Friday, April 24, 2015

R.I.P Richard Corliss

Time magazine film critic Richard Corliss has passed away at the age of 71. He devoted his life to the discussion and advancement of films and filmmakers. Corliss won a permanent place in my heart in 2007, when he named Weerasathakul's weird and wonderful Syndromes and a Century as that year's best film, topping such popular hits as No Country for Old Men and There will be Blood.  That took some guts. The magazine has published a lovely tribute.

Recently Viewed April 2015

Land Ho! (2014) ✭✭✭½

Enjoyable and amusing little road pic about two old pals (Earl Lynn Nelson, Paul Eenhoorne) who decide to spice up their dull retirement lives by leaving their homes in Kentucky for an impromptu trip to Iceland. There, the aging duo search for adventure and romance - or a reasonable facsimile - often with amusing results. Land Ho! won the John Cassavetes Trophy at this year's Independent Spirit Awards

Wadjda (2012) ✭✭✭✭
Fascinating immersion in Saudi culture and lifestyles. Amusing and infuriating at the same time. A must see for cultural anthropologists.

My Life in the Country (2013) ✭✭✭½

French TV romcom about two divorced women who pretend to be gay so they can purchase a farmhouse from a famous feminist writer. Sounds silly, and it is, but overall it's fun.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

News and Notes April 2015

Selections announced for Cannes 2015. I'll have more info on these films when available.

Think you know everything about Marvel heroes? Here's a quiz from Morphsuits that will test your

Speaking of comics, Zack Snyder doesn't understand why "everyone clings to the Christopher Reeve Version of Superman." Maybe it's because his version sucked.

Great, a new way to separate us home theater geeks from our money: Samsung's 8K TV

As some of you might have noticed, I've gone back to Bunched Undies as the blog's official name. I changed it to Starland a couple years ago because I was getting a lot of traffic from pervs looking for children in underwear or god knows what. Anyway, Starland totally sucks so BU is back! Besides, pervs have many more places to go these days.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Rob Roy at 20

Rob Roy (1995) is a rousing adventure flick torn from the pages of Scottish history. Liam Neeson stars as the titular character and leader of the struggling MacGregor clan circa 1700. When he launches a scheme to raise cattle as a way of lifting his people out of poverty, the sinister dealings of a loathsome aristocrat named Cunningham (Tim Roth) make it all go horribly wrong. Thus the stage is set for a gripping tale of revenge, class warfare and a climactic swordfight that ranks among the best in cinema.

As is usually the case with these types of dramas, Rob Roy takes a few liberties with history. While based on an actual event, most scholars believe a turncoat within the MacGregors was actually to blame, and that Cunningham was a largely fictional creation. Queen Anne, who had suffered 17 miscarriages and is the occasional target of Neeson’s snarky jokes, had likely only been in power a short time - if at all - during the events depicted here. And there is a famous screwup, at least within the entertainment industry, where in one scene a fluorescent light fixture hangs from the ceiling of an ancient pub.

Fresh from his success in Schindler’s List, Rob Roy was no doubt conceived chiefly as a vehicle for Neeson. He does a credible job here, with his burly charisma lifting the film beyond its general B movie aesthetic. But the film is just plain stolen by Roth, whose portrayal of the arrogant, ruthless Cunningham is a thing of wonder. His veins filled with a mixture of ice water and the vilest villainy, the anticipation of seeing Roth get his comeuppance will gleefully rivet viewers to their seats. Roth won a BAFTA and received an Oscar nom for this performance, and it serves as a superb addition to his impressive portfolio of memorable characters.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Police, Adjective (2009) ✭✭✭✭

Despite minimal dialogue, Police, Adjective is a film all about words, specifically how a word can have one meaning in the dictionary, and yet another in the heart. Over the course of the film, we spend a few days in the seedy Romanian town of Vaslui, and become intimately acquainted with a 30-ish detective named Christi (Dragos Bucur), who is in the process of investigating a young man named Victor (Radu Costin).

