Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Recent films

A few short reviews of films I've watched in the past month.

Observe and Report. While it has a few nice moments, by the end, this mall set dark comedy becomes a little too "one-note" and loses steam. I'm such a fan of Jody Hill's The Foot Fist Way and East Bound & Down that it's kind of a disappointment. Not bad, just expected more. Hill's style is not for everyone though. He likes to push the boundaries some with comedy.

Dead Snow. All I need to say about this new film from Norway is: Nazi zombies! What else do you want to know? Lots of horror in jokes and references as a group of friends go to a remote cabin (not in the woods, this being Norway, it's on a snow covered mountain range) and have to fight off the Nazi undead. Fun as you can see by the poster (I heart the poster!) and will be coming to the Circle Cinema in August for a couple of midnight movie screenings.

Nollywood Babylon. Evidently Nigeria has a booming film industry. Granted, it won't challenge Hollywood since most films are shot on the cheap for under 10K and released DIY on DVD in markets and shops. The movies look terrible but the locals seem to enjoy them despite the low budget and amateurish quality they have. I was fascinated by the city of Lagos. What a crazy, frantic, packed with people, economically strapped, non-stop place.

Fulltime Killer. This is a typical Johnny To Hong Kong action film from 2001. That means a few things--it is good, bullets will fly, it is stylish, it is tense, it is tautly edited, it will have lots of slow motion. I love a good Johnny To action film and this is another that didn't disappoint me at all.

Adventureland. What a pleasant surprise this was! I basically saw it to see Martin Starr in a fairly large role for him and was completely captivated by this story set in a Pittsburgh amusement park in 1987. It's smart, appropriately nostalgic, has a great score, lots of likeable characters and just a well done youth comedy. Wish more people would have gone to see it but it should still be in theatres so you can still catch it.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

I Heart Wes Studi

I'm not a fan of Wes Studi just because he is from Oklahoma (although that surely doesn't hurt!). No, I like Studi because he's an interesting character actor who has been criminally underemployed in quality films for far too long. What a shame. Studi is one of those distinct, unique actors that always makes an impression.

Studi, a full blood Cherokee born in Nofire Hollow, Oklahoma (is that a great town name or what?), has carved a career out of playing Native Americans. Ethnic actors often get pigeonholed for a particular kind of role and that is all they seem to get despite the fact they can do more but the prison of typecasting is a hard confinement to escape from. Actors have to make a living so they take what they can. For some, it's straight to DVD genre pictures, for someone like Studi, it's playing Indians from every tribe under the sun.

Some of Studi's more well known roles (some of these are TV) are in Last of the Mohicans, Geronimo, Into the West, The New World, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Comanche Moon. He had a nice role in Heat that I wish would have led to more cop roles--he makes a great detective!--but that didn't happen. It looks like Studi has some sort of role in James Cameron's highly anticipated science fiction 3D epic Avatar later in 2009 so that's something to be excited about.

Check out Studi this Monday on PBS as he has a significant role in American Experience's Native American five part series We Shall Remain. It's the first time Studi has gotten to speak Cherokee in a project after his dozens of roles as other Indian tribes.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Paris

In the age of the multiplex, there is something comforting about going to see a movie at a single screen theatre. They are becoming more rare with auditoriums being chopped into sections or having their balconies walled off for that precious extra screen. That's if the theatre is lucky--the unfortunate theatres are just razed or turned into a restaurant. Survival is a never ending struggle for the single screen theatre in the 21st century.

My favorite theatre in New York, the Paris, is just the sort of old school, single screen throwback that makes me think of long-gone eras whenever I step into its lobby and head down into the spacious room built into the ground. Other theatres in NY have more interesting programming but the act of watching a film doesn't get any better than this jewel located on a picturesque square underneath the Plaza Hotel and near a corner of Central Park. Go in the spring or the fall and your heart will skip a beat.

Everything about the Paris charms me. The lobby is tiny so you have to queue up on the street despite whatever the weather might be in New York. If it is raining or snowing--too bad, line up on the street and wait until the movie starts. This is how it should be for every theatre in a city. The theatre is draped in velvet, the 586 seats are soft and comfy and the view from the front/middle of the balcony is absolutely perfect. If I could, I'd watch every single movie in this theatre, such is my love for the place. There's something magical about walking off a busy Manhattan street and then becoming lost in the story on screen.

The Art Moderne styled Paris opened for business on September 13, 1948. Specializing in foreign and independent films--the Paris is known for French cinema. With a name like "Paris" that shouldn't be a surprise. The theatre was run by France's Pathe for 42 years before Loew's took over in 1990.

A few of my favorite experiences at the Paris: watching Amelie with a packed house during its American premiere weekend in 2001 has to be at the top of the list. French TV was on the street and interviewing people as they stood in line. Two weeks later I went and saw Amelie a second time at the Paris. That same year I saw The Widow of Saint-Pierre and then went and ate at a creperie on a cold, autumn night. How French is that?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Two Lovers

The sad thing about Two Lovers is that the film has been overshadowed by the recent antics of Joaquin Phoenix. I don't know if he is putting us on or is serious about this whole rap career change. It's a shame if it's true because he's such a soulful, interesting actor. For selfish reasons, I'd prefer he stick to acting. Hip hop for Joaquin? No thanks.

Two Lovers. Director James Gray sets all his films in the boroughs of New York City (this is #4) and he loves to ratchet up the tone and nuance in full 1970s mode. That's good. If a film hints of the '70s, I'm all for it. Gray's films are so washed in that era he might want to try and break away from that in the future just to do something different. Then again, why should he? Making films that feel as if they dropped out of that decade is a compliment and more directors should do the same so I hope he just keeps on making these sorts of films.

Phoenix plays Leonard, a mumbling, slightly damaged young man living with his parents, working in the family dry cleaning store and pining for a lost love. He goes from no romance to two women in the span of a couple of days--the safe choice (Vinessa Shaw) or the unhinged choice (Gwyneth Paltrow). What is good for Leonard might not be the direction he chooses to go as he's torn between the two women--it's hard to resist the dangerous path of the heart sometimes.

The two women represent a life change too. One wil make him a predictable wife and life connected to his family; one offers the complete unknown and escape from the world around him. Leonard is torn. Gray let's us see both sides of the romantic coin and we see and feel what Leonard has to dicipher between--the security or the passion.

Phoenix delivers a riveting, warm, tender, raw and oddly comical performance. It's hard to not watch him on screen. If this is his last role--and as I said, I'm hoping it's not--then he's ending it on a high note. I wish Paltrow was not in this though. Granted, I'm not a fan but I found her distracting in such a small, intimate story. I loved watching Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshona as Leonard's parents as they solidify a great ensemble cast.

James Gray's Two Lovers is another trip for him into "1970s" storytelling. It's honest, deceptively simple in its construction and very direct. I admire Gray for his stubborn adherence to this style--he will not give up! It makes for bleak downers but for films this well crafted and acted, those are not negative traits at all. Gray's next film is The Lost City of Z, an adventure drama set around the search for lost explorers so we'll get to see if he can step out of the NYC box.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Movie tickets #6

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Street cred

Recently Vern Snackwell and I spent an afternoon upping our street cred points for how nerdy we can be for film watching. Vern, who is on a 2009 quest for five hundred movies (!), came over to my house about 5.30 with a pizza and Dr. Pepper. The weather outside was sunny, springlike and high 70s. It was a gorgeous day, one of the first days like that of spring. We didn't really get to enjoy that though as we promptly turned on the TV and watched three episodes of Eastbound and Down and then the Japanese film Tokyo! for the next three and a half hours.

If it's one thing film geeks worry about it is their rep among other dedicated film geeks. What is more embarrassing in life than to get attitude from a video store clerk at a good video store (if you have a good video store in your town--and I'm not talking about the awful Blockbuster and Hollywood chains--then you know how these people can get up on the cinema high horse)? This afternoon should give us a few points on that front. Forget good weather, Vern and I will take pizza, a raunchy TV show and a so-so Japanese film any day over walking outside, doing yard work, sitting on a park bench, taking the dog down by the water for exorcise, riding a bike or any of that active stuff.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

A letter to america, part two

Dear America,

Let me go curmudgeon for a bit: something is seriously wrong with the youth of America. I haven't read a poll that lambastes their intelligence--although it's impossible to ignore the stories about how ignorant they are at history, science, literature. I have a feeling if these subjects were properly dispelled via social network site, mp3 player, download or cell phone--our American youth would do us all proud. But they aren't. Yet.

No, my worry stems from a recent conversation that left me slack jawed with worry and disbelief. Maybe I just ran into an anomaly but I kind of doubt it. I've read enough about the interests of the today's youth (for the sake of this essay we'll classify youth as being from the ages of 13-19) and have had, or overheard, enough conversations to realize they might just be a clueless mob. There, more curmudgeonly opinions!

I've been having trouble with my computer the past couple of weeks and was at a local Geek Squad getting it looked at. The computer is an iMac from 2002 and as I was describing its issues I made a couple of comments about "2001"--obviously a reference to the film 2001: A Space Odyssey from the legendary Stanley Kubrick. Come on, that's about as much of a no-brainer as humanly possible when snuck into a few sentences about a quasi retro-futuristic piece of technology that is the iMac.

Maybe not. The guy helping me seemed about nineteen years old and got all glassy eyed when I said the phrase "2001" a second time.

"What do you mean, 2001?"
"You know, 2001. The movie. By Kubrick, this computer reminds me of that."
"Never heard of him. What else did he do?"

I was immediately struck by just how empty this poor kid's soul was. Maybe he was just messing with me? I began to list some films to jog his memory: Lolita, Full Metal Jacket, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove...I kept listing them, hoping something would slap him out of his stupor. Nothing. The unlucky sap! To be in your late teens or early twenties and to not know Kubrick is the worst sort of self-abuse and self-loathing.

