all I liked from Gibson's previous leering, lingering look at a history of violence. Deleted.

A couple of documentaries quickly got the ax: Startup.com and Bus 174. I love good movies about a real-life crisis. One Day in September is one of my favorite documentaries. I had this feeling that Bus 174 could be something similar -- an engaging look into a hostage crisis on a bus in a Rio de Janiero. I'll find out one of these days. Startup.com on the other hand is something I have a more passing interest in -- the .com bubble burst of the early 2000s. I'm more interested in E-Dreams, a documentary about Kozmo.com, a failed business that I still hold a bit of a fascination towards. Startup.com got deleted but E-Dreams is still on my Netflix queue.

With three down from the get go we dove in. Surprisingly enough my girlfriend was willing to put up with entire day of watching movies that I'd recorded onto the DVR -- usually in bored, heavy -idded fits of playing with the programing guide. First up was No Such Thing. A movie of Hal Hartley's that I hadn't seen since it was first released. It is certainly one of his funniest movies -- in a dark, misanthropic way, of course. But what strikes me still is its odd premonition of NYC. The movie was made and released shortly before 9/11 and takes place, at the beginning anyway, in a NYC that is plagued by terrorism and outbreaks of violence. Getting from one side of town to the other calls for catching a ride with fearless men in pick-up trucks. The media loves this stuff yet has become bored with it by now. A rumor of an actual monster in Iceland that leads to a team of reporters being killed gets mogul Helen Mirren excited enough to send Sarah Polley to find out what happened. The monster is played as a hilarious loathing by Hartley regular Robert John Burke. He hates everyone and routinely terrorizes a small village of people who try to placate him with booze and sacrificing whatever unlikely travelers pass through. Unfortunately for him he is indestructible and the only guy who may know how to kill him is a mad scientist who got swept up by the CIA a while ago. Off to find him! It's not one of Hartley's best but it is a nice scathing look at humanity's dark side. Like most Hartley movies there's a killer monologue -- this one given by the monster upon his press conference where he lays it into the human race saying he knew there was going to be problems... (this is an excerpt taken from a poor transcription I found -- but you get the jist)

"I saw you evolving, moving. Annoying to me to die, I sighed and I waited while you spent millenia becoming fish. I encouraged you? I jumped, I threw stones at you while you crawl stupidly to sand. Lamentable. I threaded in your small villages at night. I seized an old man or a child and I broke to their cranium on a rock. Afterwards, I looked at, I studied, I tried to understand how you were made. What returned were cretins like you, so able to adapt. But there was nothing. Blood, tripe and of shit, as all the remainder. Without reason, absurdity. It was only another whore of accident. I went on cliffs at night and I howled with stars, me asking how I would finish. Would I live eternally? I want to die, but I cannot. I am indestructible I am sorry. It is not my fault. That must be yours. I do not know a god who can be also cruel. I do not know a god, except if, of course, I am God� But then, where is the difference?"

Next up was the burden of the day, in a way. The longest movie of the bunch but a glaring hole in my movie watching history: Nicholas Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth. It's not that bad, really. It has a good amount to say, but boy does it take it's time saying it. Nicholas Roeg has never been one for brevity - a good number of his movies are what the people call "challenging". I happen to be a big fan of his for the most part. Walkabout and Don't Look Now are near perfect and I had a VHS copy of Track 29 from Tower Records that I held onto for months before I returned it -- and it wasn't because I didn't get around to watching it -- I got around to watching it many, many times (what a wonderfully fucked up movie that one is...). But when your lead is novice actor David Bowie playing a despondent alien you're testing your limits. As enigmatic or hypnotic as he may have been on the stage and on album covers, his routine gets a bit stale as you reach the two hour mark with no end in sight. The grating personality of the girlfriend, Mary-Lou, he picks up at a Texas hotel and deals with for a majority of the movie doesn't help much either. It's a good premise though -- alien astronaut comes to Earth and uses his advanced knowledge to progress human technology and becomes wildly rich in the process, trying to make enough money to build his own space program, advanced enough to get him to his far away home planet. Having Rip Torn and Buck Henry as his colleagues helps out the movie a great deal. But they're powerless against the doldrums of the Bowie - Mary-Lou relationship and the huge lengths of move time where it feels like either nothing is happening or the same crap that happened ten minutes ago is happening all over again. A half hour could easily be trimmed from this movie and I doubt there'd be one person besides Roeg who would miss it. This is the exact kind of indulgent shit that led to the end of the film auteur. But hey, that's not yo say I didn't enjoy the movie for the most part.

