a seemingly random journey through cinema's heart of darkness. so to speak.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

YouTubing-To-Obscure-Shameless-Self-Promotion Wednesdays: Take Sitram or Take Your Lumps

All this talk over at Michael Atkinson's blog about long takes has got me thinking about Songs From the Second Floor, Roy Andersson's brilliant procession of deadpan/absurdist static long takes. In his long career, the Swede's made only four feature films, and his latest -- You, the Living -- pops up seven long years after Songs. But rest easier: turns out Andersson has had a far more prolific sideline in commercials, cranking out some 300 of the fuckers. Judging from the following collection of seven, they've nothing on his feature work, but they're still an ideal way for him to hone his work -- not just his skills for immobile deadpan shots, but his skill for portraying loneliness and anti-capitalism. (One of them is for Sweden's Social Democratic Party.)

In the Weekly I interview John Singleton, whose latest production Illegal Tender I review here, along with Resurrecting the Champ, the latest from ad quote whore film critic-turned-terrible filmmaker Rod Lurie. Also, Rep and a Six Pack on H-wood debuts from foreign directors that went less than swimmingly, in honor of Downfall director Oliver Hirschbiegel's chopped up The Invasion. The last one wound up hacked up a bit to make room for Nicole Kidman's sinewy bod, with special attention to Georges Sluizier's horrid The American Vanishing. Here's how it should have gone:
Hollywood is notorious for fucking up foreign film adaptations, but is hiring the original director really the answer? According to Dutch filmmaker Georges Sluizier’s redo of his bone-chilling 1988 original: no, it’s even worse. (Fingers crossed for Michael Haneke’s forthcoming Americanized Funny Games.) The director himself tacked on a ridiculous, thesis-shattering happy ending and had Jeff Bridges adopt a wincingly goofy voice as the everyman who discovers he’s capable of purest evil. Sluizer wound up with a similar self-discovery: barely heard from since, he’s currently attached to a Rob Schneider comedy.
That's right: a Rob Schneider comedy. Something tells me it's no Punch-Drunk Love.


Monday, August 20, 2007

Catching up, Part Two: Films Noir

I’m about halfway through Warner’s new noir set (their fourth), and I have to say that it’s just the bee’s knees. There might have been some worry because, save They Live By Night (and maybe the Don Siegel-Robert Mitchum mash-up The Big Steal), there are no heavy-hitters. No wonder it comes with ten features (a fucking steal even at the full $60 listing price). But each film has either been really, very good or flat-out blown me away, no less because I knew so little about them. Who knew Fred Zinnemann, the tasteful workhorse of High Noon, Oklahoma! and A Man For All Seasons, was capable of a knotty great like Act of Violence?

I’ve been plowing through them, so let’s keep this appropriately short:

Crime Wave (1954, André de Toth) Never seen de Toth before, but based on this one, no less than House of Wax is already near the top of my Queue. Cheap, stark and stripped-down, it’s shot mostly in single takes featuring lots of harsh lighting and blocked perspectives, giving it a kind of exaggerated doc-like feel. Wouldn’t be surprised if the Nouvelle Vague bowed before it. Gene Nelson, best known as a hoofer (in Oklahoma!, for one), is suitably intense, though his innate decency - combined with the ruthlessness with which Sterling Hayden (awesome, as ever) pursues him -- grows wearying even over the (tight) 74 minutes. Ending either disappointingly pat or unique -- can’t decide. B+

Where Danger Lives (1950, John Farrow) Farrow was a Roman Catholic convert, and it shows: Robert Mitchum’s sweet-natured doctor descends into a nightmare just at the thought of bedding Faith Domergue, and that’s before he even knows she’s married. Like D.O.A. (haven’t seen), this movie has such a great hook and it really doesn’t spoil it. Essentially, Mitchum is thonked over the head by Dommergue’s older husband Claude Rains (who just murders his one scene) and spends the rest of the movie becoming increasingly woozy from his concussion, all the while going from swanky urban life to desolate Nowhere America. The climactic long take - e, like those in Children of Men, all the more impressive because you don’t realize they’re long takes till you’re well into them - is a doozy, but so is one bit of shot-reverse-shot that, at the end, is revealed to have both characters looking in different places. A-

Act of Violence (1949, Fred Zinnemann) As with the above, great existential/philosophical plot not remotely screwed up. Doesn’t even take the easy route with the ending. Van Heflin, after the obscure spag western The Ruthless Four, quickly becoming a favorite. A-

Side Street (1949, Anthony Mann) Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell back again. It’s no They Live By Night, though by design: O’Donnell is very much in the background, with more focus on the supporting characters. But she’s essential, since she and Granger have a bond that is childlike and so deeply affecting that all they have to do is swap puppy dog eyes and I tear up. (Too bad Granger couldn’t always act with her.) Above all, one of the great NYC movies, with one of the all-time best punchlines: “Made in Hollywood.” B+

Tension (1949, John Berry) Audrey Totter was the best part of Robert Montgomery’s apocalyptically wrongheaded Lady in the Lake stab, and she’s about as great here as a chilly fatale, essentially playing Marie Windsor to Richard Basehart’s Elisha Cook, Jr. in Kubrick’s The Killing. Abandoning Basehart in the second half in favor of Barry Sullivan’s dic -- the narrator inserting himself into the story as a third variable, as it were -- is a ballsy move. Sadly, I didn’t fully come along, no less because Sullivan’s smugness upended the whole enterprise. We know he’ll succeed, whereas we at least have our doubts about Basehart. Totter’s bulging eyes compensate mucho. B

Decoy (1946, Jack Bernhard) The real cheapie so far -- produced by Poverty Row annex Monogram - and a sufficiently twisty, resourceful one. Jean Gillie is an anomaly in noir -- a Brit whose cool detachment masks not fragility but a complete lack of compassion or selflessness. (Great tagline: "She Treats Men the Way They've Been Treating Women For Years!") When she cackles madly at the end, it’s just earth shattering. I can see how people would read about this for years without seeing it, and could even delude themselves into not being completely disappointed. But it’s a touch too plot-heavy for my tastes and noble old Edward Norris is a bit of a drag. Awesome touch: POV shot of a guy inside a working gas chamber. B+

Still to Go: Mystery Street, Illegal, /They Live By Night/, /The Big Steal/


Wednesday, August 15, 2007

YouTubing-To-Obscure-Shameless-Self-Promotion Wednesdays: Tony Wilson Meets God

More celebrity deaths, eh? One hopes that if there is a god, it either looks like a) Tony Wilson or b) Steve Coogan playing Tony Wilson. From 24 Hour Party People (natch):

The Weekly In a particularly Superbad-centric section, I interview the Crü and cite it in a Six Pack devoted to great profanity in movies, while Burnsy bestows upon it masterpiece status. Elsewhere, I review both This is England and Death at a Funeral and prattle on and on (and on and on and on) about Chris Marker in Rep.


Monday, August 13, 2007

Catching Up, Part One: What Do You Call Italian-Made Westerns Shot in Spain?

Heat and a move back downtown have kept me from the old K.B., but I've been more screening-happy, if anything. Lest I get more ruthlessly behind, let's take this one in-bold bit at a time:

"Beyond Leone" Spaghetti Western Fest @ I-House
Everyone's an expert on Sergio Leone, but are there filmmakers or even individual films just as worthy? Possibly not, but this cavalcade -- picked by the great collector Harry Guero, of Exhumed Films -- was revealing all the same. The most eye-opening stuff was, not pejoratively, the oodles of trailers. Exploitation films make for the best adverts, as they tend to be nothing more than recycled bits and stars. Hence the reams of Lee Van Cleef vehicles, which find him cast as everything from heroes to villains to a badly-toupéed injun. (Il bruto, if you need know, hails from Jersey.) As with the fake trailers from Grindhouse, seeing the full thing would almost be superfluous -- they could never live up to the shorn-down version. Should trailer-makers be held on the same pedestal as filmmakers? Discuss.

As for the six features themselves, they were an understandable mixed bag. Even the two movies featuring the "Man With No Name" ripoff character Sartana spanned from entertainingly lurid (1970's If You Meet Sartana Pray For Your Death) to stiff to the point of lifeless (1971's Django Challenges Sartana, essentially a spag western "vs" pic). The Wild Bunch-esque Five Man Army -- released the same year, so who knows if rip-off charges are in order -- features Peter Graves, a fat guy, a Japanese guy, a Mexican bandito and another old guy milking the Mexican Revolution via some of the longest set pieces this side of a Melville heist pic, albeit without the rigor. They wind up fighting alongside the peasants, whereas the leads in 1971's amazingly-titled (aka Heads I Kill You, Tails You're Dead! They Call Me Hallelujah (aka, Heads You're Dead, Tails I Kill You -- for some reason I like this title more) continue to happily play for only themselves; not sure what to make of the wisecracking Eastwoodesque star (George Hilton) teaming up with the Russian Kossack dude. (Fuck the Cold War!)

