Monday, May 25, 2009

an american crime...

A while back, I wrote about THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, an effective horror film based on the true 1960s story of an Indiana teenager who was held captive, tortured and killed by the family her parents were boarding her with. From a book by Jack Ketchum, whom I don't think I'm especially wild about, THE GIRL NEXT DOOR left me very uneasy at the time. It's definitely a good movie, but not really a pleasurable experience to watch, not that a film has to be fun to be good (negative pleasure, duh), but it's kind of hard to sort out your feelings on something that's powerful and brutal, particularly revolving around violence against children. It's been over a year since I watched it, and the film has definitely stuck with me. It got under my skin.

It's probably because GIRL NEXT DOOR got under my skin that I've been both very interested and somewhat hesitant in watching AN AMERICAN CRIME, a direct-to-cable version of the same story which also came out in 2007. On the one hand, I was curious to see a different interpretation of the same events, and the other hand, they weren't events I was especially anxious to revisit. Anyway, whether it's good that I waited or not is kind of irrelevant, just personal shit, or whatever. AN AMERICAN CRIME, it turns out, is a good film, very similar to THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, very effective and disturbing, and (judging from my nominal research) more historically accurate.

The crux of the difference between AN AMERICAN CRIME and THE GIRL NEXT DOOR is the aura of legitimacy. THE GIRL NEXT DOOR has been promoted as a horror film, it could be taken a torture porn, I guess depending on what a viewer's reaction is to it. I mean, I don't think the torture in that film was meant to be titillating, but in some ways that's what the marketing skew on the movie seems like, but whatever. AN AMERICAN CRIME has a more polished pedigree. Director Tommy O'Haver is definitely not an exlpoitation filmmaker (his credits include ELLA ENCHANTED and BILLY'S HOLLYWOOD SCREEN KISS, which was co-written with his co-writer on this film, Irene Turner). Christine Vachon is one of the producers. The cast is full of familiar faces, the victim is played by Ellen Page of JUNO and HARD CANDY, her abuser is Catherine Keener (I was also kind of surprised and amused to see Michael O'Keefe, the kid from CADDYSHACK, as a priest), and the neighborhood kids who take part in the abuse are made up of familiar faces from TV shows and movies (nobody super famous, but all very recognizable). James Franco also has a bit part, as does Bradley Whitford. So, yeah, the vibe here is very different than THE GIRL NEXT DOOR.

In a way, this almost makes AN AMERICAN CRIME the more effective film. Though the level of onscreen violence and torture is definitely less here than in THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, some of the most brutal moments remain, and must of the rest is implied. As in THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, the horror kind of sneaks up on you. Unlike GIRL NEXT DOOR, AN AMERICAN CRIME doesn't frame the story in any kind of romantic or nostalgic idyll. Here, however, the viewer is lulled into a sense of security by the legitimacy of the trappings. It's a Showtime movie, Catherine Keener, Ellen Page, how bad can things get? But of course, they do get bad, the violence is presented with a certain starkness and it's all the more effective because as a viewer I'm not really used to see Catherine Keener torturing children (she's good here though, as is Page, an actress I really like who mostly stars in movies that I don't like, this is only the second film after HARD CANDY I've seen her in that I thought was decent).

So yeah, AN AMERICAN CRIME was a good film. It tries a little too hard to make the violence of the story more palatable to a mainstream audience, and that sort of works for and against it. The violence isn't any more palatable, and might in fact be more troubling because the movie around it aims at legitimacy. At the same time, the more familiar narrative aspects of the film serve somewhat to weaken it. The music, for example, doesn't really seem right, it's sort of stock dreamy 1960s coming-of-age movie music, which this really isn't. It's still a pretty engaging, troubling movie experience and one that's well worth your time.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

murder in a blue world...

I was kind of surprised checking Netflix just now and discovering that Eloy de la Iglesia's MURDER IN A BLUE WORLD is coming out on DVD this week. On the one hand, it's pretty cool, the only copy I've ever seen of this was pretty rough, so I'm looking forward to seeing it on a better transfer, and being able to share it with friends. I also like being able to reccommend it here and having people who are interested actually being able to find it. On the other hand, I'm not 100% sure I'm ready to share this movie. Yeah, I know it's not mine, I didn't make, I don't hold the copyright, I'm not the first person to see it or like it. But some movies are kind of special, kind of secret, they have a certain magic that can dissipate over too wide an audience. And I'm selfish, I do want to own the rights to certain movies, and decide who sees them, and be the only one who tells you how special they are...
Anyway, you heard it here first. MURDER IN A BLUE WORLD. See it.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

the nothing experience...

I think I may have been traumatized by the new Steven Soderbergh new THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE. Seriously, it's a such a lousy film, watching it was such a waste of my time, even at under an hour and twenty minutes, I've been walking around in a grumbly, pissed off mood for days, and I really haven't felt much like watching films or writing. It's just like, why bother? Mediocrity obviously rules. This world is for the Steven Soderberghs and the Sasha Greys, pimping their empty and humorless Luxury Goods-as-substance fake indie movies, I'm just living here...
I might write something a bit more detailed as I move father away from the traumatic event, but more likely I'll move on to something else, if the joy of cinemagoing hasn't been robbed from me forever. Any suggestions on a movie that won't make me feel like my soul is drowning in an ocean of orphans' tears?

Monday, May 11, 2009

the difficulty of difficulty...

I'm not really sure how to start off a review for a film like like Lukas Moodysson's A HOLE IN MY HEART. Although I didn't like the movie, really didn't like anything about it, I don't want to come off as reactionary when discussing it, because I think ultimately this is a film that wants to offend and be rejected. It's an intentionally difficult movie, which isn't a bad thing, but the way in which it's challenging had less to do with confrontational concepts and ideas than challenging the viewer to sit through 90 minutes of disjointed discord and gross out. What ideas the film does have are established pretty well early in the film, after which we're given nothing new but escelating scenes of degredation meant to drive home these fairly trite notions about viewership and sexuality.

The setup for A HOLE IN MY HEART is simple. While his sullen teenage son hides in his room, a low rent pornographer and two performers shoot a extreme amateur porn film in the living room. The film within a film becomes more disturbing as the pornographer and actors get drunk and high and begin to get at the rawer emotional problems that have driven them to this line of work. The whole film is portrayed through disjointed narrative, haphazard editing and a nonmusical electronic soundtrack. All these elements are designed to challenge, but come off as kind of obvious, they all just telegraph- THIS IS A DIFFICULT MOVIE, YOU ARE NOW BEING CHALLENGED. It all feels kind of tired, or maybe just tiresome.

It's interesting that a film like this, which shows near-hardcore sex footage and graphic images of labial surgery, vomiting and other supposed taboos, actually seems so moralistic when it comes to pornography. The idea is that these people are so damaged that this is all they can do, the porn they are making is clearly portrayed as exploitative. Moodysson seems to want to have his cake and eat it to, providing "how much can you take?" images of sex and violence while seemingly simultaneously make a film, not about the "evils" of pornography exactly, all occupies an ambivalent moral space.

I'm all up for any film that provides a challenge. Some of the best films, of course, provide an intellectual challenge, forcing the viewer to think in new ways about things or to confront difficult ideas or concepts. Sometimes challenging narrative techniques can be effective, forcing the viewer out of the comfort zone that more easily digestible movies can provide, forcing us to see things in new ways. And sometimes challenging content can be effective, if it's sex or violence or other cultural taboos. But rarely does a film that exists solely for the purpose of providing a difficult viewing expeirence work. Without a stronger underlying intent behind that, the film becomes nothing more than an exercise. A HOLE IN MY HEART is an exercise, and a pretty lame one at that.

Why are films about sex so rarely good? It seems like the filmmakers most willing to tackle the subject are those who have the least to say about it. There are definitely some exceptions, I think some of Catherine Breillat's films, at least her more recent ones, are both thoughtful and challenging, and approach sexuality from a mature perspective, but there are many more films like A HOLE IN MY HEART which infantilize the subject (I think the same could be said for most pornography as well), exposing the physical, near-gynecological side of things without getting at any of the complex emotional or cultural/social designs behind it. And why are all films about sex so consistently unpleasant? It's as though filmmakers view sexuality as a problem, something that needs to be addressed, and confronted, as opposed to a natural part of the human experience, something that, as far as I can recall, is generally fairly pleasant? I suppose it's possible that the better filmmakers of the world simply aren't as preoccupied with unpleasant notions of sexuality and have moved beyond their sexual obsessions enough to make them elements within the larger tapestry of their films, rather than their raison d'etre. I dunno, something to think about I guess...

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

10 great characters...

I've seen this going around on several blogs and figured I'd contribute as well. Ten favorite movie characters, in no particular order...

1. Itto Ogami & Daigoro (Tomisaburo Wakayama & Akirhiro Tomikawa), LONE WOLF & CUB movies. "Choose the sword, and you will join me. Choose the ball, and you'll join your mother in death. You don't understand my words, but you must choose. Come, boy, choose life or death..."

2. Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller), THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI ACROSS THE EIGHTH DIMENSION. "Don't tug on that, you never know what it might be attached to."

3. Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould), THE LONG GOODBYE. "That's OK with me."

4. Hoke Moseley (Fred Ward), MIAMI BLUES. "Hell, I'm put 'em back in for pork chops..."

5. Walter Paisley (Dick Miller), A BUCKET OF BLOOD. "A creature is a creature or an artist."

6. Martin (John Amplas), MARTIN. "There is no real magic."

7. May (Angela Bettis), MAY. "So many pretty parts and no pretty wholes."

8. Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark), KISS OF DEATH. "You know what I do to squealers? I let 'em have it in the belly, so they can roll around for a long time thinkin' it over. You're worse than him, tellin' me he's comin' back? Ya lyin' old hag!"

9. Bennie (Warren Oates), BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA. "There ain't nothing sacred about a hole in the ground or the man that's in it. Or you. Or me. "

10. GTO (Warren Oates), TWO-LANE BLACKTOP. "If I'm not grounded pretty soon, I'm gonna go into orbit. "

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

love this image...

This theatre sharing my name, formerly on 42nd street, was still around, though shuttered, when I first moved to New York. Would have loved to see some movies there (although I've heard it was a pretty rough spot).
Tad's Steakhouse, which had several locations around the city (and, if I remember correctly, pretty gnarly but kind of awesome food), is sadly gone now too...

Monday, May 4, 2009

pesto westo...

If you check the comments on my last entry, you'll see a post from the Scandy Tangerine Man that sums up the problems with the WOLVERINE movie much better than I did. Y'know, I've been reading comics since I was a kid, and the movie still failed to generate even the mildest level of excitement for me, there was nothing I saw that was like, "wow, they finally put that on the screen." I think the only thing that kept me from totally hating it was the fact that my expectations going in were sooooooooo low, and to the movie's credit, it did exceed them, but that's really not saying much...

Anyway, I'm kind of stuck. Having not posted for such a long time has left me with a huge backlog of film I'm interested in writing about, while simultaneously keeping me out of practice and out of the habit of writing. Being something of a self-loathing perfectionist control freak, the idea of putting up some substandard entries kind of spooks me, but I realize that the only way out of this rut is just to write. Still, I feel like a bozo. Of course, this blog was never specifically meant to be a showcase for my best writing, but it's become such a major outlet for me, it's hard not to take it seriously and not just as a diversion or a side project.

Anyway, I've been on a big spaghetti western kick lately. It's such a rich and varied genre full of so many different kinds of filmmaking and storytelling, which many filmmakers using the western backdrop as a means of exploring various ideas while simulataneously entertaining with stylish gunplay and tough guy pathos.

Though the most famous of the spaghetti filmmakers is easily Sergio Leone, the best, for my money (or we could just say my favorite, since who's to say who's better who's better who's best?) is Sergio Corbucci. I've probably mentioned his GREAT SILENCE before, it's my favorite spaghetti western, bleak and snowswept, scored powerfully by Ennio Morricone (the theme was later adapted by Ryuchi Sakamoto for his score to the awesome miniseries WILD PALMS, from Bruce Wagner's comic strip) and driven by powerful performances from Jean-Louis Trintignant (as "Silence), villainous Klaus Kinski and sexy Vonette McGee (later in REPO MAN).

Corbucci was a versatile filmmaker. While THE GREAT SILENCE is grim and wistful, his COMPANEROS, starring Franco Nero and Thomas Milian, is imbued with a kind of breezy humor, well-balanced with action and politics. It manages to be simultaneously funny and serious, though not necessarily stoic in the way many westerns (including THE GREAT SILENCE) are, it's a serious film. Nero and Milian are a mismatched duo thrust into the violence and hypocrasy of the Mexican Revolution. Nero is a Swedish mercenary torn between following the money and doing what's right. Milian is a bumbling toilet cleaner also torn between self-aggrandizement and serving the best interests of his country. Both start the film with the main motivation of trying to cover their own asses and wind up emerging as something more heroic. Between them and their repdemption is bounty hunter Jack Palance, who chain smokes joints and seems to be having some kind of love affair with his pet falcon.

It's a busy, complex film with tons of energy and spirit. The characters are flawed but human. Milian brings an unabashed goofiness to his portrayal of a lifelong fuckup finally given a chance to be and do something more. Nero, a regular in spaghetti westerns and always a treat to watch, starts the film as cooler than cool, wry, fearless and smooth, and gradually becomes more human as the film progresses. Palance proves yet again what an underrated actor he was (until late in his career, anyway). Fernando Ray puts in a quiet, subded performance as a pacifistic revolutionary, while Iris Berben makes for a strong female lead who's more than a love interest as a rebel leader. Morricone's theme song, "Vamos a matar, Companeros" is simply among his best.

Corbucci and Nero were, of course, also responsible for DJANGO, among the most famous of the non-Leone Italian westerns. DJANGO is not quite as serious a film as THE GREAT SILENCE or COMPANEROS, but it's certainly entertaining and visually quite arresting. Nero's performance as the title character is a wonder of restraint, he does so much with his eyes. Even Corbucci's lesser films are highly entertaining, including THE HELLBENDERS, with Joseph Cotton as a crazed ex-Confederate leading his family through the desert with a coffin full of stolen loot, and NAVAJO JOE, with Burt Reynolds (all of people) as a Native American on a campaign of revenge against the gang who massacred his tribe.

Franco Nero did some remarkable work without Corbucci as well. Enzo Castellari's KEOMA came late in the game (1976) as is perhaps the last of the great Italian westerns. Nero plays the title character, a halfbreed gunslinger who returns to his family home, only to find it riddled with plague and ruled under the gun of a vicious land baron and Keoma's own hateful half-brothers. After saving a pregnant woman whose husband was killed for being infected, Keoma teams with his father and an ex-slave (the incomparable Woody Strode) to take on the killers.

Like THE GREAT SILENCE, KEOMA is a grim film. It's dirty, mean and violent, with little humor, although it does have a very human side, dealing as it does with family. Nero is perfect as the steely eyed warrior confronting the corruption of his past. The long final battle and showdown are marvelously orchestrated, and Strode puts in a superb performance as a broken drunkard battling for his dignity. The score, by Guido and Maurizio de Angelis, plays homage to Leonard Cohen's music for Altman's McCABE AND MRS. MILLER, and while some people seem to hate it, I loved the swirling acoustic guitars and mix of screechy and gravelly vocals.

So, I guess that's some of what I've been watching lately. There were alot of Spaghetti westerns and fortunately many of the better ones have shown up on DVD. I'll continue to cover these as I watch more, and in the meantime will provide some commentary on other interesting films I've seen recently, I hope. Practice makes perfect, or something.

Friday, May 1, 2009

the limits of control vs. wolverine...

Wow, it's been a really long time since I've written anything of substance here. I'm definitely feeling kind of rusty. Things have been going alright here in the Negative Zone, sometimes good, sometimes bad. A couple of months ago, everything was really chaotic, less for me than for a lot of people around me, but it was still kind of a troubling and difficult time. Eventually it all got a bit calmer, and then I finally found a job. It doesn't start until the fall, but I'm going to be teaching writing and literature at the art school where I did my undergrad studies. So, yeah, that's pretty cool, really cool, in a bunch of ways, and the first thing that's ever happened to me career-wise that's ever felt like any kind of real achievement, like getting a job based on my credentials and stuff. I've been flying pretty high off that one for a couple of weeks now, although I still need to find some kind of side gig to help pay the bills.

Anyway, on to the films. The other night I got a chance to see THE LIMITS OF CONTROL, Jim Jarmusch's latest. As a matter of full disclosure, and not the be a total name dropper, but I've know Jim for some 15 years now, and I worked on GHOST DOG and COFFEE & CIGARETTES. His brother is one of my closest friends, so I'm kind of predisposed to like his movies, and generally I do. Some of them, I like a lot. DEAD MAN, I think, is one of the most significant films of the 1990s, and as of yet the last great American western. And of course like anyone with a taste for cinema I love STRANGER THAN PARADISE, DOWN BY LAW, MYSTERY TRAIN and GHOST DOG. I like the others too, just maybe not as much. It feels really awkward to write about this. Do I really need to publicize it? Do you really need to know, or care? But I guess it has an effect on my viewing and reception of the film.

THE LIMITS OF CONTROL is kind of an experiment. It was shot without a formal script, the dialogue was devised by Jim and the actors during production. Actually, there isn't much dialogue, it appears only in a repeating series of vignettes. For the most part, the film eschews a traditional sense of narrative as well. The main character drifts through situations and this cycle of exchanges, the details of the plot (vaguely having something to do with a series of hand offs between members of an international criminal syndicate) remain nonspecific. THE LIMTS OF CONTROL works instead of a kind of dream logic, which becomes increasingly fantastical as the movie progresses. In the final scene, the main character, identified in the credits as "Lone Man" and played by the great Isaach de Bankole, from Claire Denis movies, enters a seemingly impenetrable desert fortress. When asked how he did, the reply is simply," I used my imagination."

Jarmusch pretty much spells out his intent in an exhcange between de Bakole and Tilda Swinton, as "Blonde." Discussing film, she talks about small moments and long silences, and the cinema as an archive of how people in the past dressed, their enviornements, how they smoked etc. We see a lot of this throughout the film. The first hour or so is pretty mesmerizing, as de Bankole drifts through beautiful Spanish locales from one exchange to the next (he encounters fellow Claire Denis vet Alex Descas and DEAD MAN's John Hurt, among others) and we are given views of the architecture surrounding him, the art that he views, landscapes and small details of day to day life. This part of the film is as good as anything Jarmusch has ever done, it's fairly remarkable, involving, beautiful, reminiscint of the films of Jacques Rivette as well as lo-fi, minimal yet detailed crime flicks like Melville's LE SAMOURAI, John Boorman's POINT BLANK and the lesser known French-American co-production THE OUTSIDE MAN, starring John-Louis Trintignant, all films featuring a stoic, lone character travelling on a mission of some kind.

Toward the end, the film starts to falter somewhat. An exchange between de Bankole and Gael Garcia Bernal, as "Mexican," about hallucinogens, echoes the Mick Jagger monologue in PERFORMANCE that's become the standard bearer of second-rate philosophizing in pretentious movies (not that there's anything second rate about PERFORMANCE, but the William Burroughs quote "nothing is true, everything is permitted" has been parrotted in lesser films for decades, and seems a bit juvenile here when used by a filmmaker of Jarmusch's intelligence and stature). Soon after, the dream logic was broken, for me, anyway, in a scene between de Bankole and Bill Murray, as "American," which felt kind of rushed and clumsly compared to the easy elegance of the rest of the movie. Murray refutes all of the beautiful sentiments uttered by others in the film, and de Bankole kills him. Not to be overly harsh, but there's something almost student film like about it, though perhaps there's some intent to that. THE LIMITS OF CONTROL, as an experiment, is something like Jarmusch's own student film, PERMAMENT VACATION, 30 years on and with the steady hand of a master behind it.

Despite these two moments which took away from the overall experience for me, the rest of THE LIMITS OF CONTROL is simply a beautiful, remarkable piece of filmmaking. It's sort of a wonder that this even got made in today's cinematic climate. Jarmusch gives the audience nothing, not in a confrontational way, but simply, he allows things to remain mysterious, gives us uncertainty as to what is coming next, something most films today seem to shy away from, almost violently so. This is definitely a movie that calls for active viewership, it's engaging, and that's pretty wonderful.

Also worthy of mention is the shoegaze-y score by Japanese hipster metal outfit Boris (some of their songs with Suno))) are included as well), the typically stunning cinematography from frequent Wong Kar Wai collaborator Christopher Doyle and the painful beauty of female co-star Paz de la Huerta, as "Nude," naked in every scene she appears in, and the character who makes the most personal connection with de Bankole's Lone Man.

By contrast, X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE is hardly worth mentioning. Not that it's the worst movie I've ever seen, or even the worst superhero movie (it's certainly better than it's predecessor, X-MEN 3), but it's so slightly as to barely register. I suppose it hits a few of the right marks, in that some of the action sequences are well-played, and visually it's stylish enough to not be so overtly tacky as it could haver been, but what? As I process it, I may want to say something about the political aspects of the film, which are typically troubling in that they seem to present the idea of colonialism as a matter of course and nothing to be bothered about, but then again, maybe it's not worth it. It goes without saying that I'll take the flawed beauty of a serious-minded art film like THE LIMITS OF CONTROL over the bland crowd-pleasing action of WOLVERINE any day...