Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Esoteric Picks #17

I've finally given up the ghost on trying to tie these picks to a weekly date...The pressure was just too suffocating! I'll try to keep them roughly weekly in their appearance though.


Djam Karet - The Devouring (1997)

Superb instrumental prog-rock from California by a band whose name comes from an Indonesian term for "elastic time" or "the hour that stretches". A mid-point between King Crimson and Pink Floyd is where most people have placed them, but they build on those influences by also mixing additional ambient, spacey and electronic sounds into the propulsive rhythms (the band explores that spacey side much more in depth on 1991's "Suspension and Displacement"). The opening track "Night Of The Mexican Goat Suckers" jump starts the album nicely (isn't it worth it for the title alone?) and though there are no vocals throughout, the band changes things up enough to never let your interest fade.

Classic English Language Film

The Sea Hawk (1940)

Terrific adventure yarn starring Errol Flynn at his swashbuckling best. There are a number of simply great sea battles and fights between ships that are so well done, it's hard to watch modern day CGI stuff again. People jumping between ships, fighting up high and falling all without quick edits to hide the lack of actual stunts. Flynn defines the term dashing here and tries to charm and win the heart of a Spanish lady whose ship he has just pirated. Not an easy task when you've just stolen all her jewels, but hey, it's Errol Flynn!

Recent English Language Film

Ginger Snaps (2000)

Although this film works as a straight werewolf scarefest, it's much more than that. Young Ginger gets bitten by a "beast" on the night of her first period and then slowly begins to undergo changes in her body and her emotions. The parallel between becoming a werewolf and undergoing puberty could have been beaten to death, but it isn't - it's used effectively to show that life can be tough enough for high school kids (and Ginger and her younger suster are indeed complete outcasts) that the addition of these changes to the body/brain can make someone, well, snap. Katharine Isabelle is fantastic in the lead role (Emily Perkins as her sibling is also great) and I'd love to see her get wider acclaim and better roles.

Foreign Language Film

Red Lights (2004)

Cedric Kahn put together an excellent tense thriller with 2004's "Feux Rouges". Antoine and Helene drive to pick up their kids from a summer camp, but there is great tension between the two. This is further aggravated by Antoine's drinking problem (he even stops along the way to "fill up") and the two eventually split up - Helene tells him she'll continue the trip by train. They each face danger during the night and the viewer is never left with a moment to relax...In one excruciatingly tense scene, Antoine is calling hospital after hospital from a hotel phone trying to find his wife. It's a simple scene, but incredibly unnerving - like much of this movie.


Waking Life (2001)

Richard Linklater's dive into animation is not only a feast for the eyes, but occasionally a good snack for the brain as well. Many negative reviews focus on the philosophical "mumbo-jumbo" that the characters discuss throughout and though some of it can be a bit much, there's a couple of really thought provoking ideas that pop up. Not ground breaking in their originality, but when combined with the artwork you can certainly get lost in the clouds (just like the two characters who suddenly turn into clouds in the middle of a conversation). The animation is done through a technique called rotoscoping - real actors are first filmed and then their scenes handed over to different artists who treat each frame of film as a new canvas. There's not really a standard plot here, but if you are in the mood for film as art you'll be treated to some truly imaginative displays.

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Esoteric Picks Of The Week #16 (05/21/2007)


Dave Holland Quintet - Extended Play Live At Birdland (2003)

This 2 disc set of one of the Quintet's dates from 2001 contains long extended workouts of their studio work - only a single track is under 10 minutes and two clock over 20. The length of the tunes gives the band ample space to really flesh out all aspects of the music. The more intense sections are some of the most muscular jazz playing I've heard and the band stays fully in tune with each other throughout. Relentless and always incredibly creative in their approach, this is music for repeated listenings.

Classic English Language Film

The Big Clock (1948)

Not quite a full bore noir film in my opinion, but it's a solid thriller with many elements found in that genre. Ray Milland's boss (played to slime-ball perfection by Charles Laughton) kills his mistress and then tries to frame someone he only sees in the shadows. He hands this task to Milland who, unknown to Laughton, was the character in the shadows. A race against time ensues as Milland is in the position of being framed for the murder and trying to solve it as well. 1987's "No Way Out" (with Kevin Costner) is essentially a remake of this film.