Victor’s former friend Alex (Alexandur Sabadac), a young man so oppressed by his parents he seems afraid of his own shadow, has squealed to the authorities about Victor’s pot smoking, and Christi has been tasked with collaring this dangerous miscreant. But Christi’s investigation has revealed Victor to be a quiet, responsible and entirely unremarkable young man who simply enjoys a few tokes after work in the company of his pals.

Christi is torn because in his heart he feels this is a victimless crime. Plus the fact that in much of Europe laws against marijuana and hashish usage are rarely enforced. He begins to drag his feet on the investigation, and decides to focus instead on informer Alex’s motives, which are more suspicious and troubling to Christi than anything Victor may be smoking. But the pressure to quickly resolve this simple case from Christi’s superior (Vlad Ivanov) can be resisted only for so long.

As a film, Police, Adjective is the antithesis of a police thriller. Much of the film consists of Christi quietly following various suspects on foot; through decrepit neighborhoods compete with barking dogs and a hither-and-yon scattering of abandoned cars. These repetitive hikes will prove challenging for many viewers, sleep-inducing to others, but director Corneliu Porumboiu uses these gloomily atmospheric sequences to help us better understand the attitudes of both hunter and hunted. In such squalid environs, getting stoned seems like a perfectly logical endeavor. The filmmaking is rudimentary and simplistic - static shots with no editing within the scene - but it creates a powerful and hypnotic sense of reality. Through Porumboiu’s grimy available light compositions, the viewer feels much more involved and integral to the proceedings than in any of the 3-D Hollywood blockbusters currently on the market.

But all is not brooding introspection. In a comedic sequence, Christi and his wife Anca (Irina Saulescu) debate the merits of a pop song that brims with over-the-top sentimentality. Anca, a school teacher, attempts to explain to her literal-minded husband how words can be used to create images that transcend their actual meanings; or, if you prefer, how words can be interpreted and felt in addition to being merely understood. But little does she know that she is laying the groundwork for her husband’s eventual downfall into reluctant compliance with conventional wisdom. This subtle plot construction becomes fully realized when Christi is called into a meeting at his boss’s office and a Romanian dictionary is used to arbitrate Christi’s moral dilemma.

Police, Adjective is a film that manages to ultimately dazzle despite its dark ambience of grime and decay. Like police work itself, it alternates between spiritually exhilarating and mind numbingly dull. But you will come away with the feeling that you have just experienced something real. Warts and all. And isn’t that what movies are all about?


Saturday, April 11, 2015

Torment (1944) ✭✭✭✭

Torment is the first screenplay written by Ingmar Bergman ever to be photographed. Directed by Bergman’s mentor Alf Sjöberg, the film concerns a bullying, sadistic high school teacher (Stig Järrel) and his destructive effect on a struggling student (Alf Kjellin). The film’s stark compositions and inky shadows give it the look of German Expressionist cinema, while Bergman’s script roams a tense and arid psychological landscape. When the studio requested a more upbeat ending, Bergman himself directed the revisions due to Sjöberg’s contractual obligation to another project. This roughly 10 minute epilogue is Bergman’s first turn in the director’s chair, and ironically his goal was to lighten up the film and make it more commercial. While Torment occasionally lapses into a typically bleak Scandinavian melodrama, it contains many of Bergman’s hallmarks, including complex, deeply conflicted characters locked in a slow simmering private war with their inner demons.

Stig Järrel’s Latin teacher, nicknamed Caligula by his less than adoring students, is a prototypical Bergman baddie. Bemused and bespectacled, at first blush he seems better suited to play a kindly watchmaker than an academic terrorist. But when he finds a student lacking in preparation, a dark cloud contorts his features unleashing a storm of invective and abuse. His refined, privileged preps wither under the criticism, and return to their desks in a shattered emotional heap. Kjellin’s Jan-Erik, a dreamy eyed young man interested only in the violin, is a frequent target of Caligula’s tirades. Equally, Jan-Erik is a typical Bergman protagonist of this period. Essentially a blank slate, he is susceptible to influences from all directions, with only vague notions of artistic pursuit steering his meandering course. One night he encounters a drunken young woman named Berta (Mai Zetterling) and unwittingly begins a decent to his undoing. But Jan-Erik’s spiral dive will not be a solo flight; his mortal enemy will also crash and burn in the process.

