Friday, March 27, 2015

WILD TALES: 6 Stories Viciously Satirizing Human Behavior

WILD TALES (Dir. Damián Szifrón, 2014)

I loved IDA, and was glad it won the Best Foreign Picture Oscar, but I totally would've been cool if Argentina's selection, Damián Szifrón's WILD TALES, opening today at an indie arthouse near me, had gotten the gold instead for 2014.

A protégé of Pedro Almodóvar, who co-produced with his brother Agustin, Szifrón has concocted an epic collection of six stories of bloody vengeance, that had me from the get go with an airplane-set pre-credits vignette.

In it, a couple of passengers, a model and a music critic, aboard a flight mid-air while flirting discover that they both knew a man by the name of Gabriel Pastemak. The model (Maria Marull) used to date Pastemak, but they broke up on bad terms; the critic (Dario Grandinetti) had ripped apart one of the Pastemak's classical compositions, which ended the guy's musical career.

A woman overhearing their conversation reveals that she was Pastemak’s elementary school teacher; another his former best friend. One by one, it turns out that everybody on the plane has a uneasy connection to Pastemak, and here’s the kicker: Pastemak is the pilot flying the plane.

The second story concerns a waitress (Julieta Zylberberg) at a roadside diner that recognizes a customer (Cesar Bordon) as being the crooked politician who ruined her family, and drove her father to suicide. The cook (Rita Cortese) suggests adding rat poison to his food, and Zylerberg is very tempted, but reluctant.

The third and most thrilling chapter depicts an extreme case of road rage with a premise that plays like a mini-version of DUEL. Leonardo Sbaraglia plays a slick corporate-type tooling across the countryside in his brand new sports car, who gets in a violent battle with a lower class workman (Walter Donado) in a beat-up old pick-up truck.

Next up, Ricardo Darín as an explosives expert in Buenos Aires who faces off against the city’s civic bureaucrats who keep towing his car. Darín, a superstar in Argentina best known here for his work in the 2009 Best Foreign Picture winner THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES, is superb as the beleaguered man who has reached his breaking point, FALLING DOWN-style.

Following that, Oscar Martinez portrays a rich man whose son is guilty of a hit and run accident that caused the death of a pregnant woman. Wanting to keep his son out of prison, Martinez and his lawyer (Osmar Núñez) plot to have his gardener (Germán de Silva) take the fall by claiming he was behind the wheel. This plan will be extremely expensive because Martinez will have to pay off his lawyer, the prosecutor, the cops, as well as the gardener to make it fly. Exasperated by these “vultures,” as he calls them, Martinez loses patience with the negotiations, and that’s where I’ll leave this well played out premise.

The concluding and lengthiest episode, “Until Death Do Us Part,” depicts a wedding reception that goes to hell and back again. The bride (Érica Rivas) finds out that her husband (Diego Gentile, who looks a bit Bradley Cooper-ish) had cheated on her with one of their guests, and, well, you know what they say about a woman scorned?

Each piece of this anthology film puzzle is viciously effective, as well as visually pleasing (kudos to cinematographer Javier Julia). It’s a sharp-witted, savage satire of human behavior, that while very dark, even allows for at least one feel-good ending in the batch (maybe two, but that’s debatable).

WILD TALES is in turns, exciting, wickedly funny, poetically powerful, and, yes, very wild indeed. I enjoyed all six tales individually immensely, maybe “Little Bomb” the best, and really loved how they worked together both tonally and thematically. It may not have won the Oscar (it did sweep the Argentinian Academy Awards however), but it repeatedly won me over as it kept topping itself up until and including the very end.

More later...

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Pixies’ Frank Black Blabs About BRAZIL For Film Acoustic

As I wrote in the Raleigh N & O, the third installment of the new series Film Acoustic was a real doozy: Frank Black of the iconic punk rock band the Pixies presenting Terry Gilliam's 1985 classic BRAZIL. The event went down last Thursday evening, March 19th, at the Carolina Theatre in Durham with a screening of the film, which I believe is the best film of the '80s, followed by a chat conducted by Modern School of Film founder and Duke graduate Robert Milazzo, a bit of audience Q & A, and solo acoustic performances of four songs (“Wave of Mutilation,” “Monkey Gone To Heaven,” “Los Angeles,” and “All Around the World”).

