Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #91-97


In the House

#91. In the House (2013, Ozon)
In the House will surely go down as one of my favorite 2013 films by year’s end. Right up there with Francois Ozon’s best work, a director who has avoided a solidified auteur status by climbing up and sliding around in genre playgrounds. But he deserves just as much attention, because let’s face it, we misuse and overuse the term as it is. His films lean toward an acerbic wit, adaptations of plays (In the House is an adaptation of Juan Moyarga’s The Boy in the Last Row) and playing with story deconstruction and manipulation whether carried out through his form or his characters. I went on an Ozon binge as a teenager and he remains one of my favorites. With In the House he reaches new heights, in a film that meta-intellectualizes the writing process, exploring our attachment to characters, the critical nature of tone and what happens when you get caught up in real life through fiction. This all sounds stodgy and overtly pleased with itself, but I assure you this is an entertaining class-conscious ride of melodrama and irony. I went into this not knowing anything, only knowing that it was the new Ozon film. And I was gripped from minute one all the way through to the perfect unpredictable, but ‘of course it needed to end this way’ final scene. In the midst of it all, there’s Ernst Umhauer, an alarmingly impactful new find. And he’s absolutely dreamy to boot.

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#92. The English Teacher (2013, Zisk)
Full Review: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/04/26/tribeca-review-the-english-teacher-2013-zisk/

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#93. The Burning (1981, Maylam)
I consider myself a pretty big fan of horror films, and even if I’m always game to give into my baser senses and watch them, the slasher has always been near the bottom of the preferential pack. The distilled hypocrisy of their formulas always irked me, but at the same time from a cultural standpoint they remain juicily revealing. Like almost every genre, my top picks rank among my favorites. Those would be Black Christmas, Sleepaway Camp and Alice, Sweet Alice. The Burning is a pleasant and consistently entertaining surprise, almost but not quite nailing that top-tier level. My checklist for slashers there needs to be a dated, kitschy or fun tone or I need to enjoy the pack of oblivious victims. The Burning hits both requirements.

The characters are a joy to hang out with, and the actors achieved a naturalistic and playful summer camp camaraderie.  Many folks judge slashers by the quality of their kills. Tom Savini does reliably solid work, though had little time to prepare, but the kills are standard fare. Luckily, the tone and interplay between characters matter more to me. You’ve also got some notable film debuts here; Jason Alexander, Holly Hunter and Fisher Stevens. Lead soap opera actor Brian Matthews is hero-hunk of the hour and Ratner from Fast Times at Ridgemont High gets saddled with the outcast role. Probably most notable for being the Friday the 13th rip-off brainchild and one of the first Miramax films from the Weinstein’s, who produced and co-wrote. Friday the 13th is highly over-appreciated. Seek this one out instead.

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#94. Encore (1952, Jackson, French & Pelissier)
Encore is the third of three anthology films based on W. Somerset Maugham’s writings. The only one I now haven’t seen is the middle one, titled Trio. On the whole, Encore is just as accomplished as Quartet in bringing idiosyncratic vignettes to life, placing the emphasis on representing a literary perspective through film. The Maugham stories chosen tend to have a focus on the ways people can surprise you amidst established dynamics.

The first story, “The Ant and the Grasshopper”, is the weak link, mildly amusing and inconsequential with an unearned ironic ending. The second, “Winter Cruise”, is the best vignette of both Quartet and Encore combined. It is an ode to the persistence of character and unexpected attachment in the forced circumstances of shared company, with a genuinely rewarding ending, adding something to everything that came before. The last story, “Gigolo and Gigolette” deals with the ravenous hunger for tragedy from the haughty public. It is bookended with scenes from the perspectives of the splatter-hungry rich who flock to the venue on the off-chance the female lead’s risky diving feat will end in death. We then get to see the petrified state that has set into Glynis Johns’ mindset and how it affects her marriage to co-performer husband.

The thing about these barely known films is that their direction, which ranges from average to bungled, holds them back from becoming true successes within the realm of filmmaking. The reasons I love both of these films are the memorable stories being told through the short story form and the British character actors who are able to bring the characters to life (especially Kay Walsh whose ‘Molly Reid’ I’ll never forget). However the medium is never utilized to enhance, instead reduced to basic image capturing. It’s a big reason these films haven’t been remembered, which is unfortunate because there’s a lot to get out of them.

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#95. Prince of Darkness (1987, Carpenter)
Mid-range John Carpenter impresses by working to the filmmaker’s strengths, his palpable fixation with theoretical physics and atomic theory on full display. He achieves sustained dread through synths and anamorphic lenses, accumulating to an explosion of disturbing abstract imagery complete with Cocteau homage. Second in his apocalypse trilogy, Carpenter thrives off of putting his characters in an enclosed space to fight off evils that slowly become cognizant to the characters as they come together and split apart. That set-up works here because the hive mind of the group offsets Carpenter’s weak spot for writing individual characters. Donald Pleasance has first billing as ‘Priest’ but he never feels present in the slightest. If it weren’t Pleasance in the role he would have received a bit part billing. The developing relationship between mustachioed Jameson Parker and frigid Lisa Blount is established then amusingly dropped. I especially loved Parker’s apparently correct prognosis of frigidity came from her being rightly offended by a sexist jab he makes. Yes, clearly this means she is humorless and dead to the world around her.

The middle section treads a lot of water with the possessed students roaming around taking others over with Linda Blair look-alike Susan Blanchard at the helm. It makes the threat corporeal in a repetitive and uninventive way, which wears thin after a while.

The reasons Prince of Darkness impress are the constant blatant imagery contrasting the scientific lab equipment set-up within the holy space of the church. Most impressive is the climax which mystifies in its atypical form, representing some of the best work in John Carpenter’s career.

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#96. Cutter’s Way (1981, Passer)
Cutter’s Way is an uncut gem, one of the best American films of the 80’s, flying completely under the radar since its limited release in 1982. I had heard of it a couple of years ago amongst fellow dedicated treasure-seekers, and the hyperbolic acclaim was through the roof. Believe the long-deserved but still dreadfully unconsummated ballyhoo about this undiscovered classic. A character study with its own matchless identity of damaged individuals bound together by unimpeachable and unspoken personal history and codependency. None of these characters are healthy for the other, but they stay loyal for better and worse.  The set-up for a conventional thriller is established only to be abolished, using its genre fake-out to explore the ambiguous maybe-delusions of crippled patchy-eyed alcoholic Vietnam vet Cutter, played by John Heard in a remarkable piece of acting. I will never primarily see him as Mr. McAllister again.

These maybe-delusions are an outlet for his unsuppressed rage at the world and his experiences in it, a misguided effort to reclaim the long lost (ever there?) hero within him. He’s a volatile unreachable mess of a human, beyond repair. Along for the ride is indecisive best friend Bone, an excellent and often gloriously shirtless Jeff Bridges. Despite being known for keeping his distance from trouble and conflict, his life is built out of decidedly running in place. The third member of this codependent group is fellow depressed alcoholic Mo (Lisa Eichhorn, rounding out this trio of superb performances), a committed defeatist who picks her battles but always loses. The only anomaly is the Ann Dusenberry character, whose presence feels forced and disjointed from the rest of the proceedings. The open ending cements both the ambiguity and the loyalty of the central friendship in a heart-wrenching coda.

Modern Girls (Jerry Kramer, 1986)

#97. Modern Girls (1986, Kramer)
Modern Girls completely won me over through its flamboyant immersion into the then-present 80’s, the kind of film that needed decades to ripen and amass a following. It’s a conventional wild-night-out film that sees its three archetypal women (Virginia Madsen, Daphne Zuniga, Cynthia Gibb) getting into all sorts of hijinks as they run from club to club with unwitting male Cliff (Clayton Rohner). Its appeal lies in the dated culture shock, the youths of L.A represented by three idealized women. These women are written as the kind of ‘cool’ that young women would aspire to be. Hell, I found myself wishing I could be Margo. Their fashion sense, which I think holds up in its funky way, and obscenely confident demeanor (at least on the outside) give way to dream lives that writer Laurie Craig tries to make relatable through their oh-so-woeful work weeks as they waltz through dead-end jobs.

On the outset, all they care about are men, but thankfully there’s some nice work done towards the end to offset their priorities by challenging the characters to favor long-standing friendships and daring to want things for themselves. If made today, I likely wouldn’t care much about Modern Girls. But this 1986 cult film is abundantly quirky and lively with a lot of neon dated character impossible to resist. Its female-centric focus also feels relatively rare for 80’s teen comedies. All in all, I adored the hell out of this one.

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Tribeca Review: The English Teacher (2013, Zisk)


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The English Teacher will be released in theaters May 17th.

Beneath the artificial layers of lighthearted whimsy and lovelorn sheepishness found in TV veteran Craig Zisk’s feature film debut The English Teacher, there’s a curdling belittlement that spoils like a rotten egg. Though to be fair, the artificial layers are caked on like tasteless butter to begin with.

When Julianne Moore’s middle-aged, bespectacled waif of a schoolteacher makes a couple of arguably questionable and ill-advised life choices, apparently all bets are off. The question for screenwriters Dan and Stacy Chariton should have then been, ‘how can we make a lively backstage romantic comedy of age-inappropriate errors?’ Instead they asked themselves ‘what can we do to put our so-called heroine Linda Sinclair, (and by extension Julianne Moore), through the wringer’, because clearly she deserves it.

Films with such fundamentally wrong-headed intentions fill me with a cloudy rage that can be difficult to parse through. With cloyingly conceitedness, The English Teacher’s one true desire is to sitcom its way into people’s hearts. There are plenty of ways to do that without treating the main character so condescendingly it negates the entire film but that’s just what Zisk does. Maybe if the film had satirical aspirations, subversive undertones or anything like an underlying purpose, an artistic case could be made. There are certainly many great films that do not take their characters’ very serious plight seriously, but The English Teacher hangs in zero gravity; it isn’t trying to say or do anything other than taking blind stabs at manufactured pleasantry.

The condescension starts right out the gate as a Regency-evoking elderly woman narrates this substandard tale of small-town shenanigans. Our gimmicky narrator, who is heard precisely three times, paints a picture of Linda’s life as satisfying but ultimately tragic and hopeless because she’s destined for spinsterhood. The patronizing tone is all but evident in these first scenes. The British narrator takes the perspective away from Linda in her own narrative, introducing her as someone we are immediately meant to feel sorry for. As groceries for one are scanned, yet another first date goes poorly, and lonely Linda trudges on reading books and teaching class, we are somehow meant to sigh; ‘poor thing’.

One fateful night, Linda mistakenly pepper sprays Jason (Michael Angarano), a former student who recently moved back to Kingston after graduating from the NYU dramatic arts program and failing to get his play produced in New York. His father Tom (Greg Kinnear) wants Jason to go to law school and so he plans to quit writing and resign himself to his future. His unproduced play is called The Chrysalis, and after offering to read it, Linda is awed by its brilliance. Nathan Lane’s high school drama teacher Dr. Kapinas (referred to by students as “Kapenis”), reacts to the play as the plot requires, wanting to stage it as their next production immediately after reading, and once Jason is hesitantly onboard, all systems are go. Here the romantic entanglements start between the unadorned Moore, ingénue student Lilly Collins, the conflicted moody playwright Angarano and the stuck-up Kinnear. Now The English Teacher goes from sugary sedateness with some nicely played scenes between Moore and Angarano, to capital punishment comeuppance.

The story shows no interest in Linda’s age-difference-be-dammed feelings or her obvious connection with Jason’s father, only the rat’s nest scenario in which Linda’s name gets dragged through the mud. Only then, only when she’s hit rock bottom, can she earn her chance at love. Linda has to lose everything as each and every character slings unconscionable verbal abuse her way. Meekly and silently accepting this as somehow deserved, she then has to and grovel for forgiveness for (gasp) having desires and making a couple of poor judgments. And while her initial actions are treated as the most damnable, her real flaw lies in the way she handles the aftermath.

Only one character ever apologizes to Linda with nobody else ever having to answer for the way they treat her over the course of the film. Both screenwriters and director are guilty of spending half the film doling out punishment loaded with latent, sexist hypocrisy and dressing it up as humble comedic blunder. Nasty characters do nasty things to the underserving all the time in film as in life, but there’s a huge difference between purposeful story-driven themes, character-driven behavior, and whatever you might call this.

At one point Lilly Collins’ character Halle even calls out the double standard the filmmakers actively encourage before resigning herself to an ‘it is what it is’ shrug as Linda preaches the importance of ladies sticking together (this only minutes before a development that has every female acting like a possessive maniac).

The vanilla pudding of The English Teacher covers up a mean-spirited undertone that never attempts to justify itself, turning a problematic romantic comedy with some potential into an unwarranted bullying contest.

Originally published at CINE OUTSIDER: http://www.cineoutsider.com/

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #86-90


Phantom Tollbooth

#86. The Phantom Tollbooth (1970, Jones)

That The Phantom Tollbooth should conceivably work as an animated feature is a no-brainer. Norton Juster’s turn-of-phrase festivities make ‘Tollbooth’ one of my favorite books, a justifiable classic that enchants children and adults alike, accompanied by Jules Feiffer’s crude scrawled majesty. Chuck Jones, master of the slam-bang formula cartoons plus slapstick equals hilarity gold, directed one feature film, and this was it. I worship the man and his accomplishments, but Juster’s let’s-appreciate-the-play-of-exercising-your-mind through wit doesn’t jive with Jones’ strengths. Jones innovated by boiling down his basic formula to its essentials and then running wild by playing to his audience with direct visual humor and pushing into a realm of abstractness through repetition and punctuation. The reason his other Norton Juster adaptation, The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics, works so well is because it’s a visual piece, a concept that adheres to what a cartoonist with immense imagination can do.

The Phantom Tollbooth is, and forgive me for oversimplifying, a book-long play-on-words, so what is there really for Chuck Jones to do? He isn’t able to bring it to life, despite the fact that Milo does visit potentially rich conceptual lands. I sadly don’t have anything good to say about the film. The animation lacks character and to liven it up, lots and lots of snooze songs are added. The only one that left any residue was “Milo’s Song” for its dated harmonious pondering. Tock’s character design and voice were genuinely off the mark. It looked like a human face on a dog and his voice had a straightforward stateliness that may have worked if they had gone farther in that direction. A mismatch of source material and director from the start; a book and artist I admire without end separately, but put them together and you have a watery bowl of stale word soup.

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#87. Antiviral (2013, Cronenberg)

Full Review: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/04/22/review-antiviral-2013-cronenberg/

Top of the Lake

88. Top of the Lake (2013, Campion & Davis)

Prolific Jane Campion’s feminist noir deals with the festering effects of resurfaced trauma set ablaze in a haunting New Zealand landscape of scumbag misogyny. Its blunt weapons come alive through its exploration of the unquestioned normalcy of such imbalances and it’s all disguised as a whodunnit procedural. Some of the most potent thematic and characterization work in recent memory, as its emotionally turbulent townies exonerate themselves by merely being less morally corrupt than your neighbor. The passed down rituals of the alpha male surround a patriarchal world where staking territorial claim and asserting control gives way to power and status no matter the barbaric context.

But it’s not even about the overt horrific ways in which men post a threat to women. It also looks at the other end of the threat spectrum. Top of the Lake captures in ways I haven’t seen the inherent daily threats women can feel amongst men, whether purposeful on their part or not. It captures the instinctual act of tensing up, keeping your guard up whether intentionally provoked or not. It’s rare to see that evoked and examined in any storytelling so bravo to Campion and co-creator Gareth Lee for that.

The last hour is somewhat shaky as prioritized thematic and character concerns move over for some weak conclusive plotting where ‘twists’ are seen acres away. A small complaint in an otherwise exactingly bleak and contemplative look at latent atrocity adapted as normalcy. Special mentions to Elisabeth Moss and one of my favorite actors, Peter Mullan for some of the most rigorous and spectacular acting you’ll see. Matt Mitcham will stay with me for some time.

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#89. Topaz (1969, Hitchcock)

Between the fallout of the Tippi Hedren fiasco and the rushed and unwanted star-ridden production of Torn Curtain, Hitchcock was essentially pushed into making Topaz by Alma and Universal Studios, who he was then contracted to. But with major script issues and a boatload of varied location shooting, Topaz was being rewritten by Samuel Taylor on the fly, an unfortunate circumstance for both director and writer that went against every single method of meticulous planning used by Hitchcock throughout the decades. The predicament was essentially his own directorial nightmare and the result can be seen. The shot above is the only truly noteworthy moment (and clearly because the only thing that could get his attention was of course a woman being strangled) in a film filled with elliptical plot mechanics, complicated espionage, a bevy of stolid characters and an international cast that failed to ignite emotion. And that’s what Hitch was all about; suspense, images and pulling out emotive responses from his audience. This overlong, overworked project doesn’t give him an opportunity to do that outside of a well-done opening sequence.

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#90. Frenzy (1972, Hitchcock)

Later Hitchcock films, starting with Vertigo I’d say, carry an unhinged, deeply personal and highly cathartic (but never absolved) expression of repressed sadistic and sexual violence. The master dealt with his sadistic desires and fascinations through his lifelong dedication to the macabre. As it’s been said, he treated his murder scenes like love scenes and vice versa. Many books have been written about, or address this, and it is clear that with Frenzy he reached a disturbing apex of depicting the act of murder. This is an ugly, nihilistic piece of work, where a pervading boundary-pushing glee coats all, nowhere more than that first murder scene.

Total wincing immersion into the struggle, attainment and release comes with our killer’s rape and murder. It’s the most graphic and revealing, in more ways than one, scene of its kind that he ever shot. It’s undeniably effective and technically masterful in its focus of building momentum, perspective and perfecting the permanence of the dead stare, now complete with tongue leakage.

His obsession with scenes of this kind (especially later in life when he became unnaturally fixated on including rape in Marnie, this and the unmade The Short Night) and shared intent with the serial killer character makes you feel uncommonly involved in the scene. It goes beyond being a complicit observer and enters a participatory dominion. But he makes us complicit in his own readily apparent fascinations, fears, and desires, which his genius made universally communicable through the language of film. Though he’s at his most troubling and directly misogynistic here, it’s an effective and engaging work, and a return to form after the useless Torn Curtain and Topaz. This despite a frustratingly remote and sullied lead whose only purpose seems to be to represent everyday commonalities between the actual serial killer, and the potential within man to slip into said role. