Sunday, July 26, 2009

Get Caught Up In the Loop

Director Armando Iannucci has wheels of comedy constantly spinning in In the Loop, the contagiously funny and fast-paced political satire about the behind-the-scenes workings of preventing and promoting the war the U.S. president and U.K. prime minister both want to see happen.

Utilizing the increasingly popular docu-style handheld camerawork, Iannucci and the team of four writers expand their acclaimed BBC TV series The Thick of It making use of actors and characters that have already been worked with. In the Loop drags friends across the pond into the mix with the addition of such American actors as James Gandolfini.

Satire as a whole is a difficult level of comedy to achieve. Political satire seems to be on a whole different level. This probably explains the limited amount of good films that are successfully able to make fun of and poke fun at the people who lead our countries. Stanley Kubrick got it right when he adapted the Peter George novel Red Alert, turning it into Dr. Strangelove, which isn't only one of the best political satires ever made, but one of the greatest overall comedies ever made.

In the Loop is the new humorous effort that I believe places into the upper echelon of the genre. A simple comparison of this film to anything else would be pointless and not do much justice to the smarts contained inside. Pointing out just one positive would be a struggle, as so much shines in Iannucci's film.

The scene stealer of the film is without any doubts Peter Capaldi. Capaldi plays Malcolm Tucker, a ferocious and dirty-mouthed high level employee of the British goverment. The snarling cuss-outs of those around him and insulting one-liners delivered by Capaldi work as pure gold, making him the character you want to see on screen. Tucker's resourceful, scalding and laugh inducing insults include ones such as calling someone a "Nazi Julie Andrews" and another "The baby from Eraserhead".

Every actor and actress lends a hand to the present chemistry in their own way. A huge part of In the Loop, for me, was the way the characters interact, influence and manipulate using whatever means necessary. Known British actor Tom Hollander plays Simon Foster, the minister who causes a panic in his office after unthinkingly commenting on the war as being "unforseeable". Foster in general can't handle the media or public speaking in a multitude of ways, and is a great representation of the way a few words can blow up into so much more. The character interactions and fast-paced dialogue and dished out one-liners isn't the only thing flying here, but it is of course the most prevalent.

Iannucci doesn't bring the satire past the state department levels, leaving the White House folk as only an off-screen symbol. Iannucci commented on how the people they focus on being "the kind of people that actually make decisions with enormous political consequences," which rings true. We vote for the president, but there's so much more involved in these decisions that isn't seen, and that is what Iannucci attempts to show. If the real underlying people of government are anything like this, it's a fierce bunch down in the underground.

In the Loop is a supremely smart and witty film, and one of the funniest of its kind in years. I'm not sure what place a film like this has in America right now, but it should be a relevant piece of media and an essential viewing by all. It's a shame a title as laugh out loud funny for reasons other than the typical Judd Apatow/Seth Rogen fare like this can't pull a huge theatrical release stateside, but I suppose it's just the way things are.

I'm convinced that this film will find a growing audience of its own in due time, perhaps when it hits the virtual shelves of Netflix. I just can't let such a remarkable and fresh film sit idle. Do yourself a favor and check out In the Loop, one of the edgiest comedies to be released in years, and a favorite of mine in 2009.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

DVD Picks of the Week: July 21st, 2009

Amidst the terrific Deep Discount 25% off sale and the Barnes and Noble 50% off Criterion sale comes a slate of new titles on shelves everywhere, including one of the major releases of the summer.

Watchmen [DVD - Director's Cut][Blu-ray - Director's Cut]

One of the most impressive films of the still young 2009, without a doubt, is Watchmen. The film adaptation from the acclaimed visionary Zach Snyder was a faithful adaptation of the classic graphic novel by Alan Moore that wowed me silly. The theatrical cut alone was lengthy, comprehensive and all-around impressive. I haven't witnessed it myself yet, but I've heard nothing but better things for the brand new director's cut. Hardcore fans should be aware that in December a 5 disc set will be released that will include the previously released Tales of the Black Freighter intertwined into the film and the Watchmen motion comics, among other things. That said, this 2-disc director's cut should please most of the crowd.

Coraline [2-Disc DVD][2-Disc Blu-ray]

Never saw this in theaters, although it looked sort of cool. I still haven't bought into the whole 3D thing. Maybe the upcoming James Cameron film Avatar will change that. Still, both versions here come with your own 3D glasses to get the effect at home. Might be worth a look.

300: The Complete Experience [Blu-ray]

300 is a good film. Not a masterpiece, not even excellent, just damn entertaining. A strategically placed release, as director Zach Snyder's film Watchmen comes out as well, this new double dip Blu-ray features something like two hours of new extra features or something. If you don't own this, you might want to grab this new copy. Otherwise, do some research before deciding on whether you want to double dip on this bloody stylish action flick.

The Great Buck Howard [DVD][Blu-ray]

Being a big fan of John Malkovich I decided to give The Great Buck Howard a watch. Malkovich, as always, was the usual impressive self. The film wasn't perfect or the greatest, but it was a neat little showbiz film, something you don't see that often these days. It captured the spirit in revealing fashion. This is most definitely worth a watch.

Jean-Luc Godard Criterions
[2 or 3 Things I Know About Her]
[Made in U.S.A.]

A pioneer of the French Nouvelle Vague (new wave) style of filmmaking, Godard is a director I have found myself appreciating time and time again. Breathless and Alphaville both left strong impact upon me and Band of Outsiders didn't fail to impress me either. Criterion is back on the saddle again with two more Godard films to add to their already deep collection of Godard films in their catalog. I don't know too much about either of these titles, but Godard is Godard and usually always worth checking out. Anna Karina, who is in Made in U.S.A., is one of the true beauties in film history, and alone makes me want to check out the film. Trust me on this one.

What else comes out this week: Prison Break: The Final Break, Pushing Daisies: The Complete Second Season, Psych: The Complete Third Season, Monk: Season Seven, The Lucy Show: The Official First Season, Midnight Express [Blu-ray], Ballerina, This American Life: Season Two.

What to stay away from: Easy pick. PBS presents Frontline: The Madoff Affair. Honestly, why would anyone want to own the details of what this scumbag did?

So long.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Extreme and Unbashful, "Bronson" Delivers Honest Pain

Resembling an old time brawler with new school attitude is Tom Hardy as Michael Peterson who in turn takes on the ego of Charles Bronson, by way of name change. Not the famous American actor made popular by films like Death Wish, but the man heralded by British press as the "most violent prisoner in Britain".

Bronson, the new biopic from the underrated Nicolas Winding Refn, is not so much the kick ass, take names straight-laced action or fighter film it might seem to be at first glance. Rather, the brutal drama shines out of a delusional and troubled world created by the mind of the seemingly unstable and psychotic Bronson, somewhat like the universe of British brethren Alex in A Clockwork Orange.

The film is presented in a rather unique way by Refn, using interluded "performance" scenes featuring the character of Bronson on stage in front of a crowd, telling his life story (not 100% verbatim the way it really happened) by way of monologue, sometimes the way the man comes, and sometimes donned in clown makeup. It's puzzling and strange, but adds another dynamic to the storytelling technique, and never really allows the viewer to leave the mind and thought process of Bronson.

I think the first thing the politically correct audience will say of this film is the age old complaint that the film glamorizes violence. Much like other films might glamorize prostitution, drugs or any taboo subject a person deems inappropriate. I can rightfully say that this film is far from doing that. It may be edgy and stylish, dark and comical, but at the core of all the fun and all the fighting is this broken human being, unable to learn.

In all honesty, the film hardly touches on what effect Bronson's juvenile actions of rebelling after imprisonment and imprisonment has on his family or others. I do think this lends to the surrealistic nature the film carries right from the start. The entire time the film is rested wherever Bronson seems to be. Not a true life character study, not a true life film, just based on a true story, strongly exaggerated, but still highly relevant to the honest and irregular nature of the man.

The role of Charlie Bronson seems like it was meant for Tom Hardy to play. I would call his performance of the violent Bronson as near perfect. Hardy is visceral, loud and just plain mean as the prisoner Bronson. At nearly 32 years of age, this seems to be a breakthrough performance for Hardy. Going with an actor that most people couldn't recognize in a lineup over a trialed and tested name such as Jason Statham was the right call for this film, allowing Hardy to practically transform into Bronson. The type-casted Statham would never let me forget that it is indeed Statham I'm watching.

