Something hidden -- go and find it;
Go and look beyond the Ranges
Something lost behind the ranges:
Lost and waiting for you. Go!

-- from Guy Maddin's CAREFUL

Being a periodic meditation on some of the more obscure outlying regions of cinema;
regarding movies that are inadequately publicized and hence, easily overlooked --
and by cinema, it is meant in the larger sense of films/tv/DVD/internet --
that might be worthy of your interest, but perhaps has escaped your notice.


Friday, December 28, 2007

A Baker's Dozen from '07

       Can somebody tell me what’s so special about the number “10”, anyways? Oh sure, I know that’s the number of fingers and toes we have, and it’s also the base for our numerical system -- but besides that, what makes it so special? It must be something, because every end-of-the-year “best of” list seems to count ten-and-only-ten films as the number of noteworthy movies in a given 12 month period -- which seems a bit arbitrary, to say the least. This blog refuses to bow down to the dictatorship of “base 10” thinking and will brazenly index a full baker’s dozen of exemplary films from the past year -- and mention in passing another half dozen or so that are well worth taking a look at, too. Truth be told, 2007 was a great year for movies and I suspect that I could easily double the size of this list without much effort -- especially if you count some of the well-received films released late in the year that I haven’t yet had a chance to see (like 4 Months, 3 weeks and 2 Days and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). But in the interests of brevity, I’ll confine my comments to just the following twenty or so films -- besides, you don’t really want to read about any more than that, now do you?

BRAND UPON THE BRAIN! - Regular readers of this blog -- and before that, recipients of the occasional e-mails from me which were very much the template for it -- already know the drill by now; and it goes something like this:

a.) Guy Maddin directs and releases a film.
b.) I proclaim it one of the best movies of the year.
c.) There is much rejoicing by all... -- well, much rejoicing by me, at any rate.

I previously wrote about this film here, and don’t really have much to say about it beyond that; save, given that his latest film -- a mockumentary called My Winnipeg -- is already receiving rave reviews in festival screenings up and down the continent, you can almost certainly look forward to that showing up on my ‘08 Year-end review. Try not to think of it as me being, “predictable” -- rather, just think of me as a rock of stability in these oh-so-uncertain times.

DEEP WATER - I also wrote about this film previously, and have only this to add: I’m pleased to see that it has made its way to a number of other “ten-best” lists, as in many ways it’s the best-executed documentary I saw this year.

EVERYTHING WILL BE OK - Earlier in the year, I proclaimed this the best movie of 2007; and that it would take an amazingly accomplished film to push it off that pedestal. Extraordinarily enough, that has happened; but I still stand by everything else I said. And Everything Will Be OK remains the best 17 minute long film you’ll see this year -- or most any other, I’d wager. It’s still only available through creator Don Hertzfeldt’s website, Bitter Films; but with any luck you’ll be able to catch it in theaters this spring, when the ‘08 edition of The Animation Show -- and part 2 of Bill’s story -- rolls out.

THE HOST - Everybody knows this is a “monster-movie” from Korea; what the critics haven’t been making as clear, is that it’s also this year’s best “family-drama” -- a genre that seems particularly popular in that faraway land. Think Little Miss Sunshine meets Godzilla and you’ll have some idea of the genre-blending appeal of this film.

I’M NOT THERE - Todd Haynes’ sort-of-biopic of Bob Dylan is the best cinematic profile of a rock-star since... -- well, since Haynes’ own biopic of this singer-songwriter back in 1987. The movie -- while a bit overlong -- is nonetheless entertaining because of its novel approach: using different fictional characters, usually drawn from Dylan’s own work, to portray him at different periods in his life. It’s a truly innovative way of illustrating an artist's life on-screen. Paul Schrader’s 1985 Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters attempted a similar approach in certain ways -- but Haynes has made the better movie of the two. See it whether you’re a Dylan fan or not.

