Thursday, February 26, 2009

Night and the City (1950)

We meet Night and the City's protagonist Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) in his natural state: on the run from his creditors. Things are bad for Harry before the movie begins and they will only get worse. He spends most of the movie on the run, robbing Peter to pay Paul. In scenes where no one is currently on his tail, he paces or fidgets or smooths his hair. During Night and the City's sad final scene, Widmark collapses exhausted in a heap in a boathouse. "I'm so tired of running," he sighs. We know how he feels.

Harry's last stab at "the big time" is a scheme managing wrestlers. But he needs more money to get the idea off the ground; and when they sleazy club owner who promises to bankroll him demands half the money upfront, he has to borrow that money too, which makes him indebted to the owner's unfaithful wife. But the owner quickly realizes his wife's infidelity and plans Harry's demise (he eventually reveals his plan to Harry by announcing "No, my dear boy, I am not giving you 200 quid. I am giving you the sharp edge of the knife.") Harry is like a magician tossed into one of those Chinese water torture cabinets that's slowly filling with water from a faucet that cannot be turned off, only he's forgotten how the trick works. So the movie is like watching a man slowly run out of air, struggling against his straitjacket.

Widmark is amazing this movie. He plays lowlifes and underworld types in most of his famous roles, but it's remarkable to see just how dissimilar all these characters are beyond the superficial connection between their vocations. His Harry is almost the exact opposite of his Skip McCoy in 1953's Pickup on South Street. Skip is the ultimate operator, cool under pressure even in the tightest of spots. Harry, on the other hand, is so vulnerable and Widmark captures the character's feral desperation with an intensity and a commitment that is heart-breaking. We don't particularly like Harry but thanks to Widmark, we feel awfully sorry for him. His portrayal reminds me of another desperate and impossible struggle against the quicksand of self-inflicted disaster I've always been a big fan of, that of Hayden Christensen in 2003's Shattered Glass. Perhaps there's something I identify with in these characters who know their disgrace is inevitable but who fight against it all the same.

Director Jules Dassin, a few years removed from his awesome prison drama Brute Force, made Night and the City in London immediately after fleeing the United States to avoid losing his career to the Hollywood blacklist. No wonder then that the movie is steeped in a pervasive mood of paranoia and persecution; when Harry's final stab at the big time fails, a gangster puts a price on his head so great that practically all of London begins to hunt him. Dassin's mood at the time was understandably bleak, and that's reflected in the fates of the main characters, all of which are tragic, and there's a ferocity to the action sequences, particularly a brutal wrestling match shot in a purely visual style that marks it as a predecessor to the famous heist sequence in Rififi, that sets the film apart from its contemporaries. Dassin isn't playing around. When the water's rising all around you, there's no time for that sort of thing.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

YouTubeArt: Nicholas Cage Pachinko Ads

All I will say about this is that the American advertising industry needs to get their act together quick. There's a severe Cage gap growing between Japan and the U.S., and we cannot afford to be on the wrong side of that equation:

Drugs, ladies and gentlemen. They WORK.

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Attention: Gymkommentary 5 is done

And it is all about The Wicker Man. It's kinda like this...

...only about 45% more anguished and poo faced. Check it out or subscribe to Gymkommentary by opening iTunes then going to "Advanced" and then "Subscribe to Podcast." Then enter this link:


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Taken (2008)

Grateful that the stultifying awards season is coming to a close, I took in Taken, the latest piece of action gimmickry from the Luc Besson factory. No whiff of Oscar-bait on this one, but possibly some mothballs. Originally released last February in France, it made its way through Europe and South America (variously titled 96 Hours, Venganza, and Busqueda Implacable) before landing in the U.S. last month (the DVD is already available at Amazon UK, in the phallic "Extended Harder Cut").

A briskly paced bit of vengeance, Taken stumbles with its shoddily edited fight scenes and Besson's penchant for sappy sentiment - without Jason Statham's bemused wit to undercut it. Neeson plays a retired spook forced back into action when his daughter is kidnapped by some Albanian sex traffickers. Revenge, rescue, etc. Director Pierre Morel is tasked with turning Neeson into a fearsome warrior, and his solution is dipping into the Bourne bag of tricks, creating force through multiple edits rather than visible punches. No battle lasts longer than a few seconds as Neeson tears through these thug straw men, with none of the improvisation of the Bourne films, in which every household item can be turned into a weapon. Here it's a flurry of impressionistic cuts, a shot of a snapped neck, and onward. There's never a sense of danger here. Neeson is a CIA superman, but Besson also adds a dash of extraodinary rendition and torture, but not enough to completely question his heroic stature. It's all a little queasy and muddled, much like The Dark Knight.

It's a shame, because Morel and Besson's influential District B13 (2004) was premised on impossible physical feats, in the parkour style imitated in the Bond films (especially the opening sequence of Casino Royale). There he captured every death-defying maneuver. Here saddled with the expressive but physically limited Neeson, he opts for sub-Bourne montage.

So while I'm still enamored with Besson's action-film factory, with his emphasis on simplicity, pace, and lucid action, they're not all winners. I sympathize with Armond White's rave, but demur when he urges that Besson win the Irving G. Thalberg award.

Maybe I'll be convinced if there's a Transporter 4. Especially if they put Cory Yuen back in the director's chair instead of his rotating roster of French hacks (Louis Leterrier, Olivier Megaton). But that's another story for another time.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Che (2008)

I don't know how much Steven Soderbergh re-edited his two films about Che since I saw them last May at Cannes, but they felt a good deal different to me as I watched them again earlier tonight. I find myself now at odds with my initial thoughts about the films, where I preferred Che: Part One (a "complex blend of time periods and visual styles that feels the most fully formed") to Part Two ("almost stridently undramatic, a series of sad things happening without warning or context to a bunch of people we don't know very much about"). Though Part Two, also known as Guerilla, remains an unconventionally bleak picture, its far more coherent and far more well-shot than I'd previously given it credit for.

Still, these are not easy films to digest or to enjoy, particularly since they're intended to be viewed in one gargantuan 250-plus minute sit that includes very few moments that audiences accustomed to traditional Hollywood biopics have come to expect. They seem engineered to antagonize audiences: Soderbergh has said that he tried "to find the scenes that would happen before or after the scene that you would typically see in a movie like this," in order to defy the viewer's expectations and he succeeds. Part One charts the incremental progress of the Cuban Revolution, builds to the strategic triumph of the Battle of Santa Clara and then abruptly ends just before Che's forces arrive in Havana. In the final scene, Che pulls over some joyriding troops who've celebrated their victory by boosting a cherry-red Chevy and sends them back to Santa Clara. The soldiers don't get to reap the spoils of the war, and neither does the audience for having sat through it. Instead, they're invited to undertake another two hours of guerilla warfare minutia -- building camps, preparing food, attacking your enemies -- and this time there isn't even a happy ending. Where most would have asked why -- why Che join Castro, why he left Cuba for Bolivia, why his second campaign failed as spectacularly as the first succeeded -- Soderbergh only asks how.

Especially on first viewing, Guerilla is frustrating; but then, the picture is fundamentally about frustration. Guevara goes to Bolivia and attempts to do the things he did in Cuba there, but finds all his battle-tested tactics outdated and unsuccessful. Though he refuses to admit it to his dwindling forces, the walls are closing in, and the frame literally does the same; Soderbergh shot Part Two in 1:85 compared to the Cinemascope dimensions of Part One. All the colors of the first part, the lush greens of the Cuban jungle, are washed out of the second. Panoramic crane shots are replaced by bumpy hand-held camerawork (most of it by Soderbergh himself). The cumulative effects of scene after scene of Guevara's forces getting surprised by government troops and fleeing with heavy casualties takes a wearing toll on the audience. Why does Soderbergh repeat himself? Why doesn't he cut in another narrative to leaven the tedium, as he does during Part One? The reason, I suspect, is to have us empathize with Guevara's own refusal to deviate from his path, to give us a small taste of how it felt to walk in the man's shoes during those final days.

A critic of Soderbergh could argue that he makes only two kinds of movies: self-consciously cool ones (Out of Sight, The Limey, the Ocean's series) and self-consciously cold ones (Solaris, The Good German) and Che, which is certainly the latter, does not provide a counter-argument. And yet there is something here, and on that second viewing I felt that even more strongly than the first, where I largely admired Soderbergh's gumption and rejected the execution. By focusing on the day-to-day process of revolution, Soderbergh has revealed the human being beneath the t-shirt icon, despite the fact that he barely interrogates Guevara's character. Regardless of what you think of what he did - regardless, even of what he thought about what he did - Che Guevara was a person whose small, individual actions had enormous cumulative consequences. Soderbergh's Che says here is a man. He did something incredible. And here is how he did it.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

It's Over

The dangerously accurate nerds at Baseball Prospectus have predicted that the New York Mets will win the National League East with a record of 93-69 (click image to enlarge). Get the champagne ready!

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Odds and Ends and Odds

A great fake interview with Cormac McCarthy at End of Books:

"ME: Hey Cormac, nice to meet you, I'm so happy you came!

CORMAC: All men are one man and their meetings or lack of meetings come about unbidden though they may be."


A great real interview with me and Argentine director Lisandro Alonso at The Rumpus:

Do you pay attention to more mainstream cinema?

Alonso: I know it exists. My father and brothers don’t give a shit about my films.

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Thursday, February 05, 2009

Rotterdam, the last

With all of my official duties dispensed, it's time for my inevitable list of favorite films at this year's Rotterdam Film Festival. Established auteurs top the list, but that's more a matter of my short stay than a lack of quality newcomers (I had 4 days and squeezed in 17 films). I just didn't have enough time to gamble on debuts, although the few I saw paid off (El Arbol, the totally insane Looking for Cherry Blossoms). I also wish I had time to fit in the Jerzy Skolimowski retrospective and the new Ken Jacobs (Anaglyph Tom).

1. 35 Rhums, Claire Denis
2. Liverpool, Lisandro Alonso
3. Still Walking, Hirokazu Kore-eda (IFC Films)
4. El Arbol, Carlos Serrano Azcona
5. Frontier of Dawn, Phillipe Garrel (IFC Films)
6. Morphia, Aleksei Balabanov
7. Bronson, Nicolas Winding Refn
8. Birdsong, Albert Serra
9. Looking for Cherry Blossoms, Joe Odagiri [above image: note fake broken arm]
10. False Aging, Lewis Klahr


*35 Rhums will be screening at the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center in early March. Check their calendar once it's posted.

*Birdsong has a one-week run at Anthology Film Archives beginning February 25th.

*Frontier of Dawn opens at BAM for a brief run starting March 6th.

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Rambo's Laws of Motion

Rambo's First Law:

"An object at rest stays at rest until you shoot it with an explodo arrow."

Rambo's Second Law:

"Force equals mass times acceleration times how loudly you scream as you fire your weapon."

(NOTE: To see Rambo's Second Law in action, fast forward to 1:13 of the clip)

Rambo's Third Law:

"To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If you shoot down someone's helicopter and kill them, they will come back to life and shoot down your helicopter and kill you. WITH A BAZOOKA."

There was going to be a fourth law, but Rambo shot it with an explodo arrow.

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