Here are some highlights from the fine evening:

Milazzo's introduction: “Terry Gilliam was asked ‘what was your favorite review of BRAZIL?’ from the critics because the critics loved this film. And he said ‘it was from Salmon Rushdie. Salmon said ‘we are all Brazilians. We are all strangers in a strange land.’” I offer you that bit of cultural anthropology because tonight’s guest studied for a moment or two cultural anthropology on his way to making music history. He told me last night though that the classes that he had the most fun were the cinema classes.

We’ll ask him if he feels that way in about an hour. Please welcome to the Modern School of Film, Professor Charles Thompson, everybody, Frank Black.”

(audience applause)

Frank Black: “I should probably mention, I uh, made a bit of a popcorn mess by my seat.”

Milazzo: “Really?”

Black: “I tried to get, I got, I threw half of it before it even started, but thank you for the popcorn. And uh, I didn’t know what to wear tonight – ‘cause my film professor Don Levine, who taught Avant Grade Film 302-B, used to always wear a black turtleneck, and a black jacket, black pants. And he had a black carrying bag also. And I didn’t have any turtlenecks. But uh, so I wore sweatpants because I wanted to be comfortable tonight, so uh, technically, these are pajamas actually. I wore my pajamas, and figured it was black, you know?”

Miliazzo: “The movie, as Jonathan Pryce says the movie is half real, half dreams, so its apropos that you would wear half real, half dreams…and clocks which I love, they tie the outfit together. Thank you man, thank you for being here.

Black: “It’s hard to believe that the suits at Universal would’ve seen any cut of that film and said ‘you know, we’ve got a couple of ideas we’d like to, uh…” (laughs) You know what I mean? It sort of seems like ‘really?’ How could you look at a single scene, you know, ‘we like what you’re trying to do here but…’ It’s sort of shocking but it’s not shocking, I don’t know. The artist is always right the tour manager told me and if, you know, you hire some guy to make a movie, the artist is all obviously making art. Just leave them alone, ‘cause you don’t know and they do because they’re right.

Milazzo: “When we invited you to screen whatever film you wanted to share, why did you pick BRAZIL?”

Black: “Well, it really is like a knee jerk kind of a choice – I liked it! You know, when I first saw the movie, and I’ve seen it many times, and even though you could talk about this film and analyze it, intellectualize it, talk about it on a few different levels I suppose, basically I thought, I really liked it. I was really entertained by it, and I loved the film, all analysis aside. Every time I see it, I’m reminded of that. Now we can talk about it on other levels, but I liked it.”

Milazzo: “When did you first see it? Did you see it in ’85?”

Black: “I saw it when it first came out, I didn’t know what cut it was. I don’t recall it having a completely hacked ending. I believe when it was shown on television, or something, they tried to end it on a happy note. Right? They escaped to the countryside, and lived happily ever after. There was some version of that I heard about, but I think when I saw it in theaters it had the more poignant ending.”

Milazzo: “What were you doing in ’85?”

Black: “I was living in Boston, I had just dropped out of college, and I was starting a band with Kim Deal and Joey Santiago.”

Milazzo: “That worked out.”

Black: “Yeah, I was basically going to the movies. When I was in between jobs, I went to a lot of films. We rehearsed, we had our day jobs, but basically I went to the movies a lot. Sometimes we’d all go to the movies together as a band, ‘cause it would be very important to me: ‘you have to see this film that I’m really into!” You know, and I would drag them with me. They’d go along, and we had kind of a cinematic origin I suppose, you know, in at least that was what I was looking at more than music. Obviously, I loved Husker Du, and Peter, Paul and Mary, but, and I’d go see Husker Du when they came to town, but the art of film, also especially like this, you know, the way it’s supposed to be. We didn’t have computers or laptops or tablets or anything, and if you were a young broke musician you didn’t have TV or anything, so I’d go to the cinema a lot. And I always did then. As soon as I had enough money to go to the movies, I guess from my late teens or whatever, I went to the movies a lot.”

