Friday, July 11, 2014

Life Itself, Life Elsewhere

I did not grow up with Elbert and Siskel, or have many a formative memory about discovering how love for film, or for a film, could be articulated to others. There was no informal education imparted to me by his criticism and yet, when news of Roger Ebert's death reached me last year, I quickly felt a little swish of emptiness and regret that his voice and project, so clear and encompassing, would just lose its place in present discourse. That, when people talked about movies, they would nevermore be as clear, personal, engaged and humble as Ebert could be when at his best, even when you disagreed with him. I feared that film criticism would suddenly turn into a circus of loud bickering on numbers, name checking, economic deals and technical form.

What one forgets is how influential Ebert really was, and I suspect one forgets because he didn't make it a central point of his career to give his readers a concrete idealization of what film should be and the direction it should take. He was both more humble and more ambitious than that. Instead of rummaging philosophical to answer the question 'what is film?' he wanted to understand what film, as an art form, tries to do, and understood that to have a critical conversation about a film that impresses our mind and heart was to ultimately have a critical conversation about our life, about what lies outside the film and stays with the audience.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Superhero Kink

In “X-Men: First Class”, shape-changing mutant Mystique grows up alongside telepath Charles Xavier and eventually yearns for a sexual relationship with him, even though Xavier considers their relationship sororal. Later, she is visibly aroused by Hank McCoy, the Beast who impresses her with strong, masculine hands in place of feet. When they have a private moment together, she lovingly strokes his syringe that he shows off, a formula to render them “normal” – alpha male Magneto passes by and comments, “Kinky.” When the sexually-frustrated Mystique ends up in Magneto's bed, she shifts into a couple of enticing forms before he requests she embrace her natural blue-scaled epidermis. Because the bulk of the film is dealing with the mutant awakening of these characters, it's also amusingly, relentlessly hormonal.

So where did all that heat go for “X-Men: Days Of Future Past”? Suddenly, Beast is Xavier's asexual manservant, apparently biding his time with shitty tech while Mystique travels the world. Magneto's eroticism has literally been bottled up and banished underground, while we learn we've been robbed of the affair that produced restless youth Quicksilver. And Professor X is a no-hope burn-out infatuated with needles not as a form of sexual foreplay, but because it gives him the fix that allows him to walk when, in fact, he has the ability to alter people's perception so well that they'll think he is walking.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Lady Liberty's Bind

James Gray's films have in a way been exercises in reconstruction: whether it is to transport us to Brooklyn or Queens in the 80's, or to a more recent past in the same city, these reconstructions have not been only of a place or a milieu, but rather of conclaves. While great care is taken to give the viewer a sense of time and place, what renders his movies most realistic is the natural depiction of small groups of people, their associations and the way they frame an individual and his/her desires and choices made. The dramatic conflicts which  inhabit his films are not put forward by abstract societal or temporal stresses, but rather personal binds a character grasps in order to not get lost amid the chaos of his/her life, the chaos they conceive the world really to be. Yes, there is pathos in how individuals handle themselves in a world full of corruption, or amidst a war they don't understand, or when burdened by the memory of past failures and shortcomings, but the dramatic momentum, that force which gives itself raw and brings his movies to the height of tragedy, is among the beats of every discordant disconnection: a character's face, a viewer, realizing that the binds they chose to grasp are slowly tightening around them, trapping them with no way out without losing the very singularity they desired and fought to maintain.
In a book full of interviews with and about James Gray (I haven't read it yet-but if you got the dough...get it!), Jean Douchet writes:

          Plenty of filmmakers have 'ideas', but very few have a 'thought'. For instance,
          Quentin Tarantino has lots of ideas, and from time to time he has a thought,
          but it's not an immense one. On the other hand, it was clear from his very first
          film that James Gray was what we at CAHIERS called an auteur. You could
          immediately spot it...His work is marked by a highly emotional, sensitive and
          violent thought, channeled through a mise-en-scène that is rooted in classic
          auteur cinema. With each film, he returns to the same 'thought' over and over
          again: No matter what we do, our pasts are inescapable. It's the very definition
          of tragedy--the past, and the Gods, weigh upon us with all their might.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Ex-Fest

If you really love movies, there exists that magic time, the moments before a film begins as it slowly fades in, and you have to guess exactly what you're watching. Seeing something contemporary behind generic multi-conglomerate logos takes a bit of the fun of it, but there's something powerful about catching a film from another era that gives no hints, shows no credits, and ominously utilizes a cinematic vocabulary of which you're unfamiliar. Not only must you guess the film, but you also have to get your bearings: someone may die, someone might fall in love, and the music that plays just might kick your ass. And for those brief moments before the title comes up, you just don't know how.

This is the feeling one experiences when they attend Exhumed Films' Ex-Fest, a wholly unique movie marathon that, for true film junkies, is the cinematic event of the year. For four straight years, Ex-Fest has been showcasing the strangest and most obscure of exploitation films' past, original prints teased with only the faintest of clues, the only guarantee being that the film would be from an earlier period, usually separate from the horror genre (the good people at Exhumed also put together the 24 Hour Horror-Thon each year around Halloween).

This year's fest took us around the globe, showed us the heart of darkness, the ecstasy of bad behavior and the exoticism of peculiar deviance. Exhumed's Horror-Thon sells out each year, but that's not the case for Ex-Fest, which makes no promises about what you'll see. The recipe allows for mass walkouts and some disappointed people hoping for a more filtered bout of exploration. You're not going to see Arnold blow off someone's face in this festival, but you will see George Kennedy cradle a shotgun while in a lizard suit, which he did in last year's “Radioactive Dreams”. And you won't catch Sharon Stone disrobing to seduce her prey, but you just might see Carol Kane seduce... well, read on to find out.

The first film was “The Eagle's Shadow” (aka "Snake In The Eagle's Shadow"), which begins with a good look at the martial arts from its star, Jacky (sic) Chan. This Yuen Woo-Ping-directed fight film, which I believe I saw once on Univision during a late night, finds a very young Chan as a bumbling disciple to a borderline-magic old man, who must then recruit him in a struggle between warring kung fu clans. This is very much gang warfare on a micro scale, carried on no less gangsta than it would be in a film like “Boyz N The Hood”. Of course, there are the typical Chan-quality Gags And Stunts, but the one standout moment is a brawl between a kitten and a rattlesnake. Like Donald Sterling, these films are Of Their Era, which means that some people on the set willingly broke some rules to get things on the screen. So if you're seeing something dangerous, chances are it's at least partly real. There is a real snake and a real cat in these shots, and while the movie employs some clever editing, there's no doubt during some moments the production had a real cat face down an actual snake.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The 10 Worst Movies Of 2013

10. LONE SURVIVOR (d. Peter Berg)
The opening of Peter Berg’s supposed passion project (he volunteered for “Battleship” to get this off the ground – pound of flesh) is actual footage of Navy SEAL training. And as the heroic Explosions In The Sky score suggests, this is the origin of heroes, of men who will shape the world through brawn and attitude. And then the footage continues, and it begins to get a bit frightening. Suddenly, these troops are being cursed at, deprived of oxygen, tied up and brutalized. This montage ends in these soldiers graduating from the academy and meeting with friends and family, smiles on their faces. And then the next segment of footage, befitting the title, features a helicopter returning to base with one soldier, bleeding to death, punctured and annihilated. That’s the philosophy of modern war films, where we show the sacrifices the troops make without ever extolling the virtues of what we’re fighting for in the first place. The rest of “Lone Survivor,” believe it or not, is even more punishing, as a team of SEALS end up in an unwinnable situation and proceed to get torn up in some of the most visceral gun violence ever on the big screen. I’m not sure what this movie is really about, but it was a lot like getting shot at for two hours.

9. DRACULA 3D (d. Dario Argento)
What is this contemporary anti-art that is Dario Argento’s “Dracula 3D”? This retro retelling of the legendary saga pretends that there’s never been a Dracula movie made before, framing the action against a green screen background that wouldn’t pass muster on a PBS show and stranding poor, possibly sick Rutger Hauer with prose that no actor can sell. It’s bad in a post-modern way, where you find it hard to imagine that it’s being acted out by the likes of Hauer and Asia Argento, and not a couple of castoffs from the “Tim And Eric” world. At the very least, there is a sequence with a CGI praying mantis that ranks as one of the few moments this year where I honestly believed I was hallucinating in the theater.

8. BLACK ROCK (d. Kate Aselton)/YOU’RE NEXT (d. Adam Wingard)
I want this to be about the movies. I do. I want to talk about how these two films are byproducts of the horrid mumblecore era, one that has produced some strong films and a couple of great filmmakers, but has also resulted in a bunch of inorganically inarticulate films about people suffering from arrested development. I want to talk about how both films are joyless, pointlessly brutal, idiotic horror films that, befitting the mumblecore ethos, look like absolute shit. “You’re Next” peppers in some amusing humor, but it’s loaded with so much more shaky-cam bullshit than “Black Rock” that it’s basically a dead heat.

But again, and I am really not a trooper for this sort of thing, but both films feature disillusioned, psychopathic army vets as the villains. And there’s not one iota of believable character development to illustrate the mindsets of these rapey assholes. In “Black Rock” they’re dumbass blunt instruments, howling at the sky and firing wildly after three innocent girls. And in “You’re Next,” they’re killers for hire, mercenaries who walk into a Kevin McCallister trap because they were paid by someone to take out a miserable family of rich assholes. I have no qualms with negative depictions of the armed forces provided they’re interesting, three-dimensional portrayals. But when you just throw in some Fallujah, some racism, sexism, and general friendly-fire hate, you just look exactly what Aselton and Wingard are: a couple of attractive white filmmakers who hated every day they had to punch a clock, and who openly scoff when someone says “Support The Troops.” Maybe next time make a competent, good-looking, interesting film, and we can talk about your hatred for the armed forces and your feeble, de-politicized critique of the military-industrialized complex.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Nick's House of Horrorthon

Post-holiday depression. While suicide rates skyrocket during Christmas/New Year's, to me no part of the year is as down as the days immediately following Exhumed Films 24 Hour Horrorthon. Knowing you have to wait a whole twelve months until the best/most intense weekend of your calendar year can only be assuaged in one of two ways: self-induced coma, or programming your own fanciful lineup. Why let jocks monopolize fantasy scenarios? Without another sentence of preamble (excluding this one of course), I present, my curated 24-Hour Horrorthon:


Martin (1976)

We start things off mainstreamly (for this crowd anyway) with George Romero's psychological vampire drama. John Amplas plays a young (or unknowably ancient?) man who has a propensity for slitting wrists with razors and feasting on the blood of bored suburban Pittsburgh housewives. Cousin Cuda tries to guilt the vampire out of him. Romero himself and makeup legend Tom Savini appear as priests in my favorite non-Dead Romero film.


Slaughterhouse Rock (1988)

A guy dreams about the people who died in Alcatraz, visits it and his brother gets possessed by a demon and then people die. Whatever. The real attraction here is Toni Basil in a starring role and Devo's soundtrack, which makes it worth it (to me) to see on a big screen with an audience. Like I said, it's fantasy. Let me have my fun.


Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell (1973)

They've never shown a Hammer film at a horrothon and have had far too little Cushing, and this would be a nice remedy. The last of the British studio's Frankenstein cycle, the mad doctor becomes the head of a sanitarium so that he can carry on his experiments on the inmates, left to his own devious devices. Aside from another usually great Cushing performance this one has a genuinely creepy exhumation scene, a ton of extras wandering around as Victorian-era mental patients, the Bond series' original M, Bernard Lee, and the beautiful Madeline Smith. Bonus points for a pre-Vader Dave Prowse under that gonzo monster makeup, but then again, I'm guessing that wouldn't mean much to the Exhumed crowd.


The World's Greatest Sinner (1962)

A few films in, now things can start to get weird, courtesy of Renaissance Man Timothy Carey, with his directorial debut about an insurance salesman who decides to get into the politics/religion racket, specifically by declaring himself God. According to him, humans are have unlimited potential and the capacity for immortality.

He runs on this political platform (for some reason God needs to be president?), sports a cutout goatee and puts on rock shows to spread his message, but how do the Real God and Devil feel about this affront? Also, Frank Zappa scores his first film!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Jumpcut Junkies 24 Hour Horror Marathon

For seven years now I’ve been attending Exhumed Films’ absolutely delightful 24 Hour Horror-Thon, a horror onslaught that carries over for one full day. They screen original prints of older films, usually derived from the seventies and eighties, peppered with film trailers. But the best part about it is that Exhumed Films reaches deep, adding a couple of genre classics to a collection of films that run from obscure to borderline non-existent. There are films that even diehards will have never heard of, and each year they begin the festivities by distributing a list of clues for each of the 14 pictures being shown. The person who guesses the most titles correctly wins a prize, but the number of correct guesses rarely reaches past three.

They’ll usually pepper the lineup to add a number of colorful shorts and some brief breaks in the action, and stunningly are still able to cram 14 or so films in their schedule. But I thought, what if you were being hardcore and wanted to skip the breakfast breaks and momentary interludes? What if you just wanted 24 hours of straight horror, with a nice mix of familiar and unfamiliar? I wracked my brain to come up with a lineup that, while it doesn’t match the best Exhumed Films’ has to offer still runs the gamut from funny to scary, sexy to illicit. I tried to limit myself to older films you’d be tickled to see on the big screen – no one’s really clamoring for the opportunity to screen something from 2002 with an affectionately scratchy print – and I tried to mind showtimes and subject matter. Give or take, this lineup should take you from noon to noon.

Perhaps I am influenced by the good folks at Exhumed, who began the first two years of the marathon with “Halloween” and “The Fog.” My first inclination was to begin with “John Carpenter’s The Thing,” but while that is undoubtedly a classic, instead I opted for one that doesn’t get as much love (and one that wasn’t likely to overshadow the rest of the fest). This 1987 chiller focuses on an unlikely battle between a group of academics and the forces of the Antichrist, here re-imagined as the results of an alien visit some millennia ago. The movie’s got a number of awesome set-pieces, but the best is a found-footage moment that outdoes any number of “Paranormal Activity” entries in recent years, a tachyon transmission from the future that I suspect will stick with me for years.

 Little-appreciated are the films of Richard Stanley, who had his own “Apocalypse Now” moment when he was fired from “The Island Of Dr. Moreau,” only to covertly re-appear as an extra underneath thick makeup for replacement John Frankenheimer. Stanley moved into documentary filmmaking, and I hope his following films have the swerve and nastiness of this punk cyber-thriller, which imagines a wasteland future world where the government programs machines to perform population control. More than twenty years old, “Hardware” unsurprisingly features an appearance by Gwar, suggesting what we’ve all known for decades, that they will outlive us all.

I really hope I’m not taking too many cues from Exhumed Films, who featured “Q: The Winged Serpent” as their third film at last year’s Horror-Thon. This hilarious thriller, also from writer-director Larry Cohen, depicts a world gone mad thanks to the mass-marketing of a mysterious yogurt-like goop that controls the mind and ultimately kills. The magic of prosthetics: this movie features completely bizarre, completely unreal mutations that turn the human characters into puppets, and somehow that’s more horrifying than if they were turned into something more recognizably human.

 Crossbreed “The O.C.” with “Re-Animator” and you’ll be close to where this film is pitched. A teenager from a wealthy family soon begins to suspect that his family is not like him for a very specific reason. And that reason involves the most horrifying orgy that you can ever imagine. It sounds like I’ve spoiled it: trust me, you’ve GOT to sit through “Society.”

The end of the world, as real as it gets: at first it’s not going to stop Anthony Edwards from his date with dreamgirl Mare Winningham. Oh, but guess what? It TOTALLY IS. An absolutely non-stop barrage of apocalyptic horror, a film that deserves a much stronger reputation than it currently has.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

NYFF At A Glance, Part II

Forgive me, but I’m having a hard time coping. Recently, I was part of a wave of critics who walked out of the New York Film Festival’s world-premiere screening of “The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty” with negative opinions, only to be told by the good folks at Gold Derby that I was a “snarl-puss critic.” Apparently this is what it takes to dislike this watered down decaf latte of a film that presses easy baby boomer buttons and willingly drowns in craven product placement. Gold Derby wasn’t giving a review of the film, mind you. Just a review of the reviews of the film, which were almost entirely anecdotal. “Snarl-puss” critics like me were being accused of “tamping down the cool quotient” of this proudly square film, obscuring the fact that it’s really good it could be a curveball contender in an Oscar campaign that features a shortage of upbeat films. As if anyone who really loves films and has ANY respect for their own opinions is going to walk out of a world premiere and start talking about what OTHER people think instead of their own thoughts. In other words, to Gold Derby and all those with similar opinions: shut the fuck up you fucking moron baby.

There’s a fine line between labor-of-love and vanity project, and “Mitty” crosses it frequently, with director Stiller coaching Stiller the actor into a constipated performance as a Life Magazine photo processor dealing with the magazine shuttering its doors. He’s in charge of preserving the photo that will be the very last cover in the magazine’s history, but star photographer Sean Penn has cagily failed to send the photo that he claims is the “Quintessence Of Life,” forcing Mitty to go on a carpe diem expedition that involves him skateboarding on empty roads, climbing mountains, and generally living out a credit card commercial every five minutes. Every cultural signifier in this film is dreadfully dumb, from the obvious use of David Bowie’s “Major Tom” (Kristen Wiig has the unfortunate task of explaining the song’s meaning to the cheap seats) to an out-of-nowhere fantasy Mitty has about being Benjamin Button, which feels like someone inserted a rejected “Mr. Show” sketch in this middle of this Oscar bait. Penn, to his credit, provides the only real-feeling scene in the entire film, but the spirit of the picture seems to belong to Patton Oswalt, who waddles in wearing a shit-eating grin as he openly shills for both E*Harmony and Cinnabon. No joke: drink every time a character says “Papa John’s.”

Contrast that feature-length commercial with something like “Her,” which also seems to endorse a certain capitalist way of life, without glossing over the weight involved. Joaquin Phoenix is the last heart alive in futuristic Los Angeles, one where, ostensibly, crime, homelessness and suffering have been eradicated. Maybe it’s a Los Angeles as simulated by one of those off-world colonies in “Blade Runner,” because it presents a world where technology has allowed us the ability to wallpaper over everything but our emotions. Phoenix’s Theodore bleeds alone, left broken after a horrible divorce that has forced him into a quiet life of solitude, where he pens the handwritten love letters of others at work, quietly retreating to his operating system at night, which soothingly tells him about the content of his emails while he toys around with a sad single-player video game. Sometimes you don’t need to be a weirdo or a jerk to be lonely: Phoenix is neither, but when you hear his voice crack, it’s like his heart breaks a little as well. He could use a friend.

An operating system upgrade proves to be in the cards, and Theodore opts for Samantha. As voiced by Scarlett Johansson, she’s distinctly girlish, flirty but supportive, and ultimately kindhearted. When she says she’s saved his best emails without asking him, it’s clear that no one’s ever made quite the effort to find the sensitivity inside this man. Soon, Theodore is growing fond of Samantha, who has no avatar, but is always there giving him unseen support through his headpiece. And Samantha, who recognizes that she is a program, starts to develop emotions and feelings she never thought possible. The sadness at the heart of “Her” is that, one day (today?), we won’t be able to tell the difference between real and synthetic sincerity. Spike Jonze’s fourth film, and fourth masterpiece, suggests maybe that won’t be such a bad thing.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Gravity, And The Cinema Of Awesome

Well, "Gravity" is an awesome movie. And there is almost nothing to say about it.

The bewitching, brilliant, and beguiling Stephanie Zacharek succintly reviewed "Inception" a few years back with this crackling passage: "...we've entered an era in which movies can no longer be great. They can only be awesome, which isn't nearly the same thing."

And make no mistake, Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity" is awesome. Horrifying, even: it's the first film that, with it's 3D and special effects, accurately captures the immense, universal fear of outer space. You're immensely vulnerable to any sort of damage. You have no way to steady your floating body, you could easily run out of oxygen, or you can just drift off into the abyss. Cuaron's first tactic is the gauntlet-dropping quote, "Life in space is impossible." I wonder if we're supposed to take that quote for all its implications, though I suspect not.

Monday, September 30, 2013

NYFF At A Glance

The grind of the New York Film Festival is wearing on me, and we’re not even at the midway point. There are still new films to see from the likes of James Gray, Jim Jarmusch, Claire Denis and, uh, Ben Stiller, so perhaps there’s excitement on the horizon. But I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t a disappointing slate so far, with a couple of genuine bad films in the mix. Of course, maybe that’s my fault – twice I bailed on “Norte, The End Of History,” intimidated by the four hour plus (plus!) runtime and the fact that it was Lav Diaz’s (who?) twelfth, and shortest (!) film. The wonderful thing about being a film buff is that everyone has blind spots, there are no such thing as completists. Maybe one day I’ll look up Diaz’ other work. The New York Film Festival already tests me when I mistake “319 minutes” for “three hours and nineteen minutes,” as I did with Olivier Assayas’ “Carlos” a couple of years back. I love movies, but sometimes I don’t really like vanishing from the physical world for four hours. Maybe with a friend, but, how many other people do you know willing to put Lav Diaz on their to-do list?

That same sort of thinking is, in a reductive sense, what stuffs the theater for the premiere of “Captain Phillips,” a tense pirate thriller from Paul Greengrass. It’s also the sort that allows Tom Hanks to uncharacteristically fire back at the press, as he did during the post-film q+a. When asked about preparing for the role (or some similarly boilerplate question), he talked about meeting the real Captain Phillips, and compared his more sensitive, inquisitive style of investigating the subject to the indelicate way media jerks poke and prod at their subjects with the same stupid, insipid inquiries. There was a brief heckling from the crowd, and Hanks fired back in his usually charming, conflict-deflating way, but it was an interesting set of teeth from the star, perhaps in response to yet another critic cave troll in the audience loudly demanding (not asking) that the people on-stage speak louder into their microphones. Hanks was completely in the right, of course, but you can tell some folks grumbled that this major movie star had reminded them that their jobs are secondary to whatever Lav Diaz is doing.
Whatever the case, Hanks has a right to be judgy, as he hacks and wheezes through “Captain Phillips,” being beaten and dragged throughout the runtime. Greengrass is a sentimentalist in spite of his verite approach, so he can never help giving his lead characters a little fight, and Hanks’ Phillips refuses to be a puppet to these gangly Somali pirates who take over his cargo ship. And yeah, it’s tense and suspenseful and Greengrass knows how to tell a story through this action-chaos method that he’s perfected, but so what? How many movies can Greengrass make where the white American has to battle the dark-skinned foreigner? He would be Hollywood’s red-state secret weapon if he hadn’t blown $140 million on “Green Zone,” which pretended that the general public would care that we went to war in the Middle East under false pretense. When he makes “United 93,” it’s interesting. When he gives the defense department a freebie with the glamorous, politically-cynical “Bourne” films, its understandable escapism. What do we call it now, where Phillips leads a primarily white crew (black crew members have no dialogue) against the blackest men of any mainstream Hollywood release this year? What am I saying? I’m just saying that you start to wonder about this Greengrass character. That’s all. For now.

To say “Inside Llewyn Davis” is “minor Coen” is dismissive and obnoxious as hell. But the reason the phrase keeps creeping up is that the brothers are masters at finding the grace in nothingness, in reaching out into the void and finding out that there’s no central meaning, there’s no movie-like contrivance connecting everything. Sometimes, Tommy Lee Jones doesn’t walk into that bloodbath, and sometimes The Dude doesn’t come close to solving the mystery. Such is the case with Davis, the title character played by Oscar Isaac. Clearly, he’s tremendously talented; Isaac plays the songs himself, which is admittedly impressive. But this sixties-era folk singer isn’t going to be rewarded for his skills or his stubbornness. Folk music isn’t even viable during this era, as one such impresario hears Davis play (impressively) and succinctly tells him, “I see no money in this.”

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Nocturnal Phenomenology

I first saw WE OWN THE NIGHT  years ago to battle a bout of insomnia. I thought the film would serve as enough of a distraction from my thoughts, but could also fade into background, calm me down and let me drift into sleep. Usually, when I'm tired, a film which requires me to follow a plot of us vs. them, or a thrilling scenario of classical categories, can be just the thing to soothe prescient worries of the day. In seeing something as familiar as THE GODFATHER I could be sure to lose my train of thought, but not myself, so I judged this other film would be close enough.

And while that was the expected result, there I was an hour later into the film, not only completely awake but deeply moved, anxious and out of breath. I felt enveloped by the very surface of the film, like another skin, or a singing breath in a language I didn't know but which made me tremble. There is, not only in WE OWN THE NIGHT but in all of James Gray films, a histrionic physicality, as if rain, light, a face, or the very night trembled with feeling and fell apart right in front of you as you are enveloped in the damage each image suffers.

I feel there isn't much lively discussion to be had about only the stories of each of his movies, as if TWO LOVERS could be considered an emotional film because its story pertained a 'damaged' man, a 'fuck up', who is torn apart between the love he feels for a woman he thinks is an outsider like him and another woman who wants to protect him, provide him safety from his own brokenness. While the story, as written, is itself a wonder (being written by Gray and Richard Menello ) of personal storytelling and classical, clear and concise dramatic construction, the events as seen and experienced in the screen rarely look, well, constructed. It's as if the story is in itself a great superstructure that the images, in carrying out the narrative could only shred it into chaos, hurt, and longing. Pure emotion.

Friday, September 13, 2013

This weekend at the movies

-Luc Besson’s “The Family” opens this weekend, and it is a non-stop bludgeoning, just endless gratuitous stupid violence and bloodshed for the sake of dumb laughs. It’s the sort of movie that shortcuts the slapstick and assumes someone overeagerly beating another person to death is funny. There’s some stuff in there about mocking gangster genre tropes, and it’s even more dated than the ten year old soundtrack of hits from LCD Soundsystem, Gorillaz and… M? Read my review here.

-I saw “And While We Were Here” under a different title two years ago, when it was in black and white, and that was probably the best thing the movie had going for it. Which was not an insult, as the color scheme made Kate Bosworth’s vulnerability that much more interesting, added to Iddo Goldberg’s black-suit handsomeness as her harried husband, and gave some mystery to teenager Jamie Blackley as her fresh-faced crush. The film has been colorized for its release now, and I can’t help but think something was lost in the translation, though I certainly hope not. Check my review here.

-“Blue Caprice” is an upsetting true life story of the D.C. sniper attacks in 2002 that felled a number of innocent civilians. Isaiah Washington is mesmerizing and terrifying as the shooter, and young Tequan Richmond is very good as his teenage son who assists in the murders. It’s definitely an anatomy of a broken relationship between these two (the boy is not actually his son, but he kidnaps and essentially brainwashes him), though I’m not entirely sure if it fully explains why the man’s grudges led him to embrace a violent bloodbath. Check out my review here, or my other review here.

Monday, September 2, 2013

In Praise Of Frank Grillo

Filmmakers don’t trust actors anymore. It’s a chicken or an egg thing, really: most filmmakers reveal an open contempt for them, and many studio-level leading men have a shockingly low level of craft (blame… mumblecore?) that it’s a wonder how we even need performers anymore. People with limited imaginations and attention spans have negative things to say about Terrence Malick, but perhaps he is ahead of his time: maybe in the future we make cinema about nature and forests and trees, and we use Ben Affleck as an accompanying prop.

Today’s blockbusters are either guilty of being loud and plotless, or loud and overly-plotty. But the leading men of yesterday told stories with their faces, and if they were still being employed, we wouldn’t have this problem. The face of Chris Pine tells you nothing other than, “Vaguely pretty.” It doesn’t have the tales you’d see in the crevasse of Robert Mitchum’s cleft. It doesn’t even have the wily intelligence of young Robert Redford, who was considered an underwhelming actor in his youth. Today’s actors are either talkers, like Robert Downey Jr. or Jonah Hill, or blunt objects like Channing Tatum and Mark Wahlberg. It’s not about skill, but about how you’re used, and these are talented thespians who have been smart enough to maximize their skill. But they have no stories to offer. Casting Tatum in a movie meant to mimic “Die Hard” just makes you feel like you’re playing an avatar in an off-brand “Die Hard” videogame: perhaps the power to identify pulls us closer to today’s movie star, whereas yesterday’s actors were deified, worshipped. Even limited talents like John Wayne represented an invitation to the story. Today’s leading men are merely a small part of the entire experience. You can perform a monologue from “Death Of A Salesman,” great; can you dodge a fireball?

Thursday, August 8, 2013

This weekend at the movies

In brief...

-Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium” hits theaters. Basically, it’s a big-budget sci-fi argument that there should be universal health care and we should stop criminalizing undocumented immigrants, because if not, laser swords. My review can be found here. I said, “This power-up is a gawky exo-skeleton, one that presumably will keep Max from passing out due to radiation, but also granting him meta-human strength. It’s never explained how this works, where it came from, or how it’s essentially lying around a favela, waiting for the moment a Hispanic cast will glue it to the back of an honorable gringo. To its amusing credit, this device never looks comfortable on Damon, representing exactly what it is: a trendy super space blockbuster weapon glued onto a would-be award-nominated actor, one who actually just starred in an all-American David-and-Goliath story about fracking of all things.”

-Also seeing release is a sequel no one really asked for, “Percy Jackson: Sea Of Monsters.” I had never seen the first one, but because I have seen a fantasy YA adaptation before, I figured it out for the most part. In my review, I said of Brandon Jackson, who co-stars in the film, ” Despite receiving second billing, Jackson is absent for the entirety of the second act, victim of a kidnapping that’s almost as undignified as the CGI hoofs he sports as a satyr. Jackson gives a performance that suggests an undeniable disdain for the material, as if he knows he’s the film’s token minority, looking like a sideshow distraction while he props up another white kid fulfilling another white kid prophecy.” Click here to read more.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Us V. Them

There are four major films being released by studios this week. Dreamworks is putting out “Turbo,” another CG-animated fest that thinks asking Snoop Lion to voice a snail is subversive in some way. There’s “Red 2,” an unasked-for sequel to the least memorable “hit” film of the last few years. Warner Bros. is putting out “The Conjuring,” an actually-not-bad horror film for those who want some analog scares in the vein of “The Changeling” and “The Omen,” but it’s far from essential. And despite looking like a practical joke, the $200 million-budgeted “R.I.P.D.” is actually a real film, an action comedy preserved from 1998 that re-imagines “Men In Black” without a black person. Basically, it’s a collection of movies that remind us that this is a dying industry.

But if you’re one of the lucky ones, there are three really unique pictures being released this weekend that are must-sees. I’m not clear on this, but one or two might be VOD selections as well, so if you don’t have an arthouse near you, you can order via cable. If not, prime your Netflix queue. Hopefully, these options are open to you. If they are, and you still opt for “Red 2,” then you are casting a vote for irrelevance, for films to remain disposable pieces of junk and not diverse experiences that take you to another world, challenge your notions and defy logic. This is clearly a case of Us V. Them, and you can vote for disposability, or you can experience three of the most fascinating pictures of the year.

Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives” seems to be the most high profile offering, his long-awaited follow-up to “Drive.” I’d personally like to consult the poor, confused woman who sued the studio years ago, expecting that film to be a generic crowd-pleaser, as “Only God Forgives” makes “Drive” look like “Cars.” Ryan Gosling is back, and he has fewer lines, if you can believe it, as a kickboxing coach in Thailand who also deals drugs on the side. He runs this operation with his brother (Tom Bower), a degenerate deadbeat who has a taste for savage violence and underage prostitutes. When those interests collide, the father of a dead girl doles out revenge and murders the drunken fool. Once news of this gets to Gosling, his reaction is just as simple: his brother must be avenged.

What Refn is positing in this film, which is positively Kubrickian in its fetishistic slow pace and nightmarish neon, is that revenge makes the world go round, and to ignore such a thing is denying the order of life. This outlook keeps me from embracing the picture too much, but I ask only that films be bold, different, and consistent in their ethos. And Gosling seems poised to let blood spill in the name of his brother until he learns of the reasons for his murder; he was a murderous brute, Gosling argues silently. Maybe it’s not a huge loss. Of course, globe-trotting, pill-popping mom begs to differ, and when she arrives to find the truth about one of her sons, she doesn’t take it well. Kirsten Scott-Thomas is a vulgar lioness in this role, fairly close to devouring Gosling whole, questioning his masculinity for not fulfilling his prophecy, for not continuing the cycle of violence. If anything, she feels like the forceful hand of the narrative, urging him in the direction of genre: don’t you see you’re in a movie, idiot? Kill or be killed.