What movie was that...?

30 March 2011

Paris, Texas

directed by Wim Wenders

Paris, Texis, combines three of my favorite things: Sam Shepard, Harry Dean Stanton and wide open, ruggedly beautiful landscapes. It doesn’t hurt when such talent like Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire) is behind the camera, filling the empty spaces with so much visual storytelling that a look says more than pages of dialogue. Harry Dean Stanton nails this role like Mickey Rourke nailed The Ram in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, beautifully underplaying the role of Travis, a severely introverted man estranged from his brother, his ex wife and his son. When he turns up after several years, on a quest to find a plot of land he purchased in Paris, Texas, Travis reunites with his family and son and tries to makes sense of just what happened between him and his wife. Sam Shepard’s wonderful story finds a perfect fit with Wim Wenders, and the result is true magic. 

27 March 2011

Gomorrah

directed by Matteo Garrone

Not even a bullet proof vest will protect you from the scathing power of Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah, an almost documentary about life under the Camorra regime in Naples, Italy. The book, penned by Roberto Saviano, provides a look into the world of organized crime in a way like you have never seen before, and the filmic adaptation knocks the hell out of all previous mob film efforts, period. Where other films, even the ones that try really, really hard not to, romanticize organized crime, whether overtly or subtly (subconsciously, even), Gomorrah simply acts as window into a world most of us are in no way aware of. Five stories of various facets of life under Camorra rule, from a man peddling toxic waste disposal land to a mob pay clerk distributing funds to families of imprisoned and offed gangsters, to a pair of boys with Scarfaced shaped stars in their eyes, weave a harsh and gritty tapestry about the bloody economics of a social structure built around brute force and crime. Gomorrah was a juggernaut of hype, intrigue, and scandal when it premiered, and it lives up to every allegation and assertion. Not only does Garrone direct his film with a shocking authenticity, he utilizes natives of the area, including a real Comorra crime boss (Bimbo) anxious for fame. Gomorrah is a true portrait of a world governed by sin, ruled by violence, and riled by a lost sense of respect.

For those of you looking for an analogy: Think of the mob film canon as the 82nd Academy Awards. Gomorrah is like Christoph Waltz, and all the other mob films are like the other supporting actor nominees. Tough luck, guys.

26 March 2011

Le Temps Du Loup (Time of the Wolf)

directed by Michael Haneke

The opening sequence will give fans of Funny Games a strange sense of déjà vu, but Michael Hanecke’s terrific film, Time of the Wolf, may also give you Cormac McCarthy fans another sense of déjà vu. Before John Hillcoat directed the fantastic adaptation, Mr. Cormac McCarthy penned the phenomenal book of the same title. And before all you “oh, the book was so much better” snobs start in with your two cents and I completely lose you, keep this timeline in mind:

2009: John Hillcoat’s film version of The Road premieres.

2006: Cormac McCarthy’s book, The Road, is published.

2003: Cormac, according to his own telling, is inspired with the idea for The Road while on a trip to El Paso, Texas with his son.

2003: Michael Haneke’s film, Le Temps Du Loup, premieres on October 8th.
Note: Haneke states (on the special features for the film) that he had this idea for Time of the Wolf even before Funny Games (which came out in 1997).

Wow. I feel a little like Jim Garrison here, spouting grassy knoll conjecture. Back, and to the left! Anyway, ladies and gentleman of the jury, I am providing you with this precious info on the chance that you have not watched Michael Haneke’s excellent piece of filmic art before. If you have, then you already know what I am talking about here, and you have probably been arguing this point at various cocktail parties to bewildered and (let’s face it) apathetic audiences for years (really? Who’s inviting you anywhere, BC? And really, cocktail parties? Is this the 1950’s?). Michael Haneke’s films are grueling, taxing, visceral experiences that seek to point out the drastic social incongruities that surround us. While McCarthy’s book (and it is a stellar book) uses the unnamed, unexplained disaster in a metaphysical way, Haneke uses the device to shock the indulgent, quasi-affluent Westerners of his filmic tale into conditions daily experienced by much of the rest of the world. There isn’t any cannibalism or scorched earth or Lord of the Flies madness, just civilized people clinging to what little trappings of civility can be afforded. It’s tense, harrowing, and exhausting, but Le Temps Du Loup provides a radical framework for looking at both “disaster” films and the human mechanism as a whole. As The Black Keys so aptly put it: You know what the sun’s all about when the lights go out. Touché, Misters Auerbach and Carney.

24 March 2011

Wings of Desire

directed by Wim Wenders

The opening sequence is stunning, the opening credits are spectacular (some of the best ever), and everything that follows is the stuff of magnificent mystery. Wim Wenders nails a film about the enigma of being, the power of a moment, and the weight of eternity, telling the story of an angel named Damiel, wandering through Berlin (since before time existed, it seems) and bearing witness to the myriad instances that comprise humankind’s collective existence. When he falls for Marion, a beautiful circus performer, he finds himself at a cosmic crossroads that, aided in part by Peter Falk (playing himself, to genius effect), influences a critical decision. Bruno Ganz is just stellar as Damiel, and Solveig Dommartin mesmerizes and moves as Marion, the object of Damiel’s affection. Peter Falk is fantastic as himself, an American actor in Berlin shooting a film, an actor who has a special connection with Damiel (who otherwise goes unseen, except by some children). Wenders directs this film like a poet, soaring, sweeping, and sneaking into so many wonderful nuances with the eye of an artist and the tenderness of a parent. The black and white blends beautifully with the color sequences, and any film that features Nick Cave in some way, either behind the scenes as the writer of The Proposition, as the composer of The Assassination of Jesse James, as an actor like in Johnny Suede, or simply as his true performer self in Wings of Desire, is bound to be something worth watching. Wings of Desire is a perfect remedy for that angst you just can’t shake, and the perfect film to replenish your sense of wonder and joy about the world, which is something we all need now and again. 

23 March 2011

Limitless

directed by Neil Burger

Those of you who think that Terence Malick films are for pretentious art film snobs can start getting excited, for Neil Burger has cooked up just the thing for your popcorn flick cravings. Timeless is a slick, flashy and fun little no brainer about a screw up writer named Eddie (Bradley Cooper), who is all blocked up about the novel he hasn’t even started. Blocked up, that is, until he spontaneously runs into his ex brother in-law (it doesn’t matter why, because who cares?) who seemingly throws caution to the wind (again, it doesn’t matter why) and gives Eddie his first dose of NZT, a pill that turns you into the Bobby Fischer of everything. Things start falling into place for Eddie: he finishes his book in a week, gets his Rain Man on at the casino, plays the stock market like a character from Primer, and mentally dazzles his way into various bedroom escapades, but like all drug movies (Reefer Madness, Requiem for a Dream, Pineapple Express), Eddie’s addiction comes at a price. Burger’s direction is overtly flashy in every glitzy, trippy, After Effecty way, a style that plays to the film’s strengths and helps you to make your peace with the plot holes that crop up like those Acme holes in a box that Wile E. Coyote used to order to catch the Road Runner. The acting is good, nothing special, the opening credits are cool in that music video kind of way, and all in all I dug it. Never underestimate the power of a little escapism.

21 March 2011

Days of Heaven

directed by Terence Malick

The greatest thing about the almost singular genius of writer/director Terence Malick is also the greatest tragedy (for me, at least): Malick is so gorgeously unprolific that his entire body of work (in which he had complete control as writer and director, that is, for he did pen other films that he did not direct) can be watched in one day. Malick’s work conveys a quiet sense of vastness, of immensity, of cosmic melancholy that he somehow funnels through a pinhole, until the flash of a smile, or a sentence, or a low angel shot of a tree can touch you like a flooring, magnificent crescendo. Malick finds wonder and desperation, beauty and sadness, chaos and order in even the simplest things, and Days of Heaven distills this point of view into a stunning, hypnotic, dreamlike experience that will move you in unexpected ways. Days of Heaven tells the story of Bill, Abby, and Bill’s little sister Linda (who also serves as the magically fantastic narrator), who flee to the plains to escape Bill’s misdeeds. Together, they find work on the farm of a young but ailing man (Sam Shepard) who is drawn to Abby, and thus offers to keep the three on after the harvest. The acting is amazing, especially from Linda Manz, whose voice as the narrator is a compelling wonder that makes you hang on every word, and the cinematography is superb. Malick’s tale of love, deception, and cosmic trials makes the Rockies seem like a handful of goose down, and the result is a marvelous and fragmented tale in which we catch snippets of conversations, but feast upon images and sequences that speak volumes.

When viewed as a whole, Malick’s work is less of filmic canon as it is a philosophical thesis in a visual form, with a depth and a breadth as vast as the universe itself. Malick’s Tree of Life is due out this year, and I feel that this film could be his ultimate work, which makes it a candidate for best film of all time (look out, Citizen Kane).

14 March 2011

Don't Look Now

directed by Nicholas Roeg

If you have had the rare pleasure slash misfortune (depending on how you look at it. It’s all a matter of perspective.) of indulging in Nicholas Roeg’s highly atmospheric, highly ambitious, highly disturbing and highly amazing horror film, Don’t Look Know, then you (like me) already have certain images burned into your memory. For those brave souls interested in seeing this film, brave souls for whom this title doesn’t send chills down to their very bones, I will not give anything away to ruin your experience of this masterful and mysterious film that will stay with you forever. To call this film “horror” implies certain expectations, certain criteria that the average audience expects to be met, and the casual horror fan may not find this film fulfilling in the traditional sense, not in the Halloween, Nosferatu, Jaws, Invasion of the Body Snatchers sense. But to simply label this film as a mystery or a thriller would completely neglect the true horrors that do exist in this film, horrors that cling like winter chill. Don’t Look Now is horror on another level, just as Alien was horror and sci fi on another level, and the result is (again, depending on how you look at it) either immensely satisfying or heart palpitatingly disturbing. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie are tremendous as the Baxters, coping with the loss of a child and living in Venice. A psychic encounter begins a grand unraveling that disorients and absorbs you until the final fragment of cosmic rug is finally pulled out from beneath you in frightening fashion. Cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond creates texture and layers everywhere, and if his name is familiar, that’s because he also photographed another of my favorite off the wall horror films, Ravenous. Nicholas Roeg is a fantastic filmmaker, from Walkabout to The Man Who Fell to Earth (a must see for any Bowie fan), and Don’t Look Now is, for me, his finest work. If I were you, I’d watch this one with the lights on.

13 March 2011

The Lookout

directed by Scott Frank

Writer director Scott Frank spins a nifty little heist film treat with the The Lookout, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Isla Fisher, Matthew Goode and Jeff Daniels. JGL is fantastic as Chris, former hockey star with a brain jury that makes it hard for him to keep his shit straight. Working as the night janitor in a sleepy rural bank, Chris meets Gary (a stellar Matthew Goode, shedding much of his inner and outer handsomeness to wonderful effect), who manipulates Chris’ condition in order to con Chris into becoming an accomplice in his robbery plan. The twists and turns in this film are too fun to give away, and Jeff Daniels and Isla Fisher are both dynamite as magnets pulling Chris in opposite directions.  It’s a fun little ride, and worth a watch if a bit of caper film satisfaction is what you’re after.

12 March 2011

Gattaca

directed by Andrew Niccol

Andrew Niccol’s 1997 sci fi classic is exactly that: a classic in every way. And it took the passage of nearly 15 years for me to really see it. I enjoyed the film when it first came out (I vividly remember going to see it with my sci fi film geek friends), but what I missed as a youngster is how truly timeless this film about the future really is. The science fiction that really endures is the kind that doesn’t concern itself with the gimmickry and flashiness of a brave new technology, instead allowing the human creative sentiment to organically bridge the gap, to realistically imagine the possibilities that the future will bring. Films like Back to the Future II, while still classic in terms of story (not to mention highly entertaining), date themselves by highlighting such whimsically ridiculous “advancements” like the hover board (though the paneled wall in the McFly house that serves as scenery and a multi-screened television is strangely relevant at this very moment), but Gattaca instead insinuates about a world filled with technological wizardry without throwing a spotlight on it, which allows the viewer to fill in the gaps with his or her own contemporary reference points. The cinematography and art direction of the film are impeccable, and like Kubrick’s 2001, the retrofuturistic interpretation of how the future might “look” is magnificent and, somehow, highly plausible. The film is as fresh today as it was when I first watched it in the dark theater, more enamored with the story of human will than I was with gadgetry. The acting is top notch, from Ethan Hawke’s hurt boy with something to prove demeanor (that he perfected to marvelous effect in Training Day) to Uma Thurman’s calculated yet vulnerable composure to Jude Law’s stunning rookie performance (in American films, that is), and let’s not forget the great Alan Arkin, playing the almost Columbo-esque detective with a dry wit befitting such a role. Niccol’s film is fully realized in every way, from the framing of every shot to the score to the sensational uber-deco, nickel, bronze and aluminum architecture of his future. Gattaca manages in fine form what films like Vanishing on 7th Street struggle and fail to do: to create a modern addition to a genre that echoes, but does not mimic, mind, its classic forbears (to which it owes much credit). Watch it again, especially if it’s been as long for you as it had for me. 

11 March 2011

Vanishing on 7th Street

directed by Brad Anderson

First of all, I want to give lots of credit to screenwriter Andy Jaswinski and director Brad Anderson for attempting the daunting task of making a modern horror film sans the gore and graphic pap that permeate its contemporaries. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I also want to make sure that I give Vanishing credit for sincerely attempting to make an updated but still classic horror film, much the same way Rian Johnson created a faithful and fresh 1940s film noir with Brick. Vanishing on 7th Street can boast a great throwback idea (I could almost hear and see Vincent Price welcoming slash forewarning my fellow filmgoers about chilling journey upon which we were all about to embark), a motley crew of strangers holed up in a bar (read: isolated location) in retreat of a horrific something (read: vampires in From Dusk til Dawn, zombies in Night of the Living Dead, zombies again in Shaun of the Dead, a thing in The Thing). Sadly, Anderson’s film falls short of becoming a truly wonderful addition to that genre, instead trying so desperately to mimic the style that inspired him that he forgot to make it mean something. The script suffers in the details as well, especially in the John Leguizamo and Thandie Newton arena, where the two hardly have time and space to make their characters real. Hayden Christensen is one of those actors that I just do not like, in anything, and Vanishing finds nothing new in his pained faced, pseudo city accent routine. Those familiar with Anderson’s other films, particularly The Machinist (for which Christian Bale began a weight loss plan from Hell), will find another example of his predilection to opt for a particular style of cinematography that I am not a fan of, though strangely enough, it was Xavi Gimenez to blame in the case of The Machinist (and Transsiberian), and Uta Briesewitz this time around, which leads me to believe that Anderson has very specific ideas that he wants his cinematographers to bring to life. Another thing- and this is a trivial qualm- that bothered me is that the film is supposed to be set in Detroit, and perhaps it is because I call the Motor City home, but I found the local references to be a little heavy handed. But then again, I’m sure Big Apple natives are used to seeing Times Square and various streets and buildings referenced all the time. All things considered, Vanishing on 7th Street wasn’t a total loss of an afternoon, and in all honestly I don’t think I expected a classic, but I did expect a little more.

10 March 2011

Drive Angry

directed by Patrick Lussier

The trailer says it all: a pissed off, badass, bloody revenge flick starring the smoldering and superb 1969 Dodge Charger and a shit ton of guns. Hats off to the beautiful handling and mouth watering rumble of the Charger, sinking its pistons into a role that pays homage to the revolutionary work of his predecessor (in film, not time), the never to be duplicated, Oscar caliber performance of the 1970 Dodge Challenger in both Vanishing Point and Death Proof. Interesting tidbit: It was rumored that Lussier actually considered casting Challenger in a kind of reprisal of his earlier roles, but opted instead for the roomier interior and less iconic look of Challenger's cousin. Wise choice, Mr. L. At times, Charger, I found your stoic yet tough demeanor in Drive Angry almost ’68 Mustang-esque (Mustang, your finest moment was sailing down those San Francisco streets with Steve McQueen gripping your wheel). Bravo, Challenger. As for you, shit ton of guns, your approach to your various roles in various films is Nicholsonian in its madcap uniformity, and I love you for it. You brought a familiar, yet colorful reliability to the film that really helped me to stay on board. Explosions, you were dependably energetic- wait, there were actual human actors in Patrick Lussier’s sub par B film endeavor? Really? Real, live human actors? The only roles worth mentioning in this mindless filmic equivalent of cheap tequila were William Fichtner and David Morse, two of my favorite character actors. The plot is only slightly less absurd than Nicolas Cage’s hairpiece, and Drive Angry now marks the second time Cage has sported a jaw droppingly bad rug to play a character somehow affiliated avec Satan. That is an odd thing to have to note twice on a resume, similar to how Cilian Murphy has twice donned a sack on his head in two separate Christopher Nolan films. The absolute only way to see this film is in the intended 3D format. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of exploding shit on a screen.

Please do not get me wrong: I thoroughly enjoyed Drive Angry, but let’s not mince words here. I mean, I also love hot dogs, but if I said that hot dogs and steak are the same because they are both cow, a reasonable person’s retort would be to punch me in the face. Maybe punch is a strong word, but come on! I just got done watching Drive Angry!

09 March 2011

Pitch Black

directed by David Twohy

It’s equal parts monster horror and pulp science fiction, courtesy of screenwriters Jim and Ken Wheat, and brought to slick, trashy, magnificent life by director David Twohy. This is a professional high water mark for all involved, including Vin Diesel, who makes a lot of promises in this role that his acting career did not keep. Sure, there was the mediocre but enjoyable XXX, and Knockaround Guys, but then there was The Pacifier, and the cinematic floater, The Chronicles of Riddick. But before all that, Diesel was a shit talking, ass kicking, glowy-eyed fugitive aboard a transport that crashes on a planet with multiple suns. His captor is Johns, played to smarmy perfection by Cole Hauser (making big daddy Wings Hauser all kinds of proud, I’m sure), a bounty hunter with a bit of a drug habit and an axe to grind. Radha Mitchell is great as Fry, who comes to realize that survival sometimes means forging unlikely alliances. John Carpenter even took a page out of the Pitch Black script when he gave us another sci fi horror B film gem, Ghosts of Mars, the following year (if you are familiar with both of these films, then you know what I am talking about). Cinematographer David Eggby (the genius behind Mad Max’s visual flare) saturates the multi-sunned landscape until you feel like you need sunglasses. The script has just the right amount of hard boiled, Law & Order style dialogue mixed in with a bit of Carpenter reverence and go for it gusto that makes a work like this stand out. Is it Citizen Cane? Of course not. It’s not even Daybreakers, but it’s still fun as hell. And you know what? We all need films like this: films that give the artist in all of us the courage to think “I could have written that.” I have said this before, but it bears repeating: It can’t all be T.S, Eliot poetry, and I for one am thankful for that. The world needs films like Ghosts of Mars and Pitch Black just as much as it needs the Magnoliasand Two-Lane Blacktops of the world.   

08 March 2011

Wendy and Lucy

directed by Kelly Reichardt

Kelly Reichardt’s quiet and devastating film about a girl and her dog is like the answer every to romanticized, youthful road tramp film ever made, and it resonates like you wouldn’t believe. This is actually the film that made me see Michelle Williams with new eyes, much the same way that Monster’s Ball revealed Heath Ledger to me as a true actor. Talent wise, Williams was always the strongest element of Dawson’s Creek, and yes, I watched that show. I watched the hell out of that show, and I am still bitter about Mr. Leary buying the farm in that stupid(!) car wreck. But anyway… I always considered Williams a so so actress best suited for peripheral television roles, but her bare bones, non showy and genuine delivery is what separates good from great, and Williams is great in every way (go see Blue Valentine already, or Synecdoche, New York). Williams plays Wendy, on her way to Alaska for a job with her dog Lucy. Already in financial dire straits, her situation goes from bad to worse when Lucy goes missing and her car breaks down. Reichardt’s tale about a threadbare existence is realistic and earnest, and depressing, but well worth viewing. And one of my favorite minor role talents, Will Patton (who was tremendous in Armageddon), makes much of very little as the mechanic responsible for fixing Wendy’s last shred of dignity. It’s also the first film released under Beastie Boy Adam Yauch’s Oscilloscope Laboratories, a film production and distribution company newly formed and very exciting.

Needless to say, I am very excited for Kelly Reichardt’s new film, Meek’s Cutoff, also starring Michelle Williams. It looks about as heavy as anything I’m bound to come across this year.