Capsule Reviews: 1958 Watchlist Section Four – Westerns

We’re a year away from Rio Bravo and not quite in revisionism territory (tinkering though, sure). Another genre in transition. These may look and feel like Westerns, but whether benign or brutal, these films poke at and/or undermine the established codes. On the left end of the spectrum, there’s William Wyler’s The Big Country, a 165 minute epic A-picture that uses its sprawl to debunk Western myths with Gregory Peck’s pacifist James McKay. On the right is paltry-budget extraordinaire Joseph H. Lewis’s last film Terror in a Texas Town, a bare bones outlier oddity that would go down nicely paired with Murder by Contract from the same year. In the middle is easily the best and most enduring of the three; Anthony Mann’s endlessly unforgiving Man of the West. Here, all that’s left of the Western are deserted ghost towns, the constant threat of explicit violence, and the inconsolable gap left in the wake of wasted blood.

The Big Country
(1958, Wyler) (US)

A joint project with Gregory Peck (he and William Wyler produced) about what happens when a man challenges, through refusal to kowtow, the social norms of his environment. The two families-in-a-long-standing-feud story carries the kind of history stewing that befits a film of this scope. And what a scope. Shot in CinemaScope, Franz F. Planer drowns the characters in vista without, critically, losing the human intimacy that often evaporates when working in widescreen framing. Lots of Westerns showcase beautiful landscape photography, but strong depth of field here that one wonders how all this land fits on the screen at all. That may sound like Wyler and company squished the land into the frame, like an overflowing suitcase being shoved down down down so it can just barely close. But no, it’s simply majestic, emphasizing the irony of two families unable to cohabit in all that space.

The essence of Gregory Peck is one of surface passivity masking action through dignity and an unwavering moral compass. His James McKay is seen by others as a pushover, a coward. But he isn’t. He just lives by his own mostly pacifist code, refusing to succumb to what is expected of him just because proving oneself as the new kid on the ranch is what one inevitably does. When he does prove himself, it is to himself, on his own time and his own terms. He wants no fanfare, and he certainly feels no need to tell his disappointed fiancee (Carroll Baker) that he did ride that horse, or that he did defend himself in the blue of the night.

For its swiftness and Burl Ives-ness (it was for this, and not Cat on a Hot Tin Roof from the same year, that he received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar), The Big Country suffers from that ever-familiar trap of narrative over-inflation. Everything carries on a few beats too long. Gregory Peck challenges the explicitly-presented-as-such outmoded Western. Since Peck doesn’t want to fight, this is short on action and long on talking. Everything is over-expressed and drained of emotional resonance. It’s all just a mite too square.

Two highlights are the fistfight between Charlton Heston and Peck that switches between extreme long shot to medium shot. The emphasis is on the act of having it out, not on claiming a victor. Second is when Jean Simmons tells Peck a story. The music randomly swells, gradually drowning out her voice, and he eventually feigns fainting. It’s such an anomalous moment in the middle of a traditional film, and I really appreciated that little touch.

man of the west mann
Man of the West
(1958, Mann)
“When you were a boy?”
“I don’t know what I was”

I was considerably unprepared for Man of the West, the Straw Dogs of studio westerns — that is, if you replace the invaded home with a derelict barn that symbolizes a tense union between past and present. Twenty minutes in, Gary Cooper’s reformed criminal, Arthur O’Connell’s gambler, and Julie London’s dance hall girl wander off together after an unfortunately timed train robbery. I thought ‘oh lovely; it’ll be about the adventures of this ragtag trio’. Oh, how very wrong I was.

This is a volatile, sickening and almost unbearably tense piece of filmmaking. We are soon trapped in this barn with Lee J. Cobb and his underlings, as Link (Cooper) comes face-to-grizzly-face with the life he left behind so many years ago. Reform is too abstract to hold in this world. Cooper is, after all these years, forced back into this fold in order to protect London and O’Connell. But his fake re-alliance doesn’t ensure their safety at all. Nothing he does gives him leverage. Nothing he does matters. Link, in a desperate effort to protect Billie (London) proclaims “she’s mine”. And again, it changes nothing.

Man of the West operates as a vice grip, a gradual tightening of the fists. Its chamber piece setting (three acts, taking place on a train, a barn, and a ghost town) and warped use of lenses tighten the unbearable suspense, as does the constant threat and/or follow through, of violence. There is nobody to run to. The planned bank robbery of the third act is a bust because it turns out Lassoo is a ghost town. The characters are isolated with one another, and the audience with them. At a certain point Man of the West feels something akin to hell. Nowhere is this more definitive than an agonizing scene where Billie is forced to strip while Cooper looks on, powerless at knifepoint. Billie is the broken heart of the film, consistently sidelined except when serving as an example of the world’s brutality. But I’m really fond of Julie London’s efforts to imbue Billie with an inner life; there is depth to her terror and unrequited desire that is not on the page.

Something I’m seeing in these 1958 films is the acting clash of the old studio era and the new Method actors who were then infiltrating the cineplex. This was one of Gary Cooper’s last films; he would die in 1961. We never buy Link’s past when looking at Cooper, nor do we buy his ‘act’ of returning to the fold. His age and unconvincing criminal ‘persona’ make Link vulnerable at every checkpoint, his efforts to protect aren’t reassuring, and when they succeed, it’s just plain ugly. There is no triumph to be found in Man of the West. Sidling up against Cooper is Lee J. Cobb as the lecherous Dock Tobin. Even the name suggests a weight; it’s a name we don’t want to hear. Dock Tobin. The distractions of overacting often yield back to potency and that’s the case with Cobb. He slobbers and mutters, his decaying mind still protecting his immoral instincts. He is downright scary. All that rampant dirtiness that the Code can’t be direct about, it’s all there on his grubby visage.

All in all I’m pretty unfamiliar with Anthony Mann’s work in general, although The Furies is a favorite of mine and the only other I’ve seen of his, so seeking out his work is probably an excellent idea.

terror in a texas town
Terror in a Texas Town
(1958, Lewis)

Joseph H. Lewis, expert in the art of B-noirs and westerns, kicked off his retirement with this unusual and self-consciously artificial coda populated by blacklisted participants (Dalton Trumbo scripted this under a pseudonym). That this one’s a bit different is immediately apparent. For one thing, it starts in media res…with Sterling Hayden…clenching a harpoon! Then the credits kick in and we backtrack to the beginning, which isn’t as much about Sterling Hayden (and thank goodness, because his naive do-gooder bit reads like a slab of mayonnaise despite an endearingly awful Swedish accent) as it is about Nedrick Young’s hit man Johnny Crale, a villain-identified-by-dark-wardrobe type who nevertheless shoulders existential, but not humane, shading. Notably, the most humanistic, and the most involving, character is a Mexican-American farmer named Jose (Victor Millan) (lo and behold, here lies actual Mexican-American representation here!) who struggles with whether or not to get him and his family involved in the dangerous proceedings by divulging pertinent information to Hayden.

The formal quirks (and Hayden’s accent) make this more an idiosyncrasy than something that truly engages. As it chugs along, it becomes apparent that Terror in a Texas Town exists in a sort of suspended space. Lurking extras are a rarity. A saloon confrontation has mere stragglers on the sidelines, nobody to really stare in intimidation and watch two cowboys have at it. The majority of the scenes are shot in long takes that reframe the action. Remember that scene in Citizen Kane with Kane as a child, playing in the snow while the adults decide his fate indoors? It’s a famous long take, not flashy, but readjusting the composition in meaningful ways as the blocking evolves. Well, that technique shows up a lot here, again emphasizing this suspended space, a dislocation dressed in cheap sets that may be motivated by budget, but ends up reading not quite of this world. It’s minor cult status can be largely attributed to the cumulative vibe.

Other Recent Viewings:
The Two Faces of January (2014, Amini): **1/2
What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971, Harrington) ****
35 Shots of Rum (2009, Denis): ****
See No Evil 2 (2014, Soska Sisters) 1/2

Capsule Reviews: 1958 Watchlist Section Three – Horror

Approaching the halfway point of 1958 Watchlist and finding myself largely distanced from the content so far. My appreciation for individual films is defined by larger contexts i.e considering where cinema was at this point in time, tracking formal and narrative emergence, established modes and the increasingly outdated. I’ve a long way to go, but true immersion in the cinematic universe of 1958 is, as of right now, a rarity.

attack of the 50ft womanAttack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958, Juran) (US)
Starting off with a brief trip into sci-fi. Equivalent to an average albeit stretched out “Twilight Zone” episode (every one of its 60 some odd minutes are felt) with its hearty helpings of melodrama and noir. A peculiar little item that never becomes much of anything, but the effects transcend bad to become simultaneously riotous, nonsensical, and even haunting.

The Blob
(1958, Yeaworth Jr.) (US)

Youth: the newly favored benefit-of-the-doubt perspective of 50’s American cinema. The Blob is a very early example of teens taking center stage in horror. Of course, we now recognize them as a predominant demographic for both onscreen slaughter and off-screen viewership. And try as I might, it’s difficult to think of earlier examples of growing pains and pleasures at the center of horror. Scientists, fully formed mad men, and unsuspecting women held the reins in decades previous. This fusion between sci-fi/horror and the new teen cinema of the 50’s sounds far more promising than it is. Essentially a feature length reminder of the communication gap and inherent distrust between adults and kids, The Blob is a ‘but you gotta believe me’ story of supposed troublemakers crying wolf and a bunch of adults and idiot cops that just won’t listen. Perhaps it would have been more engaging if the supposed troublemakers in question actually had a renegade streak running through their veins. Instead, age and bad situational timing are the sole markers of invalidation.

The Blob is one of three films in this post that help introduce Technicolor to the horror world. Until this point its visual language was exclusively expressed in blacks, whites, grays; the unknowable shadows. Hammer Horror in the UK changed that, splattering untapped possibilities of color to the genre with 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein. The immediate impact in America can be seen with both this and The Fly (which takes things one step further, being shot in CinemaScope). The crimson red of blood is replaced with the crimson red of the blob itself, a gelatinous being with no rationale or character, only the patient drive for sustenance.

The Blob peaks early with its kooky title song and the first scene between Steve McQueen and his lady friend in a car with an entirely black background, dislodged from visible surroundings.

The Fly 1958The Fly (1958, Neumann) (US)
A standard 50’s don’t fuck with nature B-story, but not a B-movie, as illustrated by the atypical presentational pairing of lux Cinemascope. Also atypical is its structure, starting as a domestic murder mystery and segueing into a lengthy cautionary tale flashback. The Fly misuses its time in some pretty egregious ways (ten minutes are spent trying to catch a fly), but the moments of screechy pleas and kaleidoscopic perspectives break through the dryness in ways that elicit shivers.

No doubt about it, body horror is the most unnerving kind out there. While David Cronenberg’s far superior take details the vile minutiae of bodily transformation, the emphasis here, when it strives to be, is on change after the fact, particularly the sudden loss of will and the self. But since Andre (David Hedison) is and remains a remote presence (to us and the film) married to science, his wife’s (Patricia Owens) experience is foregrounded, the aforementioned will and self taking a back seat. The real tragedy is that Andre’s mistake doesn’t alter the household’s norm. He’s still always in the basement, still closed off to the world. By the end, Helene never seems quite appropriately saddened by the loss of her husband, because, well, Andre never contributed much to his family in the first place. His commitment to scientific breakthrough is so absolute that he doesn’t even have the time to be the protagonist of his own story. Once the flashback begins, that honor is, thankfully (in the sense that Hedison is a wet blanket), handed off to Patricia Owens by the irreplaceable Vincent Price as brother-in-law. Her marital commitment ensures that shock gives way to pragmatism, and she does what needs to be done. Once he transforms and loses himself, she sees him as being already gone, 100% Other. The loss of Andre’s identifiable features such as voice and face gradually overpower his ability to still communicate through knocks, typed letters, and increasingly scrawled chalkboard writing.

haunted stranglerThe Haunted Strangler (1958, Day) (UK)
A stuffy affair with Boris Karloff is its sole partially saving grace (even the unnerving face contortions are all his). Shows its hand halfway through when it repositions into a Jekyll and Hyde take that soon finds its own static mold. An intrusively shot hanging at the start contains a tangible dirty perversity that sadly isn’t approached again. This is the second 1958 film I’ve seen (the other being Cairo Station) that uses soaked breasts as a censor-pushing weapon. Unexpectedly contains perhaps the highest ratio of can-can dancing (due to the film’s short length) I’ve ever seen.

horror of draculaHorror of Dracula (1958, Fisher) (UK)
Since this is a go-to exemplary representative of Hammer Horror by many, I question if Hammer is for me. A transitional marker for horror, it arrives after a primary focus on atmospherics and the unseen, during censorship testing, but before transgressions that endure as transgressions on the screen today (this caused quite the stir in the UK upon release but doesn’t retain that sense). Hammer became a 50’s equivalent of the Gainsborough Melodramas of the 40’s in the UK, but not as salacious or intriguing, at least to my eyes.

Of the films in this post, Horror of Dracula makes the most effective use of color, favoring admittedly overlit compositions that nevertheless embellish and flaunt the aristocratic digs. Giallo would eventually run with the horror/color combo, but Terence Fisher lays the foundation for what would become the expressive status quo.

Most admirable are the audacious ways the source material is toyed with, shredded, and effectively pared down. Bram Stoker’s novel becomes enticing mincemeat in the clutches of screenwriter Jimmy Sangster. For example; when Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) meets Dracula (Christopher Lee) in the opening minutes, I was thinking about Harker’s unavoidable dopiness. For audiences, Dracula is synonymous with vampire, so we can’t help but unfairly resent him for not knowing the mythos he’s stepped into. Unfair, but true. Just as I think this, it is revealed that Harker already knows who Dracula is, and has willfully entered his headquarters in order to stealthily conquer him! Putting aside the largely dry investigative elements (helped greatly by the velvety dapper presence of Peter Cushing), there is a fixation on what people do in solitude. Harker writes in his journal, Lucy waits for Dracula to ravish her at night, Van Helsing stews in his own thoughts, etc. For a film this short, considerable time is spent showing characters in rooms by themselves.

Christopher Lee’s take on the titular character is widely accepted as iconic. There is a truly frightening use of close-ups starring bloody eye contacts posing as jump scares and the smart use of Lee as a silent-but-growling manifestation (all of his dialogue comes in the first act). But Lee has always come across as a strictly hackneyed presence. Miles above Bela Lugosi whose theatrical stiffness is much worse, he nevertheless lacks the charm, sexuality or danger that supposedly so appalled censors. For all that, one only has to look slightly stage right to Carol Marsh as Lucy, whose brief appearance of clear-eyed sexual menace wafts over everything. Fear bleeds into desire and her anticipatory bedroom stares tell us everything we need to know.

Other Recent Viewings:
The Zero Theorem (2014, Gilliam) ***
L’Intrus (2004, Denis) ***
God Help the Girl (2014, Murdoch) * ½
The Double (2014, Ayoade) ***
Neighbors (2014, Stoller) ** ½
Raze (2014, Waller) *
Gone Girl (2014, Fincher) **** ½
The Boxtrolls (2014, Annable, Stacchi) ****
White Bird in a Blizzard (2014, Araki) ****
Manhunter (1986, Mann) ****
Body Bags (1993, Carpenter/Hooper) ***

Capsule Reviews: 1958 Watchlist Section Two – ‘Biopic’

the-goddess-movie-poster-1958-1020223684 TOOMUCHTOOSOON1SHWS

After a year and a half of being all-inclusive, for an indeterminate length of time I’ll only be writing capsule reviews for the Top Ten By Year watchlist films. I’ll continue to engage with everything I see by informally writing in my film notebook, but as far as the blog goes, it’s more manageable this way. I’ll list the other films I’ve seen recently with their letterboxd score, but keep in mind that scores are used for vague personal markings, not value judgments.

As I did with 1992, I’ll be going through 1958 by sectioning the watchlist off into broad sections, usually by genre or geography. These mini-units take the specificity of year one step further into the realm of case studies such as where was the Western at in 1958? and other such musings. The 1950’s in American filmmaking was a time of Method, the omniscient influence of theatre, realism, location shooting, self-seriousness, message pictures, humorless renderings. Glamour was replaced with stern representations. Black and white no longer shimmered; grays looked, well, gray. Placid. That’s putting it reductively. I hope to come to a more hands-on understanding of where filmmaking was in 1958, and where it was going.

The first of nine planned sections was technically Crime/Noir/Mystery but I was using the paper I’d written notes on as a bookmark for a book I left at the doctor’s office. Yes, I know. And now it’s been too long so I’ll forgo that first section. For now, here’s one of the shortest sections from the watchlist; the ‘Biopic’. There are only two first-time viewings. My re-watch for the ‘Biopic’ was Robert Wise’s I Want to Live! starring Susan Hayward, which proved much more trying than I had remembered, peaking very early on with Hayward’s introductory bedtime silhouette shot. For a ‘factual’ social drama, it somehow lets the human element fall through the cracks, in no small part due to the lead actress’s Oscar winning performance which reeks of showcasing and is made up of thunderous brass ad infinitum. I was going to have a re-watch of Ivan the Terrible Part II in here, but upon consideration decided to disqualify the film because it was shot in the 40’s, and its release in 58 isn’t even remotely representative of the time.

That brings us to Too Much Too Soon and The Goddess, showbiz ‘biopics’ that unsurprisingly circumvent relationships to craft, focusing instead on the (at this point in film) more commonly depicted dilemmas of addiction/personal demons. The former is based on Diana Barrymore’s memoir, the latter a three-part fictional legend written by Paddy Chayevsky and rumored to be inspired by Marilyn Monroe’s chronic loneliness and severe psychological childlike forms of dependency.


Frank acknowledgment of addiction is a sort of hot topic by the late 1950’s, still new enough for its directness to have a knowingly transgressive tinge. In Too Much, Too Soon alcoholism is often played like a horror show. In one scene Diana (Dorothy Malone) returns to her father John’s (Errol Flynn) cavernous castle to find darkness, the ornate bird cage now empty, broken bottles, and the ominous sound of tinkling glass coming the shadows. Where’s Dad?

Are we watching Errol Flynn play Errol Flynn or Errol Flynn playing his friend John Barrymore? This being a year before Flynn’s death, it’s hard to tell. What I do know is that it’s the best he’d ever be onscreen. It’s a perfect example of how acting had translated from the studio heyday into the 50’s. This larger than life star, once an untouchable heroic screen presence, was now revealing himself to be cripplingly human.

Too Much, Too Soon is Post-Oscar Dorothy Malone, taking names and lead roles. It’s about the inescapable impulse to give parents the benefit of the doubt and learning lessons the hard way, all the while stealthily following their path. Split into John and Post-John eras, the latter half has Diana picking up where her father left off.. She goes through ill-advised and abusive relationships (never has a tennis ball been more intimidating), and slides into a drunken abyss of existence.

Both films are eager to provide comprehensive answers for their characters behavior. Scenes from childhood are carefully doled out. Diana’s (Malone playing Diana as a schoolgirl starts us off on a bizarre note) incessant need for her father and his attention. The lonely Emily Ann (Kim Stanley), an unwanted child who tells her cat about her day because it’s all she has.

Both films work so hard at laying down the psychological groundwork that neither take off the way they should. At the time this was a novel approach, but now it reads as somewhat inert. The turmoil serves to prove that the actors can get inside their characters heads, bu the film’s themselves can’t cross that bridge. Too Much, Too Soon arguably suffers from this more. Its second half can be summed up as; Dad’s dead, Dad passes the alcoholic baton to Diana, Diana drinks. A lot. It isn’t a rise and fall narrative because, well, Diana never really rose. It’s more a get-to-know-the-famous-pop and fall. Diana and her emotions are so tethered to Papa John, she is never made compelling in her own right. But the second half makes up for the loss of John/Errol by punctuating Diana’s descent with oddities in tone and performance. Malone’s voice goes crackly. And she appears in proto Baby Jane makeup in one of the more grotesque, effective, and grotesquely effective rock bottom scenes in recent memory. Think a late 50’s rendition of Ellen Burstyn’s lipstick party in Requiem for a Dream.


The Goddess is built around Chayevsky’s Paddy-talk monologues. It only takes nine minutes for the shrieking to begin. Bringing to life the sensationalist inspiration (doubly notable because Monroe still had 4 more years of life ahead of her by the film’s release and was a larger than life current star) was fellow Actors Studio student Kim Stanley making her film debut as Emily Ann Faulker/Rita Shawn. There is some serious movie career momentum being set up here for the stage actress. Now that the movies favored psychological portraiture, the foundation was set for a new generation of actors to take the reins and represent complex characters inside and out. The Goddess is common among this long-running wave of serious-minded stories that convey information not by showing, but by telling. And telling. And telling some more. The Goddess is explicitly concerned with tracking how someone gets to be a damaged and dependent childlike loner. Dissolves are used to overlay in-the-moment significance with empty emphasis, putting an expiration date on the ‘during’.

Stanley is oddly cast (she struggles to carry the early schoolgirl scenes and ditches sexpot allure entirely) making up for what she lacks in star quality with, well, some serious chops. Gal’s got gumption to spare. Yet for all the build-up surrounding her debut, it is Betty Lou Holland as her floozy-turned-pious mother who stands out most. This part was the highest profile role of her career and it’s a conspicuous and transformative powerhouse, the kind of heavy, leaden performance that could find a nice home in Citizen Kane.

One film ends with hope in the form of an old and newly bald friend, the other with the resigned permanence of formative trauma. Of the two films and their real-life inspirations, Too Much Too Soon is the only one of the four (Diana, Movie Diana, Rita, Marilyn) to end with light on the horizon. The Goddess sees Rita basically living as a free-roaming one woman asylum with an righteously overprotective assistant who will always, for better and worse, be there to take care of her. Everybody knows Marilyn passed away at the age of 36 a few years later. And lastly, a mere two years after Too Much Too Soon’s release, Diana Barrymore passed away of an alcohol and drug overdose at age 38.

Other Recent Viewings:
Honeymoon (2014, Janiak) **
The Bronte Sisters (1979, Techine) **1/2
Borgman (2014, Warmerdam): ****
The Congress (2014, Folman) ***

List: Top 30 Anticipated Films of Fall 2014 (Sept-Dec)

Well, here you go! No intro; here’s what I care most about coming out for the rest of the year. Notable omissions include Interstellar, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Selma, Tracks, The Boxtrolls, Big Hero 6, etc. Yes, I care. But I care about these more.

My Top 30 Most Anticipated Films of Fall 2014

1. Inherent Vice (Anderson) (US)
2. Birdman (Iñárritu) (US) (Never thought I’d see the day where an Iñárritu film was at the top of my anticipated films list)
3. Clouds of Sils Maria (Assayas) (Germany/France/Switzerland) (I’m hearing rumblings about December, so I’m putting it in because I feel like being optimistic)
4. Foxcatcher (Miller) (US)
5. Two Days, One Night (Dardenne Brothers) (Belgium)
6. National Gallery (Wiseman) (US) (Documentary)
7. The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata) (Japan)
8. Mr. Turner (Leigh) (UK)
9. Gone Girl (Fincher) (US)
10. The Babadook (Kent) (Australia)
11. Force Majeure (Östlund) (Sweden)
12. Maps to the Stars (Cronenberg) (Canada)
13. The Overnighters (Moss) (US) (Documentary)
14. White Bird in a Blizzard (Araki) (France/US)
15. Big Eyes (Burton) (US)
16. Wetlands (Wnendt) (Germany)
17. Winter Sleep (Ceylan) (Turkey)
18. Zero Motivation (Lavie) (Israel)
19. The Skeleton Twins (Johnson) (US)
20. Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (Sion Sono) (Japan)
21. The Guest (Wingard) (US)
22. Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-Liang) (Taiwan)
23. Nightcrawler (Gilroy) (US)
24. Honeymoon (Jeniak) (UK)
25. Laggies (Shelton) (US)
26. Horns (Aja) (US)
27. Whiplash (Chazelle) (US)
28. Dear White People (Simien) (US)
29. God Help the Girl (Murdoch) (UK)
30. Listen Up Phillip (Perry) (US)

The rest (not exhaustive):
The Better Angels
Goodbye to Language
The Blue Room
Beyond the Lights
Dumb and Dumber To
Advanced Style
No No: A Dockumentary
The Two Faces of January 
The Young Ones
The Homesman 
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby
Bird People
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1
Big Hero 6
Jimi: All is By My Side
The Zero Theorem 
The Drop 
I Am Eleven
St. Vincent
The Boxtrolls
The Maze Runner
Open Windows
The Imitation Game
Before I Go to Sleep
Dracula Untold

84-A-Thon Entry: Streetwise (1984, Bell)


In 1983 Life magazine featured an article called “Streets of the Lost”, written by Cheryl McCall with accompanying photographs by Mary Ellen Mark. The topic was the homeless and/or downtrodden teens of Seattle, kids who form their own loose civilization on the streets, surviving through prostitution, pimping, stealing, dumpster diving, donating blood; whatever it takes. Mark eventually convinced her husband Martin Bell that there was more to be discovered, and that making a documentary would be a worthwhile endeavor. And thus the uncompromising, devastating, sprawling, intimate, fragile Streetwise was born.

Its uncommon narrative throughline prompts an involvement of the same ilk as, well, a narrative feature. Not that it ever feels anything less than real, but the kind of investment, and the particular type of attention it summons, doesn’t resemble how one normally engages with a documentary (even a character driven one). Just how did Martin Bell and company capture, and then access and shape, this footage?

Critically, Martin Bell comes to these kids on their turf, on their level. Somehow, someway, there is no condescension, sentimentality, exploitation, or judgment expressed towards the subjects. They are given voices no matter what it is they have to say, whether it’s troubling or naïve or heartbreaking or offensive.

Though fourteen-year old Erin ‘Tiny’ Blackwell is the resilient heart of Streetwise, we get to know many kids, both centrally and peripherally, throughout. The street scenes counter and fill out the form, this insular community stitched together and then placed contextually within the environment of their time. Snippets of radio hits filter in and out of the audio for split seconds and city folk flood the concrete. It would be easy to mistake them for a bunch of students standing in the hallways between classes. They are a mix of romanticism and hard knocks. They are immature yet hardened. They are at once protective of each other but out for their own survival, and as we see, manipulation and con jobs pop up as survival of the fittest takes hold. They veer away from self-pity and their directness services the tone.

They talk their pasts and present so nonchalantly, their circumstances normalized so horror is just part of the conversation, not carrying the weight it should. In one scene, a group of four has a ‘he raped me too’ discussion with such a casual air they might as well be saying “Hey, I’m wearing those jeans too”. This discussion wasn’t even about rape in their histories, but about being raped recently by the same individual as two girls warn another not to go into business with the pimp in question.

Parents are the common denominator, either present with love nowhere near conducive to good parenting, or absent as we hear runaways talking on a payphone to their parents. Loads of shitty stepfathers lie spoken of in the margins.

Streetwise is like a harrowing vision of kids playing dress-up—but so complex and textured that a simple description such as that proves reductive. There are unconscionably moving scenes in their own right, which has little to do with poverty. Tiny’s farewell with Rat is the most beautiful scene never written. An achingly real conversation that says more about teenage crushes, loneliness, companionship, unrequited feelings, parting ways and the coded communications of young people than you are likely to find anywhere else. “You should have figured it out by now”.

Streetwise is that rare masterpiece (seriously, it’s in my top 15 films ever made and sits with Stop Making Sense as my favorite film of the 1980’s). Receiving attention in its day, at least in the form of an Oscar nod, it has been largely forgotten in the years since, maintaining a small but fervent fan base. Recently, a Kickstarter by Bell and Mark for a follow-up on Erin titled Tiny Revisited exceeded its set goal, so hopefully the end product prompts a Streetwise resurgence, however small. It’s difficult to find in physical media and only exists on. But it is on youtube! So do yourself a favor and watch it! It’s the most confident recommendation I could think to give to anyone. Everyone should see it. It is essential viewing.

This is a difficult film for me to write about, so I hope these serve as rough introductory thoughts about it. Streetwise is, quite simply, journalistic portraiture at its finest.

Top Ten By Year: 1992

I’m going to get right to it since my What I’ll Remember post covers most of what I’ve gotten out of this year in film. You can find previous 1992 installments including Ten Honorable Mentions Edition, What I’ll Remember About the Films of 1992: A Personal Sampling, Voters Poll Results, and Movie Music Mix on my blog. This one’s been a long time coming. I started research for 1992 back in April!

For those unaware of my Top Ten By Year column:
I pick years that are weak for me re: quantity of films seen and/or quality of films seen in comparison to other films from that decade. I am using list-making as a motivation to see more films and revisit others in a structured and project-driven way. And I always make sure to point out that my lists are based on personal ‘favorites’ not any notion of an objective ‘best’. I’ve done 1935, 1983, 1965, 1943, and now 1992. Next I’ll be doing 1958.

Biggest Disappointments:
Innocent Blood
In the Soup
The Story of Qiu Ju
Naked Killer
Once Upon a Crime (re-watch)

Notable Blind Spots: 
Pushing Hands, Unlawful Entry, Vacas, The Oak, La Sentinelle, L;627, Simple Men, This is My Life, The Public Eye, Boomerang, Dragon Inn, Royal Tramp, Love Field, The Wicked City, The Best Intentions, Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives, Swordsman II, For a Lost Soldier, Rebels of the Neon God

TOTAL LIST OF FILMS SEEN IN 1992: (bold indicates first-time viewings during research, italics indicates re-watches during research):
Aileen Wuornos: Selling of a Serial Killer, Aladdin, Bad Lieutenant, Baraka, Basic Instinct, Batman Returns, Beethoven, Benny’s Video, Bitter Moon, Bob Roberts, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Brother’s Keeper, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Candyman, Captain Ron, Careful, Centre Stage, Chaplin, The Crying Game, Damage, Dead Alive, Death Becomes Her, Deep Cover, Doctor Mordrid, Enchanted April, Far and Away, Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, A Few Good Men, Forever Young, Full Contact, Gas Food Lodging, Glengarry Glen Ross, Hard Boiled, A Heart in Winter, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, Honey I Blew Up the Kid, Honeymoon in Vegas, Housesitter, Howards End, Husbands and Wives, Hyenas, Innocent Blood, In the Soup, The Last of the Mohicans, A League of Their Own, Lessons of Darkness, Life and Nothing More, Light Sleeper, Little Heroes, The Living End, The Long Day Closes, Malcolm X, Man Bites Dog, Medicine Man, The Mighty Ducks, Mom and Dad Save the World, The Muppet Christmas Carol, Naked Killer, Noises Off!, Of Mice and Men, Once Upon a Crime, One False Move, Orlando, Out on a Limb, Passion Fish, Peter’s Friends, The Player, Poison Ivy, Police Story 3: Supercop, Porco Rosso, Radio Flyer, Raising Cain, Reservoir Dogs, A River Runs Through It, Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, Savage Nights, Scent of a Woman, Singles, Single White Female, Sister Act, Society, Stay Tuned, Strictly Ballroom, The Story of Qiu Ju, Swoon, A Tale of Winter, Tom and Jerry: The Movie, Toys, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Unforgiven, Universal Soldier, Wayne’s World, Where the Day Takes You, Wuthering Heights

FTV: First Time Viewing
RW: Re-watch
LTF: Long-time Favorite

Top Honorable Mention (think of this as a tie with #10):
Howards End (Ivory) (UK) (RW)
What are other equivalents to the unique narrative bounty of Howards End? Other Merchant/Ivory productions like A Room with a View and Maurice (both impeccable in their own right) have recognizable conflicts and alliances. We know when and how to respond to what’s going on. But Howards End is different. We stand by conflicted while characters make compromises and go back on who we thought they were. Those who fall, fall hard, and those left are happy in a bittersweet sort of way. But it’s inaccurate to use the word happy. Happy and sad, light and dark aren’t exactly visible through lines here. It’s all way more complicated. All the characters besides Vanessa Redgrave, who moonlights over the proceedings as if drawing people together from beyond, are defined by their foibles. Everyone is too much ‘this’ or not enough ‘that’. It has the impeccable period design one expects from Merchant/Ivory, it made Emma Thompson a star in her own right (until then, she was Kenneth Branagh’s wife), and is a painfully human vivisection on class warfare.

10. Centre Stage (Kwan) (Hong Kong) (RW)
For the few keeping up with these installments, my previous Honorable Mentions post refers to a film I’d been particularly struggling to find a place for–a film I’m moderately conflicted about. Well, this is the one. Centre Stage will not get out of my head. This was my second time seeing it, and it remains an elusive relic. Does this film, a biopic about doomed icon Ruan Lingyu that feels frozen in time and comes bundled up in a meta package, even work? Watching it is like going on a quest through the afterglow of the past. It’s a quest the filmmakers explicitly take part in, and they also come up short. Through the research and production process, can everyone involved reach the essence of who Ruan Lingyu was? Well, no. But that may be the point.

Doused in silky blue lights, this isn’t the past recreated, but reflected back at us, nestled between the actual footage of Ruan and present day interviews. Everything feels like it’s being acted out in an empty deserted hallway, as if life doesn’t exist outside the room that characters inhabit at any given moment. We hear the same music in a dance hall at different intervals, like an echo chamber. The characters are stuck in their parts. Maggie Cheung is stoic, passive, demure. The greatest actress of her time can’t make the greatest actress of her time a compelling figure, and yet she’s outstanding. Ahh, and the heaven sent production and costume designs. It’ll be revisited every so often, and each time I’ll go into it thinking ‘this time I’ll understand who Ruan Lingyu was’. Yet I know that won’t happen. ‘But maybe this time’ is the spell Centre Stage casts.

9. Bitter Moon (Polanski) (France/UK/US) (FTV)
Perverse, deeply ugly, and comically absurd. At first glance Bitter Moon is just another to emerge out of the trashy kink, boundary pushing erotic thriller trend of the early-to-mid 90’s. But this is Roman Polanski, and the man has got a lot of poisonous and revealing fish to fry. Hiding behind camp and pig masks, this could be his most uncomfortably personal work. At the very least it feels like a purging. The sex relates to the endless potential of corruptible dynamics. Two couples out to sea on an ocean liner (Knife in the Water anyone?), one staid, the other extreme, have more in common than they think. Peter Coyote and Emmanuelle Seigner are the purist form of masochistic and manipulative chess game toxicity that can exist in a couple, a toxicity that Polanski posits exists in all of us on some level.

A big question, especially considering it’s what turned so many off at the time of its release; how much control does Polanski have over Bitter Moon’s tonal makeup? It’s a risky piece of work, less from risque content, and more from an unequivocally bizarre sense of self. Is this a joke? Are we in on it? Is Polanski in on it? Does it obstruct viewers from seeing the unpleasantly complicated statement at the center, or does it enable? Is this the only way to present something so dire and hopeless? I see Polanski as having far more control than he was at first credited. Seigner pouring milk all over her breasts, looking like a zombie by the way, as Peter Coyote licks her with George Michael’s “Faith” playing in the background is unequivocal evidence Bitter Moon is meant as a kind of brazenly sadistic circus. While other 90’s erotic thrillers took themselves so seriously, it must have been quite jarring to see a film that at once does not take itself as seriously, yet contains twisted barbs of resonance.

Expanded review here

8. Glengarry Glen Ross (Foley) (US) (LTF)

“Harriet and Blah-Blah Nyborg”. “Have you made your decision for Christ?!?”. “Because I don’t like you”. “Fuck the Machine!!!”. “Will you go to lunch? Go to lunch! Will you go to lunch?”. “Fuck you–that’s my name”. “Put. That coffee. Down”. “You stupid fucking cunt”. “Your pal closes, and all that comes out of your mouth is bile. Oooh, how fucked up you are”.

The more familiar you are with Glengarry Glen Ross, which at this point is like my film equivalent of a first cousin, the more there is to get out of it. There’s a giddy anticipation that builds leading up to, well, pretty much every line delivery in this thing. It’s no secret that for all the playing at man, swearing as desperate currency, and the repetitive Mamet-isms of the actual text, this is a film erected out of top-level high-wire performances. Whether it’s Al Pacino fully enunciating and emphasizing ev-er-y sing-le syl-la-ble, bringing off-key rhythms to his Ricky Roma Rendition, or early Kevin Spacey reeling in the unmovable dryness he’d later bring to Lester Burnham, everyone is firing on all cylinders even if their characters are sure as hell going nowhere fast.

7. Deep Cover (Duke) (US) (FTV)
Neo-noir that deals with race relations and the hypocrisy and political corruption within the War on Drugs with surprising directness. Poetically edged hard-boiled narration delivered with the low steady hum of Laurence Fishburne’s cop who grapples with right and wrong, cop or criminal, and questions where can he do the most good within a cracked system that uses his race as an asset for the higher-ups. Then bring in Jeff Goldblum’s indispensable magnetic eccentricity to his role as a slightly unhinged lawyer yuppie, self-described as having a “condescending infatuation with everything black”. Yes, he’s fighting for power and money, but most importantly for respect among the criminal minded. A very moralistically preoccupied film about choices and compromise and defining the invisible line. I thought I had past my expiration date for undercover cop stories, but Deep Cover nixed that with its ability to balance heady and charged politics with two consistently engaging leads that transcend the walking clichés we’re used to seeing.

Brother's Keeper
6. Brother’s Keeper (Berlinger/Sinofsky) (US) (FTV)
Brother’s Keeper isn’t about whether or not Delbert Ward actually killed his ailing brother Bill. It’s about the dynamics of small communities like Munnsville, NY, where the Wards are fervently supported, without question, by their fellow townspeople. They put up bail money, hold benefit dinners, and attend the trial with all the muster they have. Part of this support has to do with how iconic the Wards (three brothers total, not including the deceased) are within the community. Some kind of know them, some kind of don’t, and a few know them quite well. The populace protects the reclusive, mostly illiterate, and mentally debilitated Delbert (same goes for all three) because he is one of their own. They are, as defender, prosecutor, and populace say, ‘simple folk’. The big city versus little town friction comes into play in a major way, mostly in how the Wards were treated by the higher-ups during crucial events like interrogations and the signing of documents.

Owing great debt to the Maysles Brothers, who the film is dedicated to, we shift between life with the Wards, interviews with the townspeople, and the anticipation and resolution of the trial. Though the filmmakers are clearly fascinated with these subjects and this story in a slightly condescending way (though I really don’t know how one would avoid it), it takes a non-judgmental stance as far as the case itself. This is incredibly gripping and mysterious stuff, with more questions than answers by the end. The camera expertly observes the Wards in their environment, attempting to understand and not able to truly break through the supposed simplicity, which only lends to its power.

5. The Player (Altman) (US) (RW)

Ever notice that The Player has more handshakes per minute than anything else you’ve ever seen? This is Robert Altman in the belly of the beast, a beast he’s well familiar with, setting up conventions and then playing into them with bite. The reason this and Bob Roberts represent Tim Robbins’s best work is because each magnifies his smug impenetrability in different ways. In The Player, we see every step the pompous ass takes into the mud bath, unable to touch the reality of his situation because he and the film define it within the confines of narrative familiarity. You can track the film’s progress by the degree Griffin’s eyes have glazed over. In Bob Roberts we can’t touch him at all. Not even the camera can get close to him. In one he’s a familiar monster, the other a faceless one. Both are primo schmoozers.

The cameos fold in on themselves, and soon we’re seeing famous people populating the background as extras (oh hey there Jack Lemmon)! This is more plot-driven than some of Altman’s work, and it has to be, because Michael Tolkin’s script grafts the narrative of old onto satire. There’s an intriguing line the director tows between the subjectivity of a man who acts in the form of plot points (that scene when he hams it up for Whoopi Goldberg and Lyle Lovett who just laugh at him is gold. You can see ‘why isn’t this working? It works in the movies!’ all over Griffin’s face) and the outside-looking-in gaze that demonstrates how precarious success is in the movie biz. With Griffin’s job in jeopardy from the start, a constant threat is maintained that drives the picture; one minute you’re in, the next you’re out.


4. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (Lynch) (US) (RW)
The first time I saw Fire Walk with Me was a week after I’d watched the show, not something I’d necessarily recommend. I walked away from that experience sufficiently disturbed and shaken up, particularly by Sheryl Lee’s work. As a whole though it felt…overreaching. There was a new Donna to get used to, a first act that mistakes deadpan for deadness, Kyle Machlachan’s all too brief and reluctant appearance, some material that’s one step past nonsense, and a significant frequency adjustment from the show. I even remember saying after it was over, “I liked it, but it’s not my Twin Peaks”. Then I waited six years and watched it again for this list, where it sideswiped me like a “BOB” out of hell.

That gap purged me of preconceptions I had taken from the show. It dumped the residue bullshit of seeking out answers to a world that, being Lynch, is an intuitive and abstract kind of hell devoid of rules or explanation. The film simply became Laura’s story. And that’s what it is. Laura’s schizophrenic, mournful, harrowing end. It takes the iconic dead girl trope and makes her whole, beyond the realm of voiceless victim. It’s the Lynch film that is both most and least tethered to reality. By magnifying the trauma and horrors of sexual abuse (and adolescence) as an actual and inescapable hell, by purifying and heightening the emotions in play, it becomes perhaps the most consummate and visceral film on the subject. In “Twin Peaks”, “BOB” is Leland. In Fire Walk with Me, Leland is “BOB”, and it makes all the difference. The supernatural all registers as metaphor here.

Laura Palmer is real to me, and Sheryl Lee is what makes her crushingly real. If there’s a better female performance from the 90’s, I haven’t seen it. She turns herself inside out as Laura, mythic and fragile, self-destructive and strong, youthful and timeless. Laura Palmer is a victim, but there’s nothing submissive or resigned about her. She constantly breaks through the ‘victim’ archetype, and Lynch films her with admirable and melancholy reverence without ever simplifying her down to an object through which we funnel our pity. As Fire Walk with Me ended, I found myself overwhelmed with emotion. I sat and cried hard full tears for who knows how long. Laura stayed with me for days after. A week later I was driving, and I started thinking about her, and the tears came again. I can’t think of another instance of such residual impact. But I do know that Laura will always be with me, and with countless others.


I have to pause here for a special mention to the last fifteen minutes of Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans, a sequence containing three movements as good as the medium has to offer. The climax is an elegy during the fact, tracking a procession of deaths. It approaches the mainstream climax from an atypical point of execution. Familiar content is presented with the flow of an unstoppable avalanche in slow-motion. The score has two themes competing with each other, one measured, the other bursting to get out from underneath. And then everything slows down with Alice (Jodhi May) on the cliff. Shots and moments are held a few seconds longer than they normally would be. Every glance, every gesture carries weight. Alice’s decision hits so much harder due to how peripheral her and Uncas’s (Eric Schweig) romance has been up to this point. The sidelines function of Alice and Uncas provokes a ‘wait-what-is-she-doing’ response we aren’t prepared for. All we can do is sit frozen, breathing in tandem with the score, the bass signifying the act of letting go, and wait for her to carry out her fateful decision.


3. Husbands and Wives (Allen) (US) (RW)
It’s safe to say the Mia Farrow era of Woody Allen’s career is my era of choice. The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, and this account for my top three. It’s the messy end, an ugly piece that spoons bitter truths out of caustic penetrating humor. The faux-documentary construct illuminates the characters (and their motivations) and their inability to reconcile self-analysis with action, specifically within relationships and marriage. How well do people know themselves, and how does that correlate, or not correlate, with an ability to adapt and/or function with another person? There are different levels of self-awareness and all-too human unseemliness in Gabe (Allen), Judy (Farrow), Sally (Judy Davis), and Jack (Sydney Pollack).

Significance comes through flawed characters and ruptured editing techniques. At times we jump from moment to moment, other times we stay on someone’s face far past our comfort level. At the start it’s the neurotic Sally that seems most intolerable. By the end it’s clear she’s got the best head on her shoulders. She sort of learns from her experiences, or at least knows what she needs in a relationship, realizing that for better and worse her and the deplorable Jack (played with odiousness by Sydney Pollack) should be together. It’s not good or bad. It just…is. Nobody gets off the hook including us; every character succumbs to their worst selves at one point or another or several or many. Our varying esteem (it’s a low bar folks) for them is equated with how upfront they are about themselves to themselves. The dichotomy between this brutal form of measurement (Mia Farrow’s Judy oh-so-interestingly comes out on bottom) and the Bergman influenced dissection of the two couples is where Husbands and Wives finds its tense and mordant complexion.

Michelle Pfeiffier Batman Returns

2. Batman Returns (Burton) (US) (LTF)
I was five when 1992 came along, so my top two are, unsurprisingly, formative works inextricably linked with my childhood; not in mere nostalgia, but deep personal meaning. I like to call Batman Returns a “DNA” film. It’s a phrase I use for formative features (we’ve all got a handful of ‘em). They become mythologized, bigger than themselves, immeasurable in impact for the individual.

A knotty, expressionistic, and uncommonly grim superhero film fueled by the Tragic with a Capital T emotional arcs of its villains, this still stands as a risky endeavor. It doesn’t follow a cookie cutter way-to-be. There’s no house style, not a trace of anonymity or comfort. Tim Burton just does whatever the fuck he wants, favoring approach and impression over now-hip grit and the samey-spectacle that came with the advent of CGI. It gleefully eschews fan expectations and even its hero (and hell, even its story) for an imposing and deeply disturbing operatic vision that plays around with the sexual, the psychotic, and the putrefied.

It’s the best Batman film, by far, and my favorite superhero film no contest. Why? Because it isn’t even really a superhero film, and I never view it as such. It’s about the grotesquerie of the Penguin and his search for identity through ‘Oswald’. It’s about Selina Kyle’s reclamation of identity and self through mental collapse and shock. After all this time, Danny DeVito’s Penguin still makes me sick to my stomach with his gallows humor and sullied sweaty sack of a costume, oozing green and going out with a gurgle. But here’s the power of the film; a scene as inherently absurd (one of many) as a group of penguins acting as collective pallbrearers for DeVito’s corpse as they slide him into the sewer water is not only affecting, but genuinely haunting and heavy with tragedy.

And for all its many wonders (Danny Elfman’s ghostly score being at the very top of that list), it all comes down to Michelle Pfeiffier as Catwoman. Some know how much her work here means to me, and they tend to be others (because there are a lot of us)  who’ve been similarly impacted by what she does with this role, which is, well, what doesn’t she do with it? Her Selina grows to own herself at the expense of her sanity. She helps others at the expense of her ‘goodness’. She desperately tries to fill that hole inside her to no avail. The slinky dominatrix garb she makes for herself is a one-off, and by the end the rips and tears are showing the unhinged chaos and suffering underneath. There’s a gravitas to her work that reveals an escalating depth of sorrow. And she gets the last shot of the film; risen, triumphant, and ever-so-slightly nodding at her own perseverance.


1. The Muppet Christmas Carol (Henson) (US) (LTF)
I’ve been foolishly psyching myself out in regards to writing about The Muppet Christmas Carol because from the start I’ve been treating it as an attempt to convert or convince others of its greatness. Like I have to make up for eye-rolling that may or may not occur from those who will wrongfully dismiss this as a ‘clouded by nostalgia pick’ (though I have more faith in my readers than that). Or maybe I’m just overthinking it.

But I’ve ditched the idea of treating this like a pitch. I’m not going to say much about the film because it’s all there in my heart and in my gut and it’s difficult to extrapolate on the why’s of its effect on me. It’s unbridled joy, and a truly beautiful blend of two iconic properties (The Muppets and Dickens) that services both and compromises neither. Three spirits visit Ebenezer Scrooge, but it’s the spirit of the (then) recently departed Jim Henson that looms largest over the proceedings. A moving air of gratitude blankets all. Not a mournful air, but an appreciative one, a big thank you for your creations and for your preposterous wit and heart. Paul Williams, one of my favorite people ever, graces us with songs that are by turns jolly, chilling, and full of thanks. And all of them memorable; there’s not a dud in the bunch (the cut but narratively essential “When Love is Found” notwithstanding).

Every time I watch it, which used to be many times every Christmas season but has now taken on a one-time-saved-for-last occasion, I look forward to every little bit without fail. Whether it’s fawning over cousin Fred or watching Miss Piggy’s saucy side come out as Mrs. Cratchit when downing a toast like a shot. Or the moment when an annoyed Gonzo and a mischievous Rizzo the Rat (our narrative guides) face each other in silence only for Rizzo to lean forward and lightly kiss Gonzo’s curly nose. Or the power Michael Caine (my ideal Scrooge, this is a performance that, like the rest of the film, is near and dear to me) manages to ingrain in the many reaction/shots of observance he has throughout. His arc is all there in the face. Caine considers this one of his most cherished roles. That the experience meant something to him only makes it resonate even more.

This would rank on a list of my 20 favorite films. I hate to quantify my love for something with amount of tears shed, but emotional response is an easy marker to reference. Every year close to Christmas, Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline shows a print of the film for a sold out crowd of kids and adults alike. Last year was the first time I went, marking the beginning of a new yearly tradition. I steadily cried, no exaggeration, about 75% of the runtime. They weren’t tears of joy or sadness, but tears of meaning; I’m, quite simply, moved by its open heart. And as a gal who doesn’t naturally drift towards heartwarming or uplifting lessons learned, I can say without a doubt, that somehow, someway, this film has grown to mean the world to me.

Review: The One I Love (2014, McDowell) [Criterion Cast]

Warning: This review discloses the film’s central conceit which is being kept under wraps in the marketing

What if the need to recreate, repeat, or reset the good ol’ days of a relationship were replaced with the option of idealized perfection? Recognizable but tweaked, this is everything you’ve ever wanted from the person you love. But then you have to walk out of guest house paradise and talk to your actual significant other, facing that slump of disappointment. That’s what Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) grapples with in the Charlie Kaufman-lite The One I Love, a flimsy but highly amusing ‘what if’ relationship fantasy, anchored by the flummoxed curiosity of Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass.

Read my full review at Criterion Cast

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Suddenly, Last Summer (1959, Mankiewicz)

Suddenly Last Summer
Squaring off in the Sun Room of the Lions View State Asylum are Violet and Catherine (Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor). In Suddenly, Last Summer, camera movement is most often dictated by blocking. Based on the Tennessee Williams play, one can expect (and gets) lots and lots of assertive flourishes of dialogue. Movement is used to steadily bolster the mismatching delusions and truths about the dearly departed Sebastian. This is the second of two back-to-back scenes where Violet and Catherine finally see each other. Violet has been cornered into the sun room which is dressed in ivory patterns and plants as if she can influence her immediate environment by pure presence. As Catherine gets more and more confrontational about the particulars of dearly departed Sebastian’s life, she strides over for some aggressive frame sharing.

This shot is full of opposites and flip-flopping. In her white mourning clothes, Violet blends into her busy side of the frame. Able to keep it together in her sanctuary of elevators and gardens, she’s out of her element here. At the beginning of the scene her hat looks like an eccentric little touch. In this moment, with Hepburn twitching like an over-caffeinated robot, the hat looks like the natural outgrowth of an insane woman. Catherine is finally getting her voice back. Not only does she have access to Violet but she’s allowed to wear her own (black) clothes in this hospital. Her side of the frame has shades of color blocked grays. There’s a clarity to those shades, but also to her gaze and her words. Yet she’s still boxed in, showing that she’s not out quite yet.

Just look at those faces! Suddenly, Last Summer has two powerhouse performances courtesy of Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor, and my chosen shot gives you an inkling of the kind of mighty ACTING anyone who watches this is in for.

Top Ten By Year: 1992 – Ten Honorable Mentions Edition

Let me toss some numbers your way. 25, 40, 43, 52. These are the numbers considered for the previous years in my Top Ten By Year column entries for 1935, 1983, 1965 and 1943 respectively. 1992 is a bit different. Once we reach the 90’s, numbers jump. A lot. I’ve got 92 films in consideration. Yes, some of these include throwaways like Tom and Jerry: The Movie, or Medicine Man, or Honey, I Blew Up the Kid. But there’s a lot (especially with all the first-time viewings done for this) of quality material in the mix. Many I’ve long loved; others, new-found discoveries.

Up until now I’ve put a handful of honorable mentions in the main list post. This time they get their own (usually when there are this many films involved, like my end-of-the-year lists, I ditch Top 10 and go straight for Top 30). Now, I tweeted this yesterday, but it bears repeating; my Honorable Mentions list is such a traffic jam, not even Reservoir Dogs made the cut. Again; Reservoir Dogs did not even make my honorable mentions. Granted, I’m not as enamored by it to the degree many are (it’s my least favorite after Django Unchained but note a considerable chasm between the two) but I feel comfortable saying that I love it. As a whole it’s an unassailable statement of ‘make way because I’m here, damn it’. (Yet perhaps the biggest surprise for me was that I couldn’t even get Bob Roberts, which I loved, or Aladdin, on here)

With this ongoing project I always feel the need to scribble a bit about how my perspective on film has/is evolving from taking part in, however minor, the online film community (which, based on the environment, you’d think would prompt a different response). I refer not to taste but rapport; how relationships with films evolve. How some exhaust themselves of return value, so I put them in storage for a while. How some embed into my sense of self and become larger than life. The bittersweet and/or joyful nature of changing connections, up or down, shallow or profound. That it’s just as okay to feel ‘done’ with a film and move past it with no hard feelings, just as normal as it is to have a growing appreciation for something that didn’t quite sit the first or second time. That favorites don’t just mean ‘what do I like the most’ and that films aren’t a math equation. Whether it works or not, how enriching and engaging is it? How much is there to parse through? Which ones make me want to go back and stick my hands in like a hill of sinking sand? There are times when failings can be inherently more interesting than something with all the right stuff in all the right places. I’ve known or felt all of this on some level for a long time, but I’m seeing it shape so sayings like “it’s not perfect” or “it’s perfection”, or “it’s not without its flaws” don’t mean much of anything to me anymore.

Take A.I: Artificial Intelligence. I haven’t seen it in many years but think about it relatively often, considering. My basic assessment used to be “I love it so much but why oh why does the last section have to be there”. Now, I still ask “why oh why does the last section need to be there”. It’s a valid concern. And there are plenty, plenty, plenty of films with misguided aspects and choices that become irredeemable for the viewer. But there is so much to unpack with A.I. that it feels reductive to use the final section as dismissal of the rest. Or to use it, as Pee Wee puts it, a big ‘but’. Why do we need to parcel things out like that? This is a film where the good, the bad, the Kubrick, the whatever; it’s all uncommonly riveting material to wrestle with and contemplate (with oneself and others; nothing like a good movie convo). That, in this case, is worth more than “It’s so good up until…”.

This relates to these lists because it impacts how films are chosen and how they are valued. There’s one film in particular that, even more than the others, I’m angling to find a place for. Do I put it at #10 or in the honorable mentions? I don’t even know if the film works for me. I really don’t. But I love it. And I go into it like it’s a puzzle, magnifying glass in tow, thinking ‘this time I’ll find the missing piece. This time I’ll get a sense of who this person was’. Yet I know that won’t happen. ‘But maybe this time’ is the spell that it casts.

Okay; ever-evolving relationship with film rant over. This is meant to read as a sort of alternate top ten, in alphabetical order. There are nine in this post, and my top honorable mention will accompany the final list (mostly because my notes on the film are in my apartment in Providence, and I’m in CT right now). As I write this, I have the twenty films sorted and 90% are locked into place. A few though…a few have made their beds in both camps, remaining in a limbo land until I make some final decisions. Several of these, and I’ll point out which ones, are films I’ve known a very long time. Several I had not seen until I began research and several were re-watches. The final list will go up next week.

FTV = First Time Viewing
RW = Re-Watch
LTF = Long Time Favorite

Bad Lieutenant
Bad Lieutenant (Ferrara) (US)
The lower depths of humanity are plumbed (and then some) with beautifully considered slow-burn imagery, strung along by the traipsing sounds of unintelligible and unformed pleas. A man who has lost touch with himself as human is confronted with the possibility of being judged by a higher being; blank slate, wiped clean, lifted up and out. Harvey Keitel’s Lieutenant (in a purging of the soul performance) cannot comprehend the forgiveness of sin, and it builds to a protracted and somewhat deformed act of salvation akin to watching teeth pulled.

Baraka (Fricke) (US) (RW)
With its direct images, enveloping spiritualism, and earnest curiosity about globe-spanning rituals, a trek is made from hope in variety to despair in decimation, settling somewhere in the middle, like a peaceful reconciliation.

Dead Alive
Dead Alive (Jackson) (New Zealand) (RW)
Was positive this would be on the final ten, but alas… Underneath its bulgy-low-budget aesthetic discomfort and gleefully destructive blood-letting is a heart of graceless gold in Lionel and Paquita. Zany in the most complimentary sense of the word.

Death Becomes Her (Zemeckis) (US) (LTF)
Basic bitches not wanted. Body horror in reverse and then forward drive played for laughs and unashamedly built around innovative special effects. Fueled by sing-song malevolence and Looney Tunes violence. Lampoons our peddling of youthful beauty within consumerism and Hollywood. Has grown into its cult status with ease and endless quotability. Bruce Willis has never been better shouting against type as a dweeb surgeon not worth anyone’s time, and just watch Meryl Streep wring out each syllable like she’s in a self-aware soap. Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Contact, and this give Zemeckis a lifetime pass.

A Heart in Winter
Un coeur en hiver
 (A Heart in Winter) (Sautet) (France) (FTV)
A very familiar illicit scenario but with an unusual player at its center, a man who cannot form personal connections, skewing all expected developments. First and foremost a character study about Stéphane (Daniel Auteuil) and his reliable inability to change. He is cruel in his anthropological curiosities, showing more intimacy with the inanimate violins he lovingly repairs. Emmanuelle Béart, in what has got to be the only time she ever has or will have to be on the other side of an unrequited love, is magnificent; understandably tormented and confused, always achingly human. A complex film that addresses the answerable qualities and inadequacies of ourselves.

league of their own
A League of Their Own (Marshall) (US) (LTF)
I can’t claim that this holds me the way it once did. It overuses montage, goes for some cheap laughs, has an often too-pointed score, and hints that later in his career Tom Hanks will (though very good here) prove distracting whenever he reaches outside his immediate strengths. But I’ve seen this so many times and the genuine female camaraderie and opportunities that rise out of wartime continues to be wholly earned (and fun) triumph. I laugh, I cry, and the final game always puts me on the edge of my seat.

noises off
Noises Off… (Bogdanovich) (US) (RW)
Endlessly watchable, pure hilarity, increasing discord; a film anyone would be proud to know inside and out. A farce that gradually becomes so overwhelming as to be incomprehensible. So what keeps this off the ten, besides the there’s-just-too-much reason? Transplanting this English play into an American film warps the dissolution of politeness and niceties, which is so carefully and centrally established, only to crumble to bits. Americanizing an English farce without adapting to said change ends up being dissonant and awkward. But my God, there is no other film from 1992 that brings more unheralded escalating buffoonery.

(Potter) (UK) (FTV)

An elaborate mirage on gender identity and stigma, where past and present are just an edit away and where there is little fixture in space even within specific time periods. Sally Potter approaches this Virginia Woolf adaptation (a novel I loved in concept but felt removed from in reading) with witty presentational candor and Tilda Swinton sells it with softness and a hearty wink. Singular, amusing, and honest.

savage nights
Savage Nights (Les Nuits Fauves) (Collard) (France) (FTV)
Cyril Collard smartly addresses AIDS by not addressing it. Jean’s (Collard) resolute inability to process his condition haunts the entire film and his actions (or rather inaction). It is made the backdrop for a story about toxic relationships, where Jean’s condition indirectly informs all interpersonal drama. Blue, red, yellow, the primary colors, predominate the film. The building blocks of living; separate, not in tandem.

What I’ll Remember About the Films of 1992: A Personal Sampling

Time to continue the What I’ll Remember post tradition; a logbook of sorts, a way to pay tribute to all the year-specific viewing I’ve done and to point out some notables that stuck for me. It’s also a way of stressing that, while the Top Ten list is something I love working towards, it’s really a means to an end. It goes without saying, but the most important part is the process and journey of watching and re-watching these films in a concentrated and time-specific fashion. This is the first year I’ve completed that I was alive for (5 years old), so more of these remembrances than usual are from outside the films themselves.


“Tammy” (The Long Day Closes)

Dream Awards Ballot: 1992 Best Actress Edition: Sheryl Lee (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me), Michelle Pfeiffer (Batman Returns), Alfre Woodard (Passion Fish), Tilda Swinton (Orlando), Romaine Bohringer (Savage Nights)

At least Keanu Reeves is affable; the real stinker of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is Anthony Hopkins

The slow burning imagery of Bad Lieutenant and Harvey Keitel’s limpness/dying animal wails

“Anything you can do I can do better” – Kristen Scott Thomas, telling Hugh Doofus Grant like it is, later proving it in spades with her sultry boat rocking dance with Emmanuelle Seigner (Bitter Moon)

1992 is a special year because if Sheryl Lee gives the female performance of the 1990’s in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Michelle Pfeiffier also gives my favorite female performance of the 1990’s, and possibly the one that means the most on a personal and formative level.


The primal contorted ferocity and awkwardness of Damage’s sex scenes

Wes Studi packing more loaded meaning and subtlety into that simple, quick hand gesture than most convey with their whole bodies (The Last of the Mohicans)

Somehow watching 3 1992 films in a short period of time that all take place/lead up-to New Year’s Eve (Peter’s Friends, A Tale of Winter, Bitter Moon)

Hexxus scaring the bejeezus out of me as a child and adult (Ferngully: The Last Rainforest)

Watching Medicine Man in 7th grade Social Studies and having our teacher absurdly fast-forward the Amazonian-set nudity


John Lithgow trying (keyword trying) to be badass (Raising Cain)

The fact that an innovative effects driven film for 1992 constitutes a scaled down black comedy about catty bitches (oh how times have sadly changed) (Death Becomes Her)

“We’ll have barbecue jumbo shrimp motherfuckerrrrrr!!!” Deep Cover courtesy of Jeff Goldblum

The amusing sight that is Jeffrey Combs in a blue jumpsuit in Doctor Mordrid 

Notable female directed films of 1992: Orlando, Gas Food Lodging, Wayne’s World, A League of Their Own, Just Another Girl on the I.R.T


The wallpapers and costumes of Centre Stage, both by Lai Pan (and my favorite wallpaper in a film goes to…..yup, up above)

Films playing with ‘mockumentary’ styles for bracing effects (Bob Roberts, Husbands and Wives, Man Bites Dog)

Awards Dream Ballot: 1992 Best Actor Edition: Denzel Washington (Malcolm X), Harvey Keitel (Bad Lieutenant), Daniel Auteil (A Heart in Winter), Al Pacino (Glengarry Glen Ross), Bill Paxton (One False Move) 

The agonizing sight of Lyman Ward taking the stand in Brother’s Keeper

Buying Little Heroes (starring Fuzz the dog and Fritz the paperboy) on VHS from Video Visions when it was closing down years ago because it was the best worst film I’d seen in eons

death becomes her

That costume (or put better, a top made of ornate costume jewelry) worn by Isabella Rossellini in Death Becomes Her

Dressing up as Catwoman for Halloween as a youngster, and hoping to go as pre-psychotic break Selina Kyle this year (Batman Returns)

Bitter Moon, the only film where you can see Emmanuelle Seigner pour milk down her breasts while looking like a zombie as Peter Coyote licks her chest as George Michael’s “Faith” plays in the background

Wondering if the fish-lensed in-your-face formal madcap, to the point of discomfort, qualities of both Dead Alive and Strictly Ballroom is a coincidence

That Bob Roberts somehow manages to reach horror levels of creepy with its what’s-underneath-the-surface investigation and Tim Robbins’s impenetrable programmed rebel conservative

porco rosso

The floundering fistlight between Porco Rosso and Curtis (Porco Rosso)

Films that address race relations or issues of race (One False Move, Deep Cover, Candyman, Love Field, Malcolm X, Gas Food Lodging, Passion Fish)

Dream Awards Ballot: 1992 Supporting Actor Edition: Jack Lemmon (Glengarry Glen Ross), Jaye Davidson (The Crying Game), Forest Whitaker (The Crying Game), Harvey Keitel (Reservoir Dogs), Ray Wise (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me)

The seemingly unending set of frustrations with Enchanted April, and the character of Lotte

Robin Williams; wisecracking sidekick voice artist extraordinaire (Aladdin, Ferngully: The Last Rainforest)


Eiko Ishioka slaying us all with the intricate, pulsing and now iconic costumes of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Winona’s outfit above, which we barely get a glimpse at, a personal favorite)

Being reminded that Dr. Ernest Menville is my favorite Bruce Willis performance (Death Becomes Her)

“Masturbate in hell!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!'” (Full Contact)

Amanda getting to participate in 1992 craziness with our viewings of Baraka, Husbands and Wives, The Last of the Mohicans, Peter’s Friends, Enchanted April, Dead Alive, and A Tale of Winter. This included post-film discussions and of extremely important happenings like considering Daniel Day-Lewis’s Peak Pretty, fawning over Liam Neeson in Husbands and Wives, the cuteness of Felicie in A Tale of Winter, Peter Jackson’s career, who is the worst in Husbands and Wives (Jack), and simultaneously having appreciation for and then giving up on humanity thanks to Baraka.

“Look, cows: this movie has everything!” – Amanda on her long-felt love for The Last of the Mohicans

doctor mordrid 7

Andrew Garfield doppelganger as a greasy Satanist in Doctor Mordrid!

“Women are lonely in the 90’s; it’s our new phase” – Gas, Food, Lodging

 Bit player Jeremy Piven (The Player, Bob Roberts, Singles)

My complicated hate-hate-kind-of-appreciate-hate feelings for Lori Petty’s work and character in A League of Their Own

Uncommonly irreconcilable and complicated relationships (and our difficult relationship with the relationships) at the heart of Howards End


This shot, the funky costumes, and the purple room in Naked Killer

The propulsive hands-on stunt work performed by Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh in Supercop

Urinating babies, the five minute tracking shot, and baby-faced crane building Tony Leung in Hard Boiled

The melding of memory and music in The Long Day Closes

A Heart in Winter, the only time Emmanuelle Beart is involved in a love triangle where her love goes unrequited


The unsurpassable WTFuckery of Society’s orgiastic final act. The only place you can watch a man being fisted until a hand comes out of his mouth, pokes out his eyeballs and, finally, rips his face apart

Banner Years for: Harvey Keitel (Reservoir Dogs, Bad Lieutenant, Sister Act), Miranda Richardson (Enchanted April, The Crying Game, Damage), Tim Robbins (The Player, Bob Roberts), and Introducing Actor Sydney Pollack! (Husbands and Wives, The Player, Death Becomes Her)

10 Favorite Characters of 1992: Selina Kyle (Batman Returns), Mr. White (Reservoir Dogs), Chantelle (Passion Fish), Shade (Gas Food Lodging), Linguere Ramatou (Hyenes), Charles Dickens and Rizzo the Rat (The Muppet Christmas Carol) Bonnie (The Player), Ricky Roma (Glengarry Glen Ross), Luc Deveraux (Universal Soldier), Orlando (Orlando)

Stephen “It’s just that I’m not really in the vagina business” Fry (Peter’s Friends)

“Oh no, I’m not a pilot, but, I know what’s going to happen. We’re going to spin and die” – producer in making of Baraka doc

league of their ownb

Forever wishing that Mae and Doris from A League of Their Own had a spin-off in some form

Similar hopeful endings about the deep connections between two people (The Crying Game and Light Sleeper)

Least Favorite Film Characters of 1992: Lotte (Enchanted April), Andrew (Peter’s Friends), Carol (Peter’s Friends), Kit (A League of Their Own), Veronica Roberts (Universal Soldier), Jack (Husbands and Wives), Henry Wilcox (Howards End)

I really don’t know where to start with Batman Returns (I really don’t, I could have a separate list it), so I’ll leave much of that for my final write-up. But Christopher Walken’s reading of “Santa Claus? ‘Fraid not” is a perfect morsel of indifference and how he lets that performance register as a series of abstract statements.

The final 15 minutes of The Last of the Mohicans, which will get some dissection in a later post


Playfully breaking through gender and the fourth wall with Tilda Swinton in Orlando

It can only go up from here – starting my 1992 viewings with turkey Innocent Blood

Bill Pullman’s laughable “Hiya cutie”, quite possibly the least appealing and unintentionally funny husband-returns-from-war scene (A League of Their Own)

Footage of post-Gulf War Kuwait in the apocalyptic Lessons of Darkness and Baraka

Being in 9th grade and watching Of Mice and Men in English class, which, all of things, promptly kick started my yearlong John Malkovich phase/obsession in a big way

If you ever wanted to see Willem Dafoe be adorable and smile a lot (in a Paul Schrader film, no less!) look no further (Light Sleeper)

noises off

Speaking of adorable, look no further than Christopher Reeve in Noises Off…!

Speaking of adorable, look no further than Steven Bauer in Raising Cain!

Speaking of adorable, look no further than Jean-Claude Van Damme (and his derriere) in Universal Soldier!

The faces-only outback intimacy of The Player’s central sex scene

Debbie’s dating video (Singles)


The Paula Prentiss fishing montage in Rock Hudson’s Home Movies

De Palma’s riff on the exposition scene in Psycho (Raising Cain)

Dream Awards Ballot: 1992 Supporting Actress: Dana Delaney (Light Sleeper), Miranda Richardson (Damage), Vanessa Redgrave (Howards End), Judy Davis (Husbands and Wives), Isabella Rossellini (Death Becomes Her)

Habeas Corpus starring Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts (The Player)

Having so much empathy for poor patronized Sam in Husbands and Wives

Hedgehog or fox? (Husbands and Wives)