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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in craigjclark's LiveJournal:

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Monday, January 9th, 2017
11:33 am
My three-word review of 'Don't Think Twice': It's all right.
Yes! Nailed it.

[licks fingertip, makes a "one" in the air]

[congratulates self for being the first person on the planet to make this joke]

Hey, guys. If you're reading this, then you know the drill. I watch a movie. I take copious notes. I spend a few hours crafting a review that sums up my reactions to it. I post said review here (and at my personal now-defunct mirror site). Sometimes it's only two or three paragraphs, sometimes I dive in deeper. There's a screencap or two, more if I feel the film and/or review warrants it. And the subject is always a line of dialogue that encapsulates the film about as well as a single line of dialogue can that can only be 100 characters max. I've been doing this for over ten years. I've reviewed 3750 films. And I need to stop.

I just finished watching Mike Birbiglia's Don't Think Twice, a film I wanted to see when it was in theaters last year, but I was unable to make it up to Indianapolis while it was playing there and it never came down to Bloomington. This is the reality I've lived with the whole time I've been in Indiana. I've made peace with it. If I hadn't made a point of catching Elle while I was back east for the holidays, I would have probably had to make do with seeing that film on video as well. I take less and less joy from reviewing current and recent releases that are already at the tail end of their relevance to the cultural conversation and my reviews of older films have gotten less and less attention over the years -- probably because this community is dying on the vine. What was once a vibrant place to share ideas has slowly wilted as people migrated to other sites and platforms. Well, it's time for me to join that migration.

This will be my last post on LiveJournal. If you've read this far and want to keep abreast of what I'm watching (because I'm still going to watch a lot of movies) and reviewing (because I'm still going to write reviews, just not as regularly), then you can follow me on Letterboxd and Twitter. I've also started a blog on Dreamwidth that I may put to use at some point. Who knows what the future has in store? All I know is my future is no longer here. Be seeing you.
Saturday, December 31st, 2016
6:30 pm
Shame isn't a strong enough emotion to stop anyone from doing what they want.
Ever the provocateur, Paul Verhoeven opens his latest film Elle -- his first to be made in France and possibly not the last -- with the sound of what seems to be a violent sexual assault and then reveals it to be just that. Moreover, he replays the incident twice more in the film's first half-hour, first exactly as protagonist Michèle Leblanc (the ever-fearless Isabelle Huppert) remembers it happening, and then as she fantasizes about what she would have done had she been able to turn the tables on her attacker. (In short: She caves in his skull and beats his head to a bloody pulp.) In none of these scenarios does Michèle get to learn the identity of the black-clad prowler by removing his form-fitting hood, so she's just as much in the dark about it as the viewer, but she has some ideas and more than a few enemies.

David Birke's screenplay, based on the novel Oh... by Philippe Djian, is chock full of twists and turns I wouldn't dream of spoiling in this space. I will say that Michèle has what she considers a legitimate reason for not going to the police (the details of which are teased out over a number of scenes until they can no longer be hinted at) and carries on as if nothing happened to such an alarming degree that she can casually mention over dinner with her business partner (with whom she runs a video game company) and their husbands that she was raped in her home in broad daylight. Even more abnormal is the way she can continue carrying on an affair with her partner's husband and begins taking an interest in her hunky neighbor, who gets invited along with his wife and everyone else in Michèle's messy life to the Christmas party she hastily throws together so she can see how many sparks will fly between them. (Suffice it to say, there are plenty. I haven't even mentioned Michèle's vain mother and her absurdly younger fiancé or her pliable son and the psycho girlfriend he moves in with when she gets pregnant.)

All the while, Michèle deals with the day-to-day operations of running her company, which has reached a critical stage in the development of its latest game, and fields disturbing messages from her assailant, who appears to be just as obsessed with her as she's incapable of putting him out of her mind. Then again, I suppose that's a little hard to do when someone wants you to think they could return at any moment and get you all over again. In Michèle's world -- and Verhoeven's when you get right down to it -- there really is no such thing as a safe space.
Friday, December 30th, 2016
11:41 am
You should be careful who you point a gun at.
Considering Ti West shot In a Valley of Violence on 35mm film -- or to be more accurate, his cinematographer Eric Robbins did -- it's a shame few people got to see it projected in that format. And not many more were able to see its Panavision-lensed vistas on the big screen since it only received a token theatrical release back in October. At this point, I'm just happy I was able to squeeze it in before the year was up, which is more than I can say for many of the other films I put on my watchlist in 2016.

Set in the mostly abandoned mining town of Denton, Texas -- located in the "valley of violence" as it's called by the locals, a far cry from its namesake's designation as "The Home of Happiness" in The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Shock Treatment -- West's first western is about a drifter by the name of Paul who's "just passing through" on his way to Mexico, accompanied by his horse Lady and dog Abby, whose only trick, as he says whenever anyone asks, is "She bites." Unfortunately for all of them, but especially for Abby, while in town they have a run-in with the marshal's cocksure son, who picks a fight with Paul and doesn't stand down when his father, recognizing Paul as ex-calvary, tells him to let the man go on their way. (This being the Old West, the baddies don improvised hoods when they ambush Paul's encampment outside of town that night. Not sure who they think they're hiding their identities from, though, since they take them off almost immediately.)

As Paul, Ethan Hawke is taciturn when it suits him, letting his gun (and whatever else comes to hand) speak for him when it's time to take action against those who wronged him. His primary target is arrogant bully Gilly Martin (James Ransome), but Paul also takes down his three lackeys, Roy (Larry Fessenden), Harris (Toby Huss, the most reluctant of the three), and Tubby (Tommy Nohilly). Attempting to keep the peace, seeing as that's in his job description, is John Travolta's Marshal, who gets around well enough on his wooden leg, but is unable to keep his idiot son in line. That just leaves the womenfolk, namely Taissa Farmiga as plucky 16-year-old widow Mary-Anne, who runs the town's disused hotel with her flighty sister Ellen (Karen Gillan), who's also Gilly's fiancée because it isn't like there are a whole lot of eligible bachelors in Denton to choose from. Suffice it to say, after Paul is through with the place, there are even fewer still.
Thursday, December 29th, 2016
4:06 pm
Why do you say "romantic" like it's a dirty word?
At a time when the new Star War and an animated film about singing animals are dominating the box office, it's nice to see that audiences are also flocking to see a true rarity: a full-fledged movie musical. Writer/director Damien Chazelle's follow-up to 2014's Whiplash, La La Land is unabashedly entertaining, but it also makes trenchant observations about the value of holding fast to your dreams and staying true to yourself. Chazelle's conduits for these lessons are aspiring actress/coffee shop barista Mia (Emma Stone) and uncompromising pianist/jazz aficionado Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), whose first encounter on a Los Angeles freeway overpass is less than cordial. The same goes for their second almost-meeting when he rudely brushes past her after being given the boot by a strict club owner (the kind of role J.K. Simmons can do in his sleep). The third time's the charm, though -- or at the very least, it isn't as off-putting for either of them.

Over the course of a year, Chazelle charts Mia and Sebastian's ups and downs career-wise as she goes from one mortifying audition to the next, hoping one of them will lead to something other than rejection, and he takes whatever work he can get, however demeaning (including playing keyboards in an '80s cover band) until he can realize his aspiration of opening his own traditional jazz club. At a certain point he suggests she write something for herself to perform -- a seed that blossoms into a one-woman show called So Long Boulder City -- and he entertains taking a steady gig as the keyboard player for a bandleader he doesn't respect. It may not turn out to be artistically fulfilling, but it's hard to say no when serious money is dangled in front of you. That's one of the traps it's possible to fall into while chasing success in Hollywood. Another is winding up demoralized and discouraged before your big break happens. That's the trick: knowing when and how much to compromise and when to stick to your guns.
Tuesday, December 27th, 2016
11:59 am
I'm sure that the Jury would agree that there's nothing more annoying than a nasty copycat.
If any one filmmaker could cure me of the compulsion to watch every movie featuring guys in hoods, it's Ulli Lommel. The film in question: 2005's Zodiac Killer, which Lommel wrote, produced, directed, acted in, and did the cinematography and production design for a few years before David Fincher put his own stamp on the material, the slacker. (Lommel's film actually has a 2003 copyright, which means it sat on a shelf for a couple years before he could find someone to distribute it. Not terribly surprising, really.) While Fincher moved on from Zodiac to other types of films, though, Lommel planted himself on the serial-killer beat, churning out direct-to-video features on the BTK Killer, the Green River Killer, and the Son of Sam, among others. Zodiac Killer was even followed two years later by a sequel of sorts called Curse of the Zodiac, but one Ulli Lommel Zodiac movie is curse enough for me.

To begin with, Lommel's script isn't focused directly on the Zodiac, but rather on nursing home employee Michael (Vladimir Maksic, simultaneously making his screen debut and farewell bow), an impressionable young lad who acquires a gun and decides to start executing the neglectful relatives of his elderly charges. Curiously, the local news leaps to the conclusion that his first killing is "reminiscent of the string of murders committed nearly 30 years ago by the infamous Zodiac, a serial killer still at large," and helpfully refers listeners to a book from the '70s called Hunt for the Zodiac, which Michael dutifully picks up, giving his "dissociative identity disorder" an identity to fixate on. He's even moved to get in touch with the book's author, Simon Vale (played by Lommel), who's introduced in a shoddily written scene opposite forensic psychologist Mel Navokov (David Hess), who announces himself as such by saying "I'm a forensic psychologist, you remember?" while he scrolls through gruesome crime-scene photos and tries to entice Simon into going with him to a strip club. "I think I can do without these photos and your strippers," Simon demurs, but Lommel the director has no compunction about lingering on the former at every opportunity.
He's also fairly shameless about dipping into his own back catalog, having his characters watch clips from his movies on television and raiding them for flashbacks to the Zodiac's supposed childhood. (He even shoehorns in the bathtub electrocution from BrainWaves, which is the dictionary definition of brazen.) More egregious, though, are the scenes where Simon interviews Willie Harman (Gunter Ziegler), the son of Kurt Raab's character from Tenderness of the Wolves, to get material for the new edition of Hunt for the Zodiac he's updating at his publisher's behest. Not only is this a reminder of when Lommel actually gave half a damn about the quality of his films, but Tenderness is a perfectly good standalone work that doesn't deserve to be associated with this garbage heap of a film.

Adding to Zodiac Killer's crimes against cinema are the scenes featuring the Jury of Twelve, a secret society of men in opaque black hoods who gather in what appears to be a hotel lobby to update each other on their activities. (The Twelve's code names, incidentally, are based on the signs of the zodiac, but Lommel only ever shows half of them at a time, which means he either couldn't afford that many extras or he only had six hoods.) A frequent topic of conversation is the Zodiac copycat, whose identity is unknown to them, but not to Simon, who quickly figures out (with the help of an anonymous hacker who uses an NSA program to track Michael's cell phone) that his disturbed young friend is the one getting the city into a lather. From there, Simon starts molding Michael in the Zodiac's image, directing him to a website about the killer's exploits, presenting him with a black hood to help him complete his Zodiac Halloween costume, and even giving him a DVD of The Mikado (the Zodiac's favorite operetta, don't you know) and a knife for Christmas. He also invites Michael over to his apartment, the walls of which have been festooned with plastic sheeting so Simon can reveal his true identity to the clueless kid and murder him in cold blood. All that's left then is for Simon to fill a vacancy in the Jury of Twelve with a petulant Mel (who didn't have much else going on, to be perfectly honest), report the successful elimination of his copycat to them (since he apparently carries out their orders as the Zodiac), and toast a "Happy New Year to all of us." Yeesh.
Monday, December 26th, 2016
11:55 am
God save me from Christmas. It's a lot of humbug.
Strictly speaking, A Christmas Carol is a Christmas Eve yarn, but as I was otherwise occupied that night and on Christmas Day as well, I chose Boxing Day to take in Scrooge, the 1970 musical adaptation of Charles Dickens's enduring ghost story. Directed by Ronald Neame and starring Albert Finney as the penny-pinching miser and unforgiving moneylender Ebenezer Scrooge, this version forgoes brevity in favor of shoehorning in about a dozen songs by screenwriter and composer Leslie Bricusse, some of which I freely admit are catchy as hell. (Then again, I should expect nothing less from the Oscar-winning composer of Doctor Doolittle's "Talk to the Animals.") From Scrooge's anthem "I Hate People" to the rousing "Thank You Very Much" (which gets trotted out twice, as musicals are wont to do), Scrooge's songs are a bouncy counterpoint to the often drab and occasionally unnerving scenes surrounding them.
Take, for instance, Scrooge's sit-down with the ghost of his former partner Jacob Marley (Alec Guinness), who tells him of the three spirits that have made appointments to see him that night, but not before attempting to scare the humbug out of him first. Marley does this by moaning Scrooge's name, rattling his chains, and appearing in a ghastly visage, but the pièce de résistance comes when they take to the skies over London, which are filled with the souls of damned. That's not quite enough to convince Scrooge to change his ways, though, so his spacious but ill-kept abode (a marvel of art direction/set decoration that was justly nominated for an Academy Award) still needs to receive three more spectral visitors before daybreak.
In the interest of parity, the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present (the prim and proper Edith Evans and boisterous Kenneth More) get about 20 minutes each to impart their respective messages to Scrooge, but the one that seals the deal -- and in roughly half the time -- is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, who lets him see for himself what his afterlife in Hell would be like. This five-minute sequence, in which Marley helps Scrooge get settled in and Guinness camps it up gloriously, is the visual highlight of the film, and I'm not just saying that because it throws in four oiled-up, chain-bearing, black-hooded musclemen for good measure. Okay, maybe I am saying that. I'm not ashamed.
Saturday, December 24th, 2016
1:35 pm
I must say, it's very difficult for a person to have any private life in this family.
Of all the things that 1944's Meet Me in St. Louis has gone down in movie history for -- Judy Garland's renditions of "The Trolley Song" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," the latter of which subsequently became a yuletide standard; the spooky Halloween sequence wherein the precociously morbid Tootie (child star Margaret O'Brien) proves her mettle by facing off with the intimidating Mr. Braukoff by herself; the chilly Christmas when, having just been serenaded by her sister Esther (Garland), an inconsolable Tootie runs outside and murders her snow people -- one of its less-showy scenes is the one I expect I will be staying with me. It comes just before the Christmas Eve dance -- the last one in St. Louis for the Smith family since its patriarch (Leon Ames) has accepted a transfer to his law firm's New York office, with the move happening right after the holidays -- for which Esther has been laced into her first-ever corset. To her unmistakable dismay, though, her boyfriend John (Tom Drake) -- literally, the boy next door -- reports he won't be able to take her because his tuxedo is still at the tailor's because he was late picking it up because he was playing basketball with his buddies.

"This is a fine going-away present I'm giving you for Christmas," John says, sheepishly. "I'll bet you really hate me." "Oh, no, John," Esther assures him. "I don't hate you. I hate basketball." Over and above Garland's musical numbers, which are as impressive as you would expect, it is this throwaway moment that really endeared me to her and to the character of Esther, who had taken a lot of things for granted up to that point. Considering how much of an emotional roller coaster the film as a whole is, it's saying something that what really resonated with me was the part where Garland is at her most vulnerable and flustered. And knowing she was soon to marry her director, Vincente Minnelli, it's probable she had a similar effect on him.
Thursday, December 22nd, 2016
5:36 pm
Nobody can appreciate what you've gone through.
Considering how much Lee Chandler's reputation precedes him, it's not too surprising that he wouldn't be eager to return to the scene of his supposed crimes. As played by Casey Affleck in Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea -- the writer/director's third feature and first since the grudgingly released Margaret -- Lee is a man who has internalized his not inconsiderable pain, holding everyone at arm's length with his abrasive manner and general aloofness. As much as he tries to keep himself to himself, early on Lonergan drops a bombshell on him in the form of a phone call informing him his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has been felled by a heart attack. It takes a bit more time, though, for the other shoe to drop -- namely, that Lee has been named the trustee of his gregarious 16-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) despite his longstanding belief that he was "just the back-up."

Instead of laying out Lee's backstory in a linear fashion, Lonergan reveals it piecemeal, dropping flashbacks into scenes with no fanfare, trusting the viewer to recognize when Lee is wallowing in the past. In this way, his relationship with Joe is fleshed out and the more fractious one with his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) is established. (For her part, Randi has since moved on with her life -- something Lee seems unable or unwilling to.) Meanwhile, Joe's ex-wife Elise (Gretchen Mol) gets in touch with Patrick and attempts to repair their bond by inviting him to a most awkward lunch with her extremely Christian fiancé Jeffrey (Lonergan stalwart Matthew Broderick). The key relationship, though, is the one between Lee, who doesn't want to be responsible for anyone else, and Patrick, who's cocky enough to believe he can make his own life decisions, including where to live and what's going to become of his father's boat, which Lee is all for selling. How these issues get resolved may be a little neater than it needs to be, but Lonergan makes sure his characters' victories, however little, are honestly won.
Wednesday, December 21st, 2016
12:48 pm
You'll like this neighborhood. It's become a very bohemian area.
You know how there are times in your life when you say what's on your mind and immediately wish you could take it back but it's too late, and other times when you need to say something but don't because you worry it will alter your life irrevocably? Well, Ira Sachs encapsulates both of those dilemmas elegantly in Little Men. The men in question are Jake Jardine (Theo Taplitz), a budding artist, and Tony Calvelli (Michael Barbieri), an aspiring actor, who become fast friends when the former's grandfather dies, prompting the Jardines to move into his Brooklyn apartment, which so happens to be over the latter's mother's struggling dress shop. The extent of that struggle becomes a bone of contention between the two families when it comes out that Jake's grandfather hasn't raised the rent in years. Clearly something has to give, and the boys would rather it not be their friendship.

Among the actual adults in the equation, economic anxiety is the overriding factor in their interactions. Jake's father Brian (Greg Kinnear) is a none-too-successful actor whose career is effectively subsidized by his psychotherapist wife Kathy (Jennifer Ehle). Meanwhile, Tony's mother Leonor (Paulina García) fruitlessly tries to stave off the inevitable by ducking out of conversations with her new landlords, especially when it appears as if the discussion is going to turn to financial matters. Unfortunately, when she does get backed into a corner, she's prone to saying things that only exacerbate the situation, compounded by Brian's aversion to confrontations. "I just don't want this to get ugly," he says right before they start eviction proceedings, all but guaranteeing they will. As for Jake and Tony, their protest takes the form of giving their parents the silent treatment, a gambit that backfires spectacularly.

Not that there's much in the way of pyrotechnics to be found here. Sachs's script, written with regular collaborator Mauricio Zacharias, pointedly avoids emotional outbursts. Instead, the big moments are kept to a minimum, allowing the cast (which also includes Alfred Molina as Hernan, Leonor's friend from Chile) to deliver unforced, naturalistic performances. This is especially true of Taplitz and Barbieri, both making their feature debuts. Barbieri already has a couple of high-profile projects lined up (including the latest Spider-Man reboot), but I suspect we'll be seeing a lot of both of these little men in the coming years.
Monday, December 19th, 2016
11:35 pm
I want to tell you a story about a story.
One of the most moving concerts I ever attended was the one performed by Laurie Anderson in Philadelphia just days after the 9/11 attacks. (Yes, she did "O Superman," and yes, the part where she sings "Her come the planes" sent a chill down my spine.) In her idiosyncratic essay film Heart of a Dog, Anderson touches on what it was like to be in lower Manhattan in the days and weeks following that catastrophic event, and to observe the installation of the surveillance state we continue to live in -- and with -- to this day. Those memories are intertwined with the circumstances surrounding the death of her mother and her close relationship with her dog Lolabelle, a rat terrier that she treats like her own child. (She even opens the film by describing her dream of giving birth to Lolabelle and shows off the dog's artwork and includes excerpts from her musical recitals like any proud parent would.)

As whimsical as some of this sounds, Anderson never loses sight of the film's melancholic underpinnings, especially in the second half after Lolabelle's passing. "The purpose of death is the release of love," she narrates, but what goes unspoken is that two years after Lolabelle, Anderson also lost her husband, Lou Reed, who appears briefly and to whom the film is dedicated. Even if she never articulates them directly -- that's never been her style, really -- Anderson's feelings of grief and pain come through loud and clear. Heart of a Dog is a wonder, and I thank her for sharing it with us.
Another wonder was Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang's idea for the "Sky Ladder," which he envisioned reaching 500 meters into the sky suspended from a hot-air balloon so that it looks like a chain of fireworks stretching from the Earth into the stratosphere. It was such an enormous undertaking that it took four tries (the first all the way back in 1994) before the stars aligned for him, and director Kevin Macdonald was there for the final lap to observe and document the process. The result is Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang, a Netflix original that does an admirable job of summing up the artist's career and his complicated relationship with his homeland, for which he devised the pyrotechnics for the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. It also draws a line between his father's calligraphy and Guo-Qiang's art, and touches on the impact of China's Cultural Revolution (from which "nobody escaped unscathed") on his childhood. That may partially explain why he chose to move himself and his family to the U.S. in 1995, but in the end he had to go home to make Sky Ladder a reality.
Sunday, December 18th, 2016
10:20 am
Ain't this a silly way for a full-grown man to make a living?
I didn't know going into 1950's Stars in My Crown that Joe David Brown, who wrote the novel it's based on, also penned the source novel for Paper Moon, but in retrospect it makes a lot of sense. Both films deal with religious themes and revolve around an orphan who forges a familial bond with their guardian(s). The difference is the parents in Stars in My Crown -- plainspoken pastor Josiah Gray (Joel McCrea) and his wife Harriet (Ellen Drew), who's also the organist at his church -- eagerly welcome young John (Dean Stockwell) into their lives. And since the film is narrated by John as an adult, the viewer has no doubt he'll recover from his bout with typhoid fever, which he comes down with before anyone else in town.

The "slow fever" outbreak is one of several subplots woven throughout the narrative. Others include Josiah's repeated attempts to get an old war buddy (Alan Hale) to come to church (that would be the Civil War, by the way, which the story is set not long after) and his ideological sparring sessions with the new town doctor (James Mitchell), whose gruff demeanor makes him an unlikely successor to his ailing father (Lewis Stone). The thread director Jacques Tourneur uses as a linchpin, though, is the lopsided conflict between elderly black farmer Uncle Famous (Juano Hernandez) and unscrupulous general store owner Lon Backett (Ed Begley), who wants his land and tries every underhanded method he can think of to get it. Backett even stoops to forming a Klan-like organization called "The Night Riders" and threatening to string Uncle Famous up, but Josiah manages to peaceably defuse the situation and shows the masked men how shortsighted they've been. If only their modern-day equivalents could be as easily cowed into behaving like decent human beings.
Friday, December 16th, 2016
4:14 pm
The only law here is the vigilantes.
When the hooded men of the adventure serials that were popular in the early days of cinema started colonizing other genres, the ones that migrated west tended to gather in number, forming secret societies intent on keeping their own brand of order in the otherwise lawless territories. That was the case in A Mormon Maid and it's certainly true of Hal Roach's 1920 two-reeler An Eastern Westerner, in which Harold Lloyd plays a city boy (known as The Boy) exiled to his uncle's ranch when he comes home late from dancing one night. The Boy doesn't make it as far as his uncle's homestead, though, as soon after his arrival in Piute Pass he's roped into a crooked card game in which he loses all his money. Furthermore, he flirts with a girl (Mildred Davis, as The Girl) who's being pursued by The Bully -- "Tiger Lip" Tompkins (Noah Young), the only character identified by name -- and gets The Bully mad at him.
"Call the Angels," Tompkins says, referring to the Masked Angels, the group of hooded vigilantes he commands. "We'll run this tenderfoot across the state line." This order, given after The Boy has foiled his nefarious plot to get The Girl by holding her father hostage, touches off the exciting climax where The Boy spends several minutes dodging a horde of men on horseback in white hoods, unmistakably recalling the Klan in The Birth of a Nation five years earlier. These masked men, however, are easily bamboozled by the quick-thinking city slicker who has been sent into their midst.
There's a different dynamic at work in 1940's Legion of the Lawless, a B-western vehicle for RKO star George O'Brien, who plays Jeff Toland, a lawyer who rides into the unincorporated community of Ivestown and puts out his shingle in advance of the railroad coming through. Almost immediately he butts heads with Ellen Ives (Virginia Vale), daughter of town founder Henry (Hugh Sothern, who previously appeared in the Republic serial The Fighting Devil Dogs), and runs afoul of her uncle Les (Norman Willis), the leader of the local vigilante group which keeps the populace in line and wears black hoods while doing so. If this sounds at all familiar, it's because director David Howard remade the same basic script (by Doris Schroeder) as Pirates of the Prairie two years later. (Heck, they may have even used the same hoods.) If you've seen one, you've seen them both, but as they feature a bunch of guys in black hoods raising hell, I honestly couldn't resist.
Wednesday, December 14th, 2016
2:46 pm
The days of ladies and gentlemen are over.
Since I work at a multiplex, I could conceivably see every widely released movie that comes out for free, but that perk doesn't mean so much to me since I'm interested in a relatively small percentage of the films we get. And of those, a handful still manage to slip through my fingers if they only manage to stick around for a week or two. This is why I caught Triple 9 and Popstar on home video earlier this year and have had to do the same for The Nice Guys, which skipped town before I was able to get around to it back in late spring.

The third feature for screenwriter-turned-director Shane Black, co-written with Anthony Bagarozzi, The Nice Guys takes place in the Los Angeles of 1977 and plays like an arch variant on that decade's Chinatown, only this time there are two Jake Gitteses and the first time they meet one of them fractures the other one's wrist. The one who does the fracturing is "real-life tough guy" Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), a bruiser for hire who gets paid to beat people up, and the one who spends the rest of the film with his forearm in a cast is Holland March (Ryan Gosling), an alcoholic private investigator and widower whose 13-year-old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) has more of her shit together than he does. That explains why she's so useful when she tags along for part of their joint investigation -- once it becomes clear they need to team up to get to the bottom of the convoluted case they've inadvertently become embroiled in, that is.

Black employs all kinds of signifiers to make his throwback L.A. as era- and place-specific as possible -- a Tower Records nestled beneath billboards for Airport '77 and Jaws 2; Robert Klein, Richard Lewis, Tim Allen, and Elaine Boosler listed on the marquee for The Comedy Store; a "die-in" protesting the city's smog problem. He also employs a host of excellent character actors -- some familiar faces, other less so -- to fill out the supporting cast. It's always a pleasure to see Keith David pop up in a movie (here he's one half of a competing pair of thugs), and Black even stages a mini-L.A. Confidential reunion by casting Kim Basinger as the mother of the mixed-up political activist they're all trying to run down. The one who makes the biggest impression, though, is Matt Bomer as a hired killer nicknamed John Boy (after the character on The Waltons) whose reputation precedes him in a big way. To say our (anti-)heroes have the chips stacked against them would be an understatement.
Monday, December 12th, 2016
9:33 pm
I don't really care about all this art.
It's been seven years since renowned fashion designer Tom Ford turned film director with the sleek and stylish A Single Man. Now along comes his long-awaited follow-up, Nocturnal Animals, which is just as handsomely mounted, but this time the pulpiness of the material (the novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, which Ford adapted) betrays its hollow core. It's pretty as a picture -- director of photography Seamus McGarvey (Atonement, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Fifty Shades of Grey) makes sure of that -- and about as deep.

The novel's title characters are Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal), a character in a novel (called Nocturnal Animals, naturally enough) which the ex-husband of unfulfilled gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) sends her in manuscript form. Once she starts reading it, Ford cuts back and forth between the unfolding story -- of a fender bender on a lonely Texas road that turns tragic -- and Susan's reactions to it, as well as her memories of Edward Sheffield (Gyllenhaal again), the struggling writer she married for love and eventually left because he wasn't ambitious enough for her. Because the narrative is split into two parts, that means Michael Shannon, who plays the eccentric lawman on Tony's case, never meets Michael Sheen, who plays Susan's best friend's gay husband, which is a lucky break for us because that could have resulted in a rift in the fabric of the universe. Other actors who could have been affected by it include Armie Hammer (who plays Susan's philandering second husband), Isla Fisher (who plays Tony's wife), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (who plays the ringleader of their tormentors), and Laura Linney (who plays Susan's stuck-up mother and knocks her one scene out of the park).

Featuring an ersatz Philip Glass score by Abel Korzeniowski, Nocturnal Animals is ultimately brought down by its two halves' failure to mesh -- or demonstrate that they needed to exist side by side in the first place. If there's a particular reason why Susan becomes so absorbed in Tony's plight, she does a stellar job of keeping it to herself. Or hey, maybe Edward's just that good of a writer. If only she had believed in him and stuck it out the 19 years it took him to prove it.
11:41 am
They will pay with rivers of blood.
Plot-wise, there isn't a great deal to Shogun Assassin, the mayhem-heavy abridgement of the first two Lone Wolf and Cub films that was released by New World Pictures in 1980. Made by Toho in the early '70s and based on a long-running manga series written by Kazuo Koike (who also created Lady Snowblood), the six-part "Baby Cart" saga found it way into the Criterion Collection last month, and Shogun Assassin came with it, which is what sold me on the package. I'll get to the originals in due course, but for starters it made sense to tackle the arterial-spray-soaked version the English-speaking world got to see first.

Working with the raw materials provided by Japanese director Kenji Misumi, producer/director Robert Houston gives the viewer an impressionistic take on the peripatetic life of ronin Lone Wolf (Tomisaburô Wakayama), formerly the executioner for the Shogun until they had a falling out that resulted in the murder of Lone Wolf's wife. (I suspect the reasons for this will become clear when I watch the first film in the series, 1972's Sword of Vengeance.) Their toddler Daigoro (Masahiro Tomikawa) handles narration duties and keeps track of exactly how many people his father has killed. (By the time we enter the story, the figure is already in the hundreds.) As they "walk the road to hell," pursued by the Shogun's ninja, both male and female, Lone Wolf freelances as an assassin for hire, and Daigoro rides in a cart tricked out with hidden blades that come in handy whenever they're ambushed. All the while, the synthetic music of W. Michael Lewis and Mark Lindsay mingles with pieces of Hideaki Sakurai's original scores. It's not the most seamless marriage of East and West, but like Lone Wolf, it gets the job done and takes no prisoners.
Thursday, December 8th, 2016
6:36 pm
The past has a way of coming back to haunt us, doesn't it?
Based on everything his character is made to endure, it's a safe bet Adrien Brody didn't have a fun time of it in Bulgaria shooting 2015's super-serious Septembers of Shiraz. Pity, then, that his suffering was in service of such an unworthy movie. Set in Tehran in the fall of 1979, some months after the revolution that toppled the Shah's regime and swept Ayatollah Khomeini into power, the film charts the woes of Jewish gemologist Isaac Amin (Brody) and his family -- in particular wife Farnez (Salma Hayek-Pinault) -- when he's detained by the Revolutionary Guards with seemingly little hope he'll emerge from prison alive.

For roughly the first two-thirds of the film, director Wayne Blair alternates scenes of Farnez trying to find out what's become of her husband and Isaac being intimidated by guards in white hoods and interrogated by a masked man (Alon Moni Aboutboul) who has countless questions about his brother's smuggling operation (he deals in contraband alcohol) and his wife's newspaper articles, which the state considers decadent propaganda. Meanwhile, Farnez gets static from unexpected quarters, including their heretofore faithful housekeeper Habibeh (Shohreh Aghdashloo), who has begun parroting certain ideas about what she's entitled to now that her people are in charge. This sense of entitlement is shared by many of her countrymen, in fact, such as the ones who loot the Amins' home and business. With that much anger and resentment swirling around them, especially in the home stretch as they make their bid for freedom, it almost makes you wonder why they didn't leave the country sooner.
Wednesday, December 7th, 2016
2:54 pm
Law and order are firm components of a society in which everything runs like clockwork.
Prolific and multi-talented as he was, Rainer Werner Fassbinder rarely cast himself as the lead in his own films. The last time he did was for 1975's Fox and His Friends, and seven years passed before he took the role of Lt. Jansen in Wolf Gremm's Kamikaze 1989, one of several projects Fassbinder worked on in the last year of his life and the first to be released posthumously. With his leopard-print suit (and matching car interior), red shirt, and bolo tie, Jansen should be every inch the swaggering police detective with a perfect record of cases solved, but it's hard to take him completely seriously when he chides his assistant Anton (former lover-turned-frequent costar Günther Kaufmann) for not exercising when he himself has a gut, which he's not working off no matter how much racquetball he plays at the Cop Club.
The case that has the potential to ruin Jansen's perfect record is opened when he responds to a bomb threat at The Combine, a monolithic media empire housed in a single tower block that is the sole source of news and entertainment (which are largely indistinguishable from one another) for the quasi-totalitarian state of West Germany in 1989. Headed up by a CEO nicknamed Blue Panther (Boy Gobert), whose comic-book nemesis is Krysmopompas ("The Spirit of Evil"), The Combine's highest-rated program is a televised laughing contest, so naturally Jansen's chief (Arnold Marquis) is eager for him to wrap things up in just four days, which Gremm helpfully counts down on screen. Leads are difficult to come by, though, especially after The Combine's personnel manager (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and Mother Küsters' Trip to Heaven star Brigitte Mira) mysteriously falls to her death from the 13th floor (not a suicide, but rather a "premature death" as the state euphemistically puts it). Jansen manages to see through the diversions and dodge the occasional assassination attempt by hooded transvestites to get to the bottom of things, though.
For years, I've known Kamikaze 1989 exclusively through its soundtrack, which was composed by Edgar Froese of Tangerine Dream. Froese's electronic soundscapes mesh well with Gremm's neon aesthetic, which doesn't attempt to predict the future so much as capitalize on what looked vaguely futuristic at the time he made the film. (In this way, he took a page or two out of Fassbinder's World on a Wire, made one decade earlier and likewise an adaptation of a cult science fiction novel.) Even so, with its videophones (the only way Jansen sees his superior until the very end), camera rings (capable of recording anything at a moment's notice), and a numbed populace grown accustomed to constantly being watched, this film remains shockingly contemporary.
Tuesday, December 6th, 2016
11:23 am
I'm sure you two will get along fine.
There's a cruddy, low-res quality to some of the shots in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's 2002 film Bright Future, which makes sense since it was shot digitally with a Sony HDCAM. A lot of the camerawork is handheld as well, which reflects the restlessness of Kurosawa's protagonist, Nimura (Joe Odagiri), a factory worker who spends his off hours at an arcade and his on hours palling around with fellow drone Arita (Tadanobu Asano), who's prone to cryptic comments like "Could be a storm's coming." What that might mean is lost on Nimura, but he's able to suss out that his buddy has a unique perspective on life -- and an unusual pet in a poisonous Red Jellyfish, which he almost lets their intrusive boss Mr. Fujiwara (Takashi Sasano) touch when he shows up at Arita's apartment uninvited one day. It's not long after that Arita returns the favor by murdering Mr. Fujiwara and his wife in their home, but first he entrusts his pet jellyfish to Nimura, making him promise to follow the instructions for its care and feeding to the letter.