Milazzo: “On a script level, Tom Stoppard wrote, and Gilliam credits him as giving the guts to the movie – the Buttle/Tuttle, the bug falling into the thing – and Charles McKeown, and just a bit of trivia, this is my back-up trivia question, he’s in LIFE OF BRIAN, he’s in the Biggus Dickus scene. The script of this is pretty sophisticated in a sense of how it balances politics, the politics of every day – do you watch it on that level? Do you watch it on the sort of middle management, working in offices, I mean, it’s not been your life per say.”

Black: “I mean, it echoes the past, it echoes the present, it amplifies the future. I mean, it’s so incredibly apropos to any conversation, whether it’s today or whether it was 1985 when they made it. Or, I imagine, in the future, where it will all make a lot of sense.”

Milazzo: “Your son is right.”

Black: “Without getting into any kind of specifics, you know, bombs, control, misidentification, homogenization, pasteurization, whatever, the machinery – where does one begin? It’s all there.”

Milazzo: “One of the cool things, and you said it so well, and it’s even a more intelligent perspective, this film does better watching it more times, maybe in a way, watching it again here – the samurai is made out of computer parts. You can only watch it if you scrutinize the movie. This whole retro-fitting thing – he admits he sort of got it from Ridley Scott and Blade Runner, but this retro-fitting was in.”

Black: “The Samurai I find particularly beautiful. When he’s defeated the first time by Sam, and the flames from the escaping gas coming out of him, something about it is really beautiful and evil and industrial…

Milazzo: “And analog! You know, it’s like the movie is homemade in a sense. When you see Ian Holm with his face and those arms…”

On the cast:

Black: “I love Ian Holm, his tension, his pretending his hand’s broken…the casting is so incredible in this film…Jim Broadbent as the plastic surgeon ‘cut cut, snip snip,’ with his hair and everything, just beautiful.”

Milazzo: “We talked about the performances a lot yesterday – Kim Griest who takes a bad rap in a way is perfect, I mean, the way the casting of that is perfect.”

Black: “One of the things I really liked about it, it involves her character of course, is just the idea of love. There’s this old school romantic thing where he’s just obsessed with this person. And he’s searching for this person, because he loves them…and that’s it. It’s so romantic, and he’s this dorky nervous nellie guy with all this existential ennui and he doesn’t know what he wants – ‘I want her, I think!’ And it reminds me of when I first had a romantic crush when I was young. 

You know, that’s what you would fantasize about, like the backdrop of this film it’s like it’s all gone wrong, the world’s gone wrong, and I wonder what would it be like if there was an apocalyptic war and the world as we know it is falling apart, ‘I’ll go to her house, to her parent’s house and I’ll go get her!’ And we’ll get on a train, or a horse (laughs). We’ll escape, we’ll get out to the countryside just like at the end there. I guess, again there, the influence of BLADE RUNNER, I don’t know. Finally escape the grimy dark urban kind of tubular life that they lived, and they finally make it out to the countryside of the green, there’s the English countryside, much like the end of BLADE RUNNER. Finally we get out of Los Angeles where we can breathe! (Takes a big breath)

On the ending:

Black: “That’s the noir ending, you know it’s like ‘nope!’ It isn’t alright! Nope! Death! No, it’s over. The bad guys win. Of course, that’s the ending you want. That’s the ending that’s gonna ‘cause people to talk about it. We don’t talk about happy endings because, we forget them.”

On “Debaser,” which was inspired by Luis Buñuel’s 1929 surreal silent film collaboration with Salvador Dali, UN CHIEN ANDALOU:

Milazzo: “What was the line between watching the film, 
UN CHIEN ANDALOU, and writing ‘Debaser,’ putting it out into the world, what was the creative chronology?”

Black: “I don’t really know, but I think the way I used to write songs at that time was that I’d use language in a kind of jabberwocky kind of way. I would find syllables and combinations of consonants and vowels that I liked the sound of them. So maybe they’d form a word I was familiar with and maybe they didn’t, but it would begin to take form that way. And then maybe I could, it would ascend into an actual intelligible word, and then maybe that intelligible word might inform the rest of the text, or the lyric, you know? So, it wasn’t like I had the need to write a song that was basically the Cliff’s Notes, sort of a pop song Cliff’s Notes version of UN CHIEN ANDALOU. 

A song is such a shrunk down thing, there’s a universe of ideas but you’ve only got (sings out a bit of melody made up of nonsense sounds) – that’s it! That’s all you’ve got, and so how are you gonna get all this information in? I just took some of the language from my interpretation of the film, and I just, I don’t want to say it’s a hack job! 

But I kind of used something that I liked, you know, it wasn’t like I was saying anything. Other than, to quote Serge Gainsbourg: ‘I am a surrealist!’ So it was my way of saying ‘I am a surrealist too!’ and ‘I’m borrowing your movies for my song!’ That’s a French accent, right?”

“In Heaven,” a cover of a song from the ERASERHEAD soundtrack:

Milazzo: “Another song, ‘The Lady in The Radiator’ song, ‘In Heaven,’ which is an ERASERHEAD draw. Talk about that, watching ERASERHEAD conjuring that song. Do you recall that process?”

Black: “You brought it up, that is was the theme song to David Lynch’s ERASERHEAD, it was written, the lyric is by David Lynch actually, but the music is by a guy named Peter Ivers, and, of course, when I was a teenager I saw the film and I liked it, and we were a band playing nightclubs, we were an artsy fartsy band, so we did our loud version of that kinda simple song, and I thought we were so cool, but I found out that every metropolis on the planet has a band that has that song in their repertoire so we weren’t the only ones.”

On the use of the Pixies' 
“Where Is My Mind?” in David Fincher's 1999 cult classic FIGHT CLUB:

Black: “It was nice that our song was in it, but I was kind of more caught up in my cinema experience so I think I was able to compartmentalize it. I didn’t jump up and go ‘that’s me!’ But I mean, you know, I got a grand out of it, but I was engaged in the film. When it happened it washed over me like everybody else. It’s a great moment in the film, because it’s a great moment in the film not because of the song. The song works, but I think a lot of songs could’ve worked in that same spot. But he picked the right kind of song, I suppose, for his montage.”

On being up for a role in Fincher's ZODIAC

Black: “You know, uh, David Fincher was making the ZODIAC movie, and he wanted me to play the Zodiac killer, because I bore a certain physical resemblance.”

Milazzo: “Wow! That’s cool, man.”

Black: “And so he sent me part of the script and some other materials, you know so I could get all Robert De Niro and really get into my role – it was a little freaky, but, you know, I bought some combat boots that the guy was fond of, and tried to, you know, I went to an acting coach, we talked for a few minutes. And they know I’m not an actor and they weren’t trying to put a lot of pressure on me, but I sat there with him and his producer, and I was literally like, you know, Don Knotts, I was just like (makes unintelligible speech) – I was just reading off a page and I couldn’t even like, it was just so hard. It was so hard to act, to even just read, to put, to get any kind of connection to the drama, even in the most casual setting… ‘It’s okay, it’s alright , Charles’ I said, I literally couldn’t even talk. And they were ‘Thank you very much,’ and I never heard from them again.”

The next installment of Film Acoustic, on Monday, April 13th, looks pretty damn interesting too: Patterson Hood of the Drive By Truckers screens Sidney Lumet's 1976 classic NETWORK. Tickets are on sale now.

More later...

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Splendid Soviet Hockey Doc RED ARMY

Opening today in the Triangle at The Raleigh Grande:

 (Dir. Gabe Polsky, 2014)

I’m so not a sports guy, but I do enjoy a good sports documentary every now and then. So I must point out that Gabe Polsky’s RED ARMY, the writer/director’s second feature after his not bad drama THE MOTEL LIFE, is one of the best sports docs I’ve ever seen.

It tightly tells the story of the Soviet Union’s dominance of ice hockey, via their national team The Red Army Hockey Club, during the height of cold war tensions, and you don’t have to be a fan of hockey (or cold war tensions) to get swept up in its well paced narrative.

Largely anchored by an on camera interview with one of the key players, Slava Fetisov, multiple world championship winner and former Minister of Sport for Russia from 2002 to 2008, the film traces the history of the team, which was founded under Joseph Stalin in the '50s.

Through a poppy mixture of imagery that we be very familiar to fans of the FX program The Americans, including propaganda posters (with bright red coloring, of course), footage of oppressed Russian culture, and archival news reports, we are shown how in a demonstration of Soviet Superiority, Stalin would create athletes to dominate the West. In one bit of funny footage, a group of well groomed adolescent boys sings the chorus: “Cowards don’t play hockey.”

Soviet Hockey Coach Anatoly Tarasov is credited for developing the program via lifting techniques from the Bolshoi Ballet and chess which as American journalist Lawrence Martin says made their passing game “a intricate artistic tapesty which we didn't see over here.”

Newspaper headlines super-imposed on pertinent stock footage take us through the space and arms races and then we land in the '70s with a winning streak against Canada leading up to the team's first bout against America in two decades at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid.

Prior to this, Tarasov is replaced by the chief of the KGB as coach by the volatile Viktor Tikhonov, the true villain of this film. When the Russians are defeated by the U.S. Olympic hockey team at Lake Placid, Tikhonov fired the veteran players, and rebuilds the team with Festisov and four other star players (including defenseman Alexei Kasatonov), who became known as “The Russian Five.”

This unit dominated international competition in the '80s, winning gold medals in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, but it was under a harsh regiment that had its members at a training camp for 11 months a year missing their families.

The financial collapse of the Soviet Union in the late '80s meant the end of the cold war, which meant as Bryant Gumbel says on an excerpted broadcast that “Some of those world class atheletes that are in the Soviet Union will be allowed to come west, turn pro, and play for big rubles.”

A tug of war results over the NHL and the Red Army over Festisov wanting to leave the U.S.S.R. and play for the New Jersey Devils. Festisov's wife speaks about her husband being captured by police in Kiev, handcuffed to a car battery and beaten until late into the night over this conflict.

RED ARMY well illustrates the devotion of these men to the ideal of “skillful and effective hockey” that Tarasov taught them, and how powerful friendships can be, even through the testy trials of the game that Fetisov and Kasatonov endure. It also lays plain how scary it was to live through this era in which the superegos of these world powers were so pitted against each other that such showdowns on the ice could really be game changers.

So again, take it from this non sports guy - this exceedingly entertaining and informative sports doc really did it for me.

More later...

Monday, March 16, 2015

Liam Neeson's Latest, The Run-Of-The-Mill RUN ALL NIGHT

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

RUN ALL NIGHT (Dir. Jaume Collet-Serra, 2015)

While watching this new crime thriller, I wondered: ‘how much longer can Liam Neeson make these sort of action movies?’ The next day I had my answer as it was reported that he told an interviewer that he’d be doing them for “maybe two more years. If God spares me, and I’m healthy and stuff. But after that, I’ll stop [the action] I think.”

That sounds fair. I mean, he can crank out a couple more TAKENs in that time and still have time for a few more generic, run of the mill offerings like this one.

That’s not to say there’s no fun to be had with RUN ALL NIGHT, Neeson’s latest collaboration with Spanish director Collet-Serra, their third after UNKNOWN, and last year’s airplane thriller NON-STOP.

This time around, Neeson is a washed-up mob hit-man boozing it up in a Brooklyn club owned by his former boss (Ed Harris). Neeson has an estranged son, a limo driver played by Joel Kinnaman (The Killing, the ROBOCOP re-make), who wants nothing to do with his father. Harris has a son, Boyd Holbrook (WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES, GONE GIRL), an arrogant, entitled idiot who’s impatiently waiting to take over the family business.

The fateful night of the title, Kinnaman witnesses Holbrook shooting down a Albanian heroin dealer which, after a gun-fire filled chase through the dark neighborhood, leads to Neeson shooting down Holbrook. “I just killed your boy, Shawn,” Neeson tells Harris on the phone. “I had to.”

The scenario has similarities to JOHN WICK, in that the mob boss is actually sympathetic and understands what happened, but still needs to follow through and avenge his son. The intense yet weirdly warm exchanges between Neeson and Harris, particularly in a HEAT-styled meeting in a restaurant, are the film’s highlights.

