Sunday, August 30, 2015

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Corpus Criminalities: Abel Ferrara's "Welcome To New York"

(Note- this review is based on the 125 minute "director's cut" of the film)


It just wouldn't be an Abel Ferrara film without some type of controversy. Whether it's the use of an unlicensed Schooly D track ("The King of New York") or the absolute failure to find stateside distribution for his latest work (any of the last half dozen films, basically), Ferrara has settled into the role of a maverick pariah, still as prolific and challenging as ever, but unable to share his unflinching views with a wide audience. However, with "Welcome To New York"- his rendering of the rape charge incident against powerful French bank manager Dominique Strauss Kahn in 2011- Ferrara faced a new obstacle. After being dumped in very limited release earlier this year and surreptitiously released on VOD, Ferrara came out blasting his production company for re-editing the film and tampering with his artistic vision. Having not seen that slimmed down 107 minute version and only reading about the changes through various online sources, it does sound as if some of the story's perspective has been altered. Ferarra has been relentless in his distancing of that version and his motto that the best way to view his films is through nefarious online downloads never felt quite so relevatory. Yet all that rhetoric aside, "Welcome To New York" is not only a slimy, misogynistic character study of a man unable to distinguish between the barriers of decent behavior, but it's one of Ferrara's absolute best works yet and one of the most damning films of the year.

As the Strauss-Kahn like figure, Gerard Depardieu plays him as a base animal, all grunts, groans and deep gestation bubbling up from the bowels of his entitlement. As Devereaux (Depardieu) arrives in New York (under the airport banner that spells out the film's title), he retires to his hotel room where friends are waiting for him with women in tow and the night becomes an orgy of sex, food fights and drinking. It's not long after they leave that two more prostitutes arrive and are ushered upstairs to the sleeping Devereaux, who doesn't fail to miss a beat and embarks on more episodes of ass-slapping, voyeurism and a threesome, all filmed with a murky sense of observation from Ferrara. The bedrooms.... half-lit and cavernous.... feel like partially remembered memories and almost unreal. Alongside this film and "Pasolini" (still unreleased here in the States), DP Ken Kelsch and Ferrara have tapped into the inky margins of their frame even more deliberately than in previous films. Simply put, they look wonderful.

Having immersed himself in this flesh-filled wasteland for the past twelve hours or so, its not surprising that Devereaux crosses a thin line when, the next morning, he emerges from the shower and sees a hotel maid (Pamela Afesi) standing in front of him. We've seen her enter the room and call out "housekeeping" several times with no response. Devereaux approaches, emits more guttural sounds and forces himself on the maid, who manages to fight him off and escape. It's an incredibly sad and disturbing scene for several reasons. Is Ferrara excusing the real life Strauss-Kahn as an unwitting symptom of his excessive environment? Does it simply proliferate Ferrara's well documented sense of male dominance within his films? After all, this is a fictional re-imagination of a real life incident (that was eventually dismissed in court), so how close to the truth does it cut? All of that seems secondary to the main theme of the film which is power corrupts completely. Rest assured, there's no catharsis for Devereaux or release for the audience.

From there, "Welcome To New York" deals with the arrest, court proceedings and house confinement of Devereaux and narrows its focus on the relationship between him and ex-wife Simone (Jacqueline Bissett). Resembling the jagged verbal sparring between James Russo and Madonna in Ferrara's 1993 masterpiece "Dangerous Game", "Welcome to New York" likewise examines the rancid foundation of Devereaux and Simone as they drudge up past indiscretions and their overall lack of faith. Even though he can be accused of extreme misogyny, Ferrara always manages to puncture the tug of war between the sexes with sharp fangs.

While it does have its share of miscalculations, such as an opening self reflexive moment that doesn't quite work, "Welcome To New York" remains an unrepentant look at a deeply flawed individual whose beating heart is as black as the night. This is comfortable territory for Ferrara and even in the final moments, when Devereaux should be thankful for his acquittal, his flirtatious personality emerges again. A leopard can't change its stripes, and a sex-addicted man with the money and means to avoid any penalty surely won't become a saint anytime soon.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

An Appreciation: Nagisa Oshima

A Town of Love and Hope (1959) *** - “Broken families often produced crooked children.” So says the wealthy brother of Kyoko (Yuki Tominaga) about her downtrodden, pigeon selling friend Yuji (Fumijo Wantanbe). And the class distinction that would infuse so much of Nagisa Oshima’s work is established within the first 30 minutes of his debut film. A simple effort, “A Town of Love and Hope” blithely observes the interaction between affluent girl Kyoko and poor Yuji. There’s never any hint of sexual attraction. Instead, Kyoko’s inherent desire to help Yuji stems more from her possible abjection of class structures. Also trying to better Yuji’s situation is his teacher Miss Akiyama (Kakuko Chino), desperately urging the local factory bosses- namely Kyoko’s own father and brother- to take on some of her students. Oshima narrows his focus on the relationship between these three, avoiding large sentiment or huge narrative moments. In fact, the most startling revelation has to do with the destruction of a pigeon cage. Like all of Oshima’s films, the emotion is often curdled in the most inanimate actions. A nice debut. Not available on DVD.


The Sun’s Burial (1960) **½ - When so many other New Wave Japanese filmmakers were still working in black and white, the most revolutionary idea about “The Sun’s Burial” is its incandescent color and signs of growth by Oshima through some startling tracking shots and strong mise-en-scene. The story doesn’t quite live up to the technical aspect, though. Charting the various relationships between rival gangs, its double and triple crosses feel like precursors to the more aggressive stylizations of Kinji Fukasaku and consequently, less impactful than Oshima’s barbed jabs at the squalid quarters of his cinematic inhabitants. Nothing is quite as desolate as watching an old man casually dump a dead body in the water, then nonchalantly salvage a half-destroyed wicker basket from a trash heap nearby. Oshima’s jaded ideas are intact, they just sometimes become overshadowed by a complicated roundelay of thugs and pimps posturing.


Cruel Story of Youth (1960) ***½ - If “The Sun’s Burial” studied the carelessness of Japan’s youth and their proclivity towards criminality, then “Cruel Story of Youth” takes things a step further and establishes a moral wasteland where its young couple (female Miyuki Kuwano and male Yusuke Kawaze) are doomed from the very beginning. After all their relationship, built on two rapes and the boyfriend’s bone headed scheme for his girlfriend to seduce and then allow the ’johns’ to be blackmailed, isn’t the epitome of wholesomeness. Regardless, this isn’t a film where anyone really cares for the other. It’s a tattered expression of indolence, stagnation and ultimately personal ruin and stands as one of Oshima’s great early works.


Night and Fog In Japan (1960) ** - One’s appreciation of “Night and Fog In Japan” will depend on how informed they are about the political landscape of Japan in the early 60‘s. It’s a highly intellectualized sermon about the divisive beliefs of two sections of people (the more Left wing student organizations vs. the middle class peace ‘treatyists‘) whose war of wills comes to a head at a wedding. This irony is not lost, of course, as Oshima sets his philosophical war at the most banal and supposedly happiest of all places. Still, it’s a dry meditation, with little to grab onto, and endlessly convoluted as its “Rashomon” style of storytelling tracks and backtracks through a series of past events between the political activists. If anything, though, it’s trendsetting idealistically, surely a huge influence on the radicalized efforts of filmmakers such as Godard and Bellocchio who would later infiltrate cinema’s passivity and create playfully aggressive political statements. Available on Region 2 DVD.


The Catch (1961) *** - The basic message here is no matter how much changes, everything stays the same. Even when talking about the loss of a nation in war. “The Catch” is a microcosm of this nation, played out in a mountainous village with a variety of people (men, women, children) and social stature (village elders, political bureaucrats and simple peasants). Their lives are upended when members of the community capture and bring home a downed American soldier who becomes unwittingly forced to participate in the village’s evolving moral ambiguities and lecherous relationships to one another. It’s all observed in Oshima’s mannered style of long takes, shifting bodies within the frame and a few moments of heightened tension that eventually explodes. Even though the American soldier (who happens to be African-American) is reduced to some unfiltered, racially charged sentiments throughout “The Catch”, Oshima is just as relentless against his own people in the end. Not available on DVD.


The Rebel (1962) *** - Oshima’s contribution to the samurai fold follows the seventeenth century uprising by farmers and peasants against the Shogunate after having their religious beliefs (Christianity) outlawed and deemed punishable by death. Also called “The Christian Rebel; Shiro Amaksu” (played by Hashizo Okawa), Oshima refuses to create a linear biopic, taking a much wider stance on the ideological clash by following a number of supporting characters such as Shiro’s old friend Shinbei (Ryutaro Otomo), his wife (Satomi Oka) and the various differences of opinion within the Christian sect. In fact, Shiro almost becomes a marginal figure in the film until the end. What slowly emerges is a violent history lesson… one in which the ideals of faith purport innocence but breed malevolence. Just like his previous film “The Catch”, Oshima seems to be defining the morose sadness of history repeating itself endlessly. Not available on DVD.


Pleasures of the Flesh (1965) **½ - The book title this film is based upon, “The Pleasures of the Coffin”, makes for a far more intriguing perspective since the main protagonist, Atsushi (Katsuo Nakamura), literally condemns himself to death the minute he begins spending the stolen loot he’s been entrusted to protect. And all because of the spurned love of young Shoko (Mariko Kaga). It’s interesting to see Oshima toy with a noir set-up, but, as usual, he has far more penetrating things on his mind such as the deteriorating effect money has on the soul and its alluring effect on women even when they don’t particularly like the man spending it. If there’s a fault, its theme becomes repetitive.


Diary of Yunbogi (1965) ** - Oshima’s experimental film that uses still photos to tell the story of ten year old Yunbogi and his travails as an orphan. It’s a bit repetitive and the voice-over, going for some sort of haikoo, feels over cooked. Available streaming.


Violence At Noon (1966) ***½ - A dazzling exploration of the sorted history and complex emotional reactions between four people (two couples) who love each other’s partner and then have to deal with the evolving consequences when one of the men (Kei Sato) later becomes a serial rapist and murderer. Full of raging passion, stifled sexual attraction and uncontrollable suicidal tendencies, this is certainly Oshima’s darkest effort yet. Besides the bleak subject matter (that even ventures into necrophilia!), “Violence At Noon” marks a radical departure in Oshima‘s formal style. Gone are the roving tracking shots and static long takes, replaced by sharp, almost harsh, edits and perspective shots that fragment the story and character psychology even more.


Band of Ninja (1967) **½ - The first filmed graphic novel? No one can ever claim Oshima is nothing if not adventurous in his cinematic choices. A sword and samurai tale told through filmed stills of cartoon drawings that somehow exert energy and movement in their black and white lines and bold framing. The story itself is a bit lackluster (and even confounding at some points) but visually its terrific. Not available on DVD.


Sing A Song of Sex (1967) ****- A completely unusual, amorphous effort that, regardless of Oshima’s sordid and challenging history so far, feels like nothing else he’s done yet. Four male students, fresh out of school, go on a trip with their teacher and three female schoolmates. Their main purpose is to screw around, maybe get laid and dwell in their imaginary sexual flights of fancy wherein they rape another attractive female student (Kazuko Tajima) they only briefly witnessed leaving school the previous day. Refusing to foreground the male students with anything resembling a personality, “Sing A Song of Sex” becomes an aimless assault on everything from structured relationships to the war in Vietnam. Not quite as overtly violent as “A Clockwork Orange” or aggressively provocative as Lars vonTrier’s “The Idiots”, Oshima’s vision is still that of numbing, disaffected youth and the careless bile they spew outward onto society. This is the Oshima film one never hears about, but deserves to be seen.


Double Suicide (1967) *½ - If “Sing A Song of Sex” alienates some people and reveals the experimental Godardian slant in Oshima’s visual and thematic polemics, then “Japanese Summer; Double Suicide” is his take on the challenging Dziga Vertov years. A completely abstract assault on violence, lustful disobedience and the media’s representation on said violence, it’s a film that sounds more intriguing than it really is. A sexually starved 18 year old (Keiko Sakurai) runs into suicidal Otoko (Kei Sato) and they inadvertently become mixed up with a group of socially dangerous mobsters and murderers, watching as an American grips the city in fear as he goes on a shooting spree. A major product of its time, “Japanese Summer; Double Suicide” just feels like Oshima straining to make his points, laboring them intensely. I have to admit, this film felt like a three hour chore, even though it only runs a little over 90 minutes.


Death By Hanging (1968) **½ - Rendered like an absurd play (only a few spare settings and the camera bouncing among a host of principal players), “Death By Hanging” is a complex and layered work that deals with the botched execution of a rapist (simply named R), then spends the next 90 minutes parlaying the question of just exactly who is crazy here. The police, doctors and hangmen desperately try to convince the now awakened R that he really is a criminal and should be re-executed even though his “soul” doesn’t remember his actions. Mordantly funny and visually disorienting in the way it blends fantasy and reality, the film’s only deterrent is its unequivocal dryness in hammering home its political agenda. Not available on DVD.  

Three Resurrected Drunkards (1968) *** - After lacerating the Vietnam War, capital punishment, and the media in his last few films, what’s left for Oshima to fry? Well, look no further than 1968 and Beatlemania, or rather that weird, sprightly genre where 60’s British rockers were turned into Chaplin-esque actors. Here, three bell-bottomed soldiers go for a swim and have their clothes switched out by two AWOL Korean soldiers. Their travails- mistaken identity, political subterfuge and random bullying- is played out in three concurrent scenarios with the same characters yielding drastically different outcomes. The mod hairstyles, emphasis on innocent violence, and Oshima’s use of music all add up to a trippy experience.


Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1969) ** - This story of a kleptomaniac and the girl who continually pushes his desires further and further coalesces Oshima’s experimentation and oblique social commentary. It’s just no fun. Available on Region 2 DVD.


Boy (1969) **** - Oshima’s masterpiece, mostly because he finally breaks free of his rigorous anti-establishment filmmaking prowess and crafts a humanistic portrait of a young child (simply called Boy) caught up in the amoral greed and sexual dissatisfaction of his parent figures as they teach him how to fake being hit by cars then extort the drivers for money. Based on a true story and told through the perspective of Boy (Tsuyoshi Kinoshita), Oshima’s spare cinematography is economical and precise and the unnerving score (at times sounding like a cosmic soundtrack to a sci-fi movie) weave a transfixing sentiment. And through it all is the innocent, confused gaze of Boy, desperately trying to understand the deviant emotions of father and stepmother and haunted by the images rooted in his memory by their evil transgressions. The moment he tackles and destroys the snowman he built is as powerful as anything yet in Oshima’s oeuvre. Not available on DVD.


The Man Who Put His Will On Film (1970) ***- Seeing as how the film takes place during the tumultuous student protests of the day, Oshima’s “The Man Who Put His Will On Film” could be read as a statement on cinema’s place in documenting those rowdy times. The story, essentially about a student who has his film camera stolen by another student right before he commits suicide, spins in so many directions without being anchored to one cohesive idea that it forgoes the usual explanations and turns into a messy, ambivalent affair about what’s real or not. Needless to say, it’s a heavy watch and may grow in stature over repeat viewings. Not available on DVD.


The Ceremony (1971) ***½ - Like his earlier film “Night and Fog In Japan”, Oshima institutes a rigorous ideological and moral decimation of a tightly knit group of people during a supposed harmonious event. In “The Ceremony”- which is a far better film than “Night and Fog In Japan” incidentally- those events are various weddings, funerals and celebrations over the course of twenty years with the Sakaruda family. The youngsters in the clan, led by young Masuo (Kenzo Kawaraski) Ritsuko (Atsuko Kaku) and Terumichi (Atsuo Nakamura), are the expressive heart of Oshima’s generational confrontations, rallying against their elders social wealth and falling in and out love and infatuation with each other. It all comes to a shattering conclusion as the film is bracketed by Masuo and Ritsuko’s journey back home to grapple with the harsh realities they’ve been running from the entire time. Alongside “Boy”, this is probably Oshima’s most well rounded effort simply because his radical aesthetic is matched with a story that pulsates with human emotion and grounded feelings. Not available on DVD.


Dear Summer Sister (1972) *** - A young girl (Hiromi Kurita) travels to Okinawa in hopes of finding her suddenly known half brother. Traveling with her guardian Momoko (Japanese actress Lily), not only do the young women become embroiled in the tenuous decades long post-war wounds of the island, but the almost aloof nature of the adults who haphazardly started the trouble both intimate and epic. Even knowing Oshima directed this, it’s a complete departure from the remainder of his work, eschewing any of his experimental style and somewhat composed shots for a completely nervous handheld aesthetic and performances that range from deceptively good to poor (in the case of young actress Kurita). Still, what does overshadow the film’s weaknesses is Oshima’s penchant for grafting a seemingly ordinary domestic story on the broad shoulders of a heavy metaphorical framework- as if each character (like in his previous film “The Ceremony”) are the idealized visages of some shred of post-war malcontent. One of his harder to find efforts, but worth the hunt. Not available on DVD.


In the Realm of the Senses (1976) *** - Even though it dwells on the sexually explicit nature of the relationship between Eiko Matsuda and Tatsuya Fuji, “In the Realm of the Senses” is a compelling examination of the consuming aspect of passion. Certainly deserves the “X” rating, though.


Empire of Passion (1978) ***½ - Film noir done Asian style- replete with rabid sexuality, village gossipers, and pale faced ghosts wallowing in the margins. All of this transpires after wife (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) and her lover (Tatsuya Fuji) kill her husband and have to deal with the hard part of denying their guilt for several years. Gloriously atmospheric and visually precise, “Empire of Passion” continues Oshima’s growth towards more mature works after the liberal and experimental works of the 60’s. With this film and “In the Realm of the Senses”, (plus the films that were ahead) he’s essentially grown from a look-at-me provocateur to a filmmaker concerned with mature people struggling with cultural and sexual identity. Without completely denying the audacity of his earlier films, I certainly admire the more mature Oshima.


A Visit to Ogawa Productions (1981) * - I’m not sure if Oshima staged this as a joke or not, but it has to be, perhaps, the most uninteresting documentary I’ve ever seen. Sixty-three minutes of a man talking about his documentary project in the mountains where he’s observed families, fields and the traditions of rice growing for the past eight years. It’s just a static shot of the man talking to Oshima while others look on about his theories on rice and his own pompous reasoning for the literal rooms full of footage he’s shot. Not sure where it can be found outside the bootleg I watched.


Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) **½ - Probably the film Oshima is most recognized for here in the West, it’s also one of his most passionless. The story of a POW camp of Allied soldiers on a Japanese island gives Oshima some opportunity to comment on the physical and mental tug of war that existed between captive and captor, but too much of it (especially the relationship between newcomer prisoner David Bowie and camp commander Ryuichi Sakamoto) is muddled and strained, yearning for something cosmic… which probably explains why he cast two pop stars as leads. More concise, heartfelt and genuine is the relationship exemplified by the titular prisoner Lawrence (Tom Conti) and camp sub commander Takeshi Kitano. If the film had focused on this pair, it might have ascertained the glorious humanity it strived for in other places. Terrific score though.


Max, Mon Amour (1986) ** - Oshima doing Bunuel… especially because the screenwriter of this film (Jean-Claude Carrierer) wrote many of the Spaniard’s surreal classics, yet “Max Mon Amour” is largely unsuccessful because it feels so intentional. Charlotte Rampling begins an affair, which is suspected from the very beginning by her husband (Anthony Higgins). A quick investigation reveals her lover to be a chimpanzee. What does a cuckold do but move the ape into their plush Paris home and try and live with him, of course. For the first time in his long career, Oshima feels a bit withdrawn here, as if he’s on autopilot, allowing the farce to play out on its own. Everyone plays their roles straight as well. There’s something in there about the absurd nature of marriage and jealousy, I’m sure, but the tone, flat images and disconnected acting (so emotionless by Rampling especially) all add up to a large bore.


Kyoto, My Mother’s Home (1991) ***½  - What begins as a documentary about Oshima’s mother soon turns into an elegy for something greater, such as the region of Kyoto, its customs and the defining personal tendencies of Oshima himself. Loving, informative and probably the film any Oshima viewer should start with since it strives to give a deeper meaning to the man himself.  Available on R2 Japanese import.


100 Years of Japanese Cinema (1993) **½ - Oshima’s swift condensation of Japanese cinema from the silents to his own work in the 80’s is a wonderful treasure trove of film images, yet it’s oddly cold and detached, far removed from the loving recollections assembled by other filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and even Jean Luc Godard. I understand Oshima wasn’t the most passionate person, yet his previous documentary “Kyoto, My Mother’s Home” managed to pierce the veneer and reveal an emotionally complex director behind the screen. “100 Years of Cinema” is all business. For entry level film studies, it’s fine, but someone searching for a deeper understanding of the artist and how these images correlate with his sensibility, look elsewhere.


Taboo (1997) *** - Oshima’s final film, aptly named, about the upheaval of a shogun society when one of it’s swordsman begins various relationships with other men in the group. Lushly old fashioned visually- full of wipe pans and gentle editing- clashes wonderfully with its progressive ideas about homosexuality and the overall impact of love regardless of the gender.


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Current Cinema 15.6

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

As an unequivocal fan of writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, it's hard to find too many faults with his installment of the hugely popular Tom Cruise franchise. It features a couple of terrific car chase sequences (which he proved himself adept at in "Jack Reacher" as well), a fun cast exerting sparks of repartee, and a delirious eye for the old fashioned charm a spy flick should emit. There's a set piece at an opera. A mammoth secret underground water bank. Even the London bridge. McQuarrie tosses all these old tropes out with just enough style and wink-wink charisma to elicit knowing glances from stalwart fans of the genre while maintaining a silly Fast-and-the-Furious action vibe that settles the ADD nerves of its now festering teen audience. The best of both worlds. It's ludicrous, but ludicrously fun.


Black Coal, Thin Ice

Yi'nan Diao's "Black Coal Thin Ice" is an odd beast. At first glance, it makes itself out to be something akin to Bong Joon-ho's "Memories of Murder" in the way it begins a serpentine criminal investigation of a murder that stretches over several years. But, about a third of the way through (and just as the lead detective loses his own moral compass due to alcoholism and his failed marriage), the film takes some strange turns and focuses on the disturbing and morose relationship that forms between the cop and the murdered victim's wife. Conversations unexpectedly end as someone in the background begins beating up a slot machine, for example. Another possible witness to what exactly happened all those years ago ends up falling into a bathtub of water next to her go-go dance stage while being questioned. The violence that casually erupts reminded me of the subliminal bloodshed prevalent in Takeshi Kitano's great gangster films of the 90's. And don't even start with the ending- one that's so brazen and gleefully anarchic that it had me wondering if the film reel ended abruptly. Outside of these incongruous moments of humor, anger and bleak reactions towards the world around them, "Black Coal Thin Ice" also manages to wring a uniquely sad love story out of the mix. A strange film, indeed, but one that should be essential viewing this year.


Phoenix

German filmmaker Christian Petzold has paired with actress Nina Hoss five times now as his leading lady, and each time the two have evolved their craft to wondrous heights. Hoss.... whose large eyes and often half-agape, hollowed look as if she's barely escaped some type of emotional or physical trauma.... is spellbinding here in their latest film together, "Phoenix". In fact, it's their best work yet and one of the most haunting, deliberate films of the year. That hollowed look I mentioned earlier may have something to do with the fact Nelly (Hoss) has just returned home at the end of World War II after time in a concentration camp. Disfigured, she's given a "re-creation" operation and a partially new face. This obscures the recognition by her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfield), when she finally tracks him down. But before she can explain herself, Johnny has her dressing in his old wife's clothes and trying to imitate her in a scheme to reclaim the substantial inheritance now left to her. This gut wrenching charade is carried on for the length of the film and it soon becomes a devastating exploration of not only obsession and memory, but a morbid rhetoric on the state of Europe immediately after the war, left in shambles and desperately trying to ascertain an identity that was ripped apart by the war. This may be the film of the year.


Thursday, August 06, 2015

Inferno: Frederick Wiseman's "Welfare"

During one scene of Frederick Wiseman's 1974 marathon documentary, "Welfare", a man who has come down to the aforementioned New York City public office is shooed away by some type of manager (and a manager who seemingly does this to everyone who dares venture into his office) and then spends the next five minutes, uninterrupted, talking to himself in the corridors. Part homily for himself to God and part soliloquy on his financial misfortunes, Wiseman shrewdly ends on this man, capping a four hour document of someplace pretty close to bureaucratic Hell with a capital "H". And the message is clear... this man is probably better off talking to himself rather than anyone at the welfare office.


Yet, in between agonizing, frustrating moments such as these, "Welfare" also spotlights the actions of other office workers, desperately trying to understand their own internal politics of the various case files that appear before them or actually go above and beyond and walk upstairs to ascertain resolutions. It's amazing the feelings that ebb and swell while watching "Welfare". One moment, I'm saying to myself, "jeez if you'd get off the drugs and do something productive with your life...." and the next I'm yelling at the screen while an especially moody office worker basically throws her arms up and walks away from trying to find a solution, blinded by her own hierarchical stubbornness. Not many documentaries stir up the juices like that. And if that's not enough, Wiseman captures those marginal figures we expect to be floating around the welfare office. The hotheads, the loonies (in one man who lays out his especially racial attitude to an African-American police officer), the drug addicts. And this is 1974. Imagine this office today.

Like all of Wiseman's work, the film is a testament to an institution, warts and all...good and bad.. and one that not only sheds light on an especially laborious aspect of our society, but creates a crescendo of voices, faces and reactions that can never be manufactured. If anything, that's the magic of Wiseman's cinema.






Saturday, July 25, 2015

On "Trainwreck": And Why It's One of the Year's Worst

Fully aware that I'm sounding like the old man yelling at the kids playing in the street to "keep it down" at 3pm in the afternoon, I have to ask just where and when the American comedy went so..... wrong. Was it in the 1990's with the advent of "Saturday Night Live" inspired skits metastasized into hopelessly realized feature length form, completely haphazard of a script and relying on the improvisational zest of its comedian-turned-actors in their starring roles to carry the entire effort? Do we simply blame society-at-large.... where the over saturation of images, news, reality TV show adornment and celebrity worship have created a vacuum of tastefulness and wit? Or do we lay it at the feet of Judd Apatow himself, the crowned king of modern comedy, whose films continue to grasp both the financial and critical respect which so importantly provides future freedoms and opportunities? Regardless of who or what we blame, "Trainwreck" is yet another coffin in the nail of movie comedy, devoid of any real heart, depth or resonant enjoyment. That's its won the hearts and minds of so many discerning critics makes it an even more troubling current event.


Written by comic Amy Schumer, "Trainwreck"deals with her overcoming her relationship hang-ups when she meets good doctor Aaron (Bill Hader). Seemingly stunted by the morose ramblings of her father (Colin Quinn) at a young age, Amy inverts the role typically held for the "guy" in the film... which means she's sexually adventurous, drunken, and unable to emotionally connect (or even spend the night) after her many conquests. After she's pinned by her magazine editor (Tilda Swinton) to complete an article on hot-shot sports doctor Hader, she finds herself attracted and even falling in love with the man, even though every fiber in her body wants to react differently.

Several reasons for my disdain of "Trainwreck". Allow me to begin. The great critic Roger Ebert once said that even though he loves all movies, the films he loves the most are the ones about good people. While "Trainwreck" does go through the usual rom-com notions and arrives at a happy ending, I didn't like Amy Schumer one bit. Part disaffected valley-girl with a stream of bitter, nihilistic sense of humor coursing through her veins, she struck me as an especially nasty person who probably deserved her fate of one-night stands and frigid emotional connectivity. This persona of "new wave bitch girl" deviates straight from her stand up routine, of course, which makes "Trainwreck" even more of a laborious extension of the shallow foundations modern comedy movies exist upon nowadays. I suppose all we're missing is the movie version of Gallagher smashing watermelons.

Secondly, I've become less and less imbued with Judd Apatow films. After his 2007 film, "Knocked Up" (which incidentally remains one of my very favorite films from that year), the leash has grown longer and longer for him. His films run to gargantuan lengths for comedies and the humor feels improvised and stretched out like a mini-reel of best gags from that particular day. Gone are the laughs derived from story arch, character set-up or general reactions. Now (and not just with Apatow), but comedies are an excuse for a group of ten or twenty friends to get together, hang out on a movie set all day, get high and throw whatever joke seems to stick against the celluloid wall. There's no ingenuity, no wit in the humor anymore. The scene that got the biggest laugh in "Trainwreck" at my particular showing was Amy Schumer talking to her happily married sister Brie Larson (a terrific actress who looked bored with simply being there to react against Schumer's seemingly 'improv' hysterics opposite her) describing a tampon. Long, drawn-out, gross humor that feels more at home in her comedy stand up routine than a full fledged movie. Every scene like this stopped the film dead in its tracks and had me wondering where subtlety went. Did the Ben Stiller 'hair gel" scene permanently push us over the comedy precipice?

Lastly, outside the 'improv' framework, the other dead air moments in "Trainwreck" involved the endless tracks of cameo stars. After reading several good raves about the "scene stealing" appearance of superstar Lebron James in the film as Hader's best friend, I was expecting something special, but instead got leaden line deliveries and the usual amateur star athlete vibes from his "performance". He's cheap and wants to split the bill. Funny. He acts like the soupy best girl friend in other rom-coms. Inspired. After the cheap, mean spirited racial humor of Amy's father (Colin Quinn) in other scenes, I'm surprised James wanted anything to do with the film. Although he probably had no idea those lines even existed since the script was most likely 11 pages long with 170 pages of "improv" scribbled in the margins. Further yet, we get scenes with Matthew Broderick, Amarie Stoudemire, Tony Romo and even Marv Albert who gets to talk in third person as if he's narrating one of his basketball games. I can't begin to tell you how superfluous, self congratulatory and pointless this scene felt in a film full of incongruous intentions.

Perhaps all of this is my problem. Maybe comedy just isn't my bag anymore. Looking over the shelves of DVD's I own and perusing my "best of the year" lists since 2000, I count approximately a dozen or so. Half of those are Wes Anderson films, who maintains his own detractors and whose sensibility in comedy is about as alien as one gets from the Apatwo brand. Still, I have funny bones somewhere inside me. I know every comedy can't be "Dr. Strangelove", but I at least wish they tried to reach some peaks beyond dick and fart jokes. Or in the case of Amy Schumer, gay and tampon jokes.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Last Few Films I've Seen, Dog Days of Summer edition

1. Cartel Land (2015)- Kind of makes me wish Trump does get elected president and build one of those high walls. Reviewed in full at Dallas Film Now

2. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (2014)- Iranian cinema really nails the soul-crushing degradation of the things we take for granted here... such as the simple process of a divorce, which in this film, becomes a two hour portrait of 5 years in hell for Viviane (played by the co-director herself Ronit Elkabetz).

3. Wild Tales (2014)- I don't really see the hype over Damian Szifron's omnibus tales of revenge, violence and deception. The last section, though, is quite entertaining in the way it skewers the squalid ceremonies and pompous self-misery of wedding receptions.

4. Strangerland (2015)- Take "L'aventurra" and "Picnic at Hanging Rock" and one gets this Aussie thriller starring Nicole Kidman. Certain scenes and Kidman's capable performance of a mother unraveling are the best things about it. Full review posted for Dallas Film Now

5. White Star (1982)- What is it about 80's German cinema that just screams dilapidated scenery and hollowed out existences? In this one, Dennis Hopper stars as a music producer desperately trying to make his nephew a star. Everyone in this film just looks bombed out and strung out, especially Hopper who's sweating and sickly in every scene. Not a good movie, but worth tracking down for its unbelievable feel.

6. The Victors (1963)- Hard to find, unreleased World War 2 movie with a good cast and lengthy run time that dares to explore the war in-between the explosions and fighting. Various soldiers meet pretty European women (Romy Schneider, Jeanne Moreau and Elke Sommer) on leave and after they've taken control of the town, but its episodic feel and perhaps over-hyped reputation didn't quite do it for me.

7. La Valee (1971)- Without wanting to sound like Cartman from South Park, Barbet Schroder's film is one lame hippie movie in which a care free woman (Bulle Olgier) suspends her life and joins other hippies as they go on an expedition for a mysteriously unmapped portion of the New Guinea mountains. More hippie stuff ensues including fee love and Natives who run out and dance with the Europeans in a hippie juke. Just plain pretentious filmmaking.

8.  The Overnight (2015)- Uncomfortable for sure, but that's what the Duplass brothers love to inflict on their audiences and "The Overnight" is no exception. Terrific performances all around.