As a refreshing glass of new-indie goodness, Primer was up next. According to The Rolling Blackout I'd watched this one back on 4/25/05 and I'm here to say that it's mind-boggling intricacies haven't lessened up since then. Scott Tobias' New Cult Cannon puts it better than I can. It's a $7,000 head trip and it's one of those movies that you bow down to. Just when you think an ambitious, truly indie movie can't find its way in this world anymore -- something like this comes along. A truly beautifully shot and wonderfully acted movie shot on weekends with friends and family that actually is better than a majority of the studio produced filler. We have two white collar corporate tech guys who tinker in the garage on their spare time stumble upon something... what is it? We has a hunch it would do something. Is it applicable? Can we sell the idea? Once they find out what it does, they know they can't sell it. They can use it, but can they trust each other with it -- a time machine? It is such an achievement even if at the end of the short 77 minute running time you have barely grasped what you've just watched. It's an inspiring indie movie -- something that you rarely see these days.

Time for lunch and then some more tough decisions. No one has the energy for another 2+ hour adventure, so High and Low goes regrettably out the window (I will watch you soon, promise). It is quickly followed by The Pope of Greenwich Village (I quickly confirm that it is being shown again in a couple weeks, so no big loss here). We decide upon Gus Van Sant's Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, a movie that I hadn't seen since it first came to theaters. I recalled not liking it much then, but since I'm still riding a bit of a Van Sant high that's lasted about 5 years now, I figured I'd give this oddball movie another shot. His 1993 follow up to the one-two punch of Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho is at first intriguingly off-beat and then just off. I hate to pin the downfall of a movie on any one actor. Some people like to think Sofia Coppola ruined Godfather III. But upon even a half-assed inspection it's clear that there are many reasons that movie falls short. I can't say quite the same about Cowgirls. The reason being that Bonanza Jellybean plays such a big role in making the rest of the movie work, her character is the lynch-pin of the movie. You can almost chart the demise of the movie to Bonanaza's first appearance sitting on a toilet. The first half hour or so are fun (hey there's Buck Henry again!) as we tag along with Uma Thurman's Sissy Hankshaw as she finds her way to the Countesess' ranch. But once she gets there it's clear she's the only one finding this fascinating. Rain Phoenix plays Bonanza like a lazy-eyed, mildly enthused eccentric. Uma Thurman is supposed to fall in love with her upon first sight. Bonanza is supposed to be this inspiring force of nature and, well, what you get on the screen is a goofy chick playing dress-up that isn't any more alluring than if Sofia Coppola stepped into her shoes. Actually I'd watch the movie again if Sofia reprized the roll. Anyway, toward the 2/3 mark I fell asleep. Bad form, I know, but what can you do? I wasn't about to hit rewind.

Time for another safe bet -- George Washington. David Gordon Green is one of my favorite directors working these days. Idiosyncratic almost to a fault and simply making beautifully crafted small, personal movies that are unlike anything any one else is doing. He's continued to make the kind of movies that have long been left behind to the 80's and early 90's -- when guys like Jim Jarmusch and John Sayles were still considered hip and a quiet low budget feature could still find an audience at the theater. George Washington is that kind of movie. Talky, kinda slow, a movie of small events, lingering shots and characters you hang out with and observe rather than watch. Green's movies are doused in the feel, pace and conversational style of the back-woods southern towns his movies take place. He captures his environments so well that he quickly got into the good graces of Terrence Malick - how's that for street cred? (He also has one of the coolest selection of personal quotes on his IMDb page.)

George Washington is Green's first picture and his least plot driven one. It leisurely follows around a small group of friends and family loosely attached to a local mining site over the course of a summer. Some tragedy does strike the group but it never delves into any melodramatics or let it change the tone or pace of the picture. In a way it has a very documentary feel to it. All of the dialog feels natural and real -- coming from the mostly black cat it certainly doesn't feel like the words of a white 25 year old. It's not my favorite David Gordon Green picture -- I'll take All the Real Girls or Undertow -- but it's a hypnotic, and fascinating movie filled with striking imagery. Certainly one of the greatest debut pictures to come around in the double oughts.

The nightcap was an enjoyable piece of high concept popcorn movie called Deja Vu. I usually enjoy when Tony Scott and Denzel Washington get together. They have this weird ying/yang about them that makes it work. While Tony Scott, unlike his brother Ridley, is anything but high-minded you can't help but look at Denzel and feel the weight of the world. While Deja Vu doesn't quite measure up to Crimson Tide or Man on Fire, it provided a fun, ridiculous, implausible but ultimately entertaining look at time travel crime fighting. Where Primer deals with time travel in a serious, intellectual way that completely sells you on the idea, Deja Vu is all about movie slight off hand that keeps throwing things at you so that you hopefully don't pause for a second and realize that what they're trying to sell you makes absolutely little to no sense. But those people explaining or dodging the questions are Val Kilmer and Adam Goldberg, two guys that are part of a experimental task force that tries to use wormholes or something to look back in time and solve crimes. After a ferry explosion in New Orleans they take in local ATF cop Denzel to help figure out what happened. Scott actually tones down his woozy camera shots, over-saturated colors and jump cuts but like a number of Tony Scott movies, the crazy keeps getting ratcheted up in the name of car chases, gun fights and explosions. When you have a solid core of story and actors like you do here it can end with a fun time (in this case it certainly helps when you're paying little to no money), in other cases, like Domino for example, it can fall into style over substance and only be appreciated for the level of gonzo Scott is always willing to deliver. In this case he walks the line and offers up one of his more balanced films -- for better or worse.

Bleary eyed and satiated, sleep came easy that night.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Fear Not (Ministry of Fear)

Note: RFC's home away from home, the Cinematheque Royale de Belgique, has devoted its August program to rerunning classic films from across the globe. It's just an easy way for the CRB to fill out the August schedule, when the entire town is on vacation, but it might help me fill the many gaps in my cinema education. Throughout the month, I'll be posting irregularly on some of these.

Ministry of Fear
Dir:
Fritz Lang
Viewed From: The Balcony


This really could have been a better movie. Fritz Lang, Graham Greene, Nazis...well, if anything Ministry of Fear shows how important having a big name star was to 40s motion pictures. I'll express my dislike of Ray Milland here and move on, but just about anyone would have been better for this role. Cary Grant is an obvious call, and tough to beat, but Milland is so milquetoast, so uninteresting, and is on screen almost every second of the film, that his presence drags down the rest of the movie. I'll save any final judgments on his work until after seeing his Oscar-winning performance in The Lost Weekend, but I'm not impressed so far. There's also the problem with the title, as the combination of Fritz Lang and "Ministry of Fear" got me excited for Kafkaesque fun in some bureaucratic nightmare. Unfortunately, however, the Ministry is never really talked about, and the Fear is just your garden-variety fear of being shot by Nazis, not the existential stuff.

There are a few genuine moments of FEAR, but nothing that lasts long, and certainly nothing that you will take out of the theater. The movie does begin with a nice trip down the rabbit hole, with a series of odd and inexplicable scenes that piqued this viewers interest - Stephen Neale (Milland) being released from prison, Neale winning a cake at a fair based on fortune-teller, a blind man beating up Neale to get the cake, a creepy seance with a lot of neat oddballs. However, as the strangeness begins to be explained the movie quickly loses interest. Oh, is that all it was about?

Lang does create some memorable scenes (though the opening take of a clock, drawing back to reveal a room, is superfluous, doing nothing more than demonstrating that one can move a camera on a dolly). One takes place against the backdrop of a Nazi bombing while Neale chases after his cake. Another is during the seance when he creates some real fear though a cool lighting technique and a whisper, and there is a great moment where a character gets shot though a door in the dark. There might have even been one more, but I think there was a problem with the final reel, as what is meant to be the climactic scene was disrupted. As Neale and some goons fight it out atop a hotel, we dimly see the figures he is shooting at. However, a light goes on in the stairwell, and we see the leader of the Ministry - the main bad guy! - emerge as two cops get shot just out of view. Neale is running low on bullets, and the evil Dr. Forrester (Alan Napier) is coming up the stairs, and...we cut to Neale and his girl driving in a convertible along the coast, happily ever after. The End. It's like Blade Runner, but if they had cut straight to the original ending like right as Deckard got to Sebastian's apartment.

Ministry of Fear is helped by some strong performances by Carl Esmond and Dan Duryea, and Lang's inventive shooting of conventional scenarios, but they cannot make up for a lifeless script (Seton I. Miller adapted from Graham Greene), a weak Milland and weaker Marjorie Reynolds (the girl), and a feel-good ending. It's also annoying that the entire movie takes place in England without any accents, and that the most creepy characters and more beautiful love interest (Hillary Brooke) are dropped without explanation. Seeing the proper ending would have been nice, but not enough to make this any more than minor Lang and Greene.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Sean's Shortlist

Here's the list that took me many days and beers to whittle down...

