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27 August 2009

RIFFRAFF

directed by Justen Naughton

Screwing, boozing and saving lives. Aren’t these the things that really matter? Fuckin’ A. For the characters in Justen Naughton’s RIFFRAFF, one summer lifeguarding Chicago’s beaches is a chance to mature, find love, learn about true friendship and, of course, to have one helluva 3 month party.
To describe RIFFRAFF without drawing comparisons to its raunchy, irreverent and shitfaced comedic predecessors would be like reviewing Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof without mentioning White Lightning, Vanishing Point, Two-Lane Blacktop or even Robert Mitchum’s classic Thunder Road. In true retro-comedic fashion, Naughton’s script distills colorful crudity and lively vulgarity into a moonshine that warms the heart and kills a few brains cells. Add a Belushi to the mix (okay, enough with the Animal House comparisons), and you have most of the fixins necessary to cook up a worthy addition to the canon.
Okay, synopsis time. Hughie “Hi-tops” (Ben Wells) is a near virgin who finds himself rooming with May (Chryssie Whitehead), the seasoned ex of his man slut best friend and roommate, Otis (Robert Belushi), all of whom work at the same stretch of beaches. Talk about work and play together. Hi-tops develops a thing for May and reluctant virgin Maggie, his old next door neighbor, but not before hitting on his cousin. Yeesh. Otis has plans of his own concerning Maggie, but his checkered sexual past proves to be a greater hurdle than he anticipated.
Ultimately, RIFFRAFF strives to uphold the mantle set forth by the greats of a bygone era, and sometimes it comes close, and sometimes it stumbles. Amid superfluous and tangential side stories (Bedanski, Rasso, I’m looking at yous guys), you catch a glimmer of a heart in the mash up of unabashed vulgarity and sentimentality.

Rize

directed by David LaChappelle

A film that was magnificently skunked for any sort of accolade (shame on you, Academy), David LaChappelle’s miracle of a doc about krump dancing, originated in L.A., is one of the few docs that should have been nominated for a best cinematography and best film editing award. And that’s just for starters. Photographer and music video hero LaChappelle captures the frenzied excitement and frustration of a culture born from the social rubble of urban violence, poverty and mistreatment, and individuals like Tight Eyez, Dragon, Miss Prissy, Lil C and of course, the originator, Tommy the Clown seemed custom made for the big screen. LaChappelle’s use of color, texture and editing work to create a vibrant and almost surreal experience, no matter if the set is a parking lot, a church or one of his unique creations. For any music and dance fans out there, this doc should be on your must own list.

26 August 2009

Once Upon a Time in the West

directed by Sergio Leone

And to think, this beautiful, sprawling, flourishing love letter to the American West almost never happened. Say it isn’t so. Leone did not want to make another western after completing his legendary Dollars Trilogy (In which Eastwood and Van Cleef squint their way into the history books), but Paramount insisted that he make just one more under their banner before he was free to pursue his own interests. Thank you, Paramount, for forcing your agenda on Leone, for forcing him to give the world a movie of such remarkable scope, feeling and savage beauty, the most elegant elegy the American West will ever know. The story revolves around nameless hero Harmonica (Charles Bronson in one of the coolest roles ever to be played by a human), bent on revenge against the evil Frank (watch how Leone reveals America’s favorite wholesome son to the audience). Frank has his own agenda in murdering the McBain family and framing Cheyenne (Jason Robards pulling off a wonderful, brazen embodiment of “the outlaw”). Frank needs the land to run a train line west toward the Pacific. Leone also needs the land to run his own train line like a giant coffin nail through John Ford’s Monument Valley, and western fans will feel the pang of seeing the most romantic of cowboy landscapes devoured by the 20th century. Ennio Morricone creates one of the best, most haunting soundtracks ever to be heard, and in its operatic, colossal entirety, it swells to heights only imagined by even some of the greatest modern composers. And is there anything lovelier that Claudia Cardinale stepping off that train? I could write an entire book on why this film is perfect, and that still wouldn’t be enough. Once Upon a Time in the West is a film that reaches out and takes hold of you, and when it’s over, it feels as though an era has ended. An interesting note: Leone wanted the three gunmen at the train station to be Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach from his Dollars Trilogy. Watch it again and imagine how that would have played out. Oh, what might have been…

