9/27/11

"Meek's Cutoff" dir. Kelly Reichardt, 2010

The films of Kelly Reichardt tend to end with a strange and suspenseful departure.  In 2006's Old Joy, Will Oldham's character returns to an uncertain existence after an attempt to reconnect with an old friend, and in 2008's Wendy and Lucy, Michelle Williams pulls away on a train headed north for Alaska.  But there has never been more at stake in a Reichardt film than there is in Meek's Cutoff, which follows a small group of husbands and wives, sons and daughters, and their guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), as they attempt to drive their wagons across the desolate Oregon plains toward a better life.  The group has separated from the main route west, taking a gamble on the guide skills of Meek, and the film begins at a point where the women of the wagon train (Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson) are discovering that their husbands (Will Patton, Neal Huff) are beginning to question whether or not Meek is leading them astray on purpose, and if so, how soon it will be until they try to hang him.  The opening scenes show the families steadily crossing a river, the wagons sinking dangerously low, one of the women holding a caged bird above her head as she crosses.  Meek's Cutoff not only ends with a significant departure, but begins with one.  As the patient and suspenseful burn of their journey proceeds, the crucial nature of their departure from that river looms over every step, and every tip of the canteen.

Bruce Greenwood as Stephen Meek in Meek's Cutoff
Meek's Cutoff has been called a "feminist revision" of the western, although this aspect is only allowed to emerge through the film's historical context, which is ultimately what makes the simmering feminist politics of the piece so potent.  In the hands of a lesser film maker you can easily see this story being injected with a false sense of modern feminine heroics, which would be to compromise the wider scope and character of the American woman that Reichardt is so adept at drawing.  As a feminist piece it recalls Susan Glaspell's short story "A Jury of Her Peers," later turned into the Provincetown Playhouse One-Act "Trifles."  In "Trifles," Glaspell uses the genre of the murder mystery to pull us into an examination of gender roles, circa the late teens/early twenties.  Like Meek's Cutoff, the opening scenes of "Trifles" guide our natural biases toward the role that the men play in the story, but ultimately plays a clever trick on our perception of the genre.  As a Western, Meek's Cutoff allows us to follow those narrative paths toward the conflict as it is established by the men in the narrative, but, as with Glaspell's famous play,  the development of the story increasingly ties our point-of view to the women of the story; particularly to the character of Emily Tetherow, played with fierce intent by Michelle Williams.  The progression of the wagon train and the narrative gradually shift to reveal the strength of Tetherow's will and compassion, and even though Tetherow may not be the character with the most lines in the film, as Meek tends to spin a rather windy yarn, she definitely emerges as the core of the film's character.

Michelle Williams in Meek's Cutoff
Reichardt's Emily Tetherow is a far cry from the likes of Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar or the cast of Bad Girls.  Although there is a sort of showdown between Emily Tetherow and Meek, the scene does not carry the same weight as it would in a conventional Western because the gesture is built up to in a number of other scenes that contrast the masculine tactics of Meek with the feminine tactics of Tetherow.  In one moment, after Meek has explained to them that the Native Indian they have taken captive, played with tremendous depth by stuntman Ron Rondeaux, has no sense of humanistic obligation to them, Tehterow mends the shoe of the Native in an attempt to counteract the destructiveness of Meek's worldview.  The real drama of the film lies in this play of feminine and masculine gestures (again, recalling the central difference of masculine/feminine perspective in "Trifles").  In the "showdown" sequence, which has specifically to do with the treatment of the Native (and which features an image used to market the film--Williams holding a rifle cocked to fire), we aren't left with the same feeling of easy triumph that would characterize this same type of scene in any other genre picture, but rather a more complicated sense of what Tetherow is sacrificing by embracing the masculine gesture of destruction that Meek defined for her earlier in the film:  Men = Destruction, Women = Chaos.

Tehterow takes aim at Meeks in Meek's Cutoff
Among the plethora of striking images in Meek's Cutoff is that of a tree the wagon train happens upon that is full and leafy at the bottom, and strafed and dry among it's highest limbs.  The image of that tree seems to hold the stark trajectory of their journey, and serves as a prime example of the subtlety of Reichardt's symbolism.  We see the same subtlety in Reichardt's mis-en-scene, which is some of the most cautious and precise among the new generation of film makers.  Carefully positioning the viewer in a way that allows new access to some very well-trodden narrative territory, she sets her subjects against each other and the simultaneously captivating and chilling landscape of the Oregon trail.  The film does not shy away from the darkness of the journey, in many scenes evoking the term "Western Noir."  The pitch black night of Meek's Cutoff is yet another character of the film, at times allowing the only safe place for the Tetherows to speak openly as the stakes of their plight become progressively dire.

Moving west in Meek's Cutoff
The characters are approached in a way that embraces their darkness and prejudice, as well.  Although the tendency may be to read Tetherow as a feminist "hero," Reichardt reminds us that an ideal of feminism is something that has shifted over time, and will continue to, as we hear Tetherow remark near the beginning of the film, as she builds the camp for the night, that the men have them doing "nigger's work" again.  The language in Meek's Cutoff is as tense, stark, and unforgiving as the desert plains they travel.  The opening of the film is essentially wordless, until we see the character of Thomas Gately, played by Paul Dano, carve the word "LOST" into the side of a tree.  Later, as Rondeaux's Indian speaks out to the landscape, intentionally and effectively un-subtitled, we are asked to engage in a kind of listening that goes beyond language.  Whether or not Tetherow is right in her interpretations of what he is speaking we'll never know, but, once again, we are left with Tehterow's compassionate intellect in contrast to the blind distrust of Meek.

Rod Rondeaux in Meek's Cutoff
Perhaps Reichardt wants to lead us to the territory of political allegory with Meek's Cutoff, giving us Meek, with his overt performance of masculinity, as a representation of George W. Bush leading everyone dangerously off course, leaving Emily Tetherow with the question of whether he is evil, or just stupid?  Certainly, there is an abiding Christian faith in his followers that we are reminded of from time to time, as well as an overriding fear of the Native "other." 

Michelle Williams in Meek's Cutoff
In the final images, we see Tetherow's desperate countenance framed by the branches of a tree; a sort of natural iris shot.  Meek utters the lines:  "This was written long before we got here.  I'm at your command."  We are reminded in that line that the triumph of Emily Tetherow is wrapped in a historical narrative that is not her own, as the reverse shot shows us the open framing of the Indian walking away from her.  Reichardt shows us that our future now, as it was then, is uncertain, and that the way in which we negotiate our gender roles in every instance of our lives leads a slow, difficult revolution.



    


9/20/11

5 Films From the TIFF

The Toronto International Film Festival is over, and even though I can't give the first-hand report I would like to, I can give a "heads up" for a few pictures that we can hopefully have access to in the coming months.  For a great panel discussion on the Festival, check out the writers of the Canadian film journal Cinemascope discussing what they saw here.

1)  This Is Not a Film by Jafar Panahi - From a filmmaker who reminds us that making great art can be a dangerous business, Panahi's recent entry, shot partly on a cell phone and smuggled out of his country on a flash drive as a way to reach Cannes audiences, documents a day in the life of the Iranian director as he awaits a crucial verdict.  Panahi was arrested surrounding events that occurred during the 2009 Iranian presidential election, and is facing imprisonment, as well as a government mandate that prohibits him from making films for another 20 years. Panahi made one of the best films of 2006, Offside, which depicts a group of Iranian girls trying to get into a soccer match in a country where women have been banned from stadium events.

This is Not a Film 

2)  Kill List by Ben Wheatly - The word is that this British mixed genre pic will signal the return of smart, politically-charged horror films. Evidently for those with high shock tolerance only, the story revolves around entanglements with a dangerous cult, and supposedly works on a number of satisfying levels.  There has been a lot of enthusiasm for the picture, not only as a twisted and dark horror film, but as one of the great films of the year, period. Check out the trailer here, and some reporting from the Guardian uk on the director here.

Kill List

3)  Slow Action  by Ben Rivers - A 16mm film that Cinemascope's Robert Koehler called his favorite film of the year so far, it is unfortunately a film more likely to be seen in an art gallery than your local cinema. Koehler goes on to describe the film in pretty exciting terms, calling it the kind of picture that leaves you asking "how in the world was this film made, and what planet was it made on?" Rivers' website describes the film as "a post-apocalyptic science fiction film that brings together a series of four 16mm works which exist somewhere between documentary, ethnographic study, and fiction-apocalyptic."

 Slow Action

4)  Alps by Giorgios Lanthimos - Perhaps the film I'm anticipating most from the TIFF this year, based solely on the beautiful, lingering Bunuel-ian violence of 2009's Dogtooth, Alps evidently carries on the intoxicating mix of absurdist comedy and startling dramatic allegory that Lanthimos established with his previous work.  With one of the best teaser trailers in recent memory, Alps involves a small group of people who substitute themselves for recently deceased loved ones in an attempt to ease the grieving process for family members.  Dogtooth is currently available for streaming on Netflix, and should not be missed.   Lanthimos could potentially deliver some of the best European films of the next decade.  


Alps



5)  The Raid by Gareth Huw EvansI had not heard of this Indonesian film from Welsh film maker Evans, but it opened the Midnight screening section of the TIFF this year, and the trailer has me hooked. The film appears to be about, well...some sort of raid, but it was the writers of Cinemascope in the aforementioned round-table discussion, with their attempts to explain how much PUNCHING goes on in this picture, and the extreme nature of all the PUNCHING, that got me hooked. I guess it just occurred to me that it's about time I saw a film with a lot of quality PUNCHING in it!  


The Raid







9/19/11

"I messed up. I owe you an explanation." Is NETFLIX breaking up with us?

The mass email news this morning from Reed Hastings, co-founder and CEO of Netflix, is that Netflix is not really breaking up with us, but, rather, breaking into two separate parts:  1) Netflix, which will be the streaming service that the company has been trying to transition to for the last five years, and 2) Qwikster, which will be the DVD-by-mail service that they are also going to open up to Blu-ray and Game rentals.



I guess I wasn't aware of how vitriolic some of the feedback from Netflix customers must have been.  For what essentially amounted to a price increase, there must have been some pretty irate response to instigate a message from Hastings, sent out this morning, which begins:
I messed up. I owe you an explanation.

It is clear from the feedback over the past two months that many members felt we lacked respect and humility in the way we announced the separation of DVD and streaming and the price changes. That was certainly not our intent, and I offer my sincere apology.
So the short story is this:  Hastings promises that there will be no further price increase, but the billing for Netflix and Qwikster will be separate bills, as the price structures for these different services need to be handled separately.  For those who still find that red envelope a "source of joy," as Hastings does (I know, it seems weird that he has to wait three days for the next disc of Dexter, too), those deliveries will remain the same, just with a slightly different logo.

Dexter
Many Netflix customers have expressed that they will simply switch to the streaming service, but the real issue there is the limited number of titles and quality.  Netflix already has a great selection of films through their "Watch Instantly" feature, many of which I have been recommending on Ecstatic with a feature called INSTANT 3, where I have been trying to find some of the best of what Netflix offers, grouped around different themes and genres.  It is clear that Netflix has been working consistently on the quality issues of their streaming service, which I'm sure will improve in time, but for now I cannot recommend watching just everything Netflix offers Instantly, especially if you care about image quality.  Often films with deep black negative spaces are particularly bothersome, as the digital fuzz tends to take precedence over the image.  Trust me--David Lynch, Bela Tarr, or any filmmaker worth their salt do not want you to watch their movies on Netflix streaming until the image quality gets a serious upgrade.

David Lynch
As far as selection is concerned, Netflix's current selection is not as wide ranging as it might seem.  Of course, your perception of this depends on how you watch movies, and, admittedly, I am not the popular example.  In my queue, which I have accumulated slowly, progressively, without really paying much attention to which selections are "Watch Instantly" and which are "By Mail Only," I currently have 161 selections in my queue, 57 of which are available to "Watch Instantly."   Certainly we are the same in that we want to see the movies in our queue, and for me that means 104 pictures that, if I switched to the Netflix-only service, I would not have much access to (I am aware there are other services, like Blockbuster's online service, which does offer some titles that Netflix does not currently--one example being the film I recently wrote up, 1972's Bad Company).  For me, with the recent release of Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, I am pretty excited to catch up with his earlier work, particularly the Pusher trilogy, which would not be available to me if I only received Netflix streaming service.  And, remember when video stores had pretty interesting stretches of genre titles, and maybe even a foreign section (!), that were fun to peruse and pluck from?  Well, with the quick death of the video store and the rise of the movie kiosk, the sickening perception that the only thing that matters in movies is the "New" Release gets perpetuated even farther.

Pusher
I'm a supporter of the Netflix, and I have been a loyal customer since April of 2004.  They have been expedient and helpful in resolving any mix-ups that have occurred along the way, but, more importantly, they have continued to expand their selection, recently adding a number of rare entries.  In the last Ecstatic Double Feature segment on two of Monte Hellman's best pictures, Two-Lane Blacktop (1972) and Road to Nowhere (2010), I mention the unforgettable work of the late, great Warren Oates, whose filmography has included a couple of hard-to-get entries over the years.  Netflix has been working to include rare pictures like those lost Oates pictures through their "Watch Instantly"-only selections, which now includes entries like Heroes Island (1962), 92 in the Shade (1975), and China 9, Liberty 37 (1978).

Warren Oates in China 9, Liberty 37 
Netflix has been showing additional respect to customers seeking out the more unique corners of cinema experimentation by offering "Watch Instantly"-only rarities like Francois Gerard's 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993) and Guy Maddin's My Winnepeg (2007), as well as adding a number of films to their Classics section, from Audie Murphy westerns like Ride a Crooked Trail (1958) and Showdown (1963) to forgotten Noirs like Don Seigel's Private Hell 36 (1954) and James Cagney's only directorial effort Shortcut to Hell (1957), to name but a few.

32 Short Films About Glenn Gould
Another aspect of at-home cinephilia to mention here is that of DVD Extras/Special Features, which are absent from the "Watch Instantly" experience, at this point.  In some respects, the commercial DVD industry has used the "Special Feature" as a way to market films that can't sell as satisfying product on their own; it's kind of a shame that "3 Alternate Endings!" has so often been marketed as a "bonus," when, in fact, it's usually the mark of a filmmaker that didn't know what film they wanted to make in the first place, or compromised in the face of studio pressure.  You'll never find an "Alternate Ending" on a Coen Brothers film, and, to my knowledge, they are the only directors to ever release a Director's Cut that was actually shorter than the original, with the excellent DVD release of their first film, Blood Simple (1984).  DVD releases that offer truly enlightening and worthwhile "Extras" beyond the film itself, as with the forerunner of DVD packaging, the Criterion Collection, will hopefully find a way to be translated to the Netflix streaming experience.

Dan Hedaya and M. Emmet Walsh in Blood Simple
 For my money, the film is the thing, although I think there have been some Commentary Tracks and Bonus features that have raised "Extras" to an art form (Blood Simple, once again).  Maybe the bigger question here is the future of the physical DVD product in general, as the whole industry seems to be following the path of the music business, and more and more films are finding alternate release venues online.  For now, as a satisfied customer, I'll keep my Netflix + Qwikster accounts through these alterations, and hope they continue to roll with the changes.


9/18/11

"Contagion" dir., Steven Soderbergh, 2011

I don't consider myself a germaphobe, but I empathize with those who are, particularly if they wound up at a screening of Contagion recently.   Steven Soderbergh's latest film which manages to take the premise of Wolfgang Petersen's 1995 film Outbreak and remake it into something that works.  I'm not sure there was an abundance of doubt that Soderbergh's take on the Epidemic genre would prove more interesting and artful than Petersen's film, but the difference between what the two directors are able to do is significant as a way to read Contagion, which manages to occupy an odd liminal space between making something really interesting out of the worst of 70's cinema (the Disaster film) and delivering a picture that serves as a fairly dense cultural reflection on the nature of realistically dealing with mass epidemics in the information age.  In Outbreak, the Motaba virus threatened to wipe out the human race...(in my best Dustin Hoffman) "unless we find that monkey!"  In Contagion, the difference is in the clever yet simple plot construction, which ultimately clicks neatly into place, leaving us with a fairly thoughtful conclusion to carry out with us, if you will.

Matt Damon in Contagion
It comes as no surprise that Soderbergh is tackling a new genre.  If we've learned anything from the career of Soderbergh, it is to expect the unexpected.  In retrospect, his debut feature Sex Lies and Videotape (1989), a movie that helped to define indie film making in the early 90's, seemed like the work of a filmmaker who might give us more of the same:  intimate, cheaply made character indies that were breaking ground in contrast to the dearth of serious films in the late 80's.  Sex Lies and Videotape signaled the start of a strong career, but the films that followed tell us a lot about how ambitious Soderbergh's vision can be:  Kafka in 1991 (his take on Kafka's "The Castle" featuring Jeremy Irons; rumored to soon be released in a re-edited edition), King of the Hill in 1993 ( a depression era film featuring a child actor in the primary role), all the way through to maybe his most aggressively subversive film, 1996's Schizoplois  (a credit-less cult film that serves as a sort of "fuck you" to the movie industry from Soderbergh).

Schizopolis
It isn't until after Schizopolis that mainstream America got a sense of what Soderbergh could do as a mainstream film maker, with such box office successes as 1998's Out of Sight, 2000's Erin Brockovich, and the Ocean's Eleven (lets hope) trilogy.  Although I'm not a huge fan of those films, I have always admired Soderbergh's attitude about the kinds of projects he takes on, which seems to be more about continually testing his capacities as a director and accommodating the script and genre, and less about imprinting any overt auteur-like signature.  In contrast to another late eighties/early nineties film maker of note, Hal Hartley, Soderbergh seems to have always worked outside of his comfort zone, although I think that both film maker's bodies of work have some equally impressive entries.  For Hartley it seemed as if he made the same film for a number a years, and a great film it was, from his short work through to his most impressive features, including 1990's Trust, 1992's Simple Men, and, perhaps his masterpiece, 1997's Henry Fool.  Where Hartley's style was always recognizable--the rhythm of his language, the in-and-out-of-the-frame Godardian blocking, and the insular world of his storytelling--Soderbergh's personality always seemed to be hiding just beneath the task at hand.

Jay Thomas Ryan and Parker Posey in Henry Fool
Gwenyth Paltrow in Contagion
Contagion is maybe the first film of Soderbergh's that seems to carry over a personal style in a significant way, even though it's not a "personal film," per se, it shares the visual sensibility and thematic scope of some of his recent work, including 2008's Che and 2009's The Informant!  It seems that Soderbergh has moved a bit more toward a consistent approach across these pictures, at least in contrast to the difference between Sex Lies and Videotape and Kafka.  Contagion exhibits a remarkably seasoned directorial hand.  Soderbergh is extending his grasp beyond a film like Traffic (2000), where he balanced the two contrasting worlds of the drug war so articulately, and allowing his film language to reflect more directly the age of globalization.  The look of Contagion flattens us out and leaves us exposed.  The drab hallways, office enclosures, and hospital rooms on display in the film, from Chicago to Hong Kong, all wash together in a way that makes the continental leaps Soderbergh is taking here seem cohesive.  As I mentioned earlier, this very aspect of how to handle a global crisis in filmic terms can make the difference in the ultimate success of a film, as exhibited in the way less successful disaster pic leanings of a director like Wolfgang Petersen to the dreadful speculation on the consequences of the climate crisis in Roland Emmerich's The Day After Tomorrow.

SPOILER ALERT!:  The final image of The Day After Tomorrow 
What makes Contagion even more remarkable, in contrast to it's expert handling of geography, is the way in which the film establishes a tremendous sense of intimacy.  The only other recent film that manages such a palpable closeness to it's characters is Terrance Malick's Tree of Life, but to an entirely different effect.  Contagion plays, in part, like a horror film, and within the first 15 minutes the film has crawled under the audience's skin.  Soderbergh gets uncomfortably close to the red cheeks, the puffy eyes, the sweating brows.  The spread of the epidemic, as the puffy eyes turn to foaming, gaping, dead mouths, is a slow burn, and the film's sense of pace is really kind of thrilling, although that seems an odd thing to say about the portrayal of relentless and unstoppable mass death.  But, no country gets off more on mass hysteria than the United States (!), with disaster epics dating back to the thirties, and a seemingly unquenchable thirst for the next volcano, Poseidon adventure, or alien attack.  In that respect, Contagion might be read as an attempt to put a cap on, at least, the "Epidemic" contingent of the Disaster genre by making a film that effectively works as a post-summer popcorn movie, as well as an artful piece of cultural reflection.

Steven Soderbergh shooting Contagion
Throughout Soderbergh's career, he has been exploring film release strategies and trends, as with his 2005 star-powerless experimental project, Bubble, which toyed with simultaneous DVD and theatrical release (watch the incredible trailer for the film here--a great little film on it's own).  With Contagion, Soderbergh seems to have released the first all-star, big budget I-MAX release that doesn't rely at all on special effects displays or grandiose CGI (save, maybe, the peeling back of Gwenyth Paltrow's skull, a moment I will admit to taking perverse pleasure in).  I imagine there have been a number of ticket holders who have left feeling cheated out of their extra I-MAX coin after not getting even one 2012-esque global collapse sequence, but, hopefully, there is a more prevailing perception that sees how well the cinematography jives with the I-MAX experience, and possibly an understanding that there are possibilities for the format that go beyond vertigo-inducing stunts.  In this sense, there is a case to be made that Contagion holds an unprecedented spot in cinema history, although the film itself barely holds together in some of the more remote corners of the narrative.

Jennifer Ehle in Contagion
The momentum of Contagion is undeniable and well executed, but that comes at the expense of half-executed peripheral story lines, like the one involving Jennifer Ehle's character Dr. Ally Hextall, the chief CDC employee working on a vaccine for the virus, taking a life or death risk as a way to test the vaccine; same goes for the story involving Laurence Fishburne, who plays the head of the Center for Disease Control, and his attempt to get the vaccine to his wife.  Although all of the performers are on the right page, particularly Ehle who is very memorable here, they tend to get caught in the least interesting corners of the narrative.  There is an interesting parallel story involving the great character actor John Hawkes that hints at how class roles play out in this imagined situation that would have been an interesting extended theme for the film, but I think Soderbergh is more focused on staying true to the procedural-like narrative at hand, although he does allow for some surprisingly insightful moments.  Particularly, the trajectory of Jude Law's online conspiracy theory reporter is an interesting one, and although I imagine there will be some who see Contagion as turning his character into a villain, with the government intervention of the vaccine the hero, I think that Soderbergh is perhaps going for a more thoughtful analysis of what "the truth" means when a situation like this occurs during the most communicatively interconnected age in history.  (Although you might reconsider the validity of my reading, especially if you agree with Eliot Gould's brief character, Dr. Ian Sussman, whose whole purpose seems to be to deliver the line:  "Blogging is not writing.  It's just graffiti with punctuation.")

Jude Law in Contagion
The final sequence of Contagion is a reminder of the fragile and unpredictable nature of our existence, which struck me as a pretty heavy conclusion for an I-MAX affair (at least a bit more heft than my last I-MAX outing, Thor).  That sequence is juxtaposed to a scene that features one of the central characters of the film, Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) throwing a contagion-free prom for his daughter and her boyfriend.  The Emhoff's matriarch (Paltrow) was patient zero, and we are left with them trying to piece together this uniquely American coming of age ritual as a way to stave off the loss and chaos around them.  The scene is a not only effective in terms of how we feel about those central characters, but also as a representation of what we all do, every day, to survive.

Anna Jacoby-Heron and Matt Damon in Contagion
As a final note, for my money it's Soderbergh's most experimental works that are his best.  As a mainstream film maker he can get the job done, and he does that and then some with Contagion.  But, if you haven't really looked at some of the lesser known Soderbergh, I urge you to construct a mini-film fest of some of these titles.  Without the hilarious abandon of Schizopolis, the hit man genre re-structuring of The Limey, the sister experimental works of Bubble and the Girlfriend Experience, and his work with the late great Spalding Gray, Soderbergh could be seen as just another corporate shill of a filmmaker.  The breadth of his work is amazing, and Contagion strikes a chord that hopefully signals a return to his more risk-taking tendencies.

Steven Soderbergh in Schizopolis
Terrance Stamp in The Limey
Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience
Spalding Gray in Gray's Anatomy
Bubble









9/14/11

INSTANT 3: Buried Treasure

Three quick recommendations from the Netflix "Watch Instantly" section - this time, a few gems that I think qualify as "Buried Treasure," and are worth digging up.

1)  Hunger (2008) - Directed by visual artist Steve McQueen, Hunger depicts the HM Prison Maze of Belfast, Ireland in the early 80's during the hunger strikes led by IRA member Bobby Sands.  Sands is depicted by Michael Fassbender, in a career-making performance.  Fassbender has since gone on to feature in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds and the recent X-Men:  First Class, and will appear in the upcoming McQueen feature Shame.  But, Hunger is ultimately as much about the visual depiction of the prison as it is the performances.  One remembers Hunger not so much as a film, but as a painting.  Although a movie with a heavy subject, as well as visual aspects that might be repulsive to some, Hunger is one of the most stunning and concise films of recent memory (on par with another prison picture, reviewed in the last Instant 3, Bronson).  The textures and colors of Hunger will never leave you.  This visual aspect, combined with a narrative structure that is strikingly unconventional, proves to be a triumph for political cinema in a way few political films can claim.  Hunger's middle third is occupied by a scene that is the heart of the film, featuring Fassbender and Liam Cunningham.  It's one of those scenes that only comes along once in a great while; a lengthy, fairly static study of character that seems an uncommon task for film actors, and perhaps plays more like a two-man short play.  McQueen's willingness to allow the actors this space to breath, and for the audience to connect with Sands in a significant way, is one of the many unique aspects of the film.  I was reminded of Godard's Breathless, which is definitely an entirely different type of film, but similarly upsets the expectations of scene construction and duration for it's time, and comes from a filmmaker who would go on to grapple with similar questions of political content in film.  McQueen seems to understand the exact point where art and politics converge, and--in his first feature, no less--fuses the two in a way that is essential and indelible.

Steve McQueen's Hunger
2) The House of the Devil (2009) - Directed by Ti West, this homage to early 80's horror films is maybe the most deserving of recommendation here, considering the climate of current horror.  Although the vampire genre has had a couple of remarkable foreign entries (both also available to "Watch Instantly") with the Swedish Let the Right One In (Thomas Alfredson, 2008) and the Korean Thirst (Chan-park Wook, 2009), many serious film lovers have given up on a genre which, for the past decade, has only seemed interested in producing more green-tinted, J-horror influenced torture porn, Twilight movies, or 80's franchise reboots.  Somewhere in there, House of the Devil was released (maybe between Saw V and Saw VI?), which succeeds not only as a tribute to the good ol' days of 80's satanic ritual paranoia, but as a great film in it's own right.  Aside from a brief appearance by Dee Wallace (of The Howling fame) in the beginning of the picture, House of the Devil is a dead ringer for a horror film produced circa 1980.  The film eventually features a few other actors that keep it from totally pulling the wool over our eyes, but the supporting cast is just perfect here, including mumblecore darling Greta Gerwig, Roger Corman queen Mary Woronov, and the great Tom Noonan (recently doing an unforgettable turn on FX's groundbreaking Louie).  West's direction, for my money, has a better grasp on the relationship between the elements of suspense and surprise than John Carpenter did when he made the original Halloween.  Turn the lights off, and have fun with this one.

Ti West's The House of the Devil
3)  Stone (2010) - When I saw Stone last year at the Chicago International Film Festival, I had every expectation that it would do more wide release time than it did, but the film seemed to creep quietly onto the rental shelves within a few weeks.  I knew the film had some unconventional themes, and was hung with a misleading action movie moniker, but I figured the star power of DeNiro and Norton alone would propel it into a few more middle-American multi-plexes.  It's too bad that didn't happen, because Stone gives us a picture of an aging Michigan couple, parole officer Jack Mabry (DeNiro) and his wife Madylyn Mabry (Frances Conroy, of Six Feet Under fame), that is unique to modern commercial movies.  Stone's central theme is a struggle with faith, and it's depiction of an older couple asking questions about why they believe what they believe and why they still hold to their religious values within a marriage whose deep-seated issues seem to be unaffected by their religious dedication struck me as an fascinating and unprecedented depiction.  The characters of "Stone" (Norton), a prison inmate who has Mabry as his parole officer, and his wife Lucetta (Milla Jovovich, who--trust me--pulls this off), parallel the struggles with faith that Jack and Madylyn are experiencing, especially as Norton's character becomes progressively enticed by the lure of a religion (invented by the screenwriter) called "Zukangor."  Ultimately, John Curran's direction is nothing special, but he knows enough to keep the focus on the performances, and that the real core of this film has to do with DeNiro and Norton acting together in a room.  Perhaps more overtly flawed than the other two recommendations here, Stone falters in some aspects of storytelling later in the film, but ultimately the performers understand these characters so well that they leave you with an access to the film's primary concerns and questions, which, in light of a picture like Stone, seem so rare.

Robert DeNiro and Frances Conroy in Stone






9/13/11

TERRIBLE? or JUST TERRIBLE?: "Dream a Little Dream" dir., Marc Rocco, 1989

I would guess that the likelihood of anyone actually enjoying Dream a Little Dream -- a 1989 film that was desperately trying to keep the dream team of Corey Feldman and Corey Haim going after the success of 1987's The Lost Boys (and the...occurrence, lets say, of 1988's License to Drive) -- depends upon one's tolerance level for the so-called performance skills of the aforementioned dynamic duo.  But, acting aside, there are so many reasons to despise this movie deeply.



In the last "Terrible? or, Just Terrible?" segment, I kicked off this exercise in assessing cinema's most lowly product by reviewing The Flaming Urge, a movie I ultimately had to deem "Terrible," as it serves as a pretty hilarious camp artifact from the early 50's, and is definitely worth checking out.  But, The Flaming Urge was kind of a softball when I step back to consider the cinematic depths I've visited in the past.  From Troll 2 to Trapped in the Closet to The Thing With Two Heads (you know--the one where a racist Ray Milland gets Rosie Greer's head transplanted onto his body) I have developed a gleefully perverse relationship with the ill-conceived and poorly executed.

Rosie Greer and Ray Milland in The Thing With Two Heads
I have built up a strange tolerance over the years. And, yes, I do get off on the strange, torturous tickle of mind-numbing repetition, when done right.  Movies that play with an audience's sense of time, that manage that perfect dance with duration, intentionally or unintentionally, can be one of the most important factors when drawing the line between the "Terrible" and the "Just Terrible."  Sometimes, as in a Coleman Francis, or even the recent Indian special effects extravaganza Endhiran (2010), with it's two-and-a-half-hour-plus running time and stubborn unwillingness to leave anything on the cutting room floor, a test of patience can be exactly the thing that pushes a movie over the line from being "Just Terrible" into the delightful realm of the "Terrible."

Aishwarya Rai and Rajnikanth in Endhiran
Then there's Dream a Little Dream, a movie that put my tolerance to the test.  I was aware that "the Two Coreys" had experienced the reality show treatment recently, becoming celebrity casualties for a second time, but I wasn't aware of how bad it had gotten in 1989 with Dream a Little Dream, a movie so inept in it's execution and excruciating in it's duration that I can't imagine it would appeal to any but the hardest of hardcore Corey-ites (or, Hard-Corey-ites, if you like).  If you are one of those people, I don't want to deny you your pleasures, but let's be realistic about this:  Dream a Little Dream is a movie that dangles grotesquely off the end of a decade filled with Old-Young Body Switching comedies and some of the most inexplicable rises to fame of any decade in cinema.  Dream a Little Dream is probably the worst of the ol' "switch-a-roo" movies, considering that it doesn't even get the ridiculous simplicity of that genre quite right.  Jason Robards plays an old guy who is into some sort of mystical Tai-Chi that allows him to tap into something not unlike Dennis Quaid's abilities in Dreamscape, but his experimental exercise results in a misdirection of energy, and he ends up inside one of the most horribly coiffed skulls in movie history (Feldman).  Feldman, who is definitely the "lead" Corey in this picture, has the acting challenge of having to perform as if he had Jason Robards living in his body, but his obsession with Michael Jackson and lack of displaying any capacity for empathy as an actor keep that from happening.  His best friend Dinger, played by Haim, limps around on a real broken leg that they incorporated into the movie after Haim's mother hit him with a car.  The characters of Dream a Little Dream are seamlessly blended with the real lives of the Corey's...as when they throw in a line in the beginning about how Dinger's mother hit him with a car.  That detail comes in the first scene, and it was about halfway through that scene that I had reached my Corey limit.  1 Hour and 54 minutes later, as I watched Feldman and Robards sharing dance moves during the credits to the film's titular theme, I was feeling broken.

The Coreys
There are a number of other characters in Dream a Little Dream--too many, really--as well as a particularly bad performance by young Meredith Salenger (who would go on to hone her skills in the Bill Pullman/Bettie White giant alligator pic Lake Placid).  To unpack the film's story too much farther might trigger some mild trauma, but here goes:  Salenger plays the romantic interest of Feldman, and even though she and Feldman literally crash simultaneously into the backyard mystical experiment of Robards and his romantic interest, played by Piper Laurie, Salenger's character does not switch bodies with her elder counterpart in the movie.  I can't explain why this is, but I thought I should mention it, if only as an example of the inexplicable choices that abound in this film.  Now, with Robards inside him, Feldman finds the courage to court Salenger.  Meanwhile, Salenger's boyfriend, played by William McNamara, an actor we get to watch invent creative answers to the Acting 101 question of "What do I do with my hands?" for the duration of his scenes, comes unhinged, leading to a dramatic climax involving he and Haim that leads to excessive drinking and gun play (this is PG-13 territory, after all).  The Feldman/Salenger plot to keep Salenger awake as a way to save the fate of Robard's and Laurie's love involves Salenger being intentionally drugged by her mother (played by TV's Susan Blakely, a character who is sort of the last word in 80's rich kid Moms).  What will happen if Salenger falls asleep?  I dare you to find out how that plot line works itself out.  Double-DOG dare ya.

Meredith Salenger and Corey Feldman in Dream a Little Dream
Aside from featuring unpleasant, grating performances, editing that is seemingly unfinished, a running time that is unforgivable, and a plot that was probably smashed together from a couple of different ideas, screwing up both in the process, Dream a Little Dream is particularly "Just Terrible" because of the actors that got caught up in it along the way:  specifically, Jason Robards, Piper Laurie, and Harry Dean Stanton.  It may be true that commercial cinema commonly favors the fad of the moment over respect for great actors, but if you look back now on the legacy of the Coreys in comparison to some of the work from the three screen legends in this picture, you can't help but be especially hurt by the whole affair.

Jason Robards in Once Upon a Time in the West

Piper Laurie in Carrie

Harry Dean Stanton in Paris, Texas

9/10/11

DOUBLE FEATURE: Monte Hellman's "Two-Lane Blacktop" (1971) + "Road to Nowhere" (2010)

"Youthful idealism...it's not that rare."
          "Really?  I think that's when it's rarest."     --Monte Hellman's Road to Nowhere



Two-Lane Blacktop
Road to Nowhere 
Film Critic Kent Jones began assessing Two-Lane Blacktop  in his article "Slow Ride" by talking about the more successful pictures that came before it, pictures which are more commonly remembered for being the touchstone cinema of the late 60's and early 70's:  Mike Nichols' The Graduate (1967) and Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider (1968).
"In Easy Rider, the fabled “road” equals freedom, befouled by ugly Americana...while in Two-Lane Blacktop it becomes something altogether different and far more interesting: a repository of dreams and fantasies, for squares, hipsters, and obsessives alike."  
I have fond memories of multiple viewings of Easy Rider as a high school student, but looking back on it during a one-time screening for my Film Appreciation course last year, it might be true what Andrew Sarris said about it:  "See Easy Rider for Nicholson's performance...and leave the LSD trips and such to the collectors of mod mannerisms."  Although I like the youthful exuberance and sometimes heavy-handed nature of Hopper's motorcycle western, reflecting on the way my younger self imagined himself through the lens of that iconic picture seems now like a sad commentary on the late 80's.

Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider
Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate
About  The Graduate, Jones recalls Hellman saying in a 1984 interview that it was "not really a very good film," but noting that "it's a great film because of just what it is."  By the time I got around to seeing The Graduate I felt very much the same way; I had discovered the Pixies by that point, so what use did I have for Simon and Garfunkle?  The use of music in the picture, which is commonly one of the most heralded aspects of it, seemed so overdone and played out that I nearly shut off to the experience completely.  Where The Graduate seems something of a relic, Two-Lane Blacktop comes off as timeless, mythic (and not just because I'd take Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee" over "Mrs. Robinson" any day).

Dennis Wilson and James Taylor in Two-Lane Blacktop 
James Taylor is the lead in Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop, and looking back on it now (despite the fact that I still truly believe James Taylor has little to offer to American Music) he has been stuck to the wall forever as one of the biggest bad asses in American Cinema with a single scene early in the picture where he finalizes a drag bet with a cocky hot-rodder, upping the ante abruptly, adding just the right amount of speed and pressure to his tone:  "Make it three yards, motherfucker, and we'll have us an automobile race."  I can't imagine anyone suspected that the duo of James Taylor (as The Driver) and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson (as The Mechanic) would work as perfectly as it did, then or now, but there is something so right about the pairing that it's hard to believe that neither of them would ever act in a movie again (Wilson drowned in a yachting accident at age 39 in 1983).  Of course, Two-Lane Blacktop is a movie that stars a 1955 Chevy 150 as much as it does Taylor and Wilson, and although it might be a movie that is pleasing to some car lovers, it certainly doesn't act like a typical "Car Movie," from Bullit to The Fast and the Furious, and has probably left more than a few paying customers disappointed over the years for that very reason.

James Taylor and Warren Oates in Two-Lane Blacktop
Richard Linklater, a director who made a similarly decade-defining cult picture at the beginning of the 1990's, Slacker, remarked that Two-Lane Blacktop is "like a drive-in movie directed by a French New-wave director," which is pretty dead-on.  Although nearly all of the Hollywood renaissance directors were burning on the creative fuel supplied by the various European New-wave styles of the late 50's and early 60's, Hellman's picture melds that sensibility so seamlessly with the American traditions of the road picture that it never seems like a conscious nod.  Like The Driver, Two-Lane Blacktop never tips its hand.  Hellman notes in the commentary track of the Criterion Collection edition of the film that there are a couple of consciously Hitchcockian moments of mis-en-scene in the film, but Two-Lane Blacktop never feels like it's copying anyone, but rather setting the pace for the greatest work of the 1970's.


Two-Lane Blacktop
As is the case with fans of 70's cinema, if I get started on Warren Oates we'll be here for a while.  Let's just leave it at a recommendation to check out his lead turn in the 1975 Hellman directed Cockfighter (also featuring Laurie Bird and Harry Dean Stanton, who both appear in Two-Lane).  Oates' work with Peckinpah in this period is significant as well, including The Wild Bunch (1969)  and Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.  Both directors understood the marvelous complexity and vulnerability of this actor, and left us with some of his finest moments.  To refer back to Linklater's "Reasons I Love Two-Lane Blacktop":  #6--"Because there was once a god who walked the earth named Warren Oates." 

Warren Oates
The final scene in Two-Lane Blacktop is a key moment in the history of meta-cinema; a quieting, profound few minutes that draws the viewer back into a deep reflection of the details of the picture, that vaults the film from John Ford territory, as it is most definitely playing with the template of the American western, and into a realm of consideration alongside the works of Bergman and Godard.  The final sequence of Two-Lane Blactop also serves as a portal through which to view Hellman's latest film--his first in 20+ years--Road to Nowhere.  Hellman's filmography reveals a strange journey, particularly for someone who was brought into the industry by Roger Corman, directing horror cheapies like The Beast From Haunted Cave (1959) and a Phillipine jungle-set buried treasure pic concocted by and starring a then unknown Jack Nicholson called Flight to Fury (1964).  The 1980's are probably best left uncovered for Hellman, as he has said that 1988's Iguana was the worst experience of his career, only to be followed by a directorial stint on the third of the Silent Night, Deadly Night trilogy (Better Watch Out!).  I am sure there are some connections and lessons learned between those films that are relevant, but Road to Nowhere mostly reads like a great filmmaker reclaiming his creative self, and pushing away from the missteps of his past in an rather exuberant fashion.

Shannyn Sossamon in Road to Nowhere
Road to Nowhere is the next great entry in the cannon of Meta-Cinema, a picture within a picture within a picture that is even more firmly rooted in the style than the films that are perhaps it's closest cousins: David Lynch's Mullholland Drive (2001) and Inland Empire (2006).  At times bearing a resemblance to an actress who appeared in both of the aforementioned Lynch films, Laura Harring, Hellman's lead actress in Road to Nowhere, Shannyn Sossamon (excellent, as well, in Roger Avery's underrated The Rules of Attraction and Gorin Dukic's feature debut Wristcutters:  A Love Story), captures the same kind of duality that Lynch so often establishes in his central female characters.  Hellman's camera captures this in a subtle manner and, like Lynch, seems to be more interested in raising questions about the nature of his characters and their stories than providing answers.  The experimentation of Road to Nowhere is more restrained than the leaps into the creative abyss that Lynch has taken so successfully over his last few films.  Road to Nowhere is not as interested in the unsettling strangeness that Lynch paints so effortlessly, but shares the same fervor for reveling in the deep, dark holes of incomplete narratives.  As Monte Hellman's alter-ego in Road to Nowhere, Mitchell Haven, reminds us:  "If it all made sense, I wouldn't be interested."

Laura Dern and David Lynch shooting Inland Empire
Shannyn Sossamon and Cliff De Young in Road to Nowhere
Road to Nowhere is a film about the making of a film called "Road to Nowhere" which centers around the mysterious case of Velma Durand.  The character of Laurel (Sossamon) is hired by Haven (Trygh Runyan), which doesn't sit well with the rest of the crew, since the actress has only appeared in one other film:  a low budget horror/exploitation film that captivates Haven during casting.  Amid talk of Leonardio DiCaprio and Scarlett Johansson as casting possibilities, Haven becomes obsessive about hiring Laurel, even though there seems to be problems with Laurel who is embroiled with some kind of political plot in Cuba...or double suicide...and mistaken identity...or something...

Cliff De Young and Shannyn Sossamon (and Velma Durand?)
in Road to Nowhere
Ok, I'm not going to pretend that I or anyone could even do a plot summary on this picture.  But, more importantly, in the attempt is revealed what is so great about Road to Nowhere, and exactly what might cause audiences less inclined to ambiguity to throw up their hands, proclaiming it the biggest piece of pretentious claptrap to come along since...well, the last Lynch picture.  Prepared for a film that is not interested in wrapping up every plot point, or making distinctions between narrative realities, Road to Nowhere can be one of the most rewarding film experiences of the year.  Perhaps a bit of a film buff's delight, the film references abound in Road, with innumerable nods to the world of film noir, from Humphrey Bogart to Sam Fuller, to the specific scenes that we watch along with Haven as he courts Laurel, screening his favorites for her in their room at night, including Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve, Victor Erice's Spirit of the Beehive, and Bergman's The Seventh Seal.  Maybe if you take all of those pictures and mix them up in a stew with a dash of Lynch hair and a pinch of youthful idealism from a 77-year old filmmaker, you get Road to Nowhere.  Then again, chances of "getting" Road to Nowhere in terms of the factual events of Velma Durand's story are slim, but as Haven reminds us, "the myth, as usual, has no relation to reality."  For Haven, the reality he is creating through the film, as it usurps the details of the true story, is what will ultimately, although perhaps only briefly, drive the truth forward.  In Two-Lane Blacktop, Warren Oates' character, GTO, lives by the same philosophical principle, reinventing himself and the world with each hitchhiker and roadside cafe, ultimately taking the story of the film's lead characters away from them in a cloud of dust.  I think Baudrillard called it "the procession of the simulacra," that is, the continual obscuring of the "truth," as the real and the imagined become less and less distinguishable from one another.  As a film that expounds on these ideas, Road to Nowhere leads to some good conclusions.

Dominique Swain in Road to Nowhere
I had a film instructor once who gave me a great bit of advice about analyzing film in writing:  "Be really careful when you're using the word 'Real'."  As Dominique Swain's character puts it in Road to Nowhere:  "Fuck the facts."  

Shannyn Sossamon in "Road to Nowhere" in Road to Nowhere