Author: Catherine

Calling All Submissions! Top Films of 1992: Voters Poll


Porco Rosso

I’ve basically closed out my 1992 viewings (just a re-watch of Porco Rosso left). Along with upcoming posts citing Honorable Mentions, Personal Remembrances, a 1992 Movie Music Mix and the Top Ten, I’m including a Voters Poll as well (and will continue to moving forward). 

What I’d like to know is; what would make your list of Top Films of 1992? It doesn’t have to be in order, it doesn’t even have to be 10 if you don’t want. I’ve gotten most of my votes from twitter followers, but I’d love to get some additional contributions. 

Leave your picks in the comment section. Results will be posted early next week. I’m so looking forward to diving into the upcoming series of posts on 1992! 

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #140-144


Still trying to catch up here, so these will be much shorter than usual. As I mentioned in my last post, I just got back from a trip, am moving and have a lot of stuff to do, so I’ll get back into a regular rhythm here soon.

gas food lodging

#140. Gas, Food, Lodging (1992, Anders)
“I’m just afraid of running out of daydreams”

The power of artificial melodrama and the voiceover narration of a blossoming adolescent with nobody else to ramble to is our introduction to this frank yet delicate American indie about two sisters and their single mother trying to get by in a New Mexico trailer park. J. Mascis’s score (oh how 90’s) is just right, with plenty of moments when your ear catches just how great his contribution is here. And Fairuza Balk (one of my favorite actresses) is touching as the endearing Shade (oh how 90’s), trying so hard to change her circumstances and those around her with idealistic and naive solutions.

It’s the Little Things:
“Look that’s the best I can do. I’m tired”
“Women are lonely in the 90’s; it’s our new phase”

Orlando2

#141. Orlando (1992, Potter)
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.

Mauvais Sang (Film avec Juliette Binoche)_arc

#142. Mauvais Sang (1986, Carax)
“I love her and she loves me, but she already lights my cigarettes like I do”
“And I hope my prints on you fade”

Leos Carax lets his films live in the moment, forgoing a bigger picture. There’s an impulsive and purely cinematic drive to his work that feels like the process of discovery is taking place as we watch it. Story is a footnote. There’s a half-hearted peripheral disease at work that must have some parallel to the AIDS virus. But none of it works because it doesn’t matter. What matters are these characters defined by clothing, color, and by combinations of aesthetics and effects from silent film, French new wave and modernist techniques. Primary colors are used in a way that predates 1992’s Savage Nights. It’s all been said about the “Modern Love” sequence already but I’ll throw my perfection! exclamation into the mix. Juliette Binoche and a very young Julie Delpy exemplify why they had futures as French movie royalty.

step brothers

#143. Step Brothers (2008, McKay)
“Stop being a fucking dinosaur and get a job”

Overflowing with golden line deliveries (seriously, Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, in his comedy star career phase, are stellar) this absurdist comedy depicting the extremity of the literal man-child (these aren’t men-children, these are men literally pretending to be children. Like a combination of Dumb and Dumber and Clifford for the aughts.) has a wildly subversive streak, daring to run all the way in one direction with something brazenly meaningless. One of countless examples of how Step Brothers hilariously discards narrative is when we learn that the two step brothers have a sleepwalking problem. It adds nothing to the film, only setting up a later sequence, that also means nothing, in which the two sleepwalk into their parents bedroom with Christmas presents and jerkily chuck them in the air.

Goes for a third act momentum that undercuts the uselessness of what came before but this is trimmer than most mainstream comedies today and also dares people to fucking hate its guts. It shows that black comedies are still possible, if only we were able to notions of realism more. I honestly don’t know the last time I laughed this consistently through a modern comedy. I don’t think I’d like it much with lesser actors in these roles, but Ferrell and Reilly are a perfect match for each other.

careful1
#144. Careful (1992, Maddin)
Careful made me eager to watch the rest of Guy Maddin’s filmography; it’s full of ideas, interwoven humor, photographic verve unlike anything I’ve seen (riffing on German nationalist cinema, Bergfilme in particular, it mimics the two-strip Technicolor process). Despite all this, it mostly drags, at least as much as a film about outlandish incestual desire can. Shows more promise than anything else, and would have been better suited to being a full-on silent film.

Capsule Reviews (but mostly bullet points): Films Seen in 2014 #135-139


Have a batch of 1992 releases to catch up on, but for this post I’m rounding up my 2014 viewings and plopping them into one post. They get progressively more bullet point-heavy. I just got back from a trip and I’m moving soon so I’d like to haphazardly get these (and my next post) in so I can concentrate on the upcoming transition and finishing up 1992. When I get back from L.A next week, my next capsule review post will be those 1992 films (and bonus Mauvais Sang and Step Brothers). By the way, I’m closing out 1992 soon, a pretty big deal considering I began my exploration of the year all the way back in mid-May. I have two more films to revisit (Porco Rosso and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me) and three more first time viewings (Malcolm X, In the Soup and Life, and Nothing More)

snowpiercer-2

135. Snowpiercer (2014, Bong) 
Full Reviewhttp://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2014/07/15/review-snowpiercer-2014-bong/

Child's pose

#136. Child’s Pose (2014, Netzer)
The central conceit of Child’s Pose is a MacGuffin to show irrevocably disintegrating bond between an overbearing, to put it mildly, mother and a dismissive son. The death of an adolescent (who the son accidentally ran over, likely due to drunk driving) is propped up for a different kind of mourning. Netzer’s formal ‘verite’ aping proves both a distraction and a disservice. The most compelling scenes are the ones that go on longest because the camera calms itself, allowing the rhythms of the actors to take over. A scene between Cornelia (Luminița Gheorghiu) and Carmen (Ilinca Goia) is the standout.

Luminița Gheorghiu is the main reason to watch this. Starting from Cornelia’s perspective, we are gradually clued in to just how deluded and suffocating she is in regards to her son. She is armored with fur coats, obliviousness and an unerring penchant for morally bankrupt negotiations and takeovers. Gheorghiu plays her as at once ruthless and pitiable.

But it’s a dead end of a film, both in its inability to key into its story and because for all the acute observances of the breaking point between mother and son, its ending suggests that the son’s growth should matter to us when it no way does.

strangerbythelake_05

#137. Stranger by the Lake (2014, Guiraudie)
“We can’t stop living”
(Major spoilers ahead)
It’s a place of routine, where parking creates the same makeshift shapes and bodies hang unabashed and inviting. But the saturated regularity of surface nakedness belies murderous secrets and hidden longings. This is an insular world where death does not deter the community. Stranger by the Lake pits the assumed initial set-up of the dangers of anonymous hookups against the removal of anonymity and the ambiguity of desire trumping and further instigating a discard of safety and logic.

Franck is a romantic. He wants love so badly and he’s looking in the opposite place for it. He wants to be kissed when he cums. He wants a relationship. This is a reversal on the Gothic-influenced romance thriller, where romance segues into life threatening discoveries. Here, the discovery comes first, the notion of romance after. The tension comes from Franck’s knowledge (and that Michel doesn’t know of it) and continued self-endangerment. There’s something very lonely about Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), and thus about Stranger by the Lake in general. Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), the heart of the film and a sideline commentator, is also lonely, but looking for something more abstract.

The film takes place 100% at the lake. There is no score. It feels almost like a sexually rampant purgatory of sorts. There are two characters often in frame, the camera shooting head-on, direct. There have been so many Hitchcock comparisons, but the only reminder I felt were the voyeuristic elements. The final moments are of the type that would normally irk me. As of the past few years, I’ve overdosed on the ambiguous ending trope of smaller films. But this works for two reasons. First, because of how hauntingly black the shot is, only shoulder blades visible. Second, that Franck is calling out Michel’s name. After all this, after the climactic blood-letting and pursuit to kill, Franck still ends the film, even though he’s also now the pursued in the worst of ways, as the pursuer.

It’s the Little Things:
– Love that long take of Michel (Christophe Paou) coming out of water, at first a killer, then he begins to put on his sneakers and puts himself back together as someone we, and Franck, recognize.
Also fond of the odd bits of humor.

Planet of the Apes

#138. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014, Reeves)
Handsomely mounted by Matt Reeves with more care and tautness than I would ever expect, even after the relative surprise of Rise. It feels so redundant to talk about the effects work and performance capture, but it’s remarkable. Blue Eyes gives a little pause, but Caesar, Maurice, and especially Koba are so tangible that I’m still wrapping my head around the technical accomplishment.
– I cried. A lot. What can I say; I care about Caesar.
– The apes are our focal perspective point, the humans ushered in later like the intruders they are. A mainstream audience is forced to rely on simple gestures and visual storytelling for much of its first act; an uncommon request of a major summer release.
– But every story beat is painfully predictable and the mood is a representative of self-serious storytelling  overflowing with competence and entirely without surprises.
– It’s very much a middle film, really showing a necessary character transition and hard life lessons for Caesar.
– Battle scenes are a slog, carrying little momentum despite inspired moments like the 360 tank shot and long take of Jason Clarke on the run trying to evade apes
– Gary Oldman is forced into the story at every turn, a weak parallel for the Caesar/Koba conflict.
– Giving people backstories in post-apocalyptic settings have become the laziest because guess what? 100% chance their baggage is that they lost someone.
- Such strong production design all around. Loved looking at the scale of San Francisco microcosm. An antidote to
– Blunt and hits on things that are hot button right now.
– This would be a 5-star film if “Shock the Monkey” had played either during the end credits or instead of “The Weight” “
– Jason Clarke an inspired casting choice. He has little to do but boy does he do even that well. Palpable sense of awe and I was invested in him for the humanity he projects as opposed to character specifics.
– Rote narrative that nevertheless grabbed me. But when the stakes came to matter as far as action goes, it became unengaging.
– Found other things to grab onto. Particularly the hope that a misunderstanding between Caesar and Clarke be dissipated, and that they have a mutual respect and understanding (so yes, I felt that heads touching shot like mad).

Jenko (TATUM) and Zook (WYATT RUSSELL) out on the field

#139. 22 Jump Street (2014, Lord & Miller) 
Just because you’re aware that your sequel is bloated, doesn’t mean you get ‘Cate Blanchett’, as Jenko would put it, to be bloated. Look, there’s a lot of hilarious stuff here; I laughed a lot. Lord and Miller, with their animation background, have a particular strength in swerving towards visual jokes. Hill and Tatum are still great together. Tatum’s Jenko is the character we thought we never needed but now can’t imagine life without. But a lot of 22 Jump Street runs in place. Not in a fashion where plot can be zanily discarded, but leaning on it without making narrative work in its favor.
– Wanted Jenko and Zuke to stay together.
– Feels like Jonah Hill was not edited down enough. He gets some of the film’s biggest laughs (Cyn-thi-a) but he’s playing less of a character here; it’s more a collection of scenes where Hill just runs with it. Which is fine as far as working methods go because it’s how Hill gets the job done (more than enough is better than not enough), but it’s only successful when post-production trims the material down to its essentials. The initial meetup with Tom Sizemore is a perfect example. It goes on forever.
– Hill and love interest; boo.
– Third act much improved over predecessor. In fact, the spring break section is my favorite, with that physical battle between Gillian Bell and Hill being the film’s highlight (I smell an MTV movie award!).
– There’s a difference between material strikes indifferently and actively unfunny material and unfortunately for every two genuinely funny moments, there’s something not funny soon afterwards. The entire Dave Franco/Rob Riggle scene did not sit well with me at all.
– Not as invested in Schmidt and Jenko as a pair this time.
– Amber Stevens major step down from Brie Larson
– Meet Cute. Bad trip. Schmidt’s Slam Poetry
– Major missed opportunity; Jenko in a Human Sexuality class. So much more could have been done with that.
– Meta jokes worked better as a whole than I expected even if they were relied upon far too heavily
– Probably the big detractor is that there are, much like Dawn, no surprises. With both I don’t talk about plot or some notion of twists or what have you. I talk about ways of approaching and executing the material. I love the way 21 plays with high school culture, its smart and disarming way of zigging when you think it’ll zag. But there’s none of this here.
– Wyatt Russell in more films please. Also saw him in this year’s Cold in July.

Review: Snowpiercer (2014, Bong)


snowpiercer-2

Contains spoilers

Bong Joon-ho, and only Bong Joon-ho, would have a film that features its protagonist tripping on a fish, in slow-motion no less, during an axes-out action scene. Bong, and only Bong, would make a film that allows the wildly divergent performances of grim revolutionary Chris Evans and villain-out-of-a-Roald Dahl book Tilda Swinton to successfully play off each other in the same space. And how many filmmakers would make a blockbuster that has the audaciousness to suggest, especially since the film itself thrives off a directly parallel narrative structure of rigidity, that structural disbandment isn’t enough; that wiping the slate clean and starting from scratch may be the best solution to humanity’s suffering?

For those of you just getting on the Bong Joon-ho train; welcome. It’s a topsy-turvy world here, where this filmmaker’s greatest strength, constructing a tonal playground within genre films, would be anyone else’s weakness. His is a consistent inconsistency if you will. A strangely cock-eyed and playful sense of sick slapstick humor, a kind found in other Korean films but never to this degree or application. I always sit there marveling “how does this work?” Go back to the mourning scene in The Host or the chase sequences in Memories of Murder; the pitch black hilarity of bodies bumbling awkwardness presents itself in intensely serious or emotionally wrought moments. Despite there being much to love in Snowpiercer’s deployment of action, Bong relies too heavily on shaky-cam amidst broader conceptual inventiveness, trying to create chaos in the claustrophobic space rather than playing into his penchant for the Clumsy Body Ballet. It’s the only somewhat significant disappointment with the film I can claim, largely made up for by Bong’s outside-the-box approach to depicting decimation and physical conflicts.

The film’s structure and the train are uniquely one and the same. As we rise up the ranks the train design intricately details quarantined worlds of increasing color, imagination, and fanned out purpose. The gaps of the world gradually fill in for us and the characters. Narrative is literally pushed forward.

We’re in the middle of an endlessly downbeat trend of self-serious blockbuster fare. Post-apocalypse looks and sounds the same, house style reigns supreme (thanks Marvel). Studios are petrified of projecting anything other than gravity. ‘Humor’ is either absent, forcibly injected via side characters, or filtered through the unappealing character trait ‘arrogance’. By contrast, the world of Snowpiercer is like a vital antidote, inspired by the best bits of Terry Gilliam and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (pre-whimsy overdose days) among others. Worlds within worlds of immaculate and invigorating production design. These spaces are used for all kinds of mayhem, as building blocks for creative and varied action, even down to the way the train’s movement itself, not just individual car settings, contributes to form and story on at least two separate occasions (night goggles and going around the bend).

Snowpiercer is also self-aware, having its first act look, and feel, like current filmic dystopia. World building mostly comes through naturally in dialogue or constant corners. One gets the feeling that repeat viewings will yield many rewards, always picking up something new along the detail-oriented way.

Even on a first viewing, there are so many tangible details that work their way into story, bringing the characters experiences, both daily and uncommon, to life. The restricted perspective of the proles, Happy New Year!, the Candy Land classrooms and propaganda, the contrast and mystery we feel as the woman in yellow visits the stables, missing limbs, are bullets extinct?, protein bars, the telling and unexpected relative indifference portrayed in the sushi scene, the last cigarette on Earth, the creation and use of cautionary tales, train and time being inextricable, train babies. The list goes on and on and on.

Curtis (Chris Evans) as the ‘hero’ is deconstructed and turned on its head in a way that recalls this year’s The LEGO Movie (in that case the ‘chosen one’). Curtis is kept a very narrow character; all these folks in the lower cars are defined by their plan and their goals. When we finally learn more about him, it cripples the rendering of this ‘reluctant hero’. His backstory (so horrifying it crosses over to being, again, weirdly funny) suggests a possible double feature with Gremlins for their out-of-nowhere Whoa, Shit Just Went Dark monologues. This is also the moment when A. focus and motivation shifts towards Song Kang-ho’s former prisoner Namgoong Minsu and B. Curtis becomes tempted by Wilford (Ed Harris). Was it worth losing so many people just to get to the front of the train? Is revolution more costly than productive? Is the logic of the system just the bitter truth of their circumstances, a necessary order amidst otherwise chaos? Or is Namgoong Minsu’s idea of obliteration, and beginning again, the way to go? Snowpiercer seems to takes up with the latter although it’s, again, more shaded than that, allowing Curtis his final act of personal redemption and an open-ended ending that can be seen as optimistic or pessimistic depending on how you look at it (Bong seems to feel optimistic, me a bit of both).

Snowpiercer’s messy absurdities coincide with the tightness of the world and structure, putting Bong’s commitment front and center. It’s a ludicrous premise that he wholly commits to, a commitment that makes acceptability of messy overtness. His offbeat and unpredictable extravaganzas can yield falters, but it’s the small trade-off for the twisted exuberance Bong spins off at us any given moment. Indeed, for all this praise, I’d possibly place Snowpiercer at the bottom of his work so far, which should say something about just how enamored of this man I am.  If you lift up its unsubtle outer shell, it’s a story with surprisingly dense ideas, and perhaps within is more unsubtlety, and within that…. well you get what I mean.

It’s the Little Things:
– I’ve said it before, but I’d be hard-pressed to find a filmmaker working today that I admire or revere more. I’m a Bong completest (not hard with only 5 films) and have read the only book written on his work. His films, without fail, make me feel invigorated and uncommonly (even for me) engaged with cinema (and within that, genre film) as a medium. I spent most of Snowpiercer either beaming at the screen, laughing at the screen, or in awe of the screen.
– I don’t think Gilliam (John Hurt) was in cahoots with Wilford. Just my take.
– The only time, that I can see, the camera move from right to left is when Curtis makes a big move toward Mason.
– So Wilford is basically kind of like a variation of Cristoff from The Truman Show. Except making eggs in a bathrobe casual.
– Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung starring in a badass father-daughter franchise. Someone make this happen.
Snowpiercer is so quotable, the idea of quotable films are sort of a rarity today. Mean Girls. What the fuck else is there? “I learned babies taste best”, “Be a shoe”, etc.
– I haven’t even talked about the performances. Song Kang-ho (who has more star presence than everyone and their families) forever and ever and ever and ever; obviously. He and Joaquin Phoenix are my two favorite living actors. And now I just want Tilda Swinton and Bong to collaborate again because the two are so in sync re: their twisted sensibilities that it’s a match made in heaven.
– So I don’t know exactly what Weinstein’s cuts were going to be, but I have a feeling it would have been a lot of the humor beats. Which is so sad because I feel like the culture at large is so allergic to risks in tone and having multiple planes of atmosphere. I realize there’s a lot of current pop culture bashing in this review, but I honestly think Snowpiercer is indicative of something that is lacking in big budget fare today.

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #130-134


belle
#130. Belle (2014, Asante)

“I have been blessed with freedom twice over, as a negro and as a woman.”

Belle is much more than the following sentiment, but all the same; Amma Asante’s gratifying yet subversive period piece makes my heart go pitter-patter. Some may scoff at the love story (indeed a few reviews I’ve read knock it down a peg for just that) but what about how sweetly investing it is? The adorable abolitionist with unshakable moral footing (Sam Reid) is so steadfast that he amusingly dips into caricature at times. It becomes part of his charm, as does Reid’s slight woodenness. More importantly, Amma Asante gives a mixed race character the otherwise non-existent pleasure of participating in British aristocratic romance with all the heart-racing and letdowns of love and its foibles.

Belle is inspired by a rare 18th century painting (a rare marker of what could and should be), and the life of its black subject, who is portrayed in the piece with equal height, dignity, and grace to her white counterpart. The film takes on a bit of everything (coming-of-age, race relations, period piece, romance, courtroom drama), a juggling that at times threatens to capsize. Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is a biracial aristocrat, allowing her a unique position not only in history but also in film’s depiction of history. She is ‘blessed’ with relative agency through her bloodline and financial independence, but while the white half of her is lauded, the other half of her lineage robs her of standing, saddling her with the self-loathing society embeds in her. She has a place in her family and is genuinely loved by them, but certain basic customs still keep her at bay. Her upbringing quarantines her from her slave heritage; she is an anomaly, with no connection or relation to her blackness, always aware of the ways she is made limited by it, but otherwise kept away from the accompanying culture and systemic atrocities. A lot of Belle is about the title character finding some sense of racial identity in a world that shuns her from doing so.

It’s not just Belle who is restricted. Her cousin and best friend Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon, a favorite up-and-comer) has to barter herself a husband to secure status. The fact that she has no dowry makes her an undesirable despite her standing and revered porcelain beauty. For her, and women in general, there’s also a bartering of flesh. You feel the humiliation and self-worth slipping from Elizabeth as she casts her line out, waiting for some dweeb or scumbag to hook. When Elizabeth and Belle fight, we don’t hate her. We’ve grown invested in their bond and in Elizabeth’s misguided infatuation and her peripheral disquietude. And then there’s our abolitionist who comes from a class lower than Belle or Elizabeth, his occupational drive seen as having a shallow ceiling.

There are a ton of subversive subtleties at work. In case you didn’t get the memo, race, class, and gender constructs are constantly being prodded at. The Jane Austen framework and conventions are used to further engage with obliviously embedded mindsets of racism. It’s a different angle for this kind of historical film, and in some way more complex than depicting the hard-hitting horrors of slavery. It takes the conversation outside the slave experience and more explicitly mirrors the racial politics of today.

This is a historical space where a feisty, playful, astute, contemplative and determined young woman fights to find a place and identity for herself, to embrace her heritage in a world that isn’t ready to afford her that. Somehow Belle keeps from feeling too weighty without ever glossing over its social, racial, or gender concerns. And Gugu Mbatha-Raw is just incredible. I don’t know how else to put it. Anyone who sees this will have her on their permanent radar. Raw flips through Belle’s youthful contradictions and the myriad number of her differing facets (that hey guess what, all young women have! But film rarely crafts or performs them this thoughtfully) with ease.

In some pockets there’s an interesting, for lack of a better word, streak of hesitancy to engage with the more vicarious tropes of period dramas. Belle plays in the same pond its characters do, recognizing that these obstructions are part of what can make period romances, well, so romantic. And for once, changing history to imagine direct historical impact and a conveniently happy bow is a hopeful and earned statement. It’s entirely moving instead of a cop-out. It’s a conclusive statement for Belle being an unapologetically revisionist romance, and by the end I had to wipe a happy tear away.

It’s the Little Things:
Tom Felton. And Tom Felton’s wigs.

Joe Cage Sheridan
#131. Joe (2014, Green)

“Smile through the pain”

Probably, and so disappointingly, my least favorite film of 2014 thus far (granted, I’ve only seen 30) and the second worst I’ve seen from David Gordon Green (I’m a fan). It comes down to the critical difference between letting ‘regional authenticity’ materialize naturally, and using it as your sole playing card for the deluded support of yet another masculine-soaked redemption narrative. Joe is, quite frankly, a barrel of overkill. I felt like one of those damn trees the characters inject with poison. Joe (Nicolas Cage) begrudgingly bonds with a boy named Gary (Tye Sheridan), who is stuck in a hopelessly repellent family situation. And guess what guys; Joe sees a bit of himself in this kid.

It’s a shame about Joe because the two lead performances, particularly their organic chemistry, are very good. I’m not going to play the Nicolas Cage Returns to Acting headline (it’s a reductive and uninteresting way of looking at his career) but yes, this is engaging work from him. Tye Sheridan stands out more though. There’s such a messy and loaded moment that must have been on some level improvised by Sheridan (it’s the standout moment of Joe), where he taunts his father with the drink. Gary Poulter and his story are an uneasy illustration of contradiction. Contradiction isn’t the right word, but I’m not sure what is the right word. Of course Poulter has some serious chops and it’s great that he was given this opportunity to play this character. I realize there’s no solution or responsibility that comes saddled with his casting, but then he’s just released into the last throes of alcoholism, playing out the end of his onscreen character and himself.

The couched hillbilly miserablism is used as a distraction/qualifier to fill out a thin and exhausted story. Not even the sense of hidden humanity that Green is able to peer at can make up for bleak tedium. Men make their living by illegally poisoning trees. There’s a dog named Dog. Lots of visual dog metaphors. Deer are butchered. Joe won’t take his girlfriend out to dinner. There’s a guy who works at a general store and collects war paraphernalia. There are lounging prostitutes. There’s incest. There’s endless mumbling and drudgery. There’s also a scene where Poulter and one of Joe’s employees yell the same things back and forth to each other at an escalating rate, a microcosm representative of the approach to Joe.

Its best moments all feel improvised. Gary asking Joe to buy his truck. The ‘smile through the pain scene’. The snake. There’s a lighthearted touch to these moments the rest of the film could take a note from. Not that Joe needs to be lighthearted. Far from it. I mention these moments because they were touches of texture otherwise missing. It’s as if the actors themselves subconsciously injected a bit of levity into the proceedings.

It’s the Little Things:
-The first shot
– Cage’s delivery of “Kristy, call the cops before someone gets killed. Would you do that for me honey?”
– I will say that the scene the brutal murder of that homeless man was profoundly disturbing. And not in just a shock value kind of way. It had a genuine effect on me in ways few things do. Yes, it’s the kind of unproductive ugly the rest of the film goes for, but it’s also frightening in that you don’t often see murder take place in film with this blend of senselessness and intimacy. I can’t properly articulate it.

Enemy-2
#132. Enemy (2014, Villeneuve)

Enemy had been one of my most anticipated films of 2014. I’d read José Saramago’s The Double, which became a favorite book despite its callous dismissal of women. Doppelgängers, bifurcated identities, dream logic, psychological angst, etc. This all screams ‘KATIE’. But I don’t know what to make of Enemy. Much of it feels somehow easy; artificially symbolic and existential. Like Denis Villeneuve looked at a stripped down template of psychological mind-fucks and never followed through with expansion. It has a simple recurring framework; spiders, Toronto as a piss-cream smog factory with an endless emphasis on presence of skyscrapers and criss-crossing wires (webs), music and scale that recalls German Expressionism. Ever notice that a clarinet, if used in a certain solitary way, suggests an off-key almost paranoid melancholia? Well, Enemy understands and makes good use of that. This isn’t Villeneuve re-teaming with Jake Gyllenhaal after Prisoners; Enemy was shot first. This is the re-teaming. Lacking as these two films are, in one sense it’s worth it for the  Gyllenhaal performances, which have double(triple?)-handedly made me invested in his career again.

Sarah Gadon (hello again!) leaves the biggest imprint out of anyone or anything here. Her expressiveness, and the way she shares her secrets and fears with the camera represent the best work I’ve seen from her. Anthony (Gyllenhaal) looks past her constantly, so she carves out a special bond with the audience in these silent scenes. I do like the disbursement and sense of psychological space taking place within the inner. But Enemy’s few developments (there’s a way to do effective minimalism; this isn’t it) are rendered blank because the flow is careless to anything outside conveying monotonous dread. The first meeting between Adam and Anthony is inertly underexplored. It doesn’t release any of its built-up energy. It’s so concentrated on maintaining atmosphere that character becomes background, in a frickin’ doppelganger story, despite Gyllenhaal’s subtle rendering. How do you have a film about identity without, in some way (again, this can do this visually but these are just not enough), foregrounding character? Even its final image is desperate, a last gasp at food-for-though, but the joke seems to be on us.

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#133. The Story of Qiu Ju (1992, Zhang)
“He’ll pay. That means you’re right and he’s wrong”

Qiu Ju’s (Gong Li) efforts to be heard are emphasized by sight and sound. Qiu Ju is not made special by the camera. She is not centered visually, always caught in long or medium shots. She also isn’t especially heard, her voice always threatening to be drowned out by those around her. She is compromised or diluted in her own ramshackle environment, and in the big city she is simply overwhelmed. The characters knock about different ideas of justice, none of them particularly fulfilling. There are increasingly comic dead ends as we climb up the bureaucracy, and enter fish out of water territory. There is repetition through the same piece of music, linked with the tiresome act of travel. Qiu Ju chases something that doesn’t really exist. The higher up she goes the more elusive her goals are as well as and the powers that be. Her chiles are gone. And her husband is upset.

The cyclical comic roundabout of the story didn’t engage me; it’s just a taste thing. What I find most interesting is admittedly extratextual; its placement in Zhang Yimou’s career (trading prestige for rural), how China felt about him and Gong Li up to this point, and how this turned the tides. Also, the hidden cameras give us a priceless look at modern day China. It is unprecedented in that way, but not much else.

Hyenas
#134. Hyènes (Hyenas) (1992, Mambéty
)
“Life made me a whore, so now I’ll make the world a brothel”

I shamefully, but perhaps unsurprisingly, have very little experience with African cinema so I can’t speak to a larger context. Explicitly anti-colonialist, using the cautionary fable to illustrate the slippery slope into superficial Western modernity. Colobaine is in an economic crisis, and all it takes is one person to come in with their vendetta, their goods, their temptations; but change comes with a blood price. The mayor says the village’s decision is not for the sake of money. He uses the values of past wrongdoing as a transparent excuse for turning on their most popular resident. Dramaan Drameh (Mansour Diouf) is literally consumed. The transition from incorruptible to corruptible is a bit forced in its mechanization, point or no. Linguere Ramatou (Ami Diakhate) is transformed into an icon of power, using money for revenge but not as reconciliation for her own experiences. So money doesn’t make up for hardships, but it does sustain bloodlust. She is surrounded by adornments and even a Japanese security guard! The tone is perfectly gentle and lacerating.

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #125-129


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#125. Enchanted April (1992, Newell)

Bitter Moon was the final film in the ‘Relationships’ section of my 1992 watchlist with Enchanted April segueing into ‘Women!’. Four women, in varying degrees of desperation, seek rejuvenation away from their husbands and the rainy cobbledom of 1920’s London in an idyllic Italian castle for one month (guess which). Contemplative solitude and reflection against the tabula rasa pastoral gardens provides a backdrop for magical realism. Set-up conflicts, all involving marital strife, fade away in favor of reconciliation. I wanted to feel the hope and power of sojourn spirituality at work in Enchanted April…but it proves impossible.

Based on a novel of the same name written by Elizabeth von Arnim in 1922, its approach to marriage certainly reflects the era of the story’s inception. It dares to present marriage as this broken down union lacking in communication, respect, and understanding, only to gloss over everything for an unearned whole; a much less forgiving resolution for a film made in 1992. Sure, the magical realism suggests the potential for reset reality once everyone returns to London, but “that’s another story”. Give me that then, not this. This is like A Midsummer Night’s Dream with unhappy spouses instead of young love. No thanks.

These marriages seem to be dead ends all-around, so there’s nothing to root for besides the women finding inner peace with themselves for themselves. At first that’s the focus, and then one by one the men come clomping, or humming, back in. The women’s aim for identity, agency, and hell, even just mutually respected companionship is invalidated, and all in the name of putting all your eggs in the escape-to-the-countryside basket.

A paragraph of questions:
So what, Frederick (Jim Broadbent) now loves Rose because she throws herself at him? It was her prudishness that needed to change? Not Frederick’s philandering or inattentiveness or endless humming? Rose is just so bowled over by Frederick’s arrival that all her feelings and doubts are reconciled? Even though he didn’t even go there for her in the first place? And George (Michael Kitchen) was taken in by Rose (Miranda Richardson) and not Lady Caroline (Polly Walker), all because he’s got shitty eyesight? Even though he comments not once, but twice, on how much Rose looks like the the Madonna? Give me a break. Give me lots of breaks. In fact, just give me all the breaks.

The blossoming connection between Rose (Miranda Richardson) and George is sapped in an instant by the film and Rose, as if it had been nothing of consequence. Our clairvoyant guide into these blissful surroundings is the skittishly exhausting and intrusive Lotte (Josie Lawrence). Enchanted April feels as if it were made by Lotte, like it takes place in her deluded head or something. We wait for the other shoe to drop in her desperation but it never does. Because it turns out that for her there will be no rude awakening. Everything she says about her fellow tenants and the power of the castle turn out to be correct. It doesn’t matter that she’s inconsiderate and oversteps her bounds by trying to solve everyone’s problems.

I’ll admit that part of my dislike of Enchanted April comes from a rare break on my ‘expectations’ rule. Basically, and I say this with an asterisk to risk generalizing, it’s a big pet peeve of mine to mark against a film by saying ‘it’s not what I expected’. That puts all its supposed value onto the individual’s preconceived notions, either from marketing, reputation, or picked up assumptions. The weight of preconceived notions on a film’s value gives the advantage to said preconceived notions, not the actual content. I take issue with that. These are natural feelings to have of course; however, there are constructive ways to frame them, meaning engaging with what the content is opposed to what the content isn’t.

This rant is to say that, yes, in this case, for some reason I thought Enchanted April was going to be about female bonding surrounded by lots of pretty flowers, and not about reconciliation with husbands, so that certainly didn’t soften the blow. Nevertheless, I’m all for buying into romanticized fairy-tale hope (as in A Tale of Winter), as long as the material earns it. And Enchanted April does not earn it.

The relaxed pace interspersed with low-key moments of characters soaking in their new temporary milieu with hard-earned basking is appropriately sweeping. My favorite moment comes when a small lizard makes its way up Miranda Richardson’s hair, and so despondent in this moment she allows it. Speaking of Richardson, she is able to use her naturally cold demeanor for exacting enigmatic ends and unexpected subtle reactive strokes of comic timing.

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#126. Marlene (1984, Schell)

Maximilian Schell makes a mistake trying to engage with Marlene Dietrich near end of her life, and knowing each other going back to Judgement at Nuremberg twenty years earlier doesn’t help smooth things over. In fact, nothing does. Schell works under very strict stipulations, the most obvious being her refusal to be seen on camera at age 83. So we hear her barbs with director, interviewer and friend as archival footage plays in the background, usually undermining in some way what she is saying. Dietrich is aggressively staunch, constantly dismissive of her own legend and work, or downright confrontational. Everything is ‘kitsch’ or ‘rubbish’.

We hear someone seemingly uninterested in their own legend, yet defiantly unwilling to risk tarnishing it by showing herself. Although I can’t fault one’s understandable vulnerability about being seen at age 83. But still, she attempts to preserve in her own way. She also inadvertently tries to support her legend by insisting on their being ZERO craft in her work. As she puts it, she just did as she was told. Nothing is really revealed about her if you solely hear her words. Marlene is about the discrepancy between public legend and self-representation; between sad shielding and what’s beneath. How they create a tear within a person. Dietrich wants nothing to do with this documentary, yet she takes part. Is it just because Schell is her friend? She repeatedly references her autobiography. This is someone who wants to (understandably if misguidedly) control her own narrative after the fact, even as she wants to disassociate from it.

Early on, she claims not to have seen any of her work. It’s a transparent statement from the start, and later she is proven wrong (though not thankfully called out on it). When being shown a copy of The Scarlet Empress she claims it must be a different version because the edits are wrong. She dismisses sentiment, only to be moved to tears by a sentimental song at the end.

That’s all there is to Marlene. Yes, it ends up being an anomaly of a project, in some enticing ways, but overall its few revelations build up to a wholly frustrating experience that not even Schell’s sly undercutting of words with images can erase.

It’s the Little Things: 
– According to Dietrich, women’s lib was all about “penis envy”.

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#127. We Own the Night (2007, Gray)

It’s become clear to me at this point (with only Two Lovers left to watch), that James Gray gives Joaquin Phoenix grand character arcs that run record long distances in a short period of time. In The Yards he’s fun-loving and supportive, then cowardly and jealous to all kinds of too-far-gone mixed up. In The Immigrant he’s a charlatan to a possibly dangerous stray dog in love to sacrificial raw meat. And then there’s We Own the Night, which could also lovingly be called The Joaquin Phoenix Show. Full of dismissive defense mechanisms towards his family (getting high and feigning boredom) and underground success and love but by the end, it’s a 180; something lost and something gained. What is lost is Eva Mendes and the self-chosen club environment and (dependent) success he naturally drifted towards. What he’s gained is a position society can be proud of, and the love of his family, most importantly his brother. One love traded for another very different kind of love. It’s an incredibly bittersweet trade-off, and not just because the bridge between the two is the loss and subsequent vengeful recompense of their father.

Phoenix spends most of the film, even when he’s sticking his neck out for them, an outsider looking in on his own family, a tolerated third wheel.

Once again with James Gray; Choices, Family, New York. Gray and the cinematographers he works with have an uncommon ability to constantly and observantly capture actors; nothing seems preordained in these performances. The writer/director works with familiar stories and genre conventions while having a knack for spending all that narrative time oh-so-carefully mapping out characters and their multi-faceted relations. In this case it’s all about Bobby (Phoenix), so much so that pretty much everyone else ends up being a bit underwritten as a result. Where Bobby stands with those in his life is constantly charted. Everything flip-flops for him. What would normally be a fraught and traumatic, but ultimately uphill, battle ends up being an complex aforementioned trade-off. Conventions come through characters and their choices, as opposed to characters and their choices coming through conventions.

Well, it’s certainly safe to say that the man knows how to end a film. There is something indefinably powerful about that final image. What is it? The simplicity of it? The words being spoken out and not towards? That slight zoom or how head-on it is?

It’s the Little Things:
A black-and-white montage of New York police photos transitioning to Joaquin Phoenix in red walking towards reclining Mendes while “Heart of Glass” plays; sexiest thing in a film I’ve seen since re-watching The More the Merrier

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#128. Vampire Academy (2014, Waters)

Every so often you run into a film that you recognize as being a scattershot botch job, seemingly beyond repair, but you still like it, a lot, despite everything. Vampire Academy is one of those films. Now that suggests all the pieces are somehow lacking, which isn’t the case. There’s a lot that works about Vampire Academy, and despite its box-office flop status and universal pans, I believe the film will slowly but surely find some kind of audience.

The main detractor is that it suffers from the kind of Adaptation Inflammation that tends to plague adaptations of world-building heavy YA films. This one even has the nerve to throw terminology as onscreen text, like a trippy test review session. The harder the  world-building efforts (also taking into account its low budget), the more everything feels inconsequential as opposed to realized. So there’s an unfortunate dwarfing effect from the get-go. As if the exposition weren’t enough, Vampire Academy makes the mistake of acting like the start of a movie franchise so are endless extraneous elements and characters that have no bearing on the story at hand, and are there to assuredly set up  future installments that will only exist in the books. So there is no shortage of dead, and undead, weight.

World-building skeletons with a side helping of complicated etymology exists in all self-serious YA franchises. But Vampire Academy blends (to inconsistent results) that skeleton with the playfully bitchy high school lampoon act its makers (Mark Waters of Mean Girls and Daniel Waters of Heathers) are known for. But instead of the latter subverting the former, they end up feeding off each other til there’s not much left.

But on second thought, I’d say there’s quite a bit left. Yes it’s a mess, but damn if it isn’t an entertaining and sardonic mess. Zoey Deutch alone is a real find, heavily recalling both Ellen Page and a young Lauren Graham, with constantly varying and left-field comic sensibility. She can be annoying and a bit much, but I found her Rose Hathaway badass and lovable, an antidote to the furrowed brows and self-sacrificing heroines of dystopian and supernatural worlds. It would be a travesty, yes a travesty, if we don’t see a lot more of her in the future. Lucy Fry as Lissa is quite memorable too, regal and fluttery; good enough to make us forgive weak screenwriting that flat-out says NO to the transition and logic of character motivation.

For all the bland-boy romance (and let’s be honest, so many female-led films suffer from Bland Boy Syndrome), the friendship between Rose and Lissa (Fry) comes first. It is never lost for a second that they have the most important bond, in sync and connected forever. They are soulmates. Lissa even gives a speech at the end where she’s all ‘I wish you all could have your own Rose Hathaway, I’m the luckiest gal in town’. And Lissa, and the film, even make room for welcome and timely commentary on slut-shaming.

All in all, I wanted to stay in this world. I even want to pick up the second book and give it a try. Mark Waters and Daniel Waters drown a bit in the fold of YA, but with the help of Zoey Deutch they are able to come up for air quite often. The results allow teenage girls to have all kinds of non-judgmental sexual yearnings in a PG-13 world, with snarky growing pains winning out over the arduous and usually meaningless weight others of the same cloth so often bore us to tears with.

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#129. Passion Fish (1992, Sayles)

Literary and laid back in ways May-Alice (Mary McDonnell) and Chantelle (Alfre Woodard) can only strive towards. John Sayles (this is admittedly the first film I’ve seen of his) attains the restfulness and ease both seek. The characters catch up to the film. They are restricted to backwoods Louisiana for different but not dissimilar reasons. Rennie (David Straitharn) and Sugar LeDoux (Vondie Curtis-Hall) recur as potential male companions, but everyone else visits once and only once. People pass through while the two remain stationary.

Fade-to-blacks are usually used as prelude to a passage of time, but Sayles consistently and overtly uses them to emphasize a lack of movement or change. That progress is at a standstill for May-Alice because of her self-absorbed obstinance. Stasis, and the gradual movement away from it, and the acceptance that erases it, is at the center of Passion Fish. From May-Alice’s attitude towards her paralysis to Chantelle’s inner demons and dependency on her job as caretaker. When Rennie takes the two out for a late-film boat sojourn it critically signals movement within stasis, an openness to their surroundings and to each other.

Mary McDonnell and Alfre Woodard give two beautifully realized performances as equally willful women with a push-pull dependency built on hesitance. The former spouts and drinks, swears and lashes out. The latter desperately bottles everything to keep control of herself, her guardedness hiding immense vulnerability. Chantelle is at once sheepish and direct. Their friendship, though both would hesitate to call it that for most of the runtime, is constantly shifting and developing, the two actresses always able to pinpoint where their characters are (even if the audience isn’t made privy) at any given moment. May-Alice comes to realize she needs Chantelle (both for support and as someone willing to stand up to her) long before Chantelle admits this, or accepts this as mutually beneficial beyond survival.

Sayles does right by the Louisiana milieu outside of some random bouts of broadness (Precious anyone?), recognizing that there was a reason May-Alice left Louisiana as soon as she was old enough, without dipping into pandering. Passion Fish could so easily smack of a been-there-done-that TV movie (or shitty movie) territory or worse, of a black character entering the scene to help stabilize a white character. And though Chantelle is introduced into May-Alice’s story, it very quickly becomes a co-lead film, where each are paid equal mind, mutually dependent, not one an appendage of the other. In fact, as great as McDonnell is, Woodard as Chantelle emerges as the character and performance that resonates more deeply. Have I mentioned how amazing she is in this? Because I’d say from all my 1992 watches and re-watches so far, it’s this lead female performance that has knocked my socks off. Interracial friendships and bonding depiction in film can also easily end up being a catalyst allowing white people to feel good about themselves (for a most egregious example, see; The Help), placement and purpose renders them props no matter how well-written or performed the individual character(s) is(are). Passion Fish sidesteps all this for a deft and carefully observed study of two fully realized women whose fates are intertwined for better and worse.

 

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #120-124


A Tale of Winter
#120. A Tale of Winter (1992, Rohmer)

Roger Ebert astutely stated that A Tale of Winter “is not a love triangle because the person she (Felicie) loves isn’t there”. This is only my second Eric Rohmer film (the first being Pauline at the Beach). True to form, love and choices are dissected and philopshized. Words are used to withhold and dangle the future, a tether with which Felicie (Charlotte Véry) keeps two men in her orbit knowing (as do the men; Felicie is forthright to a fault) they are just placeholders for the long lost Charles. Maxence (Michel Voletti) and Loic (Hervé Furic) aren’t characters in their own right; they are to us as they are to Felicie — distractions. She puts all of her hopes and dreams into the idea of another man, a man she knew but briefly, their connection broken off by a silly address fluke. In the meantime (the meantime taking up most of the film), besides her unbreakable certainty she will be with Charles again, she is defined by her borderline manipulative use of indecision.

The bright topless summer fling of the start gives way to a five-years-later heavy-coated winter. Felicie is periodically shown entering and exiting places, the routine of her days shown for the chance present in comings and goings. And lo and behold! A happy ending! Of course, we have no idea what comes next for Felicie and Charles, but it’s a romantic close, full of hope and potential. At the very least, we are given access to the start of their fanciful reunion. The way everything quickly falls into place is enchanting instead of a cheat.

I use the word enchanting for a reason. There’s another 1992 film, which will be covered in my next capsule review post, that also closes with the picture perfect erasure of conflict and emergence of relationship kismet. This one sells it. The other one, I ain’t buying.

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#121. Bitter Moon (1992, Polanski)

Perverse, deeply ugly, and comically absurd; I loved it. 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 on some level in all of us.

We’re trapped with the male perspective in each couple. Oscar (Coyote) is the classic unreliable narrator, a scumbag spouting the purple prose of failed authordom. He uses self-loathing as a catch-all excuse for his actions. His hesitant listener is Hugh Grant, who basically does a parody of his bumbling Brit. I’m not quite sure why Kristen Scott Thomas’s Fiona is consistently labeled by viewers as cold. Yes, she’s reserved. But cold? No. Is it because we’re stuck in the masculine? Is it because of audience expectations of her? Or a recognition of what we’re meant to be thinking? In that case, I’d say the film is cold towards her. As it is, the Brits are used as props to make a point about the destructive dependencies of human nature.

The structure, framing device aside, is marked into three shifts (making four total sections) between the dominant and submissive. Sexual games become a prelude for everyday power plays. Nigel (Grant) is disgusted by Oscar’s sordid tale, but he keeps coming back. And we’re revolted as well, first by the shameless ecstasy Oscar projects onto Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner), and then the bottomless pit of constant public degradation that transfoms poor Mimi, and is then reversed as she has her revenge; a revenge in which she’s still fated to him, locked in for life. The entire thing is a cruel joke on Nigel. Making each other miserable for kicks, enforcing dependency has run dry. So they turn it outwards.

On the one hand, Seigner (Polanski’s real life wife) isn’t very good, but the physical moments in her performance, gyrations and hair tossing, are incredibly effective in their lithe animalism. Yet what she lacks in acting abilities (at least in English) ushers in a sense of fragility, followed by blankness, which suits the character well. Oscar is a pig, in more ways than one. He describes Mimi as being all about sex, but he’s really describing himself. She is ultimately a cipher because he is pitifully limited in his view of her. “It’s no fun hurting someone who means nothing to you” is the defining piece of dialogue. It’s nasty and unapologetically honest.

The camera rocks and sways while on the boat with our teetering and destructive characters. At first it seems like a corny way of evoking ‘at sea’, but it coats the framing device with a somethings-gotta-give vibe, the woozy threat of a tipping point.

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 content, and more out of 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 treaty 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 with. Seigner pouring milk all over her breasts, looking like a zombie by the way, as Peter Coyote licks it off with George Michael’s “Faith” in the background is unequivocal evidence Polanski means Bitter Moon to be a kind of brazenly sadistic circus. These other 90’s erotic thrillers took themselves so seriously, so it must have been unmanageably jarring to see a film that at once did not take itself as seriously, yet contains twisted barbs of resonance.

It’s The Little Things:
– This is the 3rd 1992 film I watched in a short period of time to be centered around/lead up to New Year’s Eve. The other two were Peter’s Friends and A Tale of Winter.
– “Anything you can do I can do better”
– Seeing Bitter Moon now ended up being perfect timing for me re: the release of Venus in Fur.
– That dance between Seigner and Scott Thomas.
– When you think back, the first time Mimi meets Fiona and Nigel says a lot, as it’s not through Oscar’s perspective

The Missing Picture

#122. The Missing Picture (2014, Panh)
Free-floating memoir documentary about the discrepancies and overlap of personal experience, how an individual recalls being subject to history (in this case the unimaginable Khmer Rouge), and how events were presented by those in command at the time. The former is presented through clay figurines and narration. The frozen and expressively hollow faces, and their immobility, evoke a devastation so great that only something as simplistic as clay can hope to capture it. The latter comes in the form of archival propaganda footage from Cambodia, presenting the Communist Party of Kampuchea as an agrarian utopia. Emotional and apt, but it eventually felt like a reconciliation with no place for me as a viewer, if that makes sense.

The Immigrant
#123. The Immigrant (2014, Gray)
Full Review: http://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2014/06/21/review-the-immigrant-2014-gray/

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#124. Mystery Train (1989, Jarmusch)

Without a doubt my favorite vignette film by Jim Jarmusch as he continued to comfortably and safely play with his career focuses like happenstance, multiculturalism, the slight threat of melancholy by way of disappointment, meandering, lots of smoking, and hip tranquility. And of course capturing the lived-in spirit of a specific city or location, finding identity in the ignored details, and a central focus on music. My favorite vignette is the first one, that of the opposites attract Japanese tourists (Masatoshi Nagase exudes cool to the point of catatonia) who wander aimlessly through Memphis in their idolization of Elvis and Carl Perkins.

Actually, scratch that. My favorite is anything involving Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Cinqué Lee, The Arcade Hotel staff stuck in time, and witness to all. The eating of the Japanese plum is a perfect moment, perfect in how unexpected it is. I was unreasonably excited every time the film checks in on them.

There’s not a lot to chew on in Mystery Train, but that’s precisely what makes it so enticing. As characters pass through this narrow area of blocks, it feels like anything could happen. That Tom Noonan’s story could be true. That Luisa really does see the ghost of Elvis. That there could be something connecting Elvis, Madonna, and the Statue of Liberty. That sense of possibility isn’t like a jolt of energy. More the opposite. We watch with hypnotic nonchalance, taking in the glum humor, ever-so-anxiously awaiting Tom Waits’s DJ Lee Baby Sims to usher in Elvis’s rendition of “Blue Moon”.

It’s the Little Things:
– Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s flashy red threads
– Robby Muller’s cinematography which slightly recalls the radiating neons of The American Friend
– Masatoshi lighting his cigarette and throwing his lighter up in the air, catching it in his shirt pocket

Review: The Immigrant (2014, Gray)


The Immigrant

IMDB summary: In 1921, unfortunate circumstances drive newly arrived immigrant Ewa (Marion Cotillard) into a life of prostitution, and a complex, volatile relationship with two men – her conflicted pimp and his romantic cousin.

As I work my way through my 1992 watchlist for an upcoming Top Ten By Year column entry, it seemed a doable side project to finally watch the increasingly lauded work of classicist James Gray. I still have to see We Own the Night (which I’ll be watching tonight) and Two Lovers, but with Little Odessa, The Yards and The Immigrant, the latter two make Gray well on his way to being one of my favorite working filmmakers.

Some stories are familiar for a reason. James Gray posits this with regularity. Unfashionably leaning on lush (but not, critically, romanticized or glossy) classicism that seems to either envelop the viewer or leave them cold (depending on your predilections), Gray focuses on the precise juxtaposition of operatic scope against intimate human struggles (or more precisely, the latter cradling within the former), largely of the criminal and familial. His films are about what goes on in the confined living spaces of down-and-out working class New York. Again, I can only speak to the three Gray films I’ve seen but there are so many similarities between them in both structure and focus. All three begin with an arrival and end with a departure. The protagonist makes it through, but everyone else is fair game. Joaquin Phoenix’s simmering penchant for producing hidden layers of agonized and doomed empathy are capitalized, casting him in roles that position him as a dubious obstacle, revealed as someone riddled with complexity on top of complexity. Accidental deaths abound. Familial connections increase the tautness. Critically, each James Gray film is near-obsessed with the act of choice.

The Immigrant is a constant balancing act. Shots often walk right up to the tip of overtness. The final image, for example, is on the fence of that line; obvious but packing a majestic wallop of visually splintered destinies — parting, but forever connected. Darius Khondji reconstructs the rich haze of period films, but steps back from gloss. The feeling that someone can slip through the cracks and fog is easily within reach, the lower class a world all its own. The aforementioned familiarity plumbs the depths of clarity and oft depicted material, but is also used to narratively veer ever-so-left or right. Characters we think we’ve got pegged (‘hey I recognize that type; the wayward prostitute, the pimp with a temper, the knight in shining armor’), we don’t, but not in acts of narrative subversion. The familiarity of ‘types’ merely allows Gray to pull back the layers, reveal them as human beings stuck in a system. Against each other, yet mutually dependent in their low placement on the totem pole.

Money makes the world go round and money haunts The Immigrant. It enables corruption and loopholes. One can get around the system by knowing the right people. People can exploit the system in order to exploit others. We see the hierarchy and importance of power and respect taking shape, and everyone finding their place within it. Connections are made out of desperation. Any choice you make is a chance taken, and people stay in bad situations largely because they don’t want to risk tripping into something even worse. A fellow prostitute warns Ewa of this while talking about Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix). For what it’s worth (at once nothing and everything), once they are under his wing Bruno treats the women quite well, all things considered. They’re like a makeshift family. The point the fellow prostitute makes to Ewa is that trust equals risk, and it’s always a risk. Nothing is what it seems. You have no idea who people really are, especially being a woman in predatory 1920s New York looking to make a place for herself.

Confined spaces are used to create insular environments in a way that oddly recalls the “Other World” from Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. For Ewa, and us, it feels like nothing exists outside her immediate purview. Attempts to get out lead you back to where you just came from, only a little more hopeless. She is falsely informed that her aunt and uncle do not want her. She is bucked at every turn; only Bruno comes to her aid. Her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) might as well be in another dimension. Ewa is onto this, but awareness does not equal much in mileage.

The living spaces hum with the imprint of personal remembrance. The Immigrant feels big, but look again. It all takes place in the spaces. Even when Bruno and the women are turned out, they set up shop in a park tunnel. We so urgently feel the fact of having nowhere else to go. When she ‘escapes’ from Bruno, it’s like she’s emerged from the rabbit hole. She’s out, but what now? Experiencing Ewa’s obstructed view of New York makes us feel the direness of choice, whether an illusion or lack thereof. It all comes back to choice.

There is the urge to trust. Jeremy Renner’s Magician with the Masked Charm Emil is seemingly an out, or at the very least a hunky ally. He’s more stable than Bruno and reeks of agreeable entreaties. Bruno’s act on the other hand is transparent from the get-go. And look at the situation he’s got her in. There have been lies and deception at every turn. Yet there’s unmistakable loyalty, and hey, at least he turns his boiling anger inward. But Gray sets up expectation only to bring in complications, not of plot but of character. Emil’s got a great act going for him but there’s a loose thread in all the sheen and eyeliner. He uses Ewa not once, but twice, to make a point, putting her in the middle of incredibly fraught situations. The Immigrant is half-marketed (if you can even say half, considering how disgracefully Harvey Weinstein punted this into a handful of theaters) as a love triangle, but that’s not really the case at all. Yearnings are used as a backdrop. Ewa, in the midst of her conflicts, has her eyes solely on reclaiming her sister. She’s far more worried about the Catholic guilt of her supposed sins, and whether attempted dignity or survival is a justified stance, then these two men.

The Immigrant is an intimate spectacle, and the three powerhouse performances all serve the aching grandness of the story; Cotillard with her steely resolve and the plight of woman shone through her impossibly expressive face, Phoenix with his agonizing journey of inner conflict and full-Brando moments, and Renner with his ambiguous reappearing act. James Gray is so finely tuned into his actors, into the immediate environment of the characters, and with the strength and weakness of familial bonds amidst dire circumstances. It’s classical without being pastiche, grim without being miserablist (and furthermore with concrete glimmers of hope). In my capsule review of The Yards, I stated that everything carries weight, and that the story, and the people within it, matter. It’s a rare gift of a quality, and it’s looking more and more like a sense of intimate magnitude is James Gray’s greatest strength in a sea of them.

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #115-119


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#115. Universal Soldier (1992, Emmerich) (US)

Any film with opening credits that superimpose the names of its two action stars over said action stars being zipped up in body bags has got my vote. There may have been a more streamlined way of saying that, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure it out.

Diverting in its liveliness and earnestly serious absurdities. Having Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren play machines effectively lifts the acting duties off their strapping shoulders, allowing the conceit to play into their limitations. But Van Damme has, make no mistake, seriously intuitive comic timing. He’s like a sad and unassuming lost child here, and it is peachy keen delightful to witness. I can honestly say that Van Damme is the only one from the streak of hyper-muscular action stars to come out of the late 80’s to early 90’s that I find myself crushing on. Dude’s hot.

Cat-and-mouse pattern; Lundgren catches up to Van Damme, and a small business gets obliterated in the ensuing mayhem leaving the country folk perplexed, but not without a zinger or two. Rinse, repeat; it gets tiresome. Universal Soldier outstays its welcome with that formula, but restores itself to badassery with a rousing rain-soaked finale full of methodically precise and concentrated bludgeons.

This was Roland Emmerich’s first major project, replacing director Andrew Davis. He uses the widescreen aspect ratio like he’s known it his whole life. The icy blues of the controlled laboratory are contrasted with the real world reds and yellows of the desert environment. Ally Walker’s wired yet casual chain-smoking reporter is exhausting. She throws herself into the role as best she can, but that admirable commitment only makes Veronica more difficult to bear.

What better way to end a capsule review than to plug the fact that there’s a healthy helping of Van Damme’s derriere? You can thank me later.

It’s the Little Things:
-Soooo, based on the buzz, it looks like I should see Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, huh?

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#116. The Yards (2000, Gray)
(US)
So I liked this so much more than Little Odessa. A return to the dual resurgence of the familial and the criminal, and within that the return of a son to those he left behind. It’s about loyalties, the past informing the present; you know the drill. The kind of intimate and heavy mid-tier crime drama that would be in fashion for 70’s American cinema but in 2000 grabbed nobody’s attention. And it’s a shame, because what a piece of work.

Everything carries a palpable weight to it, the precision of story and performance locking it all into place, making everything matter. Everyone speaks in hushed tones, the interpersonal and criminal given the same importance, one and the same. The first act, a welcome home party for the recently paroled Leo (Mark Wahlberg) should be taught in screenwriting classes. Everything is brilliantly set up with all the major characters, outside of the absent but integral Frank (James Caan), accounted for.

My favorite performances from Mark Wahlberg (Boogie Nights, I Heart Huckabees, and now The Yards) showcase his brand of underutilized vulnerability. His Leo is observant and hesitant, one foot always in or out the door. Joaquin Phoenix makes the potentially unsympathetic Willie not only sympathetic, but kind of heartbreaking. His arc is felt every step the downhill way. Phoenix makes us feel it all slip away from him, with the inevitability of his foibles in tow, as if in slow-motion.

Can we talk about the late great Harris Savides for a second? Because this is exquisitely photographed, shot in golden musk. The scenario at hand is literally made to weigh down on these people in shadows. A sequence that sticks out for its divergence from the rest of the film is the big picture tussle between Leo and Willie midway through. Inspired by Rocco and his Brothers, we step back, as if a neighbor watching it all unfold from across the street. We’re normally so close to these characters, but in this moment we’re allowed to take in the physicality of this fight, messy and whole. All-in masculine energy.

It’s the Little Things:
This is the most attracted I’ve ever been to Charlize Theron. And that’s saying something.

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#117. Cold in July (2014, Mickle) (US)

Set up as a ‘meek’ (read: average) man-out-of-his-depth period slice of Americana crime horror. Sprints through a feature length of story in 30 minutes, daring us to ask ‘where do we go from here?’ The first 30 feels very much like a Cape Fear kind of story. Stalking, lurking revenge, and the ever-threatened home. And then suddenly it seems like Cold in July is gearing up for its finale. So again; where is all this going? Well, somewhere quite different from the beginning.

We first see Michael C. Hall’s (who I’m so so so glad to see in something not called “Dexter”) Richard sweatily defending his home from a burglar, and with an itchy trigger finger to boot. By the end he’s walking into a building with intent to kill, turned vigilante. I don’t want to say anything more, because one of the joys of Cold in July is moseying along with its directional shifts. Suffice it to say, Richard ends up in the literal back seat of what was at one point his story, hijacked by the more prominent and potent concerns of Sam Shepard’s Russel.

I love the way these three men (the other being swaggering Don Johnson) are cobbled together in an unlikely, weirdly lovable partnership, and a difficult situation. Even though the vigilantism supports Hall’s new-found manly energy, sustained by feeding off the presence of Shepard and Johnson, as solution to all (something that needed to be fixed apparently), in a supposition too old hat to hit.

The oversimplified dialogue in its climactic scene, and the way it plays, is genuinely moving, pushing against the destination of processed violence (though Jim Mickle always finds creative ways to keep the final act creative and edgy, even in its more overly drawn-out moments). Any sluggishness or dead end syndrome is offset by Mickle’s bravura behind the camera, and the varied trifecta of lead performances, most impressively Sam Shepard and his perpetually cocked head.

It’s the Little Things:
– I’ll sign a petition if it means Vinessa Shaw gets to stop playing thankless roles. As per usual, the wife is just sort of there. And then not.

A Heart in Winter
#118. A Heart in Winter (Un coeur en hiver)
(1992, Sautet) (France)
Both 1992 French films with ‘Winter’ in the title (the other being Rohmer’s A Tale of Winter which I’ll cover in my next post) depict love triangles with a twist. Effectively deployed one-time-only voiceover narration (something that tends not to work) at the start informs us that Stéphane (Daniel Auteuil) defines himself by his boss Maxime’s (André Dussollier) daily grind. It’s factual and routine. Maxime considers Stéphane a close friend, but the definition isn’t mutual. It’s not anything Maxime has done. Stéphane just doesn’t consider anyone his friend. He cannot, or will not, form self-defined personal connections with others even though he clearly has a rapport of some kind with several. Is he denying himself investment as a protective shield, or is he just missing warmth and the ability to truly connect?

Whichever it is, it has lent Stéphane a permanent air of superiority, above such trivialities as human connection or even having opinions in philosophical or political conversation. He goes about intellectually seducing Maxime’s new girlfriend, violinist Camille (Emmanuelle Béart), just because, or maybe because he’s unwilling to admit he’s drawn to her. So you have a very familiar illicit scenario but with an unusual player at its center, skewing all expected developments. This is first and foremost a character study about Stéphane and his reliable inability to change. He’s cruel in how far he takes his anthropological curiosities. He shows more of an intimacy with the inanimate violins he lovingly repairs.

Music is at the center, Ravel’s specifically, and several scenes of Camille playing show her intimacy with the violin (which is the shared bridge between the two) as she carries out its lyrical potential, a potential only possible because Stéphane has fixed the instrument for her. 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 goes into the answerable qualities and inadequacies of ourselves.

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#119. Peter’s Friends (1992, Branagh) (UK)

Enjoyable even though it’s aggressively uneven and rote. Stephen Fry is always such an unbridled joy to watch. But we all knew this already. His Peter wears his heart on his sleeve as a distraction for his motivated guardedness. He watches as a happy reunion turns ends up holding critical moments for each former college buddy. Some are able to turn the curve, some, well, TBA. Very hopeful, in ways largely unearned (although I really liked the Hugh Laurie/Imelda Staunton story who sell an unrealistic marital shift wholesale). Carol (co-writer Rita Rudner) and Brian (Tony Slattery), significant others of Andrew (Branagh) and Sarah (Alphonsia Emmanuel), stretch broadness to the limits. Though Carol is allowed a nice scene with Maggie (Emma Thompson), the film can’t wait to dispatch of them, leaving us with the core group of six. Most of Peter’s Friends falls somewhere between a sitcom and bittersweet dramedy, not particularly succeeding in either. Branagh is too go-to on the long takes; sometimes it works, other times it’s lazy.

Emma Thompson’s character disappointingly undergoes the Ally Sheedy Treatment, in that she ceases to be a character once she’s had her makeover.

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #110-114


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#110. Lessons of Darkness (1992, Herzog) 
Scours the oil-soaked rubble and landscapes of post-Gulf War Kuwait. Werner Herzog purposely avoids giving any context, only droplets of human tragedy in the traumatic aftermath of war. By removing context, the film feels eerie and otherwordly. Is this really our world? Yes, it is.

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#111. Doctor Mordrid (1992, Band)
After having seen this (and a few others in years past) I kind of just want to have a Full Moon Features marathon. Their output is indicative of the VHS era and the sudden surplus of low-budget direct-to-video genre films that emerged out of an analog market. With Doctor Mordrid, the main draw for was actor-I’ll-watch-in-anything Jeffrey Combs, and an accompanying recommendation from ever-reliable friend Alex Kittle. Combs has a dry and overenunciated style of acting, as if inadvertently seducing the person (or air; you know, whatever’s there) in front of him. Surprisingly fun and silly beyond belief (so, pretty much, what you’d expect), with Combs in a blue jumpsuit, stop-motion dinosaurs, adroit set design, and music that sounds like it came out of an episode of “Wishbone”! Originally supposed to be a Doctor Strange film (and hey, look, one is in the works now) but the option expired before production could begin. It’s a misleading concoction, mostly feigning ‘PG’ levels of tame and then throwing in random nudity and swearing in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it intervals.

Vyette Nadir is far more relatable, capable, and likable than she needs to be. I have a special fondness and familiarity with her from the Full House episode “Happy New Year”.  And even though she and Combs have zero chemistry, I adore both so much that I was somehow still invested in them. Like, this movie is oddly cute. And as if all of this weren’t enough, there’s a Satanist that looks exactly like a greasy Andrew Garfield!

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#112. Tom at the Farm (2014, Dolan) 
http://criterioncast.com/reviews/theatrical/catherine-reviews-xavier-dolans-tom-at-the-farm-ct-lgbt-film-festival-2014/

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#113. Oculus (2014, Flanagan)
The evil mirror in Oculus (can we have more evil mirror movies please?) is a narrative carte blanche. The object spreads out influence and can get inside your head, fiddling with everything you thought you knew. That Oculus is somehow able to keep the debilitating effects of childhood trauma relevant despite (though it doesn’t change the existence of trauma), the affirmation of the supernatural, is not only unexpected, but damn impressive. It plays out in two parallel storylines, the past and present, and there is increasing fluidity between the two. Director and co-writer Mike Flanagan plays with our knowledge of how the past thread turns out in order to impact the present. The past plays out like a homier version of The Shining that sees itself through. Instead of the Overlook Hotel, it’s the coal black antique above.

There is a ton of exposition, but it goes over smoothly because it is used to simultaneously highlight Kaylie’s (Karen Gillian in a marvelous turn) obsessiveness and unhinged leanings. Having to deal with family tragedy on her own has made this moment, not the processing and therapeutic recovery Tim (Brenton Thwaites) has undergone, what everything in her life has led up to. What makes Oculus scary is that anything seems possible, and the characters (and therefore us) become unable to trust their own eyes, experiences, or surroundings. Though it relies too heavily towards the end on spooky glowy-eyed specters, there’s a weight to how Kaylie and Tim’s childhood have shaped their separate paths that makes everything matter.  This isn’t ‘we may be through with the past but the past ain’t through with us’, it’s ‘we’re not through with the past and guess what, the past ain’t through with us anyways’.

It’s the Little Things:
– The light bulb scene and the band-aid scene. Shivers.
– I love that first shot of Gillian, the camera behind her as her red ponytail sways back and forth.
– The girl who played younger Kaylie (Annalise Basso) is so good. The boy, eh.
– Katee Sackhoff everybody. Just a reminder she should be in everything.

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#114. Raising Cain (1992, De Palma)
Wacky as fuck and clownishly bonkers in its lopsided Hitchcock homage. The lifts from the master of suspense are even more overt than normal for De Palma, basically parodic. But then, pretty much everything about Raising Cain feels parodic, like a page out of Raimi, and not necessarily in the best way. Gets to it immediately, switching gears every twenty minutes or so. John Lithgow, in five different roles, camps it up for every one of them (does he mean to?). As forceful as De Palma’s self-awareness is, everything ends up feeling like an outlandish construct in which to hold Lithgow’s scenery-chewing, even though we know it is in fact the other way around. And that really hurts the film. Watching Lithgow have at it might be entertaining for some, but eh, I’ve never gotten that thrill from watching him.

Far more engaging is Lolita Davidovich’s tale of spousal resilience and rekindling love with the adorable Steven Bauer. Apparently De Palma originally intended Davodovich’s Jenny to control the narrative at the start. One day I’ll catch that alternate cut. There are some truly inspired ‘De Palma!’ moments, like the multi-level multi-object finale, and a long scene of Psycho-esque usually-stationary exposition transformed into a long take that spans stairs, turns, elevators, and Gregg Henry repeatedly putting the speaking-and-veering Frances Sternhagen on course correction (in some ways, the film is like Sternhagen in this scene). There’s also a recurring focus on surveillance. Raising Cain may be a DOA narrative loop-de-loop, even within its own world, but at least there’s an unhinged screw-it-I’m-just-going-for-it commitment. You’re never going to hear me complain too much about De Palma going up his own ass.

 It’s the Little Things:
– Have I mentioned Steven Bauer and how adorable he is in this?
– The story of Bauer and Davidovich is hilarious because they are both good-hearted people, yet they kiss in front of his dying wife’s hospital bed!