24 August 2009

White Lightning

directed by Joseph Sargent

Nobody does the sweaty, side burned, barely buttoned shirt thing better than Burt Reynolds in the 1970’s. And he brought his A-game to this driving classic in which he plays Gator McKlusky, a moonshine runner fresh out of the joint and bent on getting the crooked sheriff who killed his little brother. With the help of a federally suped up ride and a snitch mechanic, Gator tear-asses through Arkansas with revenge on his mind and shine in his trunk. Reynolds and Beatty get on like old enemies, sharing the screen for the first time since their turns in the legendary Deliverance. Top marks to Buddy Joe Hooker, driving extraordinaire responsible for much of the chase scenes and the amazing ending sequence (Burt only leaned against that car because he believed in Hooker’s driving chops). For more of Hooker’s automotive expertise, check out Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof (the no CGI doctored, just balls out driving car chase sequences will knock you on your ass!).

The Evil Dead I/II

directed by Sam Raimi

I’m grouping The Evil Dead and The Evil Dead II together not to point out how similar they were, but to highlight the beauty of watching them back to back. Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi, the Michigan duo who started their career with a little (and truly remarkable) short film called Within the Woods, finally rounded up enough dough to complete The Evil Dead, a gory, maniacal, frenzied treasure of a horror film. Campbell plays Ashley (later, just Ash), a nice enough but goofy looking guy who goes to a cabin in the woods with his friends and they get possessed and then he has to kill them all and it’s totally messed up. But awesome. You could see even then, with a shoestring budget and the threat of having to shut the project down (as the notorious stories go), Raimi’s vision coming to life in all its twisted excellence. Exhibit A: the excellent 360 degree shot of the basement. Exhibit B: the sequence spanning from when they pull onto that grassy road to when they unlock the cabin door in the beginning of the film. Hell, when you have a camera move named after you (The Raimi perspective, after the Evil Dead p.o.v. cam), you had to be doing something right.
Enter The Evil Dead II. Campbell plays Ashley, a nice enough but goofy looking guy who goes to a cabin in the woods with his girlfriend and she gets possessed and then he has to kill her, but not before she bites his hand and his hand gets possessed by the evil dead and after it slaps him around a bit he chops it off with a chainsaw. Some other people show up, but they have to go. The second film is great in very different ways than the first Evil Dead, which is why you need to see both of them, preferably back to back. Both of them have strong elements that compliment one another, both are totally kickass. And plus, if you ever get caught talking to one of those pretentious film dorks who think they know everything, just tell them two things: 1: you still own an original VHS copy of The Evil Dead, and 2: you were definitely glad that Sam decided to drop the Indian burial ground idea from Within the Woods, even though Within the Woods had some totally stellar compositional arrangements. If that doesn’t work, make up some sort of Nordic sounding name and declare that he is the master of Scandinavian mumble core cinema, then get the hell out of there.

The Notebook

directed by Nick Cassavetes

I have to admit, I was resistant to this decade spanning story of young love found, then lost, then found again, and I still have a few reservations about it, but Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams more than make up for it. Their presence is electric, and their chemistry tangible, which lends credulity to a love story that could easily fall through the manhole of reality and into the sewer of sentimental pap. Gosling is a genius of his craft, playing gutsy roles to such amazing, even unnerving perfection, and McAdams exudes the kind of sincerity that melts the heart. Their characters seem made for each other, except for one little problem. Noah (Gosling) is poor and Allie (McAdams) is rich. And Allie’s mommy and daddy don’t like that at all. How will he ever get the girl of his dreams back? Writing letters everyday and fixing up an old farmhouse to her exact specifications seems like a start. When I put it that way, it sounds like it will activate the old gag reflex, but Cassavetes treats his subject with a tender care that refuses to get too syrupy. Sam Shepard and James Marsden are pitch perfect, and when you have a great supporting cast, magical things can happen. Just look at Andrew Dominik’s gem, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, or Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker that came out this summer.

Raising Arizona

directed by the Coen Brothers

If it’s one thing the Coen Brothers can’t be faulted for, it’s doing the same thing over and over again. They seem to reinvent themselves with every new project (not always with favorable results, but much respect for trying new things). Personally, I am quite excited for their newest comedy, A Serious Man, due out this year, but closest to my heart is the tale of amateur felon H.I. McDunnough (Nicholas Cage) and his love for hard boiled cop Edwina, or “Ed” (Holly Hunter). After his parole, the newlyweds attempt to start a family, attempts that prove fruitless. As luck would have it, local furniture baron Nathan Arizona just welcomed quintuplets into the world. Why not take one off their hands? Problem solved. Easily the zaniest, kooky mess of a nuclear family in the Coen canon, the brothers season a screwball plot with even screwier characters (John Goodman and William Forsythe are manic geniuses), dialogue and situations, and it all makes for the best comedic goulash you have had in a long time. Get to eatin’, movie lovers!

