Monday, September 19, 2011

three films.

Chillerama is an anthology horror film, and man, anything fucking goes. There's a contagious joy as each movie attempts to up the one previous for sheer bloody-minded wrongness (the most clever is The Diary of Anne Frankenstein), and various bodily fluids and parts fly with abandon. But the thing's informed by no shortage of love for the drive-in movie experience - the framing sequence sets the movies as the offerings on a drive-in theatre's final night, and emotion and action fuse the caricaturistic but keenly-felt characters wind up making their own desperate bid for survival as a zombie plague sweeps the rows. Chillerama stands tall as a monument for this kind of batshit-crazy experience, and the audience I saw it with at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery offered the kind of enthusiasm and warmth you just can't get watching a movie on your fucking iPhone.

Drive is a lovely film, indeed, from the cold open heist/getaway through the last shot. Ryan Gosling plays his role with Terminator efficiency, but his thawing is absolutely credible. Just about every shot in this thing is suitable for framing (my favorite is the look on Christina Hendricks' face as the pursuing vehicle wipes out through the windshield behind her). Much is being made (quite reasonably) about Albert Brooks' against-type performance, but Bryan Cranston is equally strong - there's not even a shade of Walter White in his broken-down but earnest mechanic. I'd been eager to see how Nicolas Winding Refn (of the PUSHER trilogy, BRONSON, and my favorite FEAR X) would fare in his Hollywood debut - handpicked for the job by Gosling, and given resources and skilled craftspeople than I think he'd ever enjoyed, he's crafted his best film. An 80s-style crime film that nevertheless feels totally fresh.

Restless is an intimate step back by Gus van Sant from the epic period piece trappings of Milk. It's a quiet, quirky (but not overly so) tale of a young misfit whose life is transformed by his relationship with an imaginative cancer patient. There's absolutely nothing in it that hasn't been seen before, but Mia Wasikowska and Henry Hopper are a charming pair of young leads, and the thing is played so quietly and honestly that it earns each of its melodramatic hits.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


A friend recently was worried about today, fearing that the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001 would be a time for another attack. I told her that we couldn't just sit and panic in anticipation of such an attack. Walking forward was the only thing we could do. Also, I added, it's the best thing we can do.

This weekend would seem to be a perverse time to premiere CONTAGION, Steven Soderbergh's tale of a deadly virus that sweeps the globe during a tumultuous autumn and winter. It would be difficult to divorce one's feelings about today from the feelings evoked by this remarkable and spare film. Soderbergh plays expertly on personal and social phobias, capturing both the societal breakdown in the face of disaster and the tiny gestures by which the plague is spread. But its moments of light prove just as potent, similarly tiny gestures that speak to our capacity to stand tall and resolute in the face of chaos.

Though I'd thought I'd put most of my emotions about today behind me, I braced myself for a potentially rough ride. The movie was involving from the first minute, and its startling deployment of the caption "Day 2". But it was one of its artful turning points (a moment involving Jennifer Ehle and a chimp that offered a curious mirror to similar moments in RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES) that truly took me over. After the film I took a much-needed break in the lobby and wept for a moment. After straightening up, I wiped away my tears and, though perhaps not entirely purged, walked forward, out the door into the sunlight.

Thursday, September 8, 2011


"Evil attacks you through your television sets."

This is the suitably ballsy first line of this television episode, and it's delivered by this man:

Brother Max (Alexander Scourby) is addressing the congregation of an inner-city mission on the dangers of Evil, and the threat it poses to us in our daily lives. His spiel is caught in a bracing, uncut 2-minute take:

"You say 'Hallelujah', you say 'Amen'...but what you say and what you do, my friends, they can be very different." And Brother Max should know, as we find someone special waiting for him after the service...

Our hero saunters into the frame, captured, unsurprisingly, in a stolen shot from a handheld camera, in the true Cassavetes manner:

In VO, Johnny tells him that he's been asked to check out a mission to which the girlfriend of a pal has given all her savings. Johnny asks around, eventually winds up in the orbit of the VERY drunk Brother Conrad (Elisha Cook):

Johnny is taken to the congregation of Brother Max, seen holding forth against Evil:

Brother Conrad stands to testify, but finds his repeated drunkenness too many lapses into Evil, and he is cruelly ejected by Brother Max:

Johnny takes the stage to do some testifying of his own, insisting that "nobody was ever that far gone that he couldn't be forgiven." And when he directly charges Brother Max with lying to and exploiting his flock, the faithful descend upon him, knock him unconscious, and leave him in the alley outside:

Brother Max briefly steps outside and cheerfully comes clean to Johnny: he is, indeed, a fraud, who has taken these good people for every penny he could get.

Ironically, this hipster detective's moral compass is more functional than that of the false man of God, and Johnny knows Max is right when he says that to expose him would be to shatter the faith of the parishioners. At the moment, only Johnny and we see Brother Max for who he is.

But their conversation has been observed:

This is Brother Thomas (Lloyd Corrigan), the original founder of this modest church. After 20 years of little success in attracting much of a parish, Thomas found his ministry taken over by Max. And though Max has filled the pews with the devout in a way that Thomas never could, Thomas has always suspected that Max wasn't completely on the level. The shame of these new revelations shatter him.

Johnny knows that if Max is going to be exposed, and if the faith of the parish is to be preserved, Brother Thomas is going to have to be the man to do it. Max is too weak, too ashamed to fight. "You don't have the faith in those people that you expect them to give to you," chides Johnny. "All we can do is try."

Brother Thomas takes the stage to make a last, desperate plea for the souls of his flock...

...and the last we see of Johnny before this final conflict makes us wonder if even he's saying a little prayer:

The seventh episode of Johnny Staccato, starring John Cassavetes in the title role, might as well have been filmed last week. It's a powerful piece of filmmaking, and its portrait of religion abused and faith exploited for the benefit of charlatans is, sadly, as timely as ever. And it's an insanely well-crafted episode, completely jettisoning Johnny's jazz milieu (which had framed the series thus far) to enter some downright Rod Serling territory. Richard Carr's script stays safely off the side of polemic, letting the episode's two main characters remain human even as they embody Good and Evil.

I'd been bothered by the tendency of the show to background its leading man, a tendency that Cassavetes himself seems to acknowledge with the funny framing of this shot:

Johnny emerges here as a conscience, observing the conflict (like us) from the sidelines but still wholly invested. And there's a downright utopian confluence in this episode, as Johnny's moral hipster and Corrigan's meek but resolute man of God find common ground. It's a powerful moment that resonates in these fractious times, and though greed hides behind a number of faces (including a few of those who were debating last night), there's more than one kind of faith, too.

Take a bow, Johnny. And tag it: