Tuesday, July 28, 2009
When a film is labeled controversial on its release, often times with the passage of time things that made it risqué become tamer, leaving the story less effective. Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant is not one of those films.
17 years after being released, Ferrara's disturbing look at a dirty cop (played by Harvey Keitel in one of his most powerful performances) running rampant on the streets of New York City is still as gritty, horrifying and powerful as when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1992. Receiving a much needed special edition, out this week through Lions Gate, the film has grown in popularity through the years, as a new generation of filmmakers and film lovers, too young to have seen the film when it first came out, have embraced its honesty and amazing, no-holds-barred filmmaking.
Written by Ferrara and actress Zoe Lund (who stars in the film), the film examines the mortality of man and how power can be one of the most intoxicating vices. But it also explores a New York that no longer exists, as Ferrara calls it in the disc's commentary, "a cowboy, shoot 'em up time."
Guided through the late night New York City streets by LT (Keitel), dazed and confused most of the time, Ferrara's use of sports talk show host "Mad Dog" Russo in the opening credits sets a feel that's as tense and unsettling as the Dog's patented rambling, high-pitched voice.
The film's plot is very basic. LT is on a big case trying to solve who rapped a nun in Spanish Harlem while having a huge debt over his head from a bookie on the Mets/Dodgers League Championship Series (a fictitious event).
But the plot isn't what keeps you glued to the screen. It's Keitel's tour-de-force performance in which he portrays the most despicable anti-hero ever to be put on screen. (In the documentary special feature it notes that Christopher Walken was offered the role of LT first, but quickly bowed out stating he could never play this kind of part.) Like Ferrara's King of New York, some of Bad Lieutenant's best scenes are the ones where nothing is said. Keitel is able to convey everything you need to know in a scene through a blood shot-eyed stare, or stumble down a shady stairwell or bass thumping night club. "It's what you don't write that counts," adds Ferrara in the commentary. But when there is dialogue it's stirring. Like Lund's harrowing line after shooting up: "Vampires are lucky, they can feed on others, we gotta eat away on ourselves."
The commentary alone is definitely worth the purchase. Listening to Ferrara laugh hysterically at the most retched moments of the film is twistingly funny (the film's d.p., Ken Kelsch, also is with Ferrara on the commentary). And Ferrara shares entertaining stories, like getting Mickey Rourke to let them shoot some of the scenes at his suite at the Mayflower Hotel and the time Ferrara was offered to make a sequel to the film with the main character being one of LT's kids from the original film, now in his 20s (no, he never mentions Werner Herzog's remake). And if you ever wonder how they were able to get a crowd to gather around LT's car after being shot in the final scene, Ferrara says he basically yelled out "Hey, I think someone got shot" and had five extras look into the car, everyone else followed.
Disc is available here.
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Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Hands down one of my favorite films of 2007 is this funny yet poignant documentary about a driven San Francisco Pentecostal minister who wants to make films.
Though I will admit I was a little late on the One bandwagon (I didn't see the film until we started screening titles to consider for that year's Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You for the Gotham Awards, which unfortunately, because of the talented crop of titles that year, wasn't nominated for the award), Michael Jacobs's film found a lot of success on the festival circuit, winning awards at SXSW, Silverdocs and screening at New Directors/New Films.
Pastor Richard Gazowsky saw his first film at 40. Soon after, he had a vision that he was to make a film company. In fact, he says he was told by God to "Be the Rolls-Royce of filmmaking." Through donations from his congregation (which totaled in the hundreds of thousands), Gazowsky created the company WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) and began production on their first film, Gravity: The Shadow of Joseph, which the film's producer describes as "Star Wars meets The Ten Commandments."
Jacobs then follows Garzowsky's rag-tag group of unqualified cast and crew (all non union, found on Craigslist or from the church) as they move production to Italy to shoot the film. Soon the naivete of the people behind the production begins to become more apparent, revealing a behind the scenes look of a Christian sci-fi epic that turns into something similar to Lost in La Mancha.
Though Jacobs highlights a lot of absurdity behind the making of Gravity (Gazowsky's hilarious explanation of a bar scene, shooting the film on 65mm, the mystery investors in Germany, to only name a few), he and editor Kyle Henry never look down on Gazowsky and his team, and instead stays as objective as possible, which is the film's true testament.
The disc includes a great commentary by Jacobs, deleted scenes and the only scenes that have ever been shot of Gravity.
To purchase the film, click here.
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Directors Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden highlight the life and work of jazz great Anita O'Day in this beautifully packaged 2-disc DVD release spotlighting one of the last living female greats from the golden era of jazz.
Known as "The Jezebel of Jazz", Day died at 87 soon after the production of this documentary was complete. But as in her prime, Day comes off as a feisty lover of life in the doc, not shy to speak her mind and unapologetic of the mistakes she's made in the past.
Self-described as "not a singer, but a song stylist", Day, who is not as recognized by the layman as Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, became known as more than the "girl singer" in the big band era when she went against the stereotypes and moved her body while she sang, along with giving passionate renditions which gave her a hip style that wasn't seen in performers before her but is certainly apparent in many since.
Using archival footage and interviews from friends, musicians, jazz enthusiasts and Day herself, the film chronicles her life through her music. Though she had a long battle with heroin, which included an over dose in 1968, Cavolina and McCrudden focus less on her demons and more on the indelible mark she left on not only jazz, but the arts itself (she's mentioned in Jack Kerouac's On the Road and in 2006 her music was rediscovered by a new generation when John Cameron Mitchell included her song "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby" in Shortbus). Most of Days's performances in the film are shown in full, including her rendition of "Sweet Georgia Brown" at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958, which is immortalized in Bert Stern's doc Jazz on a Summer's Day.
If you can't get enough of Day in the doc, disc 2 includes 13 TV performances from Day, and there's a 32-page booklet with essays from author James Gavin and the Wall Street Journal's Will Friedwald. And if that's still not enough, you can get the Deluxe Limited Edition that includes a 144 page coffee table scrap book of many of O'Day's clippings through her career. Learn more about the film and how to purchase here.
If you love jazz, this is a must have.
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Friday, July 17, 2009
The recent release Empires of Tin (100 min, 16mm and DV, 2008) is a document of Jem Cohen’s program of projected films for live music performed on closing night at the Viennale (Vienna Film Festival) in 2007, which was entitled Evening’s Civil Twilight In Empires Of Tin.
Cohen’s images have always resonated in poetic ways, speed-of-time altered views of New York and other ancient cities, harsh but gorgeous B&W night scenes with pulsating light and drifting mist – somehow he makes fog appear everywhere he goes. With his past films, such as the moody Benjamin Smoke, the amazing portrait of Fugazi in Instrument , the wandering lost pet Chain and a big number of shorts, Cohen has carved out a strong following in the art film world in New York and with hip crowds who love the non-traditional film-poems – a format music videos should be dominated by, but only dip in frequently. With Empires Cohen is in full force, capturing buildings in decline, definitely physically, possibly morally, as well as various citizens lost in our modern world.
An all-star musician lineup consisted of Vic Chesnutt, members of Silver Mt. Zion, Guy Picciotto, T.Griffin and Catherine McRae. The music ranges from controlled echoes and the daunting lyrics of Chestnutt to war-inspired noise, an effective orchestra of our times reflecting on timeless images. A narrator reads from one of the inspirations for the piece, Joseph Roth’s novel The Radetsky March, speaking about lost souls and the horrible effects of war, destruction and monarchs.
Images come from present day NYC and from archives of the Austrian-Hungarian empire and WWI. Parallels between that declined world and ours are obvious, but never feel forced. First part of the DVD combines footage of the live performance (shot high quality, with great sound) intercut with the powerful images that were projected above them. The band is captured in a smart way, realizing the musicians as a vivid image, in color in front of the stark B&W. A second part of the film in the middle feels more like a film, color images with some more natural sounds and less images of the orchestra. Jem’s camera catches everyday life moments that resonate, like a strange man behind a chain fence talking to us, but with the sound of a empty street instead of dialogue. Unfinished architecture has its plastic wings whip in the breeze. Cars on freeway aas if they were blood pulsing through city. A third section of the film is like the first, striking city portraits and full accompaniment by the band.
While Cohen’s images are compelling, they don’t stand alone as a film. They feed the band which brings them alive, a true collaboration, which is great. This DVD should get Jem some new fans and re-affirm his consistency of making quality work that is gorgeous to see yet socially relevant.
I found the DVD randomly at a record store, like a lost pet – you can get it for $16 right here.
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