19 August 2009

The Story of the Weeping Camel

directed by Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni


What starts off as a visually magnificent doc about rural Asiatic life ends up turning into a viscerally enigmatic experience that I don’t think I will ever be able to truly grasp. Outwardly about the vast gaps between societies and the struggles facing future generations’ attempts to preserve their own cultural identity, this stunning doc ultimately transforms into a meditation on the mysteries of existence and mankind’s primitive (possibly forgotten) link to the natural world. I won’t get into the specifics, but if you want to have your mind blown, renting this one is definitely a good start.

Vanishing Point

directed by Richard C. Sarafian

Kowalski, the last American hero, tweaked on uppers and hauling ass across country to deliver a Dodge Challenger, and sticking a giant middle finger up conservative America’s ass in the process, that’s Vanishing Point in one hit. Sarafian’s tough film plays like a hard rock fantasy come to life, a counter culture odyssey replete with a Radio DJ fucking with The Man, hippies fucking with The Man, and Kowalski bucking the system at every turn. And wait a minute, is that Dean Jagger in the desert, playing one of the best roles of his life? It is! The only problem I have with Vanishing Point is that it had to end. Drive on, Kowalski.

18 August 2009

Versus

directed by Riyuhei Kitamura

How can I describe this epic Japanese sci-fi action horror thriller without giving too much away? Prisoner KC8J-303 just escaped from a prison transport and is awaiting pickup by some nefarious characters with a kidnapped girl when all hell breaks loose. Well, first one of the gangsters is killed, but when he come back to life, then all hell breaks loose. Zombies, that’s right, I’m talking about zombies. Now KCJ8-303 is on the run from the live gangsters and a few dead ones, not to mention the police out to round up any surviving escapees. Enter an even more dubious guest to the mix, a supernatural stranger ready to open a portal to the underworld, a portal that exists there, in the Forest of Resurrection. Guess that explains the zombies. But is this stranger the bad guy, or the good guy? Kitamura directs his explosive film with all the piss and vinegar of a young Sam Raimi, and the result is movie gold. A long awaited, legitimate American version is out there, so don’t waste your time hunting down the ridiculously subtitled, poorly transferred Asian copy. Just pop it in and brace yourself.

The Hedgehog in the Fog

directed by Yuri Norstein

This one is very obscure, but totally worth hunting down, especially for fans of stop motion animation. Filmed in 1975 by Russian animation giant Yuri Norstein, the short film centers on a young hedgehog on his way through the forest to meet his friend the bear cub so they can count the stars. Probably my favorite example of the kind of artistic heights that stop motion animation can reach, this film was nearly shelved after Norstein’s 3 person crew were unable to complete the film in the time allotted for much larger crewed projects (usually projects such as Hedgehog had 30 or more members). It was only after showing the partial film to the Communist Party committee that Norstein was allowed to finish his treasure of a film. It can be found on the collection DVD Masters of Russian Animation, Volume 2. In the collection are other rare gems like Ivan Ivanov-Vano’s Seasons and Norstein’s Heron and Crane.

The City of Lost Children

directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Few films possess the kind of ethereal and darkly magical qualities of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film about a fairy tale city in which orphans are stolen by a secret society and sent to an island where a frighteningly macabre scientist named Krank uses them to make dreams for himself. Yeesh, when you put it that way… Ron Perlman plays One, a strong man street performer whose little brother is kidnapped. He enlists the help of Miette, a little girl with moxy to spare, and together they uncover the plans of the mad scientist Krank and his plans to create the dreams he cannot have on his own. To say that this movie is visually amazing is a gross understatement, like saying “Everest, yeah it’s pretty tall.” I normally don’t recommend watching a foreign film with the English dubbing on, but with a movie as visually stunning as this, you won’t want to miss a frame. And plus, Ron Perlman does his own dubbing work, which makes for a much better voice-over viewing.

