Monday, April 30, 2012

Abel Ferrara: 4:44 Last Day on Earth

Willem Dafoe, Shanyn Leigh, 4:44 Last Day on Earth, IFC Films, 2012.

Reaching out and touching those in tune with a fierce magnificence reminiscent of a wayward yesteryear demi-god, American master Abel Ferrara quietly but circumspectly destroys our notions of narrative, cinema, sexuality, and life itself. 4:44 Last Day on Earth unravels as a feverish rush, a doomsday diorama so exquisitely, roughly poetic, that it slaps us awake from the mid-season multiplex doldrums. This is pure cinema to its very core.

Willem Dafoe lives his turn as an artist living in NYC on Armageddon eve. The force with which Ferrara and Dafoe unleash this gorgeous film poem is quite honestly astonishing. Ferrara wields his digital camera with a brutal honesty that bleeds into each and every sequence. The last night on Earth premise plays out as fresh as its inception, and the soothing claustrophobia of Defoe and his painter lover's ( a remarkable Shanyn Leigh) loft juxtaposed with the shadowy cursed streets, will haunt you long afterwards.

Ferrara has etched a bristlingly brilliant filmography of dark, masculine masterworks including Ms. .45 (1981), Fear City (1984), King of New York (1990), Bad Lieutenant (1992), and Body Snatchers (1993). His precise dissemination of classic American genre films has brought him to skew action, thriller, horror, gangster, and now, science fiction. Yet it is a glorious new sort of science fiction. The visceral emotions and passions that cascade down in cinematic streams, feel blistering and alive. His use of Skype in two key scenes is astonishing, and must be seen.

Dafoe likewise does some of his most wrenching work here. To see him fighting and fucking his girlfriend, walking the steamy, endless night streets, or the fear moving across his face, is to know that herein contains Dafoe's greatest performance. Its a career high.

Ken Kelsch's control and realization of Ferrar's vision is revelatory; this is some of the most sultry, stimulating, and textured video narrative film making I've ever seen. At a brisk, yet submersible 85 minutes, this is the leanest, most important picture of Abel Ferrara's splendid, unforgettable career.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Whit Stillman: Damsels in Distress

Carrie MacLemore, Analeigh Tipton, Megalyn Echakunwoke, Greta Gerwig,
 Damsels in Distress, Sony Pictures Classics, 2012.

After more than an aching decade without him, Whit Stillman, one of our country's most brilliant satirists, has returned to the screen with the playful, fascinating Damsels in Distress.  An east coast man whose fixation on WASPy ennui and their snarky ways of communication, exposes his debt to Woody Allen, possibly, Altman aside, the most important of all dialogue-driven directors. But in addition to his lovingly savage experimentations in filmic protags, Stillman skews the whole framework with a self-aware style which drives some up the wall; he's definitely akin to fellow unsung American master Hal Hartley.

With his blistering debut, Metropolitan, in 1990, Stillman was Oscar-nommed for his terse, reflexive dialogue, for original screenplay, respectively. Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco, finished off the 90s nicely. He was growing stronger with each project. Then, for some reason, he stopped. I heard word of several interesting projects he had in development, to no avail.

His newest picture, Damsels in Distress, is a joy to behold. taking its spirit and near-perfect stride from 1930s Hollywood screwball comedies, Stillman still controls the voices of his young cast to perfection. In essence an intellectual Clueless, we follow a seemingly sweet freshman through her year as she is taken in by a clique of preppy do-gooders, led by the indefatigable Violet, played by Greta Gerwig with a nuance which is magical. Chloe Sevigny, the lead in his last film, would have played this part a decade ago. Gerwig's inhabitation of this character is wonderful. Insufferable and pretentious, what starts as an exercise in patience yet fascination, soon becomes empathy, as Stillman MAKES us like her through his uncanny use of words and character development.

The rest of the cast (Analeigh Tipton, Adam Brody, Carrie MacLemore, Megalyn Echakunwoke, Hugo Becker)  is excellent, the structure is novelistic and recalls Allen even more. The college campus he creates, Seven Oaks, has a divine surrealism about it which sparks the whole affair. Though the ending didn't quite work for me, this is unquestionably the work of one of our greats, and thus demans to be seen.

Mather/St. Leger: Lockout

Guy Pearce, Lockout, Open Road Films, 2012.

Keeping in time with the incomparable B-movie spirit of their forefathers, new directing team Mather/St. Leger share more than just their particular team name with similar B-action auteurs Neveldine/Taylor. All four men apparently share the kinship of the American action-adventue genre. They carry the torches lit by Michael Winner, J. Lee Thompson, and Tony Scott.

Mather and St. Leger's debut film, the irresistable Lockout, was actually a conception of tireless auteur/action producer Luc Besson, whose Transporter pictures recently brought fresh life to the parched genre. Lockout is a B-movie beaut; a preposterously propulsive plot, a stone faced action lead (the excellent as always Guy Pearce) and sci-fi trappings involving a maximum-security prison in outer space and the President's daughter getting trapped inside during a riot. While the plot is overly familiar, many of the sequences and set pieces thwe director's construct here are cheezily breathtaking.

While its not as seamless as I would like, its bumps are all apart of the funhouse ride. An addictive little modern schlockfest, Mather/St. Leger's Lockout is a doozy; what they do next should be worth obsessing on.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Bobby and Peter Farrelly: The Three Stooges

Sean Hayes, Chris Diamantopoulos, Will Sasso, The Three Stooges, 20th Century Fox, 2012.

Cutting their losses and burrowing deep down into the recesses of their childhood memories, America's most interesting comedic auteurs, the Farrelly Brothers, have conquered one of their greatest inspirations; the Three Stooges.

For their impromptu re-envisioning, they have chosen to recreate the Stooges' world in a contemporary mirror-America. Designed as three short films connected by one overarching plot, the narrative structure is simple yet invigorating. The main problem with making this film had to be in finding the right actors; Stoogemaniacs could not, would not tolerate one ounce of sacrilege.

Chris Diamantopoulos, Sean Hayes, and Will Sasso are all heavenly inspirations as Moe, Larry and Curly, respectively. While not dead ringers, they get the physicality, the voices, down to the very nuance. Sasso is especially extraordinary in a performance which borders on genius; his recreation of one of comedy's most legendary figures is a spectacle to be savored, cherished, and shared.

Jane Lynch, Larry David (in bitchy nun drag), Sofia Vergara, Jennifer Hudson,  and Brian Doyle Murray round out a cast of expert comedic character actors. The magical, surreal tone of the world the Farrelly's have crafted is semi-sublime. While all of the jokes don't work, this film, as a bizarre piece of nostalgia, does.

Joshua Marston: The Forgiveness of Blood

Tristan Halilaj, The Forgiveness of Blood, IFC Films, 2012.

Inspired with a clarity and strength of vision it takes many directors whole careers to attain, prodigy Joshua Marston makes his sophomore feature with the unforgettable The Forgiveness of Blood.

Set in the back hill country of modern-day Albania, Marston unflinchingly follows a tight-knit family as they become embroiled in a blood feud over land with another family. The story is very familiar, and yet, Marston tells it as if he invented it, every Shakespearean element. His affinity for realism and naturalistic actors is rare these days; Loack, Leigh, and the Dardennes come directly to mind. His debut film, Maria Full of Grace, portrayed drug trafficking in South America, specifically humanizing one Colombian woman who becomes a drug mule. His second film feels more evolved, thematically and psychologically, than his first.

Tristan Halilaj gives one of the year's breakout performances as Nik, the eldest son who must step up as man of the family after his father goes into exile. The angst on this gifted young actor's face speaks volumes. Similarly affecting is Sindi Lacej as his sister Rudina, who takes over the father's job so as to continue earning money for their mom and younger siblings.

Working in unison with co-scripter Andamion Murataj, Marston steeps us in a hidden world of old-fashioned beliefs and traditions. Director of photography Rob Hardy finds the just-right smokey palette which evokes the mountains, farming, mystery. Editor Malcolm Jamieson follows Marston's cue in shaping a semi-obscure world far removed from ours, yet goading us to fall into its lovely rhythms.

For, here in the 'wilds" of Albania, an artist has birthed a world which does exist, but has birthed it in his own beautiful way, so that we can feel, hear, see, know - another life similar to ours.

Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg: American Reunion

Sean William Scott, American Reunion, Universal Pictures, 2012.

Testing the boundaries of taste more than a decade later, Adam Herz's American Pie characters have found a place in our hearts because he gave them dimension while humiliating them. Especially Jim (Jason Biggs), our bumbling, misbegotten hero. Jim is the launchpad on which this tentpole was raised, the all-American "nerd" who really was a good guy, fucked n apple pie AND got the girl in the end. As usual, Sean William Scott's Stifler walks way with the flick, easily. Its nice to see Thomas Ian Nicholas, Chris Klein, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Allyson Hannigan, Mena Suvari, and Tara Reid, all slipping so easily back into character after all these years.

The Weitz Brothers created a wonderfully memorable teen gross-out comedy to rivaling any flick from its 80s roots. A redundant sequel and a surprisingly likable third entry supposedly rounded out the trilogy. Now here comes American Reunion, and it really does speak to this generation, the kids who paid to see American Pie in 1999, now approaching middle-age and their own high school reunions. For what its worth, Harold and Kumar creators Hurwitz and Schlossberg have made the best American Pie film since the Weitz's original.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Gareth Evans: The Raid: Redemption

Iko Uwais, The Raid: Redemption, Sony Pictures Classics, 2012.

Redeeming the gut wrenching, two fisted action picture while breaking down the genre, director Gareth Jones' newest film, the mind-boggling The Raid: Redemption, instills the true fan with unwavering faith while blowing the minds of all others. Though Jones has plucked elements from countless action films past, from The French Connection to Die Hard, it is his thorough passion for testosterone-fueled violence and the filmic canon which contains it, that his movie plays like a master thesis with body blows.

Sensational Indonesian fighter cum movie star Iko Uwais is revelatory as the rookie cop thrust into a bloody nightmare when a raid on a crime lord's slum building goes awry. The plot is on automatic, but its the frantic energy and frenzied violence Jones fills the frames with that leave one in awe. Uwais moves like a magical madman, maneuvering his body hypnotically. What an action film is, what defines it, is called into question and not entirely answered. Still, the elusive question - what is the relationship between violence and the media?

Jones directs like the popcorn is on fire. Joseph Trapanese crafts a beguilingly catchy score, while dp Matt Flannery seeps us in a scummy tenement and the unbridled gore within. Like most directors, Jones shows us masculine violence objectified, without looking any further.

Tarsem Singh: Mirror, Mirror

Julia Roberts, Lily Collins, Mirror, Mirror, Relativity Media, 2012.

Meticulously mixing high camp, grand guignol, and ravishing fairy tale visuals, auteur Tarsem Singh casts a warm, funny spell with his revisionist nursery story, Mirror, Mirror. A game cast, smart script by Melisa Wallack and Jason Keller, ravishing images by dp Brendan Galvin, and strong direction by Singh ensure that the whole affair is a smooth, sweet ride.

Expertly infusing dark humor with wonder, Singh's light-hearted romp is infectious. Julia Roberts has a blast, tongue planted firmly in cheek, channeling Joan Crawford, as the evil queen. Her castlescapes and painterly chambers coalesce an idea into action; the mythical archetypes of feminine roles. Lily Collins, on the other hand, is our sweetheart heroine; she's pitch-perfect. Armie Hammer, Nathan Lane, Mare Winningham, and Michael Lerner all have a good time with their turns.

After his genre defying first two features, The Cell and The Fall, Singh has carved his own niche in the studio system, and so far, it works. His Immortals, and now, Mirror, Mirror, fetishize the visual iconography of myths and legends. His signature style, kissed by Kubrick and Greenaway, feels total in its intentions.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Joseph Cedar: Footnote

Lior Ashkanazi, Shlomo Bar-Aba, Footnote, Sony Pictures Classics, 2012.

Addressing the complex field of Jewish theology, Israeli director laureate Joseph Cedar crafts a miracle movie: a picture which manages to excel at being both an entirely engulfing joy of an entertainment and a challenging treatise on Israeli-Jewish thought and culture. No recent film has risen to intelligent audience expectations with the certainty of Cedar's remarkable sophomore feature.

Essentially a story of fathers and sons, this rich narrative touches on unspoken intellectual codes, Jewish masculinity, and ethics. Shlomo Bar-Aba crafts one of the most beguilingly believable male senior citizens I've seen since Nicholson's turn in Payne's About Schmidt. A Talmud scholar whose work has never been recognized aside from his being a footnote in his mentor's great tome, Eliezer is an endlessly perplexing character. Lior Ashkanazi is extraordinary in a subtly shaded performance as his rival Talmudic-scholar son, Uriel. We are thrust into their world of over-serious scholars and thesis backstabbings. A mix-up over the coveted Israel prize places both father and son in moral whirlpools.

Cinematographer Yaron Scharf shades all the action incisively. Composer Amit Poznansky wields a score of gentle emotion. Cedar's masterful grasp of a plot filled with wonderful characters and dialogue, does not exceed his grip. The tartly humorous tone becomes intertwined with a narrative which feels, at times, like a thriller. The moral conundrum of it all is familial bonds at odds with intellectual recognition. That we are so swept up by it all, and ultimately moved, attests to Cedar's exposed strength as an artist.

Juan Carlos Fresnadillo: Intruders

Clive Owen, Intruders, Millenium Entertainment, 2012.

Our collective fears of the dark as children, and the subconscious fear of the original boogeyman, have inspired ghost stories and horror tales for eons. When great directors such as John Carpenter (Halloween, The Fog), Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and Guillermo del Toro (The Devil's Backbone) do it, its never done better.

Spanish filmmaker Juan Carlos Fresnadillo mines these rich dark fields in his unbalanced yet unequivocally fascinating new psychological horror-thriller Intruders. A Spanish-British co-production, it feels fresh and semi-inventive as it careens before your very eyes. For this is not your average, every other week faux docu-horror tripe but an exquisitely stylized boogeyman film with a twist. Its structure and nuance are breathtaking at times. The main problem is a script which could have used another rewrite or two. Nicolas Casariego and Jaime Marques' script pays homage/recycles so many tropes of horror cinema, from Nosferatu to The Blair Witch Project. A lot of loose ends and holes in logic, which are delicious/enfuriating to contemplate.

Clive Owen headlines the international cast that includes Carice Van Houten and Kerry Fox. His performance is strong and reliable, as usual, as John Farrow(!),the father whose young daughter is stalked by Hollow Face, a terrifying enigma that comes after children. Intercutting the stories of Mia Farrow (!) (an impressive Ella Purnell) and Juan(Izan Corchero), a young boy in Spain also stalked in the night by Hollow Face. Fresnadillo has a ball spinning this web, capturing many stunning images with his dp Enrique Chediak. Roque Banos' score is luminous, recalling Zimmer's iconic Inception theme.

Fresnadillo wowed our senses with his dystopian debut, Intacto (2001), then crafted a sequel almost as great as the first with 28 Weeks Later (2006). He is a visionary genre director who creates then destroys hermetically horrifying worlds.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Lasse Hallstrom: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Emily Blunt, Ewan McGregor, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Sony Pictures Classics, 2012.

Regaling us with tales of 'normal' people who find themselves in extraordinary situations, Lasse Hallstrom has never lost sight of his vital attribute: to objectively portray human beings within the confines of a subjective universe, the film form. The constraints of both celluloid and narrative have challenged Hallstrom, who has risen to the occasion every time. He excels at portraying inner lives and the surfaces they hide behind. His masterpieces are My Life as a Dog and What's Eating Gilbert Grape? His mini-masterpiece is The Cider House Rules. Among his underrated or forgotten films are Once Around, Something to Talk About, Casanova, and An Unfinished Life. Many contemporary critics have hailed him as a new Renoir; now while lofty praise, its not entirely unfitting. The joie de vivre and optimistically complex characters liken them as relative; an undercurrent of darkness runs through many of their films. Jean Renoir is definitely a spiritual mentor for Hallstrom.

The latter's newest film is the admittedly minor, groan-inducing titled Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy displays considerable dexterity in making the preposterous plot of Paul Torday's novel even palatable on screen. His gift for character and dialogue is on display, not withstanding plot particulars. A trans-continental deal involving an eccentric, visionary sheikh wanting to transport the sport of salmon fishing to his desert community touches the lives of many. While the narrative is riddled with implausibilities, Beaufoy and by design, Hallstrom, have made us believe it all. Now that's great writing and directing. I was reminded of Billy Wilder by their focus and vision.

Ewan McGregor is all blustery Scotsman as fishing expert Dr. Jones, pigeonholed into the project. He has good chemistry with Emily Blunt, as Harriet, the Sheikh's London liasion. While their rom-com sideline and the plot's philosophical aimings don't quite hit the mark, the mood is right. Terry Stacey captures some breathtaking shots of both the Scottish highlands and the Yemeni desert. Dario Marianelli's score is lushly romantic with a touch of Arabic instrumentation. Kristin Scott Thomas steals every scene as a ball busting British government official assigned to oversee the deal, and Amr Waked is strong and impressive as the Sheikh.

Hallstrom's minor film is an enjoyable one, reminding us of his delicate touch as a director.