Recent English Language Film

The Company (2003)

After what most critics say was a lull in Robert Altman's career after 1993's "Short Cuts" (one of his best IMO), he finished off very strong with 3 straight excellent films before his death last year - this one being the second. And even though it features Neve Campbell (one of my least favourite actresses - she just annoys me on screen for some reason) and a love story I didn't really buy, the film is outstanding whenever we see the internal workings of the ballet school around which the story is based. Campbell is actually an accomplished dancer and appears to hold herself quite well against the other ballet dancers (as far as I can tell anyway) during the many dance centrepieces of the film. They are beautifully choreographed and filmed and alone make this a film to savour. The additional storylines of other characters and the behind the scenes of the school add to the full experience.

Foreign Language Film

Nobody Knows (2004)

The follow-up to Hirokazu Kore-eda's acclaimed "After Life" (which I mentioned in last week's picks), this is the story of 5 children who are left on their own by an uncaring floozy mother (each child has a different absent father). After she leaves a note and some money for the eldest boy, the movie follows their struggles to survive and stay under the radar so that they can remain together. The child actors are all remarkable and incredibly natural on screen. It almost feels like a documentary and in some ways it is since it was actually based on a true story.


Survive Style 5+ (2004)

Some of the most fun I've had at the movies in a long time. 5 separate stories of how people deal with life and their styles of surviving it. The pace is fast as the stories cut between each other and overlap characters. And absurdity rules with humour ranging from completely silly to extremely dark - a hypnotized man behaves like a chicken, a wife keeps coming back from the dead (with different abilities each time), mini-commercials are scattered throughout, a British hitman and his interpreter accost people and colour schemes that are just a visual treat. Because the film only got music rights for release in Japan, it's not likely to be found in Region 1 anytime soon. But here's the trailer to enjoy:

Thursday, 24 May 2007

Tears Of The Black Tiger

Thanks to Neil over at The Bleeding Tree for making me aware of this film.

Not only is this a lavishly beautiful film at times, but in the first 15-20 minutes, I'd already been treated to impossible ricochet shots, big booming BWAHAHAHAHA! laughs from bad guys, buckets of gooey bright red blood and plenty of cocked eyebrows. And every possible colour from one of those big Crayola boxes.

If "Psychedelic Thai Westerns" is a genre this movie would be the flag bearer. It's nothing less than a big bag of fun and occasional sensory overload. Depending on your taste for excessive melodrama it may not be much more either, but I sure enjoyed it. Others have blogged about it better, so I'll just put up a whole bunch of screenshots:

That last one precedes a rather unsettling and gruesome end for one of the characters. Let's just say it puts your teeth on edge...

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

100 Movies, 100 Quotes, 100 Numbers

This seems to be making all the blogs, but it's way too good not to include. I first saw a link to it from the most excellent Sergio Leone And The Infield Fly Rule but the credit goes to Alonzo Mosely's Acrentropy blog.

A listing of all 100 movies that the quotes come from can be found here. I counted 66 that I knew offhand.

Thursday, 17 May 2007

Ocean's Twelve - It's Not A Heist Picture

This is my contribution to The Misunderstood Blog-A-Thon.

There seemed to be almost unanimous disdain and even hatred of Ocean's Twelve upon its release a few years ago. Those who loved Ocean's Eleven as a fun heist picture thought the sequel completely missed the target and that the thefts and timelines made no sense.

Well, first off, everything did make sense and the timelines match up fine. And second, it wouldn't have mattered if they didn't.

Ocean's Twelve is not a heist picture. It's an Art Film.

Although Steven Soderbergh uses film techniques to tell his story in an interesting manner, it feels like he's actually done the reverse - the story is there to serve his playing around with the techniques. That's fine by me as Soderbergh is a master at creating great looking visuals (the "Film Couleur" of The Underneath, the different film stock of Traffic, the recreation of a 40s film in The Good German, etc.). Style over substance? Well, for me, the style (at least in this case) IS the substance.

The above opening frame sets things up. Brad Pitt has just run out on Catherine Zeta-Jones while she sleeps. In a steal from the famous rain on the window scene from In Cold Blood, the shadows of rain falling by a window fall over her face like tears (hard to see in the screen capture - trust me on this one). And from here, just about every chance Soderbergh gets, he uses filmic devices: freeze frames, chopped timelines, black and white to colour transitions...

...on screen titles describing time or location changes (in this case, we see the first 4 half second shots introducing the city of Amsterdam)...

...tilted camera angles...

etc. But my favourite devices employed in the film are the colour filters and the terrific music throughout.

The contrasting colours of orange and blue seem to be the predominant ones used during much of the film. Why? I really don't know. But it looks terrific.

Let's go back to that fifth image in the above set. The dance through the lasers during The Night Fox's theft of the Faberge Egg. Orange and blue is the colour scheme of course, but the scene is made by David Holmes' accompanying music. It's a great match of the visuals to the music as it truly feels like the master criminal is dancing through those random laser beams while that music plays in the museum. The scene, of course, is absurd if you read the film as a heist picture. Physically impossible. And yet it brings a smile to my face every time because it is such a joy to watch how artful it is.

Indeed the other thefts in the picture are pretty nonsensical. The gang probably would've had to spend more on the entire set of equipment necessary for the raising of that building then the value of what they would've stolen. And the last heist involving Julia Robert's character? Ludicrous to even conceive of it (though perfectly valid for the overall plan hatched at the "6 days left" mark).

But it doesn't matter. Soderbergh is using the medium and a fun story to play. To create a work of art that can be rewatched and enjoyed time and again for all of its styles, techniques and composition. Ocean's Eleven and Twelve are two different movies to be savoured in different ways. And when Ocean's Thirteen comes out in a few weeks and the reviews start proclaiming how it's a return to form after the disappointing middle picture (I'm just assuming that it will be more like Eleven), it'll be yet another case of people projecting their desires for what Twelve should have been in their minds (a heist picture) instead of regarding it as what it was (an art film).

But that's just me.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Esoteric Picks Of The Week #15 (05/14/2007)


Euforquestra - Explorations In Afrobeat (2004)

Looking for more Afrobeat in a Fela Kuti vein but with a bit of a Cuban spin on it? Look no further then Iowa. Yes Iowa. Specifically Iowa City. These farmboys (I have no idea if they grew up on a farm or not, but they come from Iowa so isn't that a given?) put out some great driving rhythms that seem to perfectly blend the addictive shake of afrobeat with the hip swivelling dance of old style Cuban music. Long grooving tunes swamped with percussion of all types and sharp horn lines make this a supreme toe-tapper - I defy you to keep your feet still.

Classic English Language Film

The Loved One (1965)

A few months back I read someone's list of great satires and searched out a bunch of their choices on zip.ca. First to arrive was "Little Murders" which I've talked about here before. Next were two disappointments: "Lord Love A Duck" and "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" - neither bad, but just not overly sharp or pointed in their barbs. The tonic for these misfires was "The Loved One". Billed as the movie with something to offend everyone, it offers very black and biting comedy with brillant subtle performances by John Gielgud, Jonathan Winters and Rod Steiger (as the embalmer Mr. Joyboy). With much of the film based around the upscale Whispering Glades funeral parlour, there was plenty of raw material from which to work.

Recent English Language Film

Heart Of The Game (2005)

It's easy to call this "Hoop Dreams for girls" because it does indeed follow years of ups and downs in the lives of several different Seattle girls high school basketball players. But it's not a knockoff...With an additional focus on the team's coach and his methods as well as the introduction of the film's main "character" a couple of years into filming (and after some already pretty amazing stories), the film has a lot to offer in just over a 100 minutes. And it's all extremely compelling, honest and sometimes uplifting stuff. When you finish a film like this and you feel somewhat sad that you can't spend any further time with the people who were on screen (and have an overwhelming urge to know what happened to them afterwards), it's a sign the filmmakers have told their story well.

Foreign Language Film

The Hidden Blade (2004)

There isn't anything really groundbreaking in this tale of a samurai torn between doing the right thing and staying true to his duty and traditions. But it's the quiet honour with which the main character holds himself throughout the film, as he wrestles with both his forbidden love for his maid and the task of killing a former friend, that captivates the viewer. Though mostly character driven, the story is never too slow and never loses interest. Indeed, it's because the character is so true and honest that you care so much about his story and for those around him.


After Life (1998)

In contrast to last week's pick (the Swedish "Songs From The Second Floor"), the depiction here of possible after death experiences is a much calmer and lovelier state. Each week a new batch of people who have just died show up at a facility where the staff walk them through their past and their favourite memories. Each person will pick a single memory which will be filmed by the staff and will then accompany the individuals into eternity to be played over and over. It's as bittersweet as you might expect, but is leant an additional beauty as some of the interviews feel as if they are real documents of non-actors walking through their lives. Of course you can't help but do the same thing...What memory would you pick to stay with you into eternity? It's a thought that stays with you a long time after the film is over.