M -1951-

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Directed by Joseph Losey. 88 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre)

Booyah!

I’ve been trying to see this re-make of Fritz Lang’s 1931 masterpiece ever since I first learned of its existence about seven years ago. Screenings of this version are extremely few and far in between – until last year, the only known remaining print was in possession of the British Film Archives and seldom circulated. The screening that I saw (for the closing night of the Egyptian Theatre’s Noir City Festival) was a new 35mm print, hopefully a sign that the film will become more widely available. Are you listening, Criterion?

Even if the movie sucked (it doesn’t), I would consider it worth my time for its rarity alone, just as it would be worthwhile to talk to a bitterly racist unicorn. The film can’t reach the heights of the original, mainly because of the change of setting. Weimar-era urban Germany is soaked with dread and lends itself to a tale as chilling as M. Conversely, post-WWII Los Angeles is a whole lot brighter and much less scary. Losey fortunately understood that emulating German expressionism would be futile, and so he reimagined the plot to be much closer to a gangster movie than its source material. This shift in tone isn’t a complete loss by any means. For example, a sense of humor is present in the film that would have fallen flat if it were in Lang’s version.

All sorts of great character actors make up the cast (including, but not limited to, a pre-Perry Mason Raymond Burr). David Wayne (not to be confused with the Stella guy) makes a great killer, crafting a mania that stands completely on its own and without imitating Peter Lorre’s performance. The film on the whole stands up though I wouldn’t put it on the list of all-time great noirs.

(Seen and written on 2014-04-06)

Prisoners -2013-

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Directed by Denis Villeneuve. 153 mins.

Worth my time? Mostly, but it tested my patience. (Watched on Blu-ray)

I passed on Prisoners during its time in theaters last year, mainly because its poster was boring and I had absolutely no clue what the film was about. Turns out that Villeneuve’s English language debut is a dark mystery/thriller along the lines of The Vanishing and the Red Riding trilogy. There are enough great moments to have sustained a 105-minute runtime, but this increasingly bizarre plot almost collapses under the weight of its length. The premise would have made for a good two-part episode of The X-Files, though.

Hugh Jackman delivers one of his better roles in awhile – not since Officer Jim Curring in Magnolia have I seen a born-again Christian character this multilayered. The rest of the cast is good with the exception of Paul Dano – he only plays nervous characters who squeal as they get smacked around (There Will Be Blood, Looper, 12 Years a Slave) and Prisoners is no exception.

The highlight of the film may very well be the swift, moody cinematography courtesy of the fabulous Roger Deakins. Maybe next year will be your Oscar year, Roger.

(Seen and written on 2014-03-06)

The Killing -1956-

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Directed by Stanley Kubrick. 85 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on Criterion Blu-ray)

This was either my fourth or fifth viewing of The Killing, possibly my favorite Kubrick film and, in my opinion, the best heist film of all time. Sorry, Rififi.

The magic of The Killing lies in how the narrative lays out all its cards. There are no plot twists, nor does the film require them. Kubrick and Jim Thompson’s screenplay overlaps itself several times and lets the viewer know the exact time and location of all the major characters during key plot points. The device is so effective that Sidney Lumet, one of Kubrick’s contemporaries, used a variation of the mold in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead a half-century later. But Kubrick did it first and best.

Sterling Hayden leads an excellent ensemble of despicable, desperate characters. Marie Windsor’s duplicitous wife and Timothy Carey’s hitman-turned-horse hunter are particular standouts. But it is Elisha Cook, Jr’s henpecked husband who steals the show. No one is more dangerous than a stupid man who’s out to prove that he isn’t stupid.

(Seen on 2014-03-03, written on 2014-03-04)

The Counselor -2013-

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Directed by Ridley Scott. 117 mins.

Worth my time? No. (Watched on Blu-ray)

Ridley Scott’s collaboration with Cormac McCarthy (I had thought they were gonna do Blood Meridian, but I guess that dried up) came and went so quickly last year that I had almost forgotten that it existed. Most critics tore the film to shreds, which was partly why I didn’t run to see it in theaters. Still, there’s a small coalition of critics and film geeks who praise The Counselor as Like, The Best Fukkin’ Movie Ever.

So I think to myself, I think, “Hey, I’m a contrarian sort. Perhaps The Counselor will be my cup of tea!”

It’s not, nor will it be yours.

Aside from it’s thin, muddled plot – I don’t need thrillers to lead me by the hand, but come the fuck on – literally every single frame of this movie irritated me. Watch it (don’t watch it) for yourself, and you’ll notice that no character ever has his or her face fully visible. They’re always half-lit, like a student filmmaker forgot to rent an extra Kino and had to improvise. It’s not stylistic. It’s just annoying.

The dialogue is astoundingly bad at times. I don’t need all my films to have Mike Leigh authenticity, but if you’re going to talk solely in riddles, at least make it engaging (Rian Johnson’s Brick is a good recent example). Since McCarthy is primarily a novelist, I wasn’t surprised that the dialogue is presumably more interesting to read than it is to hear. All of the main actors give it their best with the exception of Cameron Diaz, an actor whose appeal completely eludes me.