My Name is Nobody

directed by Tonino Valerii

Western god Sergio Leone produced this rough and tumble western comedy about a young gunslinger named Nobody (Terrence Hill) who is bent on making sure that aging pistolero Jack Beauregard (Henry Fonda) goes out in a hail of gunfire befitting a man of his stature. Hill sheds much of the silliness that made for good but mediocre fun in the Trinity series, and the result is a humorous cool that resonates. Fonda, back in the western saddle after Once Upon a Time in the West, is perfect as the fast gun who knows that a faster gun will inevitably come along. Watch Beauregard square off against the wild bunch. It’s pure western gold.

12 August 2009

Little Dieter Needs to Fly/Rescue Dawn

directed by Werner Herzog

Is there any director out there who is willing to go to greater lengths than Werner Herzog when it comes to capturing the essence of a story? I think not. In that spirit, Herzog takes the subject of his riveting doc back into the jungles of Vietnam where he was a POW after being shot down during the Vietnam War. As Dieter walks the audience through the various ways in which he was tortured, demonstrates how to break out of handcuffs, and explains why he now stores pounds and pounds of dried food in his cellar, you can’t help but watch in amazement at his candor, and his courage for revisiting what was clearly a harrowing chapter of his life. What resonates from this doc is the fortitude of the human spirit, the horrors it will endure and the triumph of life earned at any cost.

With subject matter as juicy as this, it is no wonder Herzog chose to revisit Dieter’s story again, this time in the form of a narrative film, Rescue Dawn. Like Steven Soderberg’s Che, Rescue Dawn is a stellar example of solid, no nonsense talent working together to make a film so good that no one seemed to notice. For shame, public. Christian Bale is the essence of Dieter, embodying sheer will and optimism in the face of absolute tragedy. Think Bale’s accent is goofy? Give the doc a watch and listen to Dieter, then think again. Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies play fellow POWs clinging to life against all odds, eating bugs for sustenance and plotting an escape that may never come. Hats off to Zahn and Davies for delivering haunting performances that linger in your mind. Rescue Dawn compliments Little Dieter needs to Fly in all the right ways, and to watch only one is like buying 250 pieces of a 500 piece puzzle (Really, did he just make a puzzle reference? Why am I reading this?).

Seven Men From Now

directed by Budd Boetticher

Initially intended as a filmic b side (the second, shorter film in a double feature), Budd Boetticher’s Seven Men from Now is one of the coolest, most badass westerns ever to be made, and it was made in 1956. That’s years before Sergio Leone redefined what a western could be and sparked the shift in thinking about how the American West was perceived (Leone says you’re welcome to Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones and Andrew Dominick, to name a few). Randolph Scott plays ex-Gman Ben Stride to a hard-boiled, ass-kicking tee, a man on the hunt for seven outlaws who robbed a bank and killed a clerk in the process. It turns out that the clerk was Stride’s wife. Big mistake! On the trail, Stride meets a couple heading west, and even an old enemy, Masters (Lee Marvin is so cool it’s maddening). Deception, greed, and a quick draw so quick you can’t separate the sound of the bullets make for a fantastic thrill directed by one of the greatest American directors (so great, in fact, that Quentin Tarantino named Michael Madsen’s character Budd in Kill Bill after the legendary director). If you’re a western fan, see this movie. You won’t be disappointed.

04 August 2009

Microcosmos

directed by Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou

Directors Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou’s astonishing view into the world beneath our feet is as beautiful as it is bizarre. Ants that harvest, protect and care for fleas on plants who, in return provide the ants with precious sugar. Even some romantic snails get their groove on in front of the camera (sexy). Not to be confused with the totally amazing, totally worth watching BBC series Life in the Undergrowth (which, in many ways, is just as remarkable and just as elegant), Microcosmos provides no narration, no overarching narrative other than simply to show you what it’s like down there. The end sequence of a mosquito emerging victoriously from his underground hatchery is as epic and terrible as anything you’d see in a Kubrick film.

The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie

directed by Stephen Hillenburg

Ok, ok, SpongeBob is so played, you say. He is only funny to twenty-something stoners and ADHD toddlers with a gut full of Adderol. Not true. Well, it may be absolutely true, but the feature film addition to the SpongeBob saga is chock full of some of the most hilarious, insane and jacked up animation you have seen in years. America’s favorite underwater dwelling, yet somehow kitchen dishes shaped sponge is ready for his promotion to manager of the burger joint he has faithfully served for years, but when he is passed up for the job due to a lack of maturity, his confidence is shaken. Meanwhile, nemesis, and picayune prick, Plankton has his tiny mind hellbent on world domination with a deliciously evil Plan Z, a plan that involves stealing King Neptune’s crown and blaming SpongeBob’s boss. With his homie Patrick in tow, the two heroes set out to return the crown and show Bikini Bottom that they are both men with true grit. The scene in which Patrick and SpongeBob suck down sundaes until they can’t see straight is a time capsule moment, as well the scene in which they both grow mustaches. You have to get a load of it for yourself.

