Friday, July 22, 2005

Last Days - Movie Review

Last Days 2005

We have been racking our brains lately trying to remember if any other filmmaker has had such a late artistic breakthrough as the one Gus Van Sant is going through. Now, while we have always enjoyed his movies, well almost, we thought we had a grip on his style and temperament.

Van Sant launched his singularly idiosyncratic career way back in 1985 with his shoestring ode to unrequited love – “Mala Noche.” It would take him a few years to produce his next major project, but when he did – it was more than worth it. The Indy sensation of 1989 – “Drugstore Cowboy” featured a career reviving performance by Matt Dillon and breakthrough turns by Kelly Lynch, James Le Gros and even that epitome of emptiness – Heather Graham. Copping several awards, including Best Screenplay honors from the New York and Los Angeles Critics’ Associations. He was on his way. “My Own Private Idaho” – 1991, has gained cult prominence over the years as the star vehicle for the late River Phoenix. Nicole Kidman had an early break with her uproariously vain turn in the wonderful “To Die For” in 1995.

Gus won his (hopefully) first Oscar nomination with the box office smash “Good Will Hunting” – 1997, written by the then twinks, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. His brief foray into Tinseltown territory also included the J.D. Salinger inspired “Finding Forrester” and the horrifically unnecessary scene-for-scene remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.” (What the fuck were you thinking, Gus?). While we enjoyed the direction on “Good Will Hunting” and “Finding Forrester”, we were getting a tad anxious for Gus to return to his Indy roots – for fear that he would forever be lost amidst the gloss. We didn’t have long to wait, and we never would have guessed the direction he finally took. Stripping down his films entirely, Gus Van Sant launched into his glorious second act phase of film directing by looking back to the works of such auteurs as Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman and a skootch of Bernardo Bertolucci. His work on “Gerry” starring Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, and his stunning accomplishment with “Elephant” practically declared war on his previous “major” productions. They were a revelation.

With “Last Days”, Gus Van Sant has expanded on his earlier work on “Gerry” and “Elephant” by maintaining the elegiac pacing and sparse dialog of his two previous films. We understand that this might be off-putting to many filmgoers who are looking for more, how we shall say it – idiotic, mundane, aimed at retards kind of filmmaking. Now we really don’t care which side of the “Film as Art / Film as Commerce” battle you fall on, we believe that film can border both sides. For every Hollywood style popcorn movie, there should always be the filmmaker that attempts a bit more. Not aiming at the gutter is a pretty good way to start out making a film. We hope that Gus Van Sant has learned his lesson with his foray into Hollywood territory. While he may be capable of pulling of the more popular flick, there is no reason he should not continue to grow as an artist and explore the kinds of film that inspired him in the beginning.

While some may agree with Pauline Kael’s famous quote about Foreign Film Art House movies – she described them as the “Come Dressed as the Sick Soul of Europe” type of filmmaking. But did she? If you actually go back and read the original review you will note that she was speaking of those films that failed for her artistically. And let’s face it. She was a crotchety old bitch. She hated most everything. Then again, she adored Michelangelo Antonioni’sL’Avventura” – as do we, and so clearly does Gus Van Sant. While that masterful classic explored a certain strata of society in their loneliness and eventual alienation from themselves, Gus Van Sant is more concerned with the emptiness found in the souls of today’s youth. With “Gerry” he painted a simple and quite literal descent into madness by trapping two young men in a desert landscape. With his Cannes Film Festival triumph – “Elephant” he explored the notorious present day school shootings from the point of view of a dispassionate outsider. And with “Last Days” he springboards off the last days of Grunge Rock’s Jesus figure – Kurt Cobain, and explores the mythology behind “the rock and roll cliché” of a drugged out and depressed star whose only escape is death.

Michael Pitt, who starred in our favorite film of last year, Bernardo Bertolucci’sThe Dreamers” is on hand to emulate Kurt Cobain’s final moments. This film isn’t really about the lead singer of Nirvana – it merely uses the truth of that situation as a backdrop for the legend he is creating. We have no idea if this film will stand the test of time, but for this year – it is clearly one of if not the best film.