Under the tight direction of Refn, Bronson excels as one of the surprising hits of 2009 thus far. It's not too poetic in meaning, and it certainly isn't a film that sheds humanitarian light on the enigmatic Bronson, but it is entertaining, unique and acts as a steamboat of a vehicle for the rising Tom Hardy.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Collinsville's Odyssey, A Thriller of a Time

It wasn't quite Homer's Odyssey in Collinsville, CT Friday night. Instead, it was much more of the Jacob Fred variant. Equally impressive, but from a whole different world. The four piece experimental and ever-progressive jazz group Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey returned to the small town and battled the rain to play an intimate outdoor show at the Downright Music and Art on the same important night that the group announced that they would be opening a handful of shows this fall for Mike Gordon, bassist of the legendary jam band Phish.

The group blistered through what was an intense two and a half hour set of original favorites and interpreted covers set to the JFJO tune. All the while the band rips out elongated jam sessions which gives them a sound unheard of on any of their studio albums. For as impressive as their recorded material is, their sound and style live is unbeatable, an energetic force most artists wouldn't come close to matching. You have those that play tracks as they sound in studio, and you have those that do one better. JFJO is certainly an example of the latter.

Keyboardist Brian Haas proves time and time again that his playing is of the first class nature. Sometimes playing with so much ferocity and energy that he shakes the very base of the keyboard he's forcing his feeling into, he leaves nothing to be desired. At age 35, Haas is the veteran of the band, but he plays right along with the energy of his younger bandmates.

The rhythm is kept steady by Josh Raymer on drums and Matt Hayes on the double bass, two enthusiastic players who impress right away with their seemingly natural ability. Chris Combs fills in the hole with the eerie sounds of the lap steel. Combs picked up his electric guitar for only a few song, including the encore "Santiago", a personal favorite of mine.

An assortment of songs were heard throughout the night, including a cover of the late Michael Jackson's "Thriller", which was one of the most crowd-pleasing choices of the night. It did seem as though by the end of every selection from the group the crowd was growing more and more into what was happening in front of them. As those strange, hooking and mind-blowing songs heated up, so did the free-spirited and drawn in crowd, some simply swaying with the grooves and others dancing the night away. Electricity seen in the faces of all four band members was channeled by the crowd.

Another most impressive moment of the night was the groups ode to Dr. Dre and Beethoven with their song "Drethoven", which is to be featured on their upcoming EP due out September 1st, One Day in Brooklyn. The track begins with Haas blowing on his melodica, a sort of mini keyboard reed instrument. Dr. Dre and Beethoven might sound like a strange mix, and it is, but JFJO makes it seem beautiful and just right with their limitless view.

When the crowd doesn't want you to leave the stage, it usually means you've done your job. The rather brand new quartet of Haas, Combs, Raymer and Hayes delivered yet another face-melting and inspiring performance, worthy of more attention. I guess that's what the group will get when they take the stage prior to Mike Gordon in the coming months.

A big thanks to the user cleantones on Youtube took some amazing footage from the show of the track "Goodnight Ollie", which is off the band's 2008 record Lil Tae Rides Again. Check it out embedded below to find out what you missed, or click the video to head straight to Youtube.

Also, if you're interested more in Brian Haas and JFJO, be sure to read the interview I was able to do with him back in April on The Recorder Online.

Retroactive DVD Picks of the Week: 7/14/09

Hey all. Pardon my laziness. Waking up at 6:30 AM Monday through Thursday, and then working until 5 PM really does it to me. Because I wanted to keep the streak of DVD picks alive, I've decided to work a little retroactive magic here, just like the MLB teams do when placing players on the disabled list.

Mad Men: Season 2 [DVD][Blu-ray]

I've only seen the first episode of the first season of this show, but I do anticipate watching the rest after coming away impressed. So with that, I'll make note of the second season coming to DVD and Blu-ray. And that's all for that.

The Haunting in Connecticut [DVD][Blu-ray]

One of my surprise films of 2009 is The Haunting in Connecticut. It's not great, it's not bad but it most certainly is a serviceable supernatural horror/thriller film. There's enough interesting happenings in this haunting to keep both the average and hardcore fans interested in this film. It's not particularly scary, just mostly atmospheric and full of neat imagery. Going in with low to average standards for this film will net you with the greatest response. It has already been announced that the film will be given an unrelated sequel, most likely another one of the haunting stories this film was based on. From what I've heard, this "extended" cut really isn't all that extended, and still has the film playing as a PG-13 film, which is quite alright if you ask me. It got the job done. Check out my review from March for my full take on this film.


It's about time!!! One of the greatest horror films of this past decade is finally seeing release in America. And it's only eight months after the films copycat remake was released into US theaters!!!! Hurray! [REC] is one of the most impressive horror films for a few reasons. For one, it's actually pretty terrifying. Why? The directors perfectly executed the hand-held, first-person camera technique and coupled it with a claustrophobic and intense atmosphere, something many have tried and only done good at. Never great. But the team of Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza did great here. And there's a direct and immediate sequel coming out, which starts right where this film leaves off. Anyways, if you have seen Quarantine, be sure to keep in mind that this film came first, and that they ripped [REC] off shot-by-shot, concept-by-concept. And if you haven't seen either of these films, start with this one. Watch it with a group of friends. You will thank me. Oh but one last thing about this release. I despise the cover art. I guess it couldn't be all perfect.

For All Mankind [Criterion DVD][Criterion Blu-ray]

Oh, what's that? I'm going to finish off the 14th's releases with a Criterion Collection release? You bet your ass I am. And I don't even have much interest in this one. For All Mankind is a documentary about the Apollo mission, and quite possibly the most definitive one under two hours. I guess this is sort of real life 2001: A Space Odyssey in a way, and is surely a dazzling and awe-inspiring experience. You can check out a clip of the film, now reissued by Criterion on both DVD and Blu-ray, here.

What else comes out this week: The State: The Complete Series, Grey Gardens, Leverage: The First Season, The Towering Inferno [Blu-ray], 12.

What to stay away from: I'm going to go with this rubbish I've never even heard of. A Haunting: Twilight of Evil. It sounds like they just jammed together titles of popular films and passed it off as something like a horror film. After further investigation, the DVD cover says "As seen on Discovery Channel". Really? Because you make it seem like something I'd have seen on the Sci-Fi network, or Chiller.

That's all. Hopefully I am not too tired to check in on Tuesday for the release of Watchmen!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A killer Criterion sale -- And an update

In an attempt to show that I am both still alive and updating this blog, I've decided to give a heads up on a great DVD sale that just went live yesterday.

Barnes and Noble, a store you wouldn't often associate with great prices on DVDs, just began a 50% off Criterion Collection DVDs/Blu-rays yesterday. The sale is both in-store and online. Follow this link to start searching.'s forums has a great thread dedicated to Barnes and Noble coupon codes that can be applied to this sale, making for an even sweeter deal. The sale ends August 2nd.

The upcoming twice-a-year 25% off sale at and is approaching with July 17th set as the start date. This is an always highly anticipated DVD sale for the online community as the two e-tailers are some of the best in the game. Prices for the sites aren't what they once were, but you can still find killer deals with the discount. It would be in your best interest to compare the prices of Criterion Collection titles at both BN and the two sister sites once the sale starts to see which ends up as being the cheapest.

Expect my DVD picks of the week later on today. Yesterday was a day made up of work and sleep, a much needed catch-up day if I do say so myself.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

DVD Picks of the Week: July 7th, 2009

Better late than never, here's this weeks DVD picks of the week for Tuesday July 7th. I can't say how long this entry will be, but I'm gonna try my hardest unless my overtired nature takes me over.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XV [DVD]

One of the greatest (and my favorite) shows ever is Mystery Science Theater 3000. Making bad movies good, the guys aboard the satellite of love riff endlessly on the trash you wouldn't want to watch otherwise. This week comes the fifteenth volume of the television show on DVD. Included in the four film set are The Robot Vs. The Aztec Mummy, The Girl In Lovers Lane, Zombie Nightmare, and Racket Girls. I have yet to see any of these, but if they were chosen for the latest release, I'm sure they must be quality and witty episodes. The only problem I have with these DVD releases are the fact that you can't buy the show season by season. It's understandable, of course, as each season contains a good number of 90 minute episodes. Still, for those that like to complete series (like myself), it can be a small pain in the butt. It's similar to the way Beavis and Butt-Head, another one of my favorite shows, has been released. Instead of doing a season by season DVD release a few years ago, they opted for three volumes subtitled The Mike Judge Collection. All three sets are great, including a select number of music videos and other nice bonus features, but it leaves those wanting every episode of every season hanging out to dry. At least we always have the internet to quench our thirst for every MST3K episode.

Knowing [DVD][Blu-ray]

Thanks to Nicolas Cage's recent track record, Knowing at first looked like just another one of the ridiculous and terribly science fiction/action/etc. films the dwindling action star had been leading the way in. But then I realized that the film was indeed directed by Alex Proyas, the man behind one of my favorite science fiction films of all time, Dark City. That alone is enough to gauge my interest a little bit. I still haven't seen this film, but I do plan on watching it at some point, just out of plain curiosity for the whole thing. I don't expect this to do much, outside of a few points of entertainment here and there. I mean after all it is Nic Cage.

Lonely are the Brave [DVD]

This is one of those somewhat unknown, yet damn good (supposedly) flicks that finds its way to DVD after a long time of being in hibernation. This film stars the always great Kirk Douglas as Jack Burns, who in order to free his best friend Bondi, lets himself be imprisoned only to find out that Bondi does not want to escape. Interesting plot. My attention was sparked by the positive review from Jamie S. Rich on DVDTalk a few weeks back. He too had never heard of the film before it was released on DVD. It seems like this film is just another example as to why I love DVD as much as I do. If you are interested, check out the trailer below.

Beau Geste [DVD]

I'll be finishing this short entry on a similar note as the above title. Beau Geste is another intriguing film with a great cast featuring Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, Brian Donlevy and more. The film is also directed by William A. Wellman, a man who had a rather long and healthy career, directing numerous stars such as John Wayne. To get more information on this one, I'll just direct you to Jeffrey Kauffman's in-depth review on, as he covers as much ground on both the film and its historical background as necessary.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Debut Trailer: Dario Argento's Return To Giallo

The return of Dario Argento to the genre that made him famous, the giallo, has been on my radar for quite some time. The aptly named Giallo teams Argento up with first-class actor Adrien Brody and notable french actress Emmanuelle Seigner as the groundbreaking director attempts to restore some of the magic seen in his classic giallo films such as Deep Red, Tenebre, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage and Four Flies on Grey Velvet. While Suspiria might undoubtedly be considered Argento's best film (it is my personal favorite), I'd only look at it as being giallo-influenced, and not a straight representation of the genre.

Like most artists, Argento has had a little trouble recapturing what made his films so great in the 1970s and 1980s. Classic after classic poured out of Argento's work ethic during those decades. The films I've listed only hit the tip of the iceberg in terms of recapping Argento's tremendous career. His work in the 1990s and now the 2000s hasn't been bad by any stretch of the imagination, but it just isn't the same. Argento is coming off the competition of his three mothers trilogy with Mother of Tears (Susperia and Inferno being the first two), a film which yielded somewhat mixed reviews, but I thought positively of.

Giallo is the genre that made the popular American slasher films possible. As I wrote way back in October of 2008, the genre was trail-blazed by the unbeatable Mario Bava, one of the greatest directors of all time. It is a genre characterized by horror and eroticism. The word giallo means yellow in Italian, and the concept originates from cheap paperback books that were that very color - yellow. Films usually consist of a serial killer with a string of murders, detectives or your average person searching for the truth and shocking twists and turns along the way. Argento is one of the most consistent names linked to the genre alongside Bava, both of whom create their work full of passion and creativity, true sparks in the form of horror and giallo filmmaking.

I'm positive that Argento's latest film won't have the same feel and tenacity of his early work. After all, the giallo genre is sort of a lost cause, something mostly gone. Argento has tried to capture the soul and passion of his early films, but nothing has come close to his beginning work. Perhaps these times just won't allow for it. Nonetheless, from the looks of the brand new trailer, courtesy of Bloody-Disgusting, things seem to be shaping up nicely. We'll get our first real critical and fan reactions after the film premieres at Frightfest UK this August.

You can view the trailer below or follow this link to view it on Bloody-Disgusting.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

I Am a Fan of the Fugitive from the Chain Gang

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang should get more credit than just being holder to one of the greatest titles in the history of film. Aside from being a tremendous film, this 1932 picture from the underrated Mervyn LeRoy contributed to the exposure and elimination of the forced labor penal code in the United States.

In one of his best performances, Paul Muni plays James Allen, a man in the wrong place at the wrong time as he is arrested as an accomplice in a robbery. The film is based on the true events and subsequent book about Robert Elliott Burns and his experience on a chain gang in Georgia in the 1920s and his eventual escape and legal battle that followed.

Muni seems to be best remembered as starring in the original version of Scarface and his late 1930s films like The Life of Emile Zola, and I have no qualms with that. Only this film is an American classic, both for the quality of the film, the tenacity of the subject matter and the impact it actually had on the country.

LeRoy took a daring route with the film, going against the idea of choosing the common happy ending path a lot of films took in those days. Without spoiling anything for any prospective viewers, all I'll say is that the film is an up and down ride of failure and success, a rags to riches story if you've ever seen one.

At the soul of this brave multiple genre film is a rather dark and brooding world of pain and social changes. The film is part crime, part social commentary, part drama, part film noir and even part gangster. Even though James Allen is no gangster, the film was still released during the heyday of the genre, and the film certainly has feel of one.

Muni's portrayal of James Allen in this film is almost of the one man show variant. As I think back, his character seems to be the one steady constant throughout the whole film. It makes perfect sense actually as the man is always on the move and on the run. Muni gives this sense of life and character to Allen, and shows the man's anguish, suffering and complete transformations as the film progresses, turning this man into a likable character you want to cheer on.

At a short 93 minutes, the film doesn't get to detail a lot of the time Allen spent in the prison camps or on the run, only small segments as years pass by as a sledgehammer strongly bangs away calendar months. Understandable, of course, but one could only imagine the length the film truly could be if the entire story had been able to been told. For example, Allen's relationship with Marie Woods (Glenda Farrell) is a pivotal character relationship to the story, but feelings change so quickly due to the abrupt advancing of time. Nonetheless, these qualms are minor as the full effect can still be felt and understood.

Looking back, I still don't understand how this film didn't quite make its way into the upper echelon of 1930s cinema. It's up there, I know that, just not high enough. I'll always and forever consider this a breeding ground of American film due to its influential nature in both style and content. And I mean come on, that sweet, sweet film title!

Wrap Up of Films Watched in June of 2009

June brought on a lot of great films and one major change. I decided to forgo rating films. I constantly found myself struggling to differentiate the difference between these rather face value numbers. How exactly do you rate a B-movie horror title like The Last Horror Film in comparison to something like The Godfather? It's hard. Words are the best tool for telling how you really feel about something. Not a superficial and meaningless number out of 10. So anyways, you won't find any ratings here. If you wish to know what I think of a film, please ask me, I'd be more than willing to discuss that particular film with you.

Anyways, I watched 28 films in June, a good amount. 162 is the total after June. If I didn't fizzle out a bit towards the end I would have averaged one a day for sure. I watched A LOT of great films this month, and that isn't an understatement. And yeah, so what, I watched The Godfather and The Deer Hunter for the first time each. Big deal. Below you will find the list complete with a clickable link to IMDB. As always, an asterisk means it was the first time I watched the film. Check after the list for the awards.

135. 6/1 – M. Butterfly*
136. 6/2 – Drag Me to Hell*
137. 6/4 – Drag Me to Hell
138. 6/5 – Falling Down*
139. 6/6 – Death Wish*
140. 6/7 – In the Heat of the Night*
141. 6/8 – The Deer Hunter*
142. 6/9 – Before the Music Dies*
143. 6/13 – Wise Blood*
144. 6/13 – Man Hunt*
145. 6/14 – The Godfather*
146. 6/14 – The Last Horror Film*
147. 6/15 – Farewell, My Lovely*
148. 6/15 – Road House*
149. 6/16 – Side Street*
150. 6/18 – Ghostbusters
151. 6/19 – Monster in the Closet*
152. 6/20 – Army of Darkness
153. 6/20 – Nothing But Trouble*
154. 6/21 – MST3K: Mitchell*
155. 6/21 – Cape Fear (1962)*
156. 6/22 – Four Flies on Grey Velvet*
157. 6/22 – Young Mr. Lincoln*
158. 6/23 – Groundhog Day*
159. 6/24 – The Hangover*
160. 6/28 – The Friends of Eddie Coyle*
161. 6/29 – The Enforcer (1951)*
162. 6/30 – Elevator to the Gallows*

Best Film (New Viewing): Drag Me To Hell
Was either The Godfather, The Deer Hunter, In The Heat of the Night or one of the other great films I watched this month technically better than Drag Me To Hell? Maybe. But you know what, I don't care. I'm going deep and picking the film that marks the return of Sam Raimi, one of the world's greatest horror directors. If you read my review, you'll know how thrilled I was by this film. It's an absolute flashback to the great kinds of horror filmmaking of the past, something I just hope continues on for quite some time.
Runners-up: The Godfather, The Deer Hunter, In The Heat of the Night, Wise Blood, Elevator to the Gallows, Cape Fear.

Best Film (Repeated Viewing): Army of Darkness
I guess technically I could choose Drag Me To Hell for this too since I saw it twice, but I won't. I didn't see too many films I had already seen this month, so I'll have to go with another one of Sam Raimi's masterpieces: Army of Darkness. It was literally only between this and Ghostbusters.
Runner-up: Ghostbusters.

Worst Film (Any Viewing): Before the Music Dies
I loved the message this documentary was trying to send. Music is definitely suffering heavily from a corporation controlled record and radio industry. The arguments at hand were just mostly boring and one-sided, not giving it much of a balance. I understand where it comes from, because I come from the same believes. It had some interesting points, but nothing that kept me in awe. A mediocre documentary that could have used a little more impacting segments.

Most Surprising Film: Wise Blood
This is a film I became aware of when I spotted it as a notable DVD release a few weeks back courtesy of the Criterion Collection. The film stars Brad Dourif and was directed by the great John Huston. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. You can get my full take on it by reading what I wrote on it shortly after being blown away by the strangeness that is Wise Blood.
Runners-up: Man Hunt, The Enforcer, Young Mr. Lincoln.

Most Disappointing Film: None
Nothing at all disappointed me this month. As I said, I watched a lot of very good films this month. Anything that wasn't great, I probably didn't expect to be great.

Most Underrated Film: M. Butterfly
M. Butterfly is the criminally underrated film from one of my favorite directors, David Cronenberg. The film finally became available on DVD in May and I jumped on purchasing it. It was well worth it. It's very moody, dreamy and impacting. Jeremy Irons is brilliant in this most strange film. Highly recommended film for any Cronenberg fans.
Runners-up: The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Wise Blood, Man Hunt, Road House.

That's that. It was a good month. Lots of time to be wasted on films, and I love that. Sort of. See you later.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Gangster Pictures Alive and Well With Depp vs. Bale

I love gangster films. Not the silly modern gangbangers, the real fun and classic American stuff. Jimmy Cagney at the top of the world, Humphrey Bogart holding up in a petrified forest and Edward G. Robinson as a lethal little caesar. These were the classic crime films and stars that helped lead to the birth of the film noir, where even more gangsters took the streets of cinema.

Much like the western cowboy, the portrayal of the classic depression era gangster has been lost in both the mainstream and underground independent film scenes, only to be seen sparsely. Reasoning? Maybe filmmakers and producers believe that these characters are unrelatable as they belong to a time of American history that is long gone, too far gone to draw in enough attention.

The thought of Michael Mann’s new film, Public Enemies, being considered a stereotypical summer blockbuster is almost baffling because of the subject matter. Remove the star powers of Christian Bale and Johnny Depp and you might see the film struggle to get by on Mann’s name alone.

Take a look at 3:10 To Yuma, the western pitting Bale against another megastar, Russell Crowe. What exactly separates it from the 2006 western Seraphim Falls or the far better 2005 Australian set western The Proposition? Those two films had trouble finding their market, while the Bale/Crowe film made roughly $53 million in the United States. Even the well reviewed Brad Pitt fronted film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford flew somewhat under the mainstream’s radar.

Mann’s attempt at breaking into the public’s resistance of off-genre film tells the story of legendary bank robber John Dillinger (Depp) and partners-in-crime Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) and Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), Dillinger’s romance with Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) and their being hunted down by FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Bale).