Torment offers sweeping insights into the nature of bullying and intimidation that are rare for 1944, along with a frank - well frankish - depiction of sexual codependency. The prolific cinematographer Martin Bodin puts the film’s gothic sets to good use, establishing a motif of long shadows that will serve as both a design and emotive element as the film advances. Zetterling’s turn as Berta provides the kick in this strange narrative brew. Flirtatious and giggly without ever seeming genuinely happy, her character’s parameters are quite subtle and tricky, but she pulled it off effectively.

Thanks to Bergman’s script, Torment strives for truth in an era of highly contrived and manipulative drama. In a few years, Ingmar Bergman would begin his journey to auteurist sainthood, far surpassing the accomplishments of Sjöberg and other early heroes of Sweden’s nascent film industry. The film stands as an important historical artifact, for it served notice to the world that a unique talent was finding his sea legs; a talent that would eventually alter the very notion of what a movie should be.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

New on TV April 2015

Mad Men Season 7.2 ✭✭✭✭✭

The final episodes began this week, and the premier was one of the best installments in the show's history. Don (Jon Hamm) seems to be wandering a landscape of ghosts and missed opportunities, while Peggy (Elizabeth Moss) and Joan (Christina Hendricks) smash head first into a glass ceiling. Strap yourselves in, this great show is not going out with a whimper.

Wolf Hall ✭✭✭✭½

This series presents another angle on the Henry VIII saga, telling the story of Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance), an obscure estate attorney who rose to become one of the most powerful men in England. Rylance, who is believed to be the first actor to receive unsimulated oral sex onscreen in a non-porn film, dominates by the skillful underplay that distinguishes great actors. Damien Lewis is on board as Henry, and no one does selfish sourpuss scumbags better. You may need to bone up a little on English history to keep pace with the proceedings; this show moves along quickly and doesn't patronize the viewer.

Call the Midwife Season 4 ✭✭✭✭✭

This wonderful series is back for a fourth season, as our favorite NHS nurses attempt to bring hope and health to the destitute souls of east London. Jenny (Jessica Raine) has departed to greener pastures - although oddly her mature character (Vanessa Redgrave) remains as narrator - and so far there hasn't been nearly enough Chummy (the great Miranda Hart). Still, the show is forging ahead with some interesting new characters: Nurse Crane (Linda Bassett), a no nonsense, by the book practitioner who makes Sister Evangelina (Pam Ferris) look cuddly, and young Barbara (Charlotte Richie), an awkward, inexperienced nurse with a heart of gold. Despite the changes, this show never ventures too far from its proven, heart-warming formula, and that's a good thing.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Quickies for April 2015

Barking Water (2009) ✭✭✭✭

A true American micro budget art film. All about a dying Native American man (Richard Ray Whitman) who makes one last road trip from Florida to Oklahoma with his estranged long time girlfriend (Casey Camp-Horinek). Along the way, the couple reconnect with old friends and relive some of their ancient squabbles, made all the more poignant as time grows short. Bleak, moody and thoughtful, Barking Water is a great example of what can be accomplished with few resources.

Josephine (2013) ✭✭✭½ 

Above average French rom-com. Marilou Berry was the chubby, depressed kid in Jaoui's Look at Me (2004). She's all growed up.

Le Bonheur des Autres (2011) ✭✭✭½ 

Charming comedic drama about a family undergoing transition pains in Montreal.

Batman (1943) ✭✭

Finally got around to watching Batman's first big screen appearance. It's one of those serials that lasts 5 hours or something so I didn't see the whole thing. Even grading on a curve allowing for its era and budget, the thing remains pretty awful. Still, it's better than The Dark Knight Rises.