The setting is the wooded retreat that the rock star named Blake is holed up in, zonked out on drugs and surrounded by various peripheral hanger-ons, friends and sycophants. While they busy themselves with their mundane chores – Blake wanders thru the grounds oblivious to all around him and seemingly seeking an escape to his present predicament. His predicament, we might add – is hardly worth the drama. He is famous. A rock star, who appears to be the zeitgeist of his generation. He is also completely unable to connect with anybody around him. Except perhaps the Mormon boys who come calling on his doorstep, or the traveling Yellow Pages salesman who he encounters in one hilarious scene.

When the record executive, portrayed by Sonic Youth’s own Kim Gordon arrives to attempt one last intervention – he is so hopelessly far gone by that point, that her cutting words do little to assuage his pain.

The hanger-ons and sycophants who surround and casually pretend to care for him, are more concerned with their own lives. While we wonder what has edged Blake into his slow descent of madness – we never question his feelings of loneliness or abandonment. This life is his and his alone to do with as he pleases. And for right now, he chooses to drink and consume drugs in sufficient quantity to dull the pain of the outside world.

This meditation on the slow descent to death is riveting from the first scene. Gus Van Sant has taken his brilliant cinematographer Harris Savides, and slowly paints a portrait of a dying man, inches away from a possible salvation but too self consumed to notice. We don’t necessarily feel pity for him, but we understand that an artist’s life does not always contain sunshine, lollipops and rainbows. To be able to plunge in the very heart of creativity has always been to run the risk of releasing demons that will ultimately destroy you.

What Gus Van Sant has done with creating the elegy of “Last Days” is to visualize the ultimate in selfish acts. A suicide may be appear to be the answer for many lost souls – but it merely opens the door to a myriad of questions from those who love them. He doesn’t romanticize the subject, nor look away from the deliriously macabre breakdown we are witnessing. What he does, is step aside enough for us to be able to judge the lead character in his final moments on this earth. Some may pity him, some revile him. It is the genius of Gus Van Sant with this truly wonderful film that we are allowed to peek into this sordid tale and emerged unscathed. A cautionary tale? Perhaps. We would like to see it as a meditation on stardom, and the painful toll it can take on one so fragile. And only a true artist like Gus Van Sant could pull off that hauntingly metaphysical ending! The hussy. A great film. Run out and see it! You’ll be glad we sent you. Bless you all!

Written & Directed by Gus Van Sant

Michael Pitt as Blake
Scott Green as Scott
Lukas Haas as Luke
Asia Argento as Asia
Kim Gordon as Record Executive
Ricky Jay as Detective
Nicole Vicius as Nicole
Adam Friberg as Elder Friberg # 1
Andy Friberg as Elder Friberg # 2
Thadeus A. Thomas as Yellow Book Salesman
Harmony Korine as Guy in Club

Cinematography by Harris Savides
Film Editing by Gus Van Sant
Costume Design by Michelle Matland
Original Music by Rodrigo Lopresti
Art Direction by Tim Grimes

Hustle & Flow - Movie Review

Hustle & Flow 2005

Yo dawg, what up? One of the great myths in Hollywood is the discovery of a new star. Young aspiring performer comes to town, struggles to get noticed, appears suddenly in the right place and the right time, lands the role of a lifetime, their film is a huge hit, wins the Oscar and becomes a STAR!!! Well, that doesn’t really happen. What is more typical is the case of Terrence Dashon Howard. A hard working actor for over ten years in the industry with numerous credits to his name, Terrence has currently found himself being labeled the “Breakout Star” of 2005. And in many ways he is. His performance in “Crash” was one of the better things about that homily ridden mini-opus. And now, with “Hustle & Flow” he can bask in the glory of his superlative laden reviews. And we are no exception. This movie rests squarely on the shoulders of the immensely talented Terrence Howard.

We would surely have still been impressed, if this was Mr. Howard’s debut. Comparing this performance with his work in “Crash”, makes it all the more fascinating and awe inspiring. His uptight Oreo movie director in the former, living the life of Hollywood vanity fair and facing his fears of self worth lives geographically and emotionally worlds apart from the street hustling pimp and aspiring rapper of the lead character DJay in the latter – “Hustle & Flow”. Perhaps the two share one trait in common. Their moment of self realization. But then again, we are going back to Drama 101 classes in High School. What great character in any theatrical piece does not face a moment of self realization? It is one of the cornerstones of great drama, and in “Hustle & Flow” it is the transformative power of art that hurls DJay into the struggle of his life.

Set in the sweaty underbelly of a Memphis summer, “Hustle & Flow” reveals the daily life of a pimp hustling to get by. With his three whores: One white, one black and one pregnant – so that bitch ain’t really bringing in the money, if you know what we saying. DJay solicits out of his wreck of a car, deals pot on the side, and dreams of making the big time by becoming a star rapper. His casual former acquaintance with a now successful rapper is the key to his star struck revelry. When he literally runs into a former school friend, who to his delight turns out to be a sound engineer – his dreams start to take shape. Eavesdropping at a local church, where his friend Key is recording some gospel singers – the power and beauty of watching someone else live his dream is too much for DJay. The quiet intensity and faithful emotive energy that pours out of Terrence Howard sets him apart from all his competitors. This scene is lovely, and is merely the beginning of a wonderful experience.

We were delighted by newcomer writer / director Craig Brewer’s sense of immediacy, locale, atmosphere and his delicious sense of humor. This man is also terrific in his casting and crew choices. Terrence Howard is truly a revelation in this lead role as the outwardly thuggish but emotionally poetic DJay. Anthony Anderson as Key, the wannabe record producer and DJ Qualls of the Gollum-like features as the one man band provide wonderful support – balancing the drama with some truly hysterical comic moments. But if the film belongs to Terrence Howard, then the son of a bitch betta thank his Ho’s. Taryn Manning as the nymphet Nola, whose platform shoes are larger than her body – Paula Jai Parker as the “Seen it, done him, don’t mess with me” Ho – and in particular Taraji P. Henson as Shug – the pregnant Ho who realizes thru sheer accident that her own dreams are powerful enough to transform her makeshift life are all three stand outs.

We had thought that Taryn Manning was only good for “Airport ‘75” like press junkets – who knew she could act? As the little white Ho, she proves she has genuine acting chops with her sassy attitude and iron willed reluctance to sell herself beyond the call of duty. Paula Jai Parker is used to tremendous comic effect as the hooker / stripper whose defiance of the pimp / ho code threatens to disrupt DJay’s carefully plotted plans. And as Shug, the pregnant Ho who holds a special place in DJay’s heart, the amazing Taraji P. Henson almost steals the flick with her heartbreaking scene where she realizes her true potential. Kudos also to the gentle turn by Black Moses himself, Isaac Hayes. As the barkeep, Arnel – his solid presence speaks volumes.

We have tremendous hope for future projects by writer / director Craig Brewer. His spare use of choppy editing and stylistic flourishes marks him as a director of blessed discretion. He is also without a doubt, capable of bringing home the comic bits and emotional payoffs. And together with his talented cinematographer Amy Vincent, paints a luscious urban canvas of the Deep South. By setting his flick in the outwardly seedy milieu of a streetwise pimp, Craig Brewer brings a refreshing twist to the depiction of the transformative power of Art. We root for DJay, because the director takes the time to depict real human beings whose daily struggle might have easily veered off into the crass or mundane. By selecting a top notch cast, and centering the film around an actor as powerful, charismatic and so clearly on top his game – Brewer manages the impossible. A great flick about a rapping pimp. Who knew? Bless you all! We out.

Written & Directed by Craig Brewer

Terrence Howard as DJay
Anthony Anderson as Key (Clyde)
Taryn Manning as Nola
Taraji P. Henson as Shug
DJ Qualls as Shelby
Paula Jai Parker as Lexus
Isaac Hayes as Arnel
Ludacris as Skinny Black
Elise Neal as Yevette

Cinematography by Amy Vincent
Film Editing by Billy Fox
Costume Design by Paul Simmons
Production Design by Keith Brian Burns
Art Direction by Alexa Marino

Friday, July 08, 2005

Saraband - Movie Review


Way back in 1983, the legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman announced his retirement from feature films with his brilliantly evocative “Fanny & Alexander.” The film was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Director for the maestro of such classic films as: “Smiles of a Summer Night”, “Persona”, “Wild Strawberries”, “The Virgin Spring”, “The Seventh Seal”, “Cries & Whispers”, “Shame”, “Face to Face” and “Autumn Sonata.”

