Thursday, October 30, 2008

If He Unretires, There Will Be Lots of Bad Phoenix Puns


Friday, October 24, 2008

Eagle Eye (2008)

D.J. Caruso's last picture Disturbia looked so much like Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window it prompted a lawsuit from one of the latter's copyright holders, the Sheldon Abend Revocable Trust. After watching Caruso's new Eagle Eye, I would advise Ernest Lehman's estate to consult with their attorneys because this time he's riffing, rather blatantly, on North by Northwest. Finally, we have a Brian De Palma for the Even Stevens crowd.

The movie is about an average guy with a below average beard named Jerry Shaw (Shia LaBeouf), who returns to his tiny Chicago apartment one day to discover it is full of explosives and weapons. An anonymous woman calls his cell phone and tells him the FBI is about to break into his house and arrest him on charges of terrorism. She is correct and soon Jerry's being interrogated by Agent Thomas Morgan (Billy Bob Thorton) who refuses to believe the young man's story. As far as Agent Morgan's concerned, they've caught Jerry red-handed. Jerry protests: if he was a terrorist, how stupid would he have to be to keep a cache of bombs where everyone knows he lives? It's an excellent point but Morgan dismisses it. Either this is a commentary on the U.S. government's willingness to to believe any evidence, no matter how dubious (not impossible, given the movie's themes) or very lazy screenwriting (also not impossible, given the number of other coincidences in this film, including the fact that the entire narrative rests on -- get ready -- identitcal twins).

Eventually, the same mystery woman facilitates Jerry's escape from custody and sends him on a wild goose chase south by southeast towards Washington D.C., where the climax is lifted right out of another Hitchcock movie, The Man Who Knew Too Much. Along the way he picks up a cute sidekick (Michelle Monaghan) who, conveniently, has a child in danger (to enhance the suspense) but not a husband (to diminsh the sexual tension with LaBeouf). The woman on Jerry's phone is impossibly powerful: she can change traffic lights, or stop subways, or topple enormous electrical towers instantly at will. She can even listen to people on their cell phones when they're turned off, as foreshadowed in a none-too-subtle news report overheard by Jerry just before his life unravels.

Apparently, this technology does exist. Eagle Eye's creators would probably argue that the movie is extremely timely because it addresses threats to our privacy, and presents things like these "roving bugs" to a mainstream audience. But it's almost the opposite; by placing these plausible notions into an entirely implausible thriller, Caruso almost encourages audiences not to worry about them. No one will ever walk out of Eagle Eye concerned for their privacy because the movie takes genuinely disturbing concepts and plays them as dumb science-fiction. Anytime an opportunity to engage with some of these issues presents itself, it beats them back with another uninspired, excessively edited action sequence. It's one thing to make an escapist action picture that exists in its own universe; it's another to address our world and its problems and then trivialize it with cliche and formula.

That aside, I will say there is a quality to LaBeouf that I like in action pictures, and it's something he brought to Transformers and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull even with all those films' flaws. Even in the dreckiest dreck he's engaged. When he runs onscreen, it's him and not a stunt double, and he's running top speed with a sense of urgency that is missing from a lot of older actors. That might change with age -- LaBeouf is only 23 -- but for now he does have an appeallingly energetic presence.

Ultimately Eagle Eye is different enough from North by Northwest (and Disturbia from Rear Window) to render lawsuits moot, but you'd be a fool not to recognize the earlier films' influence on Caruso's. Maybe that's what he had in mind in selecting Jerry Shaw's employer: Copy Cabana, a movie version of Kinko's.

"Welcome to Copy Cabana. What would you like me to copy next?"

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

MoviePosterArt: Gran Torino (2008)



There's a fascinating Eastwood debate going on at Dave Kehr's blog, in the comments under his Sleeping Beauty post, about halfway down. Kent Jones wins:

"I think Eastwood is a wonderful filmmaker and quite a misunderstood one, because while his syntax is rooted in another era, he also has a very musical sensibility, finding a groove or a chord and staying there, letting it degrade slowly and beautifully. I admire the quiet of his films, the way he makes room for simplicity and the way he sometimes links that simplicity to a sense of peace - one of my favorite moments in recent years is the look on Ken Watanabe’s face when he receives the pistol as a gift from the Americans, followed by his consternation over the possibility of America and Japan ever going to war: it’s not just a matter of performance, but of the director allowing the moment to be seen and felt. For me, there is so much greatness in MILLION DOLLAR BABY that I can’t really imagine making excuses for it."

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Return to the Scene of the Crime (2008)

William Hogarth's 1733 etching, "Southwark Fair", was the inspiration for the 1905 film short "Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son", attributed to Billy Bitzer. In 1969, Ken Jacobs re-photographed the short for his structuralist landmark of the same name, shuttling the film backward and forward in a vibrant mass of pure motion, and then slowing it down to isolate the individual movements of the nameless players of this long-forgotten gem. In 2008, after years of tinkering with new computer technology, Jacobs has revisited the film in Return to the Scene of the Crime, which focuses on the representation of the Hogarth etching.

It's a variation on the original film, concerned with the slowness of isolated details while "Tom, Tom" was more concerned with speed. He utilizes a flicker-like effect that repeats the slightest movements of characters, running the minutest gesture back and forth until we have time to scan the entire frame and form our own narrative (there are strobing flashes of black that echo the pure "flicker films" like Peter Kubelka's Arnulf Rainer). He zooms in to capture the passing face of one of the dozens of extras, a lady with a too-big smile arrested my attention: is she acting or just having fun? These actors never thought they'd be seen in close-up, so there's a sense of documentary here, of peeking in on an actor's process that had been hidden for a century. The frame is so packed with small bits of theatrical business - there's a tightrope walker, a juggler, a merchant (who's robbed), and the aforementioned pig - and Jacobs lingers over all of it, breaking down individual sections of the frame, showing us a robbery, an argument, a grimace - all hidden from view in the long shot. Not all of his work riveted me, but I was always sucked back in.

I think RAZZLE DAZZLE: The Lost World is the greater film, and a better example of his use of digital manipulations (the section on WW1 stereoscopes in that one is astonishing), but Return is a worthy extension of Jacobs' recent excavatory work on early cinema, and one of the more playful and delightfully lowbrow, with a closing joke about pig shit.


Monday, October 20, 2008

Rudy Ray Moore (1927-2008)

Urban Network reports that a titan of 70s cinema has died. Rudy Ray Moore was a pioneering African American entertainer who turned his raunchy stand-up comedy (and his character "Dolemite") into an amazing series of blaxploitation films.

Technically, Moore's movies were about as bad as they come. See if you can spot the boom mic in this scene:

Regardless, they have a definite analog charm. It's also possible to look at the generally poor production quality as a intentional badge of honor; if your goal is to look as different from mainstream Hollywood cinema as possible, and a hallmark mainstream Hollywood cinema is bland technical finesse, then I guess you have to make your movie look a little rougher around the edges. Moore's best pictures feature the actor talking in rhyme ("Quick! Into the cave! I gotta plan to let that muthaf&$#er dig his OWN grave!"), hilariously funky karate moves (frequently busting out into dance moves as he fights, he created nothing less than "disc-kung fu"), lots of cocky male swagger, with more than a touch of self-deprication. My favorites are THE HUMAN TORNADO, a superior sequel to the original DOLEMITE:

And DISCO GODFATHER, in which Moore as a crime fighting disco DJ instructs us to "Put yo' weight on it!" at least thirty times without ever once revealing what exactly it is that we're supposed to put our weight on. This trailer also has some great Moore karate boogieing:

Urban Network says Moore was 81 years old. But IMDb lists his date of birth as 1937, which would make him 71. Even in death, Moore didn't sweat the details.

Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp (1969)

From 1969 to 1995, the moon-faced Kiyoshi Atsumi played Tora-san, a n'er do well itinerant salesman in the series It's Tough Being a Man. 48 times he was drawn back to his small town of Shibamata, falling into unrequited love and drunkenly offending everyone in sight. Penniless, loveless, foul-mouthed, and adorable, Tora-san became a national icon, his films akin to national holidays, released almost every New Year and August Obon season, until Atsumi's death in 1996.

The Japan Society is screening 8 of these films over the next 8 months, hand-selected by director Yoji Yamada, who helmed all but 2 of the features. Intensely curious about this character, whose only US correlative in terms of popularity and tone is Chaplin (or, as Donald Richie argues, Harry Langdon), I saw the first entry in the series, 1969's Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp.

Not surprisngly, I'm with the Japanese public on this one. Atsumi is a wonderful performer, his pratfalls keyed not only on the fall, but it's timing. He often tumbles in the background of Yamada's elegant widescreen frame (the print was sparkling: I believe Shochiku struck all new prints for the 40th anniversary of the first film). He sprinkles in little idiosyncracies, the way he blows in empty glasses while awaiting his booze, his penchant for discussing his bathroom habits, and, with his coat draped over his shoulders, his loping, childlike gait. His comedy is certainly bittersweet, the nature of his foolishness rendering him an outcast. One facet of the series is his endless string of unrequited loves. His main role is as a catalytic force for the rest of the characters, setting in motion a series of disruptions that eventually joins a more traditional couple, while Tora-san hits the road again, alone.

Yoji Yamada was present after the screening on a digital feed, and he had some fascinating tidbits to add: First, the Tora-san character was conceived for TV, and he was killed off at the end of the run after an unfortunate run-in with some wild snakes. After an outpouring of letters and angry phone calls, he resuscitated him for film, and the rest is history. Donald Richie claims that the character was inspired by Ozu, whom Yamada admired. But Yamada placed his origin back to the Edo period, where a traditional "fool" figure was central to popular narratives.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Framed (1975)

A nasty little film, and the last from the great noir artist Phil Karlson (The Phenix City Story (1955), 99 River Street (1953)). A transparent bid to capitalize on the surprise success of Walking Tall two years previously, it's a bruising revenge story that finds the doughy strongman Joe Don Baker tossed into the swamp of state corruption. But he's not quite innocent. His fall is initiated in an animalistic brawl in his suburban garage, the dirty cop on his trail finding his end on a cement floor. Karlson's distanced framings capture every landed blow, allowing for a kind of meathead poetry in their stumbling, groping manuevering for dominance. Baker's character Ron, while set-up to take a fall, is solely responsible for the savagery of the killing, and Karlson never soft-pedals his unlikeability.

Arrested for murder, the film shifts to a prison site, where the tone lightens considerably. Safely ensconsced in jail with his fellow low-lifes, Ron is still tight-lipped, but considerably more at ease. He slides in with a jovial mafia don who secures his parole, and he's quickly back on the Tennessee streets, where the film gets ugly again, and where Ron's vengeance stains everyone near him.
Thanks to Dave Kehr for recommending this one.


Interviews to read:

Abel Ferrara at Filmmaker magazine:

"Filmmaker: What was your dream job as a kid?

Ferrara: Washing dishes in a hospital full of hot nurses."

Gilbert Arenas at SLAM magazine:

"Gil: I’ve got an invention. I’ll let your hear it, but if you make money you’ve gotta hit me off.

SLAM: I got you.

Gil: It’s called the Cool Aid (note: I couldn’t tell if he said Cool Aid or Cool Wave. Either way, copyright pending…) It’s like the microwave, but the Cool Aid. So for instance you can put a warm soda in the machine and boom, it’s cold. Most people, “Oh no, you call that the freezer”, but nah, the freezer takes two minutes. Just like you’ve got the oven and the microwave, you’ve got the freezer and the Cool Aid."

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Kim's Video Is Selling Its Collection

I saw this at the store last night (which has had a "FOR SALE" sign on the building for months). I took the image from here:

As a former employee and longtime customer, this bums me out, particularly because it comes on the heels of the closing of Two Boots Video, another great indie video store in my old neighborhood. Look, I like Netflix too people, but they're putting every other video store out of business and it stinks.

Friday, October 10, 2008

NYFF Roundup

Four Nights With Anna, directed by Jerzy Skolimowski

Creeping silently in low-lit dankness, Leon (Artur Steranko) slithers into Anna's apartment across the way, fastidiously painting her toenails as she's passed out on the bed. He's one of your normal crematorium employee types, a sullen, sensitive kind of guy who takes care of his grandmother and walks with a hunch, trying to disappear into himself. This is Jerzy Skolimowski's first return to filmmaking in 17 years, a strange obsessional object that's lovely to look at (if you're into wet industrial decay like I am) and builds into an emotional peak with flat champagne and cold meats as Leon stages a faux-wedding for his imaginary life. My only quibble is with the flashbacks, which add unnecessary psychologizing, lifting the veil too much from the film's foggy mystery.

Night and Day, directed by Hong Sang-soo

Funnier than Woman on the Beach, with a great sad-sack performance from Yeong-ho Kim. The most disturbing thing about the movie, as Glenn Kenny notes, are the colored plastic deli bags he's constantly carrying. What does he have in there?

The Headless Woman, directed by Lucrecia Martel

The picture to the left is a Diane Arbus photo from 1961, with the same title as the remarkable new film from Ms. Martel. Both film and photo could be retitled The Woman Who Wasn't There. A comfortable middle-class mother (Maria Onetto) runs over a dog, and she is later consumed with the fear that she also killed a child. Decentered from her daily life, she is isolated by Martel in shallow focus close-ups in the widescreen frame, her family haunting the edges, fuzzy spectres present mainly through the dense sound design. The accident occurred right before a major storm, and water keeps seeping into the frame, whether literally pouring down, or intimated in the cement discovered under her lawn, which used to hold a fountain. She slowly ebbs back into consciousness, only to discover that she no longer fits, so she dyes her hair.

Tokyo Sonata, Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

A sad movie and a great one. Salaryman Ryuhei gets canned after his job is outsourced to China. Struck dumb with fear, he keeps mum to his wife and hangs out with a witty fellow member of the downsized. A familiar device perhaps, but imbued with a gentleness that it is incredibly rare these days. His youngest son asks for piano lessons, his oldest wants to join the US Army. His wife, the luminous Kyoko Koizumi, tries to glue the shards of their lives together. She makes fresh doughnuts. The pain of lost dignity, economic stress, and plain old disappointment is expressed with such simplicity and understanding that I was an emotional wreck halfway through. The great Koji Yakusho shows up late to inject a touch of surrealism to the proceedings in a harried, head-smacking performance that thrusts the film towards greatness. He sets in motion a beautifully controlled sequence of parallel editing between the wife, the husband, and the youngest child that is filled with bittersweet yearning and choked laughter. Then a piano solo encapsulates why we keep on living despite all our stupidites. A sequence for me and for you.


Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Brute Force (1947)

Brute Force is a robust, testosterone-soaked action picture. It's about as manly as movies get, and yet it paints such a different picture of masculinity than the one seen in the robust, testosterone-soaked action pictures of my youth. Those were movies like Commando or Bloodsport, where men were measured primarily by how they filled out a birthday suit while kicking people in the neck. Heroes like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme were such bad actors, it almost seemed like that was the point; that to even attempt realistic human emotion was not appropriate male behavior. Though I have a soft spot for those sorts of movies, I found the men of Brute Force refreshing. These guys are tough, no doubt about it, but they're not afraid to actually present a few emotions other than deadly assertiveness and assertive deadliness. And when we do need a little I-will-kill-you-with-my-gaze-style smouldering, we've got Burt Lancster giving the stink eye and he does it about as good as anyone in history.

Lancaster is Joe Collins, a prisoner desperate to escape from Westgate Penitentiary Island, which is ruled over by brutal head guard Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn). Brute Force is obstensibly about Collins' escape plan, but those form relatively late in the film; much of the rest is given over to the horrific milieu of 1940s prison life, where the only voice of sanity is an disgraced, alcoholic doctor and snitches get a lot worse than stitches (specifically they get flattened to death inside an enormous press in the prison metal shop).

If Cronyn sounds like an unusual choice for a despotic prison guard, he is. But it's also emblematic of movie itself; he doesn't necessarily look the part, but man can he act it. And if it might be tough to initially buy Cronyn as the kind of guy who might be able to intimidate men around him into toeing the line, Capt. Munsey's Gitmo-ready control techniques (and the disturbingly casual nature with which Cronyn enacts them) quickly change our impression. This is one of the great "a good actor can convince you of anything" type roles. I thought of Hume Cronyn before this as a grandfatherly onscreen presence. But as Munsey he is a truly despicable villain.

When I say this movie is packed with guys (a male-female ratio we might term dude density or, simply, "dudensity") I mean it. The movie is set entirely within the walls of Westgate; the opening credits slowly bring us inside, and end with the doors shutting and its bridge rising, symbolically indicating that the audience is now stuck inside with the inmates. As such, there aren't too many women on the grounds, so a feminine touch comes via an interesting device. Collins' cell R17 has an absurdly tame calendar girl pinup on the wall, and each cellmate in turn gives it a flashback-trigger look that returns them to a time before their imprisonment. Each shows how the significant woman in each of their lives was responsible for their incarceration.

Now that could play as misogynistic, but it doesn't. In all but one case these women are not the femme fatales we'd expect. They're not sending their men out to steal or kill for them. Most of their stories are a good deal more tragic; one inmate is a soldier who got busted for stealing food from the U.S. Army to feed his Italian lover and her cruel father. These scenes add a melancholic dimension to the film, and while it doesn't always excuse the criminal's behavior, it sometimes add a humanizing dimension (and permits some of the best examples of the more complex acting that I was so impressed by). I read on Wikipedia that director Jules Dassin, who later dismissed this film as "stupid," fought against the use of the flashbacks because they "watered down the film."

With respect to the very talented man who made this superb film, I disagree. They don't water down the film so much as they leaven it. Brute Force is, true to its title, absolutely brutal (the ending is particularly intense for a studio film of the era). The flashbacks provide the audience their only respites from its harrowing realities and show that a real man doesn't use brute force because he enjoys it but because feels that has no other choice.

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

NYFF: 24 City

Jia Zhangke's 24 City opens with a decaying factory in Chengdu, ancient machines churning out red-hot pliable metals. The subtitles read, "Hand me the rifle, Commandante!". Ah...there's nothing like a projection snafu to rile loyal NYFF patrons! The subs running beneath the image were from Che, a sneak peek for us lucky few in attendance. Hackles were raised, one disgusted gentleman booed with revolutionary lust, but eventually calm prevailed, and 24 Che returned to its City.

The movie is an addendum of sorts to Still Life, another attempt to document the evanescence of Communist social and architectural edifices. Still Life submerged the city of Fengjie, while 24 City tears down munitions Factory 420 (to be replaced by luxury high-rises). Both mix fiction with documentary (24 tipping more towards the latter).

The mode is simple, almost Ken Burnsian in its emphasis on talking heads, although Jia gives his subjects far more time to elaborate their reminiscences and remembrances, and evocatively frames them in the crumbling facility. The question is recreating the past through the word, an oral history rather than Still Life's more visually weighted mode. Jia interviewed over 100 employees and relatives of the factory, and mixes in a few staged sequences (including fake memories from Joan Chen and Jia regular Zhao Tao). The idea about how we create and maintain our history is the subterreanean question here, but the surface is straight-up storytelling, and the film ebbs and flows based on the imaginations and memories of the interviewees. So it jumps from banal to amusing to profound (an image of a tool being the product of an endless history of hands was especially resonant), all just a result of the nature of the project.

Minor in the best sense, it burrows its way deep into its small plot of land, and comes up with offhand beauties (the final shot of Chengdu, the dust from a collapsed wall illustrating the ebb of time found in a Yeats quote) that expands the impact of this small-scale work. Not a career capper, but a fascinating sidetrack.

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