THE KING OF KONG: A FISTFUL OF QUARTERS - Without a doubt, the funniest documentary I saw this year; we tend to forget that there’s nothing more hilarious than real life; fortunately the makers of this film didn’t -- so we get a movie that excites, engages, even tugs at the heartstrings on occasion; but most of all -- makes you laugh.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN - This movie has a high-enough profile -- and is on so many other “ten-best” lists -- that I don’t feel the need to say much about it. One thing that I will say, however, is that I don’t think that it “glamorizes” the violence it portrays -- quite the contrary, as a matter of fact. In some ways, it’s one of the most restrained modern thrillers that I’ve seen. In terms of its on-screen depiction of violence, the movie leads up to several key moments that it refrains from showing us at all, in fact. And if there are a couple of “shockingly” violent scenes -- and there are -- they seem to be there to just drive home the gravity of the whole situation. As crime-thrillers go, No Country For Old Men does a better job than most of detailing the human cost of said violence to its participants -- both victim and perpetrator. That being said, a number of critics have felt otherwise. What movie were they watching, I wonder?

ONCE - Another film on its fair share of “ten-best” lists, Once is a sort-of-musical, a romance, and just a great movie-going experience -- It’s the only clear-cut “date-movie” on this list, and if you haven’t seen it, get thee to a video store post-haste, people. It makes me wonder why more musicals aren’t done in this faux-vérité style -- and when I’ll be seeing the next film from director John Carney.

RATATOUILLE - A movie should transport a person to another place for its 90 minute or so length; a place that completely enthralls the viewer in the experience and maybe makes you a little better -- in some fashion or another -- for having done so. Ratatouille does just this thing, as well as any movie I’ve seen this year. Who cares if it’s for kids? Go see it.

RED ROAD - This is the other great thriller I saw this year; director Andrea Arnold has previously won the Academy Award for her short, Wasp, and this, her feature debut, is ample evidence of the justness of her having received that award. Red Road is a work of considerable subtlety and complexity; and it has a couple of twists -- both in plot and character -- that will keep you guessing till the very end.

ROCKET SCIENCE - Spellbound director Jeffrey Blitz’s feature debut borrows a bit from fellow filmmakers Wes Anderson and Noam Baumbach -- but this year, IMHO, he made a better movie than either of them. It’s set in the world of high-school debate teams and is as true-to-life a portrayal of the awkward entry into adolescence as I’ve seen. Having smashed my fair share of cellos in the neighbors yard myself (that previous statement will make sense once you see the movie), I can say that with authority.

TEN CANOES - This is another film I’ve written about previously, and that write-up pretty much covers what I have to say about it. Just to assuage any fears as regards viewing it, though; I recognize that “ethnographic filmmaking” can sometimes be a bit... uhh, tiresome (and that’s being kind) -- but this film is far from it. Take a look and see for yourself.

THERE WILL BE BLOOD - You’ve seen the trailer; you’ve read the reviews; you’ve heard the hype -- and it’s all true folks: There Will Be Blood is the best film of the year and an extraordinary accomplishment in cinema. Many critics are comparing it -- quite favorably -- to Citizen Kane; and while that may be over-reaching in its praise, I understand why they’ve done so. Not since that landmark film have we seen as compelling a portrayal of avarice and the grasp for power -- nor as extraordinary a performance of as much -- as the one which Daniel Day Lewis gives in this film. If he doesn’t win the Best Actor Oscar this year, then the Academy has truly lost all sense -- common and otherwise. I could go on, but ultimately there’s little that words can communicate that would say more than the film itself does -- spare in dialogue and building slowly, but inexorably, to a brilliant conclusion, Paul Thomas Anderson may have just made the first truly great American film of this millennia. And yes, you want to see this in a movie theater.

       Like I said, 2007 was a great year for movies -- and while the thirteen listed above were my favorites, there’s quite a few more that should be regarded as required viewing: here’s a couple, along with their consolation “awards”:

BEST ABC AFTERSCHOOL SPECIAL (... that ABC never made) goes to JUNO; the trouble with most film comedies is that they’re full of dumb characters portrayed by bad actors who make unlikely decisions just to keep the plot moving -- thank goodness that never happens in Juno. A smart comedy full of likable characters portrayed by a great cast. It also has this years best pop-song-driven soundtrack.

BEST MUSICAL (... featuring characters who indiscriminately murder) goes to SWEENEY TODD, which is as good a movie as could be made from the Stephen Sondheim operetta of the same name. Don’t listen to the Sondheim purists -- the songs cut from the libretto were the ones that contained exposition and/or background unnecessary for a film adaptation -- in a movie, what the camera shows you, best serves that purpose; and Burton uses it most ably towards that end.

BEST MUSICAL (... featuring characters who inexplicably have the surname of “Murder”) goes to ROMANCE & CIGARETTES, a sort of down-and-dirty, blue-collar musical from actor/director John Turturro; it takes a little while to get in sync with the film’s conceit -- very naturalistic characters in very everyday settings suddenly bursting into song -- but once you do, it’s pretty delightful -- and who knew James Gandolfini could sing? Also of note: Kate Winslet delivers some of the most torrid, shocking, downright filthy dialogue ever to emanate from the mouth of an Oscar-nominated actress -- now if you’ll excuse me, even thinking about it requires that I take a cold shower; maybe even smoke a cig, while I’m at it.

BEST ANIMATED MOVIE (... you’ll see this year that does not star a talking, cooking rat) goes to PERSEPOLIS, Marjane Satrapi’s (& Vincent Paronnaud’s) adaptation of Satrapi’s graphic novel of the same title. It’s an autobiographical tale of growing up in Iran -- first under the dictatorship of the Shah, then under the even more repressive Fundamentalist government. This film is completely enthralling, but not really for kids; for reasons related to both content and tone. But let me tell ya', if you think you had it tough “growing up punk” in America, try doing the same in Iran -- SHEESH!

THE ICARUS AWARD goes to Francis Ford Coppola’s YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH. Yes, Francis definitely flew too close to the sun on this one. It’s a very ambitious film, ambitions set so high, in fact, that it couldn’t possibly succeed in every aspect; but as misfires go, it’s a pretty spectacular one, and it’s a credit to Coppola’s ability as a filmmaker that he made as compelling a film as he has here. It also looks and feels like it was shot in 1948 -- and I mean that as a high compliment. As a film, it reminds me of nothing so much as an early Powell/Pressburger effort -- and I suppose I’m thinking of this film in particular when I say that.

       Well, that’s it for 2007 -- not that there weren’t other fine movies released this year (yes, I know -- The Darjeeling Limited -- it was very good, but... Wes has done better), all the same, this seems like enough pontificating for one post, I should think... And, just a note, Beyond The Ranges will be on hiatus during the typically cinematically slow month of January, but will return in February.

Next post -- 02/01/08

Friday, December 21, 2007

Winter '07 Trailer Round-Up

       Today is technically the first day of winter -- so no better time for another seasonal trailer round-up. As I’ve said before, both Apple and Yahoo do a fine job of providing access to upcoming movie trailers -- but there’s always a few that seem to get overlooked; so let’s take a look-see, shall we?

       January 8th sees the release of Lars von Triers The Kingdom, series 2 -- not to be confused with the recent Peter Berg film of almost the same title -- on region 1 DVD. One of the most unorthodox and iconoclastic filmmakers working today, von Trier took time out from his feature work -- and from being a co-founder of the Dogme 95 film movement -- to make this occasionally horrific, but more often funny, mini-series for Danish TV back in the late 1990’s. As a TV show, what’ll it most remind you of is Twin Peaks, with which it has numerous similarities; most prominently, a tendency to be almost indescribably weird and cryptic at key moments. What it’ll also remind you of -- if you even caught it before it was all-too-deservedly cancelled -- is the americanized remake, Kingdom Hospital; proof once again that even if you can follow a recipe, it still takes a talented cook to make it palatable. Unfortunately, despite plans for a third season of The Kingdom, it’s unlikely that it’ll ever be made, as one of the lead actors in the series -- Ernst-Hugo Järegård -- passed away back in 1998.

       The most controversial -- even downright scandalous -- film to screen at the 2006 Sundance Festival was Teeth, which’ll finally see its’ official theatrical release almost a year later to the day. Teeth is one of those movies about which the less you know going into it, the better -- suffice to say, it’s a rather unusual coming-of-age story, and I gather -- from early reviews and synopses -- that the filmmakers have opted for a more arthouse, rather than exploitative, approach to the movie's sensitive subject matter. While there is a trailer for this up on Apple’s website, this blog’s self-appointed mission to cover obscure -- even decidedly outre -- cinema, obliges me to include it here as well. At any rate, the distributor for the film , Roadside Attractions has put their money where their mouth is, and has arranged a limited release for the film in LA and NYC on January 18th; with more markets to follow. The least we can all do is return the favor and pony up for this one, and then hope it opens wide.

       Stephen Chow’s latest, CJ7 has a U.S. release in late January. A number of Chow’s earlier films -- notably Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle -- have helped to establish him as Hong Kong’s most popular and best comedic director/star; and it’s easy to see why. His films are consistently entertaining amalgams of movie parody, slapstick physical humor, and action film set pieces -- usually with a romantic comedy sub-plot as well, just to keep all the bases covered. CJ7 is clearly played for laughs, but it also seems to be lighter in tone -- even Disney-esque, in some regards -- than his usual offerings. I’m looking forward to it all the more, for Chow's change-up in style.

       Nightmare Detective is a horror flick from my favorite contemporary Japanese auteur, Shinya Tsukamoto. The fairly straightforward trailer would suggest that the film is just another conventional supernatural thriller; but as every Tsukamoto film starts from familiar genre roots -- and then quickly branches out into something different, even bizarre, from there -- I’m willing to bet that this one does too. Tsukamoto (who is as well known an actor, as he is a director, in his native Japan) shows up in the trailer embedded here -- seemingly in the role of the antagonist of the piece. Nightmare Detective will receive it’s region 1 DVD release come February 19th.

       Playwright Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges is a film that I don’t know too much about -- other than the fact that the trailer looks hilarious. While this may be McDonagh’s first feature, he’s written a number of acclaimed plays -- and directed one Oscar-winning live action short, Six-Shooter -- which I’m pleased to say is just great! -- so apparently he knows what he’s doing. In Bruges opens theatrically March 7th.

       Finally, also opening theatrically March 7th is Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park; advance word on the film has been strong -- supposedly Van Sant’s best in years, which is welcome news indeed. The film concerns a troubled teenaged skateboarder implicated in the accidental death of a security guard. The soundtrack (already available on iTunes) is a mix of what the hip-geoisie are listening to pop songs and -- more significantly to me -- a selection of some my favorite tracks from my favorite film composer: Nino Rota! Most significant of all, what’s presented here in the trailer looks compelling indeed.

Next post -- ‘07 Year End Review -- 12/28/07

Friday, December 14, 2007

A Night at the Movies . . .

       Once upon a time, when one ventured forth to the cinema, this meant one was taking a trip to a palace. The Golden Age of moviegoing -- the period between the first and second World Wars -- produced many great venues created for the express purpose of watching films; luxurious, baroque edifices dedicated to the worship of motion pictures. As movie theaters became more ubiquitous, and television brought cinema right to the comfort of one’s living room, venues became less grand -- and in fact, downright squalid, in many cases. Despite the prevalence of broadcast television and home video -- and home theater set-ups’ which potentially offer better sound and picture quality than your local mall-plex -- there are a few bright spots out there as regards the practice of movie-going; the brightest of which is undoubtedly Hollywood’s Arclight Cinemas.

       As anyone from L.A. almost certainly already knows -- the Arclight is an “upscale” theater venue, built in and around the site of the old Cinerama Dome -- quite the movie-palace in and of itself... despite (or maybe because of) it’s retro-futuristic design. In addition to upgrading the sound and projection equipment at the Dome itself, Pacific Theaters constructed 14 additional state-of-the-art Black-Box auditoriums on the site -- film venues built to the rigorous standards of professional screening rooms. As important as all this pursuit-of-technical-excellence is, what makes theaters like the Arclight so appealing is that they’ve been created with the understanding that for the serious movie-goer, taking in a film should be a pleasant, even exhilarating experience, -- from start to finish. As a consequence, rather than a shabby, cramped mall multi-plex -- with blurry projection and the soundtrack bleeding through from the auditorium next door, to boot -- you’ve got a grand lobby, lending a suitable amount of gravitas to your entrance (after all, you’re here to worship, right?), a restaurant for dining before, and a bar for drinks afterwards... and reserved seating -- so your favorite seat is there, even if you arrive 30 seconds before show time. It’s enough to actually make one look forward to a night at the movies again.

       Of course, not every movie theater needs to be a palace; I still like to make the occasional trip to my local grindhouse, -- and have oh so fond memories of summer nights at the drive-in. The point is, all these types of venues have more character and style than a typical multi-plex; and, if you’re going to make an evening of it, who wants to go someplace as drab and charmless as the Smithtown Mall 6? The good news is that the success of the Arclight (it’s consistently been one of L.A.’s top-ten grossing theater venues since it opened) has prompted other theater chains to make their own attempts at improving the movie-going experience. The Landmark recently opened on L.A.’s westside, and while it is in no way a better venue than the Arclight -- it nonetheless does have most of the latter’s features and services. It also has one new spin on theater-going that the Arclight doesn’t -- A couple of “living room”-style auditoriums, which feature comfy sofas and roomy recliners to sit on. This seems like an idea with obvious appeal for couples; although at $14.00 a pop to get in, I’d just as soon keep my mind on the screen... -- but maybe that’s just me.

       Arclight Cinemas is opening a new venue today, Dec. 14th, in Sherman Oaks, CA, at the Galleria (itself the site of scenes from many a movie: from Commando to Valley Girl). While this location doesn’t offer anything as architecturally engaging as the Cinerama Dome, the mall itself has recently been remodeled into a not unpleasing open-air market -- and the plans for the theater auditoriums themselves seem to be up to the high standards of the Hollywood venue. It’s also located all of about a half-mile from where I’m currently working -- so I guess I know where I’ll be spending my next night at the movies...

Some links:

Occasional commenter Van Choojitarom’s tale of an actual trip to the Arclight theater: a completely true account! Except for the parts he made up... -- which is to say, most of it.

Frequent commenter Paula Carino’s somewhat less frenzied recollection of seeing a film at the Arclight -- and her opinion as to how it compares to some NYC venues.

Next post -- 12/21/07

Friday, December 7, 2007


       Webster’s defines the word genre as “A category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, marked by a distinctive style, form, or content”. The term can also of course be applied to cinema, and the medium is just chock full of its’ own particular examples thereof. “Comedy”, “Romance”, “Action”, “Horror” -- all familiar film genres; and all of which have their own specific sub- (Action: “Cop/Buddy” movies) and recombinant (”Romantic-Comedy”) forms. Some film genres tend to be quite rigid and narrow in their conventions: how many horror films show someone opening a cabinet door only to find nothing there -- and then, seconds later, have the hapless victim set upon by the menace-du jour? Then there are those genres which encourage a more free-form approach; none more so than the “Road” movie, I think -- and you’re not likely to see a better example of this amorphous, free-wheelin’ style than in Two-Lane Blacktop.

       The movie is set in the world of illegal street racing, and focuses on the interwoven fortunes of four characters -- individuals whose every waking moment is so completely subsumed by their lifestyle that they don’t even have names, just designations: “The Driver” (portrayed by singer-songwriter James Taylor), “The Mechanic” (Dennis Wilson, of The Beach Boys fame), “The Girl” (Laurie Bird), and “GTO” (Warren Oates). Without giving away too much of the plot (and truth be told, there’s not much plot to speak of), “The Driver” and “GTO” meet at random, and after a quick sizing up, acknowledge each other as peers - and as competitors. As they make their way cross-country, they put each other through a series of dares, challenges and race-offs; including, of course, vying for the affections of “The Girl”. This synopsis would suggest that Two-Lane Blacktop is an “Actioner” -- a race-car movie, to be precise -- but as soon as the film establishes it’s genre roots, it quickly becomes something else - more of a character study, as well as a hard look at the alienated state of the American Psyche during the mid-70’s.

       Alienation as a theme -- as well as a tendency to make genre pictures that quickly turn into something more than merely that -- seems to be the modus operandi of Monte Hellman, the director and co-screenwriter of Two Lane Blacktop. Hellman’s work ranges the spectrum of Film genres: Westerns, Noirs, Period-piece Thrillers; even a Horror film or two. Along with fellow filmmakers Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme and Martin Scorsese, Hellman sprang from the “Corman Film School”, and his work -- especially the handful of movies he made with Warren Oates -- are greatly admired by contemporary auteurs Richard Linklater & Quentin Tarantino. The influence on the latter of the two is pretty clear; Tarantino is renowned for the “spin” he puts on his genre pictures; but Hellman was there, over two decades earlier, doing just the same type of thing -- and frequently better, IMHO.

       Two-Lane Blacktop has been released on DVD before, but that edition had a full-frame transfer and is now out of print. Fortunately, this Tuesday, December 11th, Criterion will be releasing it’s own DVD of the film, featuring a brand-spanking new HD widescreen transfer of the film, as well as a re-mastered Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Extras include commentary and interviews with Hellman himself, a copy of the screenplay reprinted in its’ entirety (.PDF format) and “appreciations” of the film by Richard Linklater and Tom Waits. Worth taking out for a test spin, if you ask me.

Next post -- 12/14/07