Rix Flix 5: CYCLO and CARTELS

Yes,Virginia, there is a Vietnamese-French arthouse film. In fact, there are probably several. all written and directed by Vietnamese-French filmmaker Tran Ahn Hung. The one I saw, 1995’s CYCLO (signed out from the local library) is the second entry from the film-maker and the eagerly awaited follow-up to his Oscar-nominated The Scent of Green Papaya.

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Apparently (I write the word “apparently” because I am not sure of  may be the plot) a young guy (Le Van Loc)  driving a rickshaw (rickshaw drivers are known as Cyclos) has his vehicle stolen (I can see the comparisons to The Bicycle Thief  but as far as I am concerned the similarities stop there) and he is forced to turn to crime to help support his impoverished extended family.

Tony Leung plays a would-be poet who is also a pimp (Sensitive soul!). Some of his character’s poetry is on the soundtrack. Onscreen he seems to speak very little. That’s okay, though, because Mr. Leung has one of the most expressive faces in Asian cinema. (My favorite performance by Mr. Leung is still In the Mood for Love  with John Woo’s Hard-Boiled a distant second.)

Unbeknownst to the Cyclo his sister (Tran Nu Yen-Khe, the filmmaker’s wife in real life) has volunteered to be a prostitute in the poetic pimp’s stable.

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Tony Leung in CYCLO

The paper thin plot seems to be a vehicle for shots of Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City) and its residents at the time of filming. Mr. Hung has a good eye for images. However, the film’s running time (over two hours) and pacing may try the patience of some viewers. Nevertheless, it is refreshing to see modern day Saigon and its residents (for better or for worse)  written and directed by a Vietnam-born film-maker. (Enough with the American-made Vietnam War movies, already!)

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Tran Nu Yen-Khe in CYCLO

CARTELS

Steven Seagal’s name is above the title but he leaves most of the rough stuff to up-and-coming  B-movie hunk Luke Goss (he came all the way from Blighty for flicks like this)

As long as there are guys like me watching junk like this, there will be a market for movies like this.

Oh, and btw (in text talk), if you are wondering about the title, it doesn’t refer to Mexican cartels (the reason I naively signed on – I plead guilty!), it’s about cartels in eastern Europe (where most of Mr. Seagal’s color-by-number action pics are shot.)

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(CARTELS is streaming on Netflix at the time of this writing.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Difference Between Movies and Film . Are …

Movies (such as the ones Steven Seagal makes) are strictly for entertainment. Films (such as the ones that Martin Scorsese and certain overseas directors make) aim a little higher.

In other words: Movies go better with popcorn. With films you don’t need it.

(Strictly a personal opinion. And no, I’m not an arthouse snob. I watch and often enjoy both kinds.)

“Song to Song” Hits a Sour Note (My Apologies for the Lame Headline)

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I would guess I didn’t get as much out of writer/director Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life  as  some folks. Maybe I wasn’t patient enough. (“This film’s rewards are many, for those with the patience to simply let it float.” Moira McDonald “Seattle Times”) Or maybe I was unwilling to simply let it float. Whatever (a suitably opaque response to what – for me – was an opaque film.) 

I mean, I became engaged with some of Mr. Malick’s films – Badlands and The Thin Red Line, for example – but recent efforts like To the Wonder and Knight of Cups have seemed a tad … wispy … to my singularly practiced eye.

Now comes Song to Song. The film was shot at Austin’s “South  by Southwest” and, I must confess, was curious to see what Mr. Malick would do with the famed festival as his backdrop. 

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My guess would be that Mr. Malick is attempting to find a new visual language with which to tell stories on film.  Call me old school but I prefer films or movies (there is a difference, in my mind) with crunchy dialogue and a plot and/or characters with whom I can become involved in my imagination. The A-list cast seems to understand what the famed filmmaker is trying to accomplish but, for my money, they seem to be lost in the ether. Only the great Patti Smith (in what amounts to a cameo) rings true.

Someone named J.R. Jones, writing in something called “The Chicago Reader” says it best for me, anyway, when he writes that the film “looks like a photo essay out of Architectural Digest … with its gorgeous, murmuring stars as if they were statuary.”)

I guess I wasn’t patient enough.

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Rix Flix 3 – Free Fire

Free Fire may have been a modest box office hit if the movie had been released shortly after Reservoir Dogs or  Pulp Fiction. (For awhile there, the cinematic landscape was littered with Tarentino wannabes.) As it is,  UK writer/director Ben Wheatley has shown none of the distinctive style that has led to some critics film labeling him as an up and coming British auteur. One trailer for the film highlighted the name of executive producer Martin Scorsese without even mentioning Mr. Wheatley’s name. This latest entry should do little to gain Ben Wheatley more mainstream recognition on the North American continent. 

Free Fire

But perhaps he doesn’t need it. He has managed to attract names such as Martin Scorsese (arguably America’s greatest living filmmaker) and a cast that includes Brie Larson, South African actor Sharlto Copley (District Nine), Cillian Murphy (TV’s Peaky Blinders, among many others), Sam Riley  (Control) and Armie Hammer (Call Me By Your Name).

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Writer/director Ben Wheatley Ready for his close-up?

Cynics have suggested that the only reason this movie received North American theatrical distribution at all is the presence of Ms. Larson in the cast, who rocketed from relative indie-film obscurity (despite a fine performance in Short Term 12 to full-fledged Hollywood stardom following her role in Room complete with All The Right Magazine Covers and leading roles in Hollywood-style blockbusters.)

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Oscar-winning actress BRIE LARSON in “Free Fire”

However, if you can stand potentially claustrophobic shoot-em-ups (most of the action is confined to a seedy Boston warehouse) and a bloody exercise in genre film-making you could do worse on a rainy evening.

 

TV or Not to TV2: La Mante

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It was the steely smile of Carole Bouquet that first caught my attention in this French-made thriller and having made it through the first episode (on Netflix) I committed to watching the entire series. Mme. Bouquet plays the mother of all serial killers and when it appears as if a copycat is recreating her crimes she offers to help the police catch the killer – on one condition. She wants her estranged son, now a cop (and expertly played by Fred Testot) to help her with the case.

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Carole Bouquet in “La Mante” (with Pascal Demondon – right- and Fred Testot – left – in the background.)

I had previously seen Mme. Bouquet as a Bond girl in 1981’s For Your Eyes Only and Luis Bunuel’s That Obscure  Object of Desire. From Bond to Bunuel! What a range! In fact, it is Mme. Bouquet’s enigmatic reading of her character that held my interest through a teleplay that relies a tad too much on coincidence for its twists and turns.

The series has been labelled “transphobic” by several commenters on the Netflix site. Having no previous personal experience with members of the trans community and unaware of whether they have the same PC police in France as they have in North America I cannot speak to this. I gotta say, however, that I never believed the young French actress playing a transsexual.)  

With Netflix picking up some well-produced international TV series it is only a matter of time before one of these performers achieves international fame in an American film or TV series. That didn’t work out so well for French superstars like Catherine Deneuve, Gerard Depardieu or Anne Parillaud (the original Femme Nikita) but it might work out for Manon Azem (one of the eye-catching stars of La Mante). She’s my pick to click, anyway. 

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Manon Azem in “La Mante”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rix Flix: “Kill the Messenger”

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He fought the law – and the law won. That’s basically the film in a nutshell. According to director Michael Cuesta (TV’s Homeland), Gary Webb, a real-life reporter for  San Jose Mercury News was the first journalist to see the link between a US backed war being waged in Nicaragua and the flood of cocaine inundating the poorer sections of Los Angeles.

Not surprisingly, the film depicts Mr. Webb as a crusading reporter stymied at every turn by the CIA . (Peter Landesman’s screenplay is based on Mr. Webb’s “Dark Alliance” and a book  by Nick Schou). 

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Not everyone is impressed. In an article headlined “Gary Webb was no journalistic hero – despite what Kill the Messenger says” Washington Post’s Jeff Leen writes “Webb’s story made the extraordinary claim that the Central Intelligence Agency was responsible for the crack cocaine epidemic in America. What he lacked was the extraordinary proof ….  at first, the claim was enough ….Then it all began to come apart. The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times … wrote major pieces knocking the story down for its overblown claims and undernourished reporting.”  (In the film the major papers are depicted as jealous. In one scene, an editor berates his staff for getting scooped by a much smaller paper.)

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Michael Kenneth Williams as drug dealer Ricky Ross in “Kill the Messenger” (Yes, he played Omar in “The Wire”

Judging from the casting, the producers may have been hoping for another All the President’s Men. No one in current Hollywood is better at coiled intensity than Jeremy Renner who plays Gary Webb in this film. 

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Jeremy Renner as Gary Webb in “Kill the Messenger”

On the other hand, Robert Patrick, Michael Kenneth Williams, Michael Sheen  and Ray Liotta (to name a few) are wasted in small parts and even the blink-and-you’ll-miss them cameos are filled with familiar faces. I saw the film on Netflix so I don’t know how much of the footage ended up on the cutting room floor. But surely estimable character actors like, for example, Richard Schiff (TV’s West Wing) and Gil Bellows (you’ll recognize him when you see him) deserve more screen time. About the only performer who left an impression was the chameleonic Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Mr. Webb’s long-suffering editor and friend.

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Mary Elizabeth Winstead as San Jose Mercury News editor Anne Simons in “Kill the Messenger”

Since the film sank at the box office, the subject of the film has sank with it. It’s  entertaining enough, boosted by Mr. Renner’s galvanizing performance. Just don’t get swept away. As Kris Kristofferson once said (in a somewhat different context) “He’s a walking contradiction … partly truth and partly fiction.”