Brad Pitt is easily the best part of the film, and he’s the only player whose lines sound somewhat convincing. His death scene (you’re not gonna watch it anyway) is pretty damn good.

Aside: Too many leopards.

Aside: Oh hey, Rosie Perez!

(Seen and written on 2014-02-19)

Only God Forgives -2013-

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Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. 90 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on Amazon Instant Video)

 Only God Forgives has been trashed pretty unanimously among critics, and in light of this fact, I feared that the film would be to director Refn what To The Wonder was to Terrence Malick, who had previously been batting one thousand. The film doesn’t come close to matching the stripped-down brilliance of Drive, but I found it to be enigmatic and engrossing. Mark me down in the “dissent” camp.

 The film’s poor reviews are right to bemoan the film’s often glacial pacing, but I suspect the negativity was also influenced by the audience’s desire to see another Drive. Refn didn’t make it for them – instead, he made a spiritual follow-up to David Lynch’s Inland Empire. I guess Nic got tired after waiting six years and counting for another Lynch. If you want to get anything done…

 All of the trappings are here: the long pauses riddled throughout dialogue scenes, the femme fatales, the macabre criminal underworld and psychotic characters, and plenty of singing in nightclubs. Even the score by Cliff Martinez carries the influence of Angelo Badalamenti in its notes. Much like Inland Empire, Only God Forgives is a movie that the viewer shouldn’t try to “solve” in a sitting. After all, if you dissect a frog, you’ll understand why it works, but then again, ya killed it.

My recommendation – view the film when you’re already drowsy, and let the nightmare wash over you.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-07-30)

Trance -2013-

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Directed by Danny Boyle. 101 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at Arclight Hollywood)

 This is easily the most Boylean Boyle film since he released 28 Days Later over a decade ago. The sentence you just read should be sufficient for you to determine whether or not you would enjoy Trance. But in case you aren’t so familiar with the man’s previous filmography, I supposed I can elaborate a bit.

 In a sentence, Trance is an electron cloud of Eternal Sunshine and Inception orbiting a nucleus of Headhunters. James McAvoy cranks his Scottish accent into top gear as an art auctioneer (or is he?) working in a gang of thieves (or is he?) to recover a stolen painting, the location of which he’s forgotten (or has he?). Double, triple, and quadruple-crosses ensure. By the film’s end, I had lost much of my desire to find out who’s really doing what and why. I still had a good time – after all, Boyle’s films tend to prioritize the journey much higher than the destination.

 The two real stand-outs in this film are the visuals and Vincent Cassel. As I reflect upon Boyle’s filmography, his photography and editing teams have been miracle workers, and Trance is no different. Each frame is as bright and glossy as a Michael Bay film, and I would bet that the average ratio of shots-per-minute would be about the same for both directors. Amazingly, Boyle’s shots are always expertly framed and attentive to the subject at hand, even when the action becomes chaotic and lightning-quick (I actually have no clue how fast lightning travels).

 As usual, Vincent Cassel is great fun to watch as Franck, the brains (or is he?) behind the heist. If you aren’t familiar with Cassel, Trance is a good place to start. Whether he’s an aspiring cop killer in La Haine (1995), a vengeance-crazed boyfriend in Irreversible (2002), a break-dancing high-society jewel thief in the otherwise horrible Ocean’s Twelve (2004), a sadistic Russian mobster in Eastern Promises (2007), or a predatory dance instructor in Black Swan (2010)… you get the idea. Cassel and his so-ugly-it’s-handsome face always delivers the goods.

 – This aside is directed at Danny Boyle, and probably won’t make sense to people who haven’t seen the movie:

 Danny, the sound of the electric razor and the reaction shot of McAvoy’s face was enough. Don’t get me wrong – I certainly appreciated seeing what followed. But from a visual storytelling perspective, it was overly distracting, and I think the scene actually would have been more effective if you restrained your camera. More with less, and whatnot.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-04-09)

 

The Place Beyond the Pines -2013-

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Directed by Derek Cianfrance. 140 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at Arclight Hollywood)

 Like his previous picture, Blue Valentine, Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines is another beautifully shot study of non-nuclear families and the way in which they may transform – or break – over time. While the film still has the aesthetics of a Sundance flick (complete with a score by Mike Patton, frontman of Faith No More, Tomahawk, Mr. Bungle, and three dozen other bands), its substance is closer to a European epic such as Bertolucci’s 1900 or Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. Hell, there’s even a big spoonful of Ibsen motifs thrown into the mix. It’s a tall order, and I appreciate Cianfrance’s courage to attempt a saga of American tragedy.

 To attempt, however, is not necessarily to accomplish. Beyond the Pines is a far from perfect film. The second half (you can tell exactly where they would have placed the intermission if the film had been released in the 60s) just can’t match the pacing and intensity of the first. The Sophocletic drama is often too heavy-handed, and the newly introduced character simply aren’t as interesting as the film’s leading men and women. All of this is a considerable letdown since I fully believe that a writer/director of Cianfrance’s talent should have been able to follow through with his ambition.

 Perhaps a crucial piece of the Pines puzzle is sitting on some cutting room floor somewhere. The film clocks in at a hefty 140 minutes, and I know that Cianfrance’s first cut was significantly longer than that. If someone from the Criterion Collection is reading this, I wouldn’t mind seeing an extended cut one of these days, so keep that in mind.

 While Beyond the Pines does not rise to greatness, there’s still lots to recommend here. The performances by all the major players – Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes, and Bradley Cooper ­– are some of their finest work. I really need to tip my nonexistent hat to Cooper, an actor whom I usually find to be distractingly conspicuous, for disappearing into his role. The inclusion of Ray Liotta is a nice touch, and I thank Cianfrance for not overusing him. Like crime-drama cologne, a little Liotta is all you need.

 Some of the best scenes in the film come not from it’s A-list but from Ben Mendelsohn, who plays Robin, Gosling’s mentor/accomplice. Mendelsohn has been working in Australian film and television since before I was born, but American viewers have become more familiar with him in recent years (recent credits include the psychotic bank robber Pope in Animal Kingdom, corrupt corporate magnate Daggett in The Dark Knight Rises, and air-headed junkie Russell in Killing Them Softly). Someone on Twitter a few weeks back tweeted that Mendelsohn would win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in the next five years. I don’t doubt it.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-03-29)

The Warriors -1979-

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Directed by Walter Hill. 93 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on DVD)

The third installment in the Hillmography is one of the director’s best-know works, probably just a few notches below 48 Hrs. When I first saw The Warriors around age 15 or so, I thought it was garbage. I don’t know if my taste in film has changed in the subsequent years, but I got a big kick out of it this time around. The fact that I watched it without editing and commercials certainly helped.

The Warriors is even more dated than The Driver. Unlike its predecessor, however, The Warriors doesn’t feel dated. Every aspect of this film is so stylized that the whole product transcends its real-world setting (New York City, 1979) and becomes a separate, timeless universe. Having a seemingly omniscient/omnipresent DJ narrating the story adds is a very nice touch, almost bordering on science-fiction. Personally, I think that the film is most enjoyable when I think of it as a prequel to John Carpenter’s Escape From New York. Try it!

Don’t go into The Warriors expecting airtight logic; there are plenty of holes. Who knows how a street gang wearing cumbersome, flowing robes became the predominant force in the city? How could “regular street-gang news reports” possibly a profitable format on FM radio? How long does it take for the Baseball Furies to apply their makeup?

The Warriors is essentially a comic book, and you should enjoy it as such. Unless you’re a relentless nitpicker (or if you’re one of those comic geeks who whined until DC caved and did Crisis on Infinite Earths), I’ll bet you can dig it.

– The film’s score (courtesy of Barry De Vorzon and Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh) is awesome.

(Seen and originally written on 2013-01- 25)

The Driver -1978-

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Directed by Walter Hill. 91 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on DVD)

My exploration of the Hillmography continues with the director’s sophomore caper. I should remind that reader that just because I write that a film was worth my time does not necessarily mean it was a “good movie.” While The Driver has some great chases and a few clever plot developments, it has more than its share of boring stretches and poor acting. To make matters worse, Bruce Dern (the only cast member making any serious effort to act) seems miscast as the rogue detective.

Still, I believe that there is virtue in knowing my roots as a film fan, and The Driver was worthwhile since its influence carries on to this day. The most obvious recent example would be (no surprise here) Drive by Nicolas Winding Refn. Both films feature actors named Ryan playing quiet, gun-adverse getaway drivers who acquire someone’s dirty money after a job-gone-sour. Ryan O’Neal was a great pick to play the Driver, since his complete inability to act fits the character’s stoic nature perfectly.

Unless you’re a hardcore fan of the genre or curious to see what influenced your fave Ry-Gos film, you can probably skip this one. Still, The Driver was a step up from Hard Times. Next up in the Hillmography: The Warriors.

– Come to think of it, Ryan O’Neal has a knack for using his lack of acting talent to great effect. Take Barry Lyndon for example: O’Neal’s performance is unconvincing at every turn, a perfect fit for the protagonist’s sociopathic lack of empathy.

(Seen and originally written on 2013-01- 24)

Animal Kingdom -2010-

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Directed by David Michôd. 112 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at Landmark Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley, CA)

Man, I am definitely a fan of the Edgerton brothers, and I hope they remain the saviors of modern noir. This film is sharp, compelling, and features one of the creepiest extended families since Bleeders.

Newcomer James Frecheville seems sorta spaced out (although I think it’s intentional), but the cast is excellent overall (Guy Pearce, Ben Mendelsohn, and especially Jacki Weaver stand out). As bleak as the film’s scenario is, what I found to be even more disturbing is the incredibly macabre history the family is alluded to have, made even more impressive with the fact that the viewer is never bogged down with exposition.

PS: The question “Can I get you something to drink?” is uttered in this movie maybe two dozen times. Huh.

(Watched and originally written during Summer 2010 when I was on a real movie bender)