One side effect of Arita's crime and swift punishment is that it brings his father (Tatsuya Fuji), who's been absent from his life for five years, back into contact with him, just not physically because now Arita is the one who looks like he's in a fish tank. Adrift as he is, Nimura also wills himself into Mr. Arita's orbit, eventually going to work for the old man, who collects and repairs electrical appliances. Meanwhile, the younger Arita's work has been completed by Nimura, who manages to acclimate his jellyfish to fresh water and unwittingly introduces it into Tokyo's canals. Following a rift with the elder Arita, Nimura's sister gets him a job in the office where she works, but instead of settling in, he orchestrates a Project Mayhem-like robbery of the place. All this adds up to an uncertain future for all concerned -- and even those who aren't.
Saturday, December 3rd, 2016
2:32 pm
There are lovely things in the world. Lovely that do not endure, and the lovelier for that.
It's been five years since Terence Davies graced us with his luminous adaptation of The Deep Blue Sea, and while I may have a while to wait before I can see his Emily Dickinson biopic, at least I've now caught up with Sunset Song, which premiered at TIFF last year. An adaptation of a novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon previously made into a six-part miniseries by BBC Scotland, Davies's film covers several years in the young life of Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), who's training to be a teacher when a family tragedy forces her to give up her dream and stay at home to help her strict father (Peter Mullan) work the land. That goes double when her brother Will (Jack Greenlees), who has borne the brunt of his sadistic beatings, leaves home with no intention of ever returning.

Things look up for Chris and for the film in general when her father is felled by a stroke, and it's not long before Ewan Tavendale (Kevin Guthrie), a local lad who's had his eye on her, proposes marriage and she readily accepts. Just as they're getting started on building their family, though, the Great War breaks out and, after some dithering, Ewan answers the call to take up arms for his country. Sadly for Chris -- and for the film in general -- the Ewan who comes back to her when he gets leave is much coarser than the one who left. Similarly, the woman who stands up to him is stronger than the one who couldn't do the same to her father. Sunset Song verges on misery porn at times, but misery porn is rarely so beautifully shot.
Friday, December 2nd, 2016
7:52 pm
If we weren't killers, we weren't anything.
Having finally caught up with Kelly Reichardt's latest feature, it feels right to follow it up with her debut, 1994's River of Grass, which recently underwent a much-needed restoration/reclamation. Set and filmed in Dade County, Florida, where Reichardt grew up and knew intimately, this River flows from the chance intersection of the lives of a disenchanted wife and mother and a disaffected layabout who happens to have come into possession of a handgun. Moreover, the gun happens to have been lost by the woman's father, a crime scene detective who, much like Toshiro Mifune in Stray Dog, is desperate to recover it before it's used in a crime.

Taking inspiration from Terrence Malick's Badlands, Reichardt has her tale of non-lovers needlessly on the run be narrated by the 30-something Cozy (novice Lisa Bowman, who filled in for another actress who bailed out at the last minute), who's more than ready to escape her staid existence with the help of the impulsive Lee (Larry Fessenden). Together, they hole up in a motel when they mistakenly believe they've shot and killed a man, while Cozy's father, Det. Ryder (Dick Russell), searches high and low for his gun and his daughter until a colleague points out the likelihood that the two cases are one and the same. (That they didn't actually kill anyone is lost on Cozy until very late in the game, though.)

Possessing the kind of manic energy that has largely been absent from Reichardt's more recent work, River of Grass remains a key film in her career since it forged her professional relationship with Fessenden, who agreed to be in it on condition that he also get to edit it. (In addition, he's credited with the sound design and is one of the associate producers.) Since then, he's had a hand in many of her subsequent films, supporting and encouraging her as needed. That he has been in her corner right from the start and stayed there is one of the reasons why she's still making them today. That they have something to offer that mainstream films and even many independents don't is the reason why people keep watching them.
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