You'd think in this day of instant accessibility via DVD or other technology that a kid who works ON computers would know about one of the greatest science fiction films ever. There is a strong relation in the two worlds. This example is a symptom of a larger ignorance I'm afraid. We are living in a world where youth only know of pathetic remakes and overblown CGI epics forged from computer screens and comic books. Idiosyncratic auteur directors whose heyday was the 1960s and 1970s are lost and off the radar--unless that much needed remake of A Clockwork Orange comes soon.

I'm concerned, very concerned.



Monday, April 06, 2009

Aliens, Tulsa, 1986

{every so often i want to write about memories of particular films--these posts might be more about who i was with, where i saw the film and my memories rather than the movie itself. this is the first of the film memory series of posts.}

In 1986 my best friend Scott lived with my family for the summer before he moved to Memphis. There were conversations between his family and mine about him staying with us in Pryor Creek throughout our senior year of high school. That did not happen so near the tail end of summer, before Scott left Oklahoma, a small group of us went on a movie binge at the Eton Square Theatre in Tulsa.

Theatre hopping, as we called going to watch two or three films in a row after only paying for one, was a frequent weekend treat for me and a few friends. We'd drive the forty-five minutes from Pryor Creek to Tulsa and see multiple films for the price of one--thank you multiplexes! This Saturday night we saw more than one film but the only one I remember seeing was the last, and best, of the night--Aliens.

Aliens is the high octane, science fiction/action film from director James Cameron
(the original Alien by director Ridley Scott in 1979 relied less on bullets and more on terror and suspense. For the record, I love both films.) that has Sigourney Weaver reprising her role as Ripley. She escorts a motley crew of Marines to a planet that might have a killer alien species on it. Well, let's be honest, there will be carnage and mayhem thanks to the aliens that exist on this planet, that should be no surprise to anyone.

We talked about going to see Aliens for weeks before it came out so we were watching it opening weekend. Despite being a late night screening, we sat in the middle, closer to the front, surrounded by others in a packed house--the perfect environment for a film like this. Aliens is an adrenaline rush of a film and all the way home we were buzzing about it and our favorite scenes ("We're history man!") and whether or not it was better than the original.

By the time we got back to Pryor Creek and home, around 2am, the night was full of bittersweet emotions. I'm still good friends with Scott, yet in 1986, when he packed to leave a few days later, our future friendship was more uncertain. Teenage friendships don't often survive cross country moves. We were happy that we got to have that last going away theatre hopping event where we saw one of our favorites from the 1980s--Aliens.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Wendy and Lucy

Kelly Reichardt is quickly emerging as a young filmmaker to watch and admire. Her films are low budget, filled with natural light, simple, honest and direct--qualities that I love to see an American reveling in (most want the flash and dash of Hollywood unfortunately). Based on Wendy and Lucy and 2006's Old Joy, Reichardt has tapped into a portion of the usually unseen American population, and has unleashed a couple of heart wrenching tales of the lost and found.

Wendy (Michelle Williams) is a young woman travelling to Alaska with her dog Lucy. With dwindling funds, Wendy's car breaks down in Oregon and this begins a rough span of hours for Wendy. When Lucy disappears sometime after the car trouble, Wendy becomes desperate to find her and to restore some sense of normalcy and friendship in her solitary existence. Wendy may have other people in her life but we don't get to see them. We only get to see her with the dog and engage in awkward conversations with strangers. So, Lucy is important, she may be the only real relationship in Wendy's life.

Wendy and Lucy seems simple on the surface but has a lot going on in it if you look. It's a powerful meditation on a variety of themes--the desperation and frustration of being poor, the isolation of travel and not fitting in with the world around you, the optimistic wanderlust of youth, forming unexpected connections with strangers and the universal love between dog and owner. The story unfolds with little dialogue, utilizes long takes and is raw without the doses of sentimentality a lesser director may have injected. A film with a major plot point of a missing pet could go syrupy very fast but it's to Reichardt's credit that Wendy and Lucy never comes close to veering in that direction.

Williams, who I'm more impressed with each time I see her act, gives a stellar performance as Wendy. She absolutely nails it. She's equally numb and emotionally fragile with the way she has to live and with what happens to her in Oregon.
Will Patton plays a mechanic and while I like him, it was a distraction to see someone recognizable in the context of such a small story and setting.The rest of the film is full of non-pros or obscure character actors and this adds to the film's texture of reality.

Wendy and Lucy stays with you long after it ends. The slowness lulls you into its sadness and when it is over, the story and performances are haunting as they stick to you. We need more American filmmakers like Reichardt crafting real stories and real films but unfortunately her style doesn't translate to the masses. It's too slow, it's too sad, it's too low budget but it's really too bad because the void that has become American filmmaking is only growing larger and we could use more people as interesting and talented as Kelly Reichardt.