Padraic's List of the Best Films of each year that he has been alive

Notes: I'm the part of the younger generation at RFC, so no 1976 for me. I pretty much adopted the 'favorite' designation, so it was fun to see how the movie tastes developed from Action/Comedies when I was a kid, to movies based on inner-city black culture around the early 90s, to the more artisitc and less narrative stuff of the twenty-first century. A quick note on the multiple directors: Spike Lee (3), Bela Tarr (2), Wes Anderson (2), Jim Jarmusch (2), and David Lynch (2). Most shockingly, not a single Scorcese movie on either list despite him generally being recognized as the best director of the era.


Edit - I've also placed in bold the movies that overlap with Sean's list.

1977 – Annie Hall (Maybe with multiple viewings, Stroszeck)

1978 – Deer Hunter (Best Leonard Maltin 2 1/2 star rating - Laserblast)

1979 – Apocalypse Now

1980 - Caddyshack

1981 – Road Warrior

1982 – Burden of Dreams/Fitzcaraldo (I don't care, this counts)

1983 – The Right Stuff (worst year so far: Trading Places and the Chuck Norris vehicle Lonewolf McQuade were both in the running)

1984 – Stranger than Paradise (Hardest Year so far)

1985 – The Breakfast Club (The best of a great year for comedies)

1986 – Blue Velvet (Sad that about five years ago this would have been a contest between Rad and Wildcats)

1987 – Full Metal Jacket (Maybe, maybe The Untouchables)

1988 – Damnation (Just 15 months ago would have been I'm Gonna Git You Sucka)

1989 – Do The Right Thing

1990 – Quick Change

1991 – Boyz n the Hood

1992 – Malcolm X

1993 – Dazed and Confused (Tombstone would have won if I hadn’t seen it again last year, but D&C could also fall of the list if I ever saw it again)

1994 – Quiz Show

1995 – Smoke

1996 – Bottle Rocket

1997 – Contact

1998 – The Thin Red Line

1999 – Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai

2000 – Werkmeister Harmonies

2001 – The Royal Tannenbaums

2002 – 25th Hour

2003 – The Station Agent

2004 – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

2005 – The Squid and the Whale

2006 – Inland Empire

2007 – No Country for Old Men (This could easily go to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford in a few years)

2008 – Nicolas Provost Short Film Screening (So far, but I can't see this being topped)

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Sean 1976-2008 (Movies)

07 Motion Pictures.m4a
4136K Download

Things I learned compiling a list of my favorite movie from every every year I've been on this ever expanding rock:

Alternate titles for distribution to the Philippines -- so very hilariously literal.
Not much going on cinematic-wise in 1983.
1989, 1999 on the other hand... can this trend continue for 2009?
I'm not sure if there's a better way to evoke memories for me that to browse through a year of movie releases.

Anyway, on with the list:

1976 - Mikey & Nicky
1977 - Annie Hall (Best Casting Against Type - The Duelists)
1978 - Heaven Can Wait (Best Remake - Invasion of the Body Snatchers)
1979 - Being There (Best Suspense Movie - Alien)
1980 - The Empire Strikes Back
1981 - Blow Out
1982 - Fitzcarraldo
1983 - Videodrome
1984 - Stranger Than Paradise
1985 - Brazil (Best Horror Movie For the Ages - Re-Animator)
1986 - Blue Velvet (Other Amazing Movie that Just Happens to Also Have a Great Dennis Hopper Performance - River's Edge)
1987 - Empire of the Sun (Best Movie by a Director Primed For a Comeback - Withnail & I)
1988 - Eight Men Out
1989 - Drugstore Cowboy (Best Underrated Movie - Penn & Teller Get Killed)
1990 - Metropolitan (Best Mindfuck for a 14YO - Jacob's Ladder)
1991 - Barton Fink
1992 - Simple Men (Best Other Underrated Movie - Shakes the Clown)
1993 - Naked
1994 - Pulp Fiction (Best Directorial Comeback - Death and the Maiden)
1995 - Kids
1996 - Paradise Lost
1997 - The Ice Storm (Best Horror Movie - Funny Games)
1998 - Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
1999 - eXistenZ
2000 - You Can Count On Me (Best Modern Day Western - Way of the Gun)
2001 - Ichi the Killer (Best Comic Book Movie - Ghost World)
2002 - Punch-Drunk Love (Best Ending - Irreversible)
2003 - Last Life In the Universe (Best Yet Another Underrated Movie - Masked & Anonymous)
2004 - Undertow
2005 - Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
2006 - Children of Men (Best Film School Class Shortcut - Pervert's Guide to Cinema)
2007 - Zodiac (Best Monster Movie - The Host)
2008 - so far... Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog