"Undertow" opens with its stalwart hero (Jamie Bell) smooching Kristen Stewart. By the next scene, (Click-click... Bang!) off he goes, trotting away from her gun-totting father. He dashes through the fields and through the woods. Way behind, the popping Pops hauls and calls the cops. When the chase caputs, the lad is caught, limping with a nail in his foot.
The runner's name is Chris. Roaming and fooling around, this kid from Georgia wants escape. He's trapped in a meager household with a staid dad (Dermot Mulroney) and a paint-eater brother (Devon Alan). His hours are humdrum, mainly hogged by minding hogs. But that's about to change when an ominous character (Josh Lucas) drops by.
His name is Deel. He reeks of danger, even before we know he just came from prison. The father says he's okay though. Deel's his brother; he's family. Therefore, he can live with them. He can take care of the boys while the dad is away.
But seriously, what is the real deal with Deel? The guy behaves so dubiously. Why did he go to prison? And why does he keep asking about some mythic coins he's supposed to inherit? Hmmm.
The movie can be pitched as a Southern gothic thriller. Deel is a villain, unafraid to use violence to get what he wants. To him, Chris and his younger brother are obstacles. They're the targets (a.k.a. the ones we'll be rooting for). But for a movie called "Undertow," there is a hidden drama gushing beneath the thriller. If one looks deeper, one might recognize that the welcoming brother might be acting out of compunction. And the criminal brother is scary, not out of malice, but of desperation. Once you get inside their heads, there's an anticipation of dread. Sure enough when the past is cut open, blood will be shockingly shed.
The most intriguing character for me is Deel. Josh Lucas provides him with a slimy, dodgy charm. Deel is not just downright shady, he's also sly in the way he redirects conversations and pushes buttons ("We're friends, right? I'm family."). It's a well-written role that elicits varying reactions from the audience. Another actor I liked is Jamie Bell. Walking barefoot and sporting a trucker hat, the English actor has come a long way from his "Billy Elliot" dancing shoes. Bell excels in these tough-it-out underdog roles. He is not a pretty boy by Hollywood standard. But the guy is a compelling actor; you'd rather read his face than admire it in some magazine cover.
The director of "Undertow" is David Gordon Green, who would release the comedy "The Pineapple Express" four years later. That film and "Undertow" differ widely in tone, but Green has a sense of locale for both films. In "The Pineapple Express," I can still picture that marijuana lair in the final act. In "Undertow," he finds odd beauty in decay via junkyards and abandoned buildings. I think he's a bold director in his own subtle ways. Like its lead character, Green runs with what he's got. I think he improvises without losing control. Sometimes he goes for the jugular by constricting us in suspense. Other times, he lets us breathe by pacing the movie in wide-eyed possibility. I sense him experimenting moods, finely tinkering moments. While I think he runs out of gas near the muddled end, "Undertow" gets a great mileage with him in tow.
I recently checked out Guy Maddin, a filmmaker whom an acquaintance intriguingly described as the Canadian David Lynch. From his 2003 film "The Saddest Music in the World," David Lynch indeed popped into my head. This is a weird movie, filmed in great granny's grainy black-and-white. Sometimes it's blurry, out of focus. Sometimes even the aperture is limited. So put away the 3D glasses. The visuals might be anti-high-def, but at least the movie seems deft in its own dimension of lunacy.
Its silly pouty premise is set during The Great Depression. Winnipeg has been pegged as the sorrow capital of the world. To commemorate the "honor," beer baroness Lady Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini) wants to hold a musical contest. For a grand prize of $25,000, she's inviting countries to compete for the "saddest music in the world." Three of the participants belong in the same family. And two of these three have a complicated and severed past with Lady P.
Fyodor Kent (David Fox), the father, represents Canada. On the stage, he knocks down the piano, because, you know, his song is dedicated to fallen heroes. His son, competing for USA, is Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), a Broadway producer donning a slimy and deceitful mustache. He thinks he'll win it all; his show business pizazz coupled with downer songs could be just the ticket. And finally, from Serbia, there's the cellist son, Roderick. Unlike his smiley brother, Roderick is full-on morose. The man is so so sad, it's funny. Maybe not funny ha-ha. More like it's funny he shares the same fashion sense as Harry Potter's Professor Snape.
Despite the title, this movie is, from what I can tell, a comedy. It reels out its own eccentricity, laughing, winking, and elbowing the audience on the chest as if it's saying, "It's funny, right? Brilliantly wild, right? Riiight? Riiiight?" Well, uh - ahem! - uhmmm ...
Here's the thing. I did like it, but my appreciation for the movie is limited and indirect. I hardly responded to it right away. I found the visuals distracting, the humor initially inaccessible, and the characters sometimes gratingly outlandish. Now those are three strikes already. However, with patience and perseverance, I actually got into it. I thought a few scenes, especially the ones involving the competition, have a haunting yet quirky quality. I wish it could have been more consistent in that tone. The movie walks a fine line between funny and ghastly. Unfortunately, its walk is as tipsy as its characters. But there is no denying that "The Saddest Music of the World" is strikingly original and Guy Maddin is a talented filmmaker. I just have reservations recommending it to people. Hey, you never know. You might actually enjoy it, but you won't blame me if you don't like it, right? Riiight? Riiight?
"2001: A Space Odyssey" has been intimidating me for years. I was afraid I was not going to get it. But this year, I decided to man up and give in. Of course, what do I get in the first three minutes - a pitch dark screen accompanied by scary music. How the heck am I supposed to respond to that? Did I not get a secret decoder? I felt dumbstruck watching Kubrick's masterpiece because well, it is utterly different from most movies. I'd throw in words like jarring and shocking to describe it, but one would probably mentally picture blood with these descriptions where the movie has none.
Perhaps attempting to describe is a mistake. You can't merely put "2001: A Space Odyssey" into words. The movie has to be seen and heard to believe. It lavishes such a pure luxurious atmosphere that its first-rate and ambitious plot seems secondary. Visionary Stanley Kubrick is in top form here. He captures such a precise eeriness in mood and tone that you can't help but gravitate towards his realized realms.
True to its title, what the movie has is a lot of space. While "Star Wars" and movies alike have treated space as just another frontier to play cowboys on, "2001? takes a step-back appreciation. Sluggish spacecrafts are observed in slow mesmerizing shots, as if floating in space is as elegant as dancing the waltz. There is also fascination about life in space, with "futuristic" inventions such as picture phone, grip shoes, and iPads to watch news on. Kubrick also presents a world of discombobulation, where we see actors walk upright, sideways, and upside-down. And I must admit that my Physics knowledge kicked in glee, when I saw the rotating space stations mimic gravity by using centripetal force.
But for all the technological inventions featured, none can match the HAL-9000 computer. "He" is prominent in the main story (the movie's third segment) as the "perfect" brain and central system of a spacecraft on a mission to Jupiter. HAL, depicted simply as a red light with a polite male voice, is never known to err. But when two astronauts on board suspect of a computer malfunction, they must find a way to outsmart and ctrl-alt-delete the calculating machine.
No doubt HAL is one of the most memorable villains of all time. It's genius in Kubrick's part to use a round red light. We are conditioned to freeze to the image, as if danger awaits us if we move. And what I even find more disturbing is HAL's calm voice, which is chilling in its lack of emotions. And then there's the computer's logic itself. You can't reason with HAL. It's more stubborn than a woman who always thinks she's right. Hell hath no fury like a computer scorned.
I love the HAL story because, in part, it's suspenseful and accessible. The other three segments of the movie, which spotlights mysterious black monoliths, are more vague and require interpretation. This brings me back to my initial fear. I was right suspecting I wouldn't get "it." But you know what, as head scratching the movie is, I don't care. I can't wait to watch the movie again to understand more of it. What I realized is that "2001? somehow evolved me. The movie is a symbolic black monolith of its own. It altered my primitive movie watching and took me to the next level. The advanced generation of cinema is not 3-D. It should be films that stimulate curiosity and imagination. "2001: A Space Odyssey," which came in 1968, was not only ahead of its time, it is still ahead of ours.
I have never heard of "The Asphalt Jungle" before. The title intrigued me and had me asking - will I be treated to a dark rocky story reeking of burnt rubber? Amazingly, the movie somehow lives up to its name. The 1950 black and white film is set on an unnamed Midwest city - smoggy and foreboding. The streets might be lifeless and dull, but you sense the bustling of lawbreakers on the hidden corners.
The movie follows a heist - from the meticulous planning to the erroneous aftermath. Just got out of prison, Doc Riedenschneider, a small man with a heavy German accent, has a "foolproof" plan in stealing some jewels. But his plan won't come into fruition without funding and abled bodied men with certain skills. But of course, adding humans to the equation does not make that plan foolproof anymore. Honor among thieves? Pssh, not in this story, bud.
What I loved about "The Asphalt Jungle" is that it is a great ensemble movie. Today, we're spoiled with character actors, but back then, Hollywood was about its stars. There is no real lead actor in the film. The talented cast is in service of the story. There are a couple of good performances. I liked Sam Jaffe as the German mastermind and Loius Calhem as the double-crossing Emmerich. But perhaps my favorite is Marilyn Monroe. She is in a very minor role, but damn, she is the paragon of a scene stealer.
Perhaps the star of the film is the man behind the camera. Director John Huston composes a textured film, with characters caught up in their own flaws. I also like the way he frames his shots and paints a visual play of shadows (a film noir signature). I also liked its nitty-gritty story - where not one character is portrayed in good light. I just find these kind of tales so robust and fascinating. (I recommend Dashiell Hammett's lean novel Red Harvest, which I devoured last year). "The Asphalt Jungle" is a great movie. It's rough on the surface, but lays out one smooth ride. This caper is a keeper.
Everyone begins on a broad road of possibilities, but as one ages, the choices dwindle and the path gets narrower. When I was young, I could not fully grasp how we have to make lifetime commitments. How do you know what you want to be for life? As I grew, I viewed the age-old question differently for isn't really a matter of certainty, but that of wisdom and faith.
Take the protagonist of the Italian drama "Not of This World" for example. Sister Caterina, beautiful and intelligent, is happy on becoming a nun. But when she is handed an abandoned infant to take care of, two internal forces kick in - her maternal instinct and her doubts about her lifetime profession. Her spiritual questioning is not obvious at first, but people around her are constantly bringing it up. It is a curiosity that permeates the movie as to why this woman would want to become a nun.
I think what gravitates you towards to Sister Caterina is that she's wise, nice, and all-around admirable. It seems that she's got it together. And even when her doubts make her pause, her heart is resolute. And when she is certain, she has no hint of crazy. She seems perfect but Margherita Buy, who won Best Actress (Italy) for the role, illuminates her as credibly human. She gives a beautiful nuanced performance.
It would be best to view the movie as a character study. I like that the characters aren't sometimes talking and silently reflect their inner thoughts. While there is a certain mystery to what the characters withhold, the plot is fairly straightforward. The ending is predictable even if the movie teases some alternate possibilities. But like life, what matters is not about the destination but the journey itself. And Sister Caterina's baby steps to a spiritual discovery is one emotional home run.