Turns out, he lied. Like most men. He's back. And with the arrival of his latest and quite possibly his very last film, “Saraband” we are overjoyed to welcome back this lion of filmmaking. “Saraband” is that rare film. A sequel that not only compliments perfectly, but may actually surpass the original. The original was titled “Scenes From a Marriage” and was produced way back in 1973. It featured Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson as a couple whose disintegrating marriage provided the intense fodder for the flick. It was a masterpiece, and is thankfully available on a deluxe DVD from our favorite video company – Criterion. Go rent it now!!! And you’ll want to, as we did (Okay, we forked over the dough and bought it outright – so sue us!) since it is the perfect entry point for his latest masterpiece.

Saraband” picks up thirty some years after the events of “Scenes From a Marriage” with Marianne visiting her former husband Johan who lives in the Swedish countryside. She, like us is not aware of what she should expect upon arrival – she merely senses a desperate and complete need to see her former mate one last time. Upon her actual arrival, she is confronted with the disintegrating shell of a man who was once her lover. He may retain his intellect and panache, but suffers from the normal ailments befalling a man of his advanced age. He also suffers from a complete and vicious estrangement from his son, Henrik who is dealing with his own demons, attempting to mentor his talented musician daughter while both are still reeling from the death of Henrik’s wife.

What occurs in the two hours it takes to unfold the drama of “Saraband” is the very stuff of grand filmmaking. Ingmar Bergman did not need to emerge from his cinematic retirement, his legend remained intact. But perhaps like similar giants of the cinema, John Huston and Akira Kurosawa come to mind, if this is indeed his final flick – he is going out in enviable style. The ferocious confrontations, the dark secrets festering within Henrik’s soul, the desperate bid for freedom by the daughter Karin are all given such an eloquent and emotionally honest setting to play out – that the mind reels.

Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson share their history with Bergman and with each other so effortlessly and grandly, it is truly like watching a master class in screen acting. The great thing about great actors as they enter their final season is their magical ability to bring forth emotional truths on the turn of a dime. There are no grand theatrics or hysterical scenes – merely quietly devastating scenes of raw emotion to be told. Watch the way Liv Ullmann quietly reenters her former husband’s life and becomes a sort of care giver, nursemaid, and confidante to Henrik’s daughter Karin. She understands she has no place as the mother figure, but her love for Johan compels her to linger in their lives long enough to attempt the near impossible – a potential reconciliation between father and son. Erland Josephson is simply brilliant as the old bear of a man who adamantly refuses to accept the blame for his sons faltering economic and emotional life.

Börje Ahlstedt as the failed musician Henrik treads a fine line between the pitiable and the pitiful. And as his daughter Karin, young Julia Dufvenius benefits greatly from playing her scenes amongst the elder screen giants. She matches them in intensity and honesty, and is a joy to watch. The scenes between father and daughter play out literally and viscerally as musical duets.

We are not sure how this film would play on its own. We truly recommend you watch it in tandem with “Scenes From a Marriage.” Like similarly decades scattered sequels: “The Hustler” and “The Color of Money”, “A Man and a Woman” and “A Man and a Woman: 20 Years Later”, and “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” – by using the same characters as anchors in their screenplays – the filmmakers emulate time’s passage without needing to fill in all the specifics. It lends a wonderful weight to the reality of the proceedings, and pays off gloriously in “Saraband.”

While this film will surely be limited to Art Houses nationwide, we strongly encourage you to drop whatever you are doing, go rent “Scenes From a Marriage” and then immediately run to your local theatre to see one of the best films of this or any year. Skål! Bless you all!

(End note: For those of you who must know – “A saraband was an erotic dance for two that was very popular at royal courts in the 17th and 18th centuries. But it was prohibited in Spain as being indecent.” Funny, the Spanish labeling something indecent. Go figure.)

Written & Directed by Ingmar Bergman

Liv Ullmann as Marianne
Erland Josephson as Johan
Börje Ahlstedt as Henrik
Julia Dufvenius as Karin
Gunnel Fred as Martha

Cinematography by Stefan Eriksson, Jesper Holmström, Per-Olof Lantto, Sofi Stridh, and Raymond Wemmenlöv
Film Editing by Sylvia Ingemarsson
Costume Design by Inger Pehrsson
Production Design by Göran Wassberg