Moon

directed by Duncan Jones

Sam Rockwell delivers some of the best performances of his career in this heavy as hell sci-fi film directed by Duncan Jones. Did he just say performances? Damn straight I did. Watch the preview and check out what I mean, a lone astronaut slash mechanic Sam Bell (Rockwell) on a three year contract spends his time on the moon fixing machinery and talking with a computer (voiced with lucid precision by Kevin Spacey). It’s almost quitting time and Bell is due to ship out in two weeks. But when something goes wrong outside, Bell brings in another astronaut who turns out to look just like him. What, you say? Again, damn straight. I won’t give away anymore than what the preview allows, but rest assured that Sam Rockwell is worth whatever the hell a movie ticket costs in your neck of the woods nowadays. Jones creates a space that feels real, lived in, dirty, and the script by Nathan Parker swings for the fences.

The Five Obstructions

directed by Lars Von Trier

Lars Von Trier. What can be said of Von Trier that hasn’t already been said? Clearly, if you have watched any of his dramatic films, you get the sense that Lars doesn’t have a lot of faith in humanity. But I will not get into a Freudian analysis of Von Trier films and how they represent various aspects and complexes of his psyche. I will, however, say that Von Trier’s insanely entertaining doc about the essence of filmmaking is an absolute must see for cinephiles out there. The premise: Lars wants his friend and idol Jorgen Leth to remake his 1967 short film, The Perfect Human, five times. But each time, he has to follow a set of obstructions created by Von Trier, obstructions designed to handicap and ultimately (Lars hopes) break Leth. The goal here for Von Trier is to get Leth to learn about himself by trying to get him to make a crappy film which, much to Von Trier’s dismay, he doesn’t. Or, if we want to simplify it: Crazed auteur filmmaker wants to take his idol down a peg or two by sabotaging his efforts to revisit his landmark short film. It’s just so cute when Lars Von Trier tries to be nice.

Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus

directed by Andrew Douglas

If you were looking for a simple documentary about southern music, you have come to the wrong place. But, if you were looking for a doc that seeks to change the way you perceive the American South, then look no further. Douglas, starting from the premise that seeks to discover the source of inspiration for Jim White’s musical oddity, The Mysterious Story of how I Shouted Wrong-Eyed Jesus, delves into southern culture, southern music, and southern thinking with an elegant perception that only an outsider can channel. Like a meditative and surreal window into the American South, Douglas talks to criminals and pastors, drinkers and sinners alike. Sure, most of it is staged (beautifully, by the way), and sure, some of the artists in the film aren’t even from the South, but all that doesn’t matter. What does matter is the feeling that the doc fills you with, the mysterious feeling of never being able to understand the South unless you have lived there your entire life. It stands in stark and agonizingly beautiful contrast to our common perceptions of the South, a mysterious and intriguing world full of dark things we may never fully grasp. Performances by Johnny Dowd, The Handsome Family, David Johansen, Lee Sexton, David Eugene Edwards and Jim White himself are out of sight. White himself acts a kind of Virgil, guiding the audience through the back country roads and encounters with unsavory characters. Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus is a stunner of a music doc, a must see. Watch it with an open mind.

Primer

directed by Shane Carruth

Shane Carruth, where have you been all of our lives? Leave it to a thirty year old engineer to create the single best time travel movie ever made. Don’t believe me? Just watch. Aaron (Carruth) and his engineer buds, trying to get their startup off the ground, accidentally build a device that can transport them through time. Sound stupid? It’s not, and Carruth’s handling of discovery’s effect upon the human psyche, the sinister allure of omniscience, and the very nature of identity is simply astounding. No amount of viewings will satisfy all your questions, and no amount of viewings will water down the impact of this mind blowing sci-fi mystery. A movie so good there should be legislation preventing people from not watching it, Primer deserves to be on every DVD shelf in the world. Please, Mr. Carruth, give us more!