Cop Land (Mangold, 1997)

Definitely a step up in budget and star power (Cop Land has one of the better casts of recent memory), but Mangold manages to retain much of the tension and pacing seen in his debut film Heavy. Cop Land resides in the realm of the crime drama, but it’s really a Western underneath – Sheriff Freddy Heflin (Sly Stallone in a great performance) battling the underbelly of a small town (led by Harvey Keitel’s corrupt cop), outsiders unable to understand or help, and the violent retribution of past sacrifices playing a key role. Mangold once again pays close attention to faces and their particular relationships to space, this time excluding sound from key scenes to parallel Freddy’s inability to hear out of one ear. Throughout the film we see how alone Freddy feels, a small town man of the law surrounded by the arrogance and greed of big city politics, but this aesthetic approach brings the final bloody conflict more weight, pushing the viewer into Freddy’s POV with stunning clarity. Mangold’s director’s cut, clocking in at almost 15 more minutes than the theatrical version, drags a bit, however the film as a whole marks a shining example of what a talented, film literate director can do when given moderate funds and an amazing ensemble.

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Heavy (Mangold, 1995)

It’s great to finally see where James Mangold began his career. The man behind such duds as Identity, gems like Cop Land, and the upcoming 3:10 To Yuma remake has always struck me as an interesting filmmaker, a humanist at heart working in an industry which praises artificiality. Heavy, his critically acclaimed debut, came about amidst the American Indy scene at it’s height, and it’s to Mangold’s credit this small, subtle beauty made such an impact in the company of Tarantino, et. al. Mangold’s direction is first rate, positioning his camera as Ozu would (the great David Bordwell made this great observation on his blog), to enable the characters maximum space to move around freely, letting nuance, patterns, and habits express more about story than dialogue. Pruitt Taylor Vince, who plays Victor, the overweight chef of Mangold’s primary diner locale, acts more with his facial expressions than words, creating a character overwhelmed by life’s small stresses which rest heavy on his shoulders, unwilling to yield. Mangold’s film deals with Victor’s growth as a singular person, not defined by his kind but needy mother (Shelly Winters) or his coworkers (played by Liv Tyler and Deborah Harry), and his attempts to gain something fulfilling out of life. Made on a miniscule budget, Mangold favors substance over flash, silence over banter, and most importantly kindness over brutality. Throughout Heavy, Victor tries to save the people in his life from their own downfall, realizing in the process he has to save himself first. A great example of an American indy.

Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976)

In researching a possible lecture on The New Hollywood of the late 1960’s/early 1970’s, I came to the realization Taxi Driver might be the ultimate incarnation of that period’s angst, contradiction, and beauty. Scorsese uses a distinctly rhythmic and dreamy approach to Travis Bickle’s journey, moving back and forth between cramped close-ups and wide angle vista’s of the NYC cityscape. Both include Bickle in almost every shot, exemplifying his ambiguous psychology and alienation in a world he sees as a sewer. Scorsese also injects some classical Hollywood iconography from the gangster picture to make Bickle’s experience ever more complicated and dire – the prostitute, the pimp, the cabbie, the politician all play a role in defining Bickle’s fate. In the end, Bickle defines these archetypes through the fear, love, and insanity tearing at his soul. Leftist reform movements nor Right wing politicians can serve Bickle’s needs because he is a product of the insecurities and horrors of both, a military man and a humanist, a racist and a savior. Taxi Driver is above all a haunting requiem to the security of a nation’s psyche, which will end up repeating the travesties of the past without realizing the ironies of such horrors. A walking contradiction of rage and honor, Bickle might be the only ostrige sticking his head out of the sand, seeing the world for what it really is, and that’s a scary thought.

I Think I love My Wife (Rock, 2007)

Chris Rock’s film makes some interesting observations about the clash between suburban White America and traditional, cliched Gangsta rap imagery, and the everyday African American working people caught in between. But the script is so loosely fitted and inconsequential, it begins to repeat scenes at a rapid pace simply enabling Rock to pound in his messages about masculinity and family (which aren’t that original in the first place). His “bored” protagonist shifts back and forth between loving father and “almost” bastard womanizer so many times it’s tiring, leaving little sympathy or interest for his supposed conflicts. The tension in Rock’s marriage is never fully developed outside of cliche, so when he whines about his beautiful, loving wife, we want to through a brick at his head and scream “wake up asshole, you’re an idiot.”

Blades of Glory (Gordon, Speck, 2007)

It’s somewhat refreshing this Will Ferrell/Jon Heder comedy blatantly plays up the obvious bits of comedy in setting up a male/male figure skating team. The dumb jokes work in part because both stars pull off a sense of humility by films end, an theme less prominent in Ferrell’s Taladega Nights or Achnorman. Not by any means a great film, but surprisingly sincere, and hilarious at times.

Sunshine (Boyle, 2007)

Sunshine, as it’s title might suggest, breaks things down to the barest essentials – fire, light, cold, ice, and life or death. In the near future eight astronauts travel to detonate a huge bomb at the sun’s core to re-ignite the dying star. Success means life on Earth, failure means the death of all mankind. Director Danny Boyle uses this clear cut ideology as a skeleton to base the plot twists, character development, and relationships of the film. Led by Cillian Murphy’s explosives expert, the brave souls on Icarus 2 begin to realize the absolutes involved as they fly closer to the devastating brightness of the sun, the ultimate key light which Boyle brilliantly uses to confuse, hallucinate, and finally scorch his combatants. Sunshine becomes something else in it’s final act, not quite a horror film, or even a sci-fi picture, but a final disturbing chapter for mankind’s most primal urges. Boyle stages his drama in relation to the the potential sunlight, glimmering rays bursting through wide angle establishing shots from space, a plethora of digital beauty as menacing as it is stunning. But just as Sunshine deals in the essentials of human nature – sacrifice, murder, radicalized religion – something feels forced, convoluted, and completely artificial about the way Murphy and company exude these changes in character. It might be Alex Garland’s sometimes muddled script, or the cramped, haunted Kurbick mise-en-scene Boyle utilizes, or even the small scale of such a huge, end of the world mission. Sunshine ends up being a fascinating experience, but mostly on a visual and audio level, it’s sonic booms of sound meshing wonderfully with John Murphy and Underworld’s toned down score. As for the visuals, well, as every other reviewer has said, they’re out of this world, often transcending the screen and blinding the viewer themselves. But Boyle doesn’t follow the sci-fi rules entirely, injecting some fascinating aesthetic touches of his own to compliment the characters’ becoming. Splices of lost, haunted images revel in between frames, absolute truths become crushed by ideology, and point of view falters more often than not, producing a blurred, sun drenched reaction to the barest essentials described above. Sunshine falters when it presses saintly themes too hard (and some ridiculous plot devices), but luckily Boyle and company let the sun and it’s eternal rays do most of the talking, and the burn will last a long time.

Watchmen by Alan Moore and David Gibbons

Hailed as one of the best graphic novels of all time, Watchmen offers a brutally engaging experience, shifting between detailed history, destructive violence, calm transitions, and personal reflections surrounding the de-mystification of the super hero. I’m not going to reveal story here, because I knew nothing about this classic work going in, so I won’t ruin it for those who still haven’t read it. However, staying away from individual characters, I will entice you with the world Moore and Gibbons brilliantly construct. Watchmen (now being made into a full length feature film and the first image resides above) delves into a parallel nightmare New York City set in 1985, where Nixon holds a seemingly permanent presidency, the Cold War suffocates all, fear and tension reign supreme. Super-heroes are outlawed, unless sanctioned by the government, and those still fighting crime on their own are simultaneously being hunted by the police for breaking the law. It’s a dire world, one which Moore’s illustrations explode with dark colors and surprising moments of primary hue. It’s a complex portrait of nationalism at it’s most devastating and honorable, and stays true to the relationships established no matter the extreme savagery or far fetched actions represented. “Who watches the Watchmen?” It’s a question meant for everyone, and fearing to answer produces inevitable tyranny. As Rorschach would say, “No Compromise!” A brilliant piece of literature.