The regrettably spotty Day of Anger -- with bandit Lee Van Cleef, as directed by Leone protégé Tonino Valerii (My Name is Nobody), training a gawky kid on how to be a selfish baddie -- was paired with the series' sole eye-opener: 1968's The Ruthless Four. What bugs me about my liking it so is that it was the most traditionally American of the fest's offerings. Most spag westerns, at least the ones I've seen, tend to revel in bad-ass amorality, rejecting both the classical moral greyness of classic westerns and the bitter, revisionist history stylings of the westerns being made in America at the same time. (Your Peckinpahs, Hellmans, Little Big Man, The Hired Hand, etc.) The Ruthless Four, meanwhile, is a pretty spot-on imitation Anthony Mann -- well-plotted, with dark themes and a slew of unlikeable but (for the most part) human characters.

An ancient, near-death Van Heflin plays a gold prospector whose partner turns on him in the opening scene. Heflin acts quick and winds up having to detonate his mine, which he's been digging out for months, with said backstabber still in there. Hoping to return with a boy he helped raise (Hilton again), he winds up taking on two more men in addition: Gilbert Roland as a former partner who he accidentally (or not) helped put behind bars; and no less than Klaus Kinski, as a pale, effete, vampiric man of mystery who "helped" Hilton (who's not so trustworthy after all) after Heflin and he parted ways. (Kinski's performance at times seems like a dry run for his and Herzog's Nosferatu.) So no one trusts anyone, each person has ulterior motives and there's gold to be had.

So rare is The Ruthless Four that the (faded, dominantly red) print was in 1.33 rather than its alleged 'scope*, so I can't say how Mannish director Giorgio Capitani's compromised frames are. (The editing is fine, though, particularly during a leftfield shoot-out at the halfway mark.) This leaves it transfixing as pure drama, and the film is rarely less than captivating, its four-way battle of wills sometimes reminiscent of Mann's genius The Naked Spur. Sure, it's no masterpiece, but a reddish, sliced-up print is far less than it deserves.

To come: Hiroshi Teshigahara, Pedro Costa, The Bourne Fucking Ultimatum

* If you haven't seen what people did before the days of digitally-abled pan-and-scan, then ye gods are you in for a treat. The framing is usually centered; if the director and/or cinematographer wished to, I don't know, spice things up a bit, then the solution is to simply cut to a different section of the frame. As you can imagine, this is all kinds of jarring, with people sometimes "moved" a mere couple inches so we can someone who'd be left out entirely because he's been staged at the extreme right or left. Disparage P&S as much as you want, at least sudden, unsightly pans are better than sudden, jarring cuts.


Wednesday, August 08, 2007

YouTubing-to-Obscure-Shameless-Self-Promotion Wednesdays: Not Lee Hazlewood, Too!

Dang. I know that everyone's posting clips of Nancy Sinatra -- Hazlewood's best known for penning "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'," as well as many other N. Sinatra songs -- but some of his best work is off his surreal 1970 album Cowboy in Sweden. The compositions themselves -- written for a film of the same name that itself was little more than a block of music videos for the songs -- are like most of his work: dusty country songs with alternately fatalistic and purple lyrics, complete with frequent contributions from two (2) N. Sinatra-soundalikes. But the production makes them either dustier still or overly lush, at time rivalling "Some Velvet Morning" for sheer whatthefuckness. Here, from the film, is Hazlewood and Nina Lizell pairing up for "Vem Kan Segla Förutan Vind?" (Tell me about it...)

The Weekly A Six Pack not on Bergman films you should see but underseen ones (e.g., Monika, Sawdust and Tinsel, Shame) and Rep, which features mucho words on a night of oddball westerns like Rancho Notorious, Tell Them Willie Boy is Here and the "Living in Harmony" episode of The Prisoner, as well as a lengthy bit on a two-nighter of doc scraps from the Brothers Maysles. (Note: over the last week, the PW web designer has apparently decided to up the font size from microscopically tiny to comfortably readable. Hurrah!)


Wednesday, August 01, 2007

YouTubing-To-Obscure-Shameless-Self-Promotion Wednesdays: Antoniennui Still Dead

Guess what? My people are still smarting from the nation of Cinephilia's double-death Monday. I linked to this yesterday, but it bears embedding: here's the amazing, explosive, Pink Floyd-accompanied finale to his one and only Hollywood effort, Zabriskie Point. No, the rest of the movie isn't this awesome, but it would be nice if everyone had a chance to find that out on their own.

Two weeks of Weekly I was remiss in updating last week, but really, there ain't much to link to. Just a review of Lars Von Trier's The Boss Of It All, plus Rep. Today's issue contains a Six Pack on great, non-lazy narration tracks (Band of Outsiders, Raising Arizona, etc.), reviews of Gypsy Caravan and The Simpsons Movie (third and fifth down) and Rep.