There are some other mildly enjoyable elements in Common as a smooth dapper assassin on the trail of the father/son duo, and Vincent D'Onofrio as a frumpy cop (a guy as seemingly washed up as Neeson) set on finally busting Neeson after all these years. Sure, these characters are well worn clichés but I still enjoyed the actors’ presences.

Of course, Neeson, who amusingly is able to completely kick his alcoholism in a snap, and Kinnaman work out their differences in between shoot-outs, car chases, and brutal fist fights (my friend Fonvielle remarked that Collet-Serra and Neeson’s movies always have an intense confined-space bathroom fight), and the action moves from the city out to a house out in the country for the finale as it often does in these type things.

The stylish choice to have swooping cameras take us from aerial shots quickly down to ground level for transitional purposes is really better suited for high tech thrillers like ENEMY OF THE STATE or LIMITLESS. It's a cool looking device, but it doesn't feel in sync with this material.

There’s little depth in RUN ALL NIGHT, but it has more grit and less melodrama than Neeson/
Collet-Serra's previous effort NON-STOP. This entry is far from an embarrassment, and I'm certain a lot of action fans (and especially Neeson action fans) will find it quite serviceable.

So seeya next time Neeson, when his big old end to action countdown to 2017 continues.

More later...

Friday, March 13, 2015

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s bleak Russian tragedy LEVIATHAN

LEVIATHAN (Dir. Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2014)

While the 2015 awards season is technically over, it often lingers on in the form of foreign films that were nominated, but don’t get released in my area until after the Oscars are long over. 

Such is the case with Andrey Zvyagintsev’s bleak Russian tragedy LEVIATHAN opening today at the Raleigh Grande, which lost the Best Foreign Picture Academy Award to Pawel Pawlikowski’s striking Polish drama IDA.

Set in the coastal town of Pribrezhnv, whose beaches are strewn with the bones of whale carcasses (Leviathan means “whale” in Modern Hebrew), while old rotting whaling ships clutter the sea, seemingly always under a dreary, overcast sky.

The grizzled Alexei Serebriakov plays Kolya, a stubborn, thick-headed auto mechanic who is caught up in a land dispute with the local government headed by the boorish, corrupt Mayor Vadim Sergeyich (Roman Madyanov).

Kolya, his second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and teenage son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev) are ordered to vacate the seaside property that's been in Koyla’s family for generations so he calls on the help of an ex-army friend Dmitri (Vladimir Vvitchenkov) who’s become a smooth, successful lawyer in Moscow.

Dimitri has compiled an incriminating file on the Mayor which he hopes will make him call off the eviction, but things get messy when Kolya is jailed for blowing up at the authorities and while he’s in the slammer, Dimitri sleeps with his wife.

The situation goes from horribly bad to wretchedly worse when Lilya commits suicide by jumping off a cliff into the ocean, and the police finger Koyla for her murder.

The story was inspired by the true story of Marvin Heemeyer, a Colorado man who made the news for fighting against the construction of concrete plant near his muffler shop, but, much like the Coen brothers’ A SERIOUS MAN, it could very well be seen as a modern update of “The Book of Job” – an orthodox priest (Valeryi Grishko) even quotes from the scripture of Job to Koyla at one point.

As much as I admired the solid filmmaking framework of LEVIATHAN, I can’t say I’d really recommend it. I didn’t feel a connection to any of its characters who all appear to be vulgar, vodka-swigging caricatures, and the drawn-out length (141 minutes) is punishing at times. Maybe we’re supposed to feel like we’re being punished for enduring Koyla’s punishment.

Yet the film has instances of great effectiveness, especially visually (Mikhail Krichman’s cinematography stunningly captures the surrounding terrain), and it has considerable value as a vicious 
put-down of the Russian regime under Putin.

The exact opposite of a crowd pleaser (a crowd-downer?), LEVIATHAN is for folks who need no spoonful of sugar to help make their medicine go down. It’s just that the end results of this particular brand of meds rubbed me more wrong than right. 

More later...