It should be known that even though Public Enemies sees its release a week after the action-heavy Transformers 2 and a few weeks before the next Harry Potter installment, the film plays as though it belongs in an art house theater instead of the sticky floors of the local multiplex.

Mann shot the film with HD cameras rather than the standard techniques, and the difference is fairly noticeable. Mann also used high definition cameras for his 2004 film Collateral. While personal taste differs among us all and the debate between the quality of HD and film rages on among film fanatics, it mostly works here, as it gave a lot of the film a documentary style and crisp feel. For example, a few of the bank robbing scenes seem as though the men are being followed around by a camera crew documenting the events for a television show.

Mann uses a plethora of different shots to keep things interesting, opting at times for the long, taken aback scenes, such as an extended shot of Dillinger being escorted to the doors of a prison along a dusty road in the very beginning of the film. Mann also gets in close with the nitty gritty, providing the viewers with the blood, sweat and tears of both sides of the chase and emotional result of a gunfight.

Anyone who knows Michael Mann as a director knows he is at the top of the list when it comes to choreographing gunfight scenes. If I think quickly among modern filmmakers, John Woo might be the only person to rank above him. Both Heat and Collateral contained memorable and impressive use of gunfire by way of visuals and sound. Mann continues that here, but in a whole new way by taking things back about 75 years to a different time and place. Shootout locations range from daylit streets and dark wooded areas with troubling terrain.

Every time I watch, think about and then write about a period piece film, I can’t help but take setting and feel into account, in a usually gushing fashion. If a filmmaker is trying to convince an audience that this really is 1933, that person better do a damn good job at making sure the locations are impressive and detailed. The scope of Mann’s film absolutely blew me away in its way of making me believe the year the film is set in. I might be a sucker for the stuff though as I enjoyed the mediocre The Newton Boys because of its interesting aesthetics. Mann’s film gives us all the fixings of a good period piece by focusing on not only the aesthetic visuals you can literally see, but also by giving insight into the forensic and technological tools of the time. The costumes are slick, the guns look and sound authentic and the surrounding locations are all true to the historical accounts of Dillinger and his boys.

You can’t rely just on a pretty setting to truly achieve that authentic time period feeling though. Johnny Depp plays his Dillinger like he never saw a stereotypical gangster film before, which is a very good thing. Too often might an actor fall into the trap of fast-talking gangsters who apparently ended every sentence with “Ya see?” Depp in a way reinvents it all. People all too often say he plays the same character over and over again. While that might be true in his films done with Tim Burton, that couldn’t be further from the truth here. Public Enemies is Depp’s film and this is some of the man’s greatest acting yet, as he successfully morphs himself into the ultra suave and charismatic John Dillinger.

The film is an all around strongly acted one. The cast isn’t exactly a star studded one, but there are a good amount of quality names and on-the-rise actors and actresses involved that give it an extra push. Christian Bale is of course the other large name involved and does a great job at commanding his role. While I don’t blame him for his somewhat uninspired performance in this year’s Terminator: Salvation, this stoic yet somewhat subdued performance is what he needed to get himself a boost. Channing Tatum, Marion Cotillard and Billy Crudup all add performances worthy of note that round out this convincing film.

The real hinging piece of Mann’s film is the terrific narrative he constructed. Mann has proven himself to be a great storyteller of events both fictional and historical and Public Enemies only furthers this claim. Pacing here is qualified as a sort of build up to a key moment, and then rebuild technique. Things heat up, but then settle down only to reheat after more development. Most characters are handled well. This is a brooding tale on all sides.

Included is the physical and emotional struggle of Pervis and J. Edgar Hoover (Crudup) during their struggles and difficulties of trying to capture Dillinger. All the raw and sometimes hidden emotion of John Dillinger was beautiful captured by Mann. Dillinger’s relationship with Billie Frechette might turn out to be the greatest love stories to hit theaters this whole entire year. It’s a challenging and tragic relationship, and Mann’s raw and honest portrayal of it is gripping and touching.

Public Enemies is truly professional filmmaking and is what we have come to expect from Michael Mann. If you sift out all the cheap thrillers and bloated action films thrown into theaters during the summer, you’ll find this absolutely entertaining and enjoyable gem. On the large scale it’s an epic crime tale, up close it’s a brooding, sulking and dark story of human exchange and relationships that channels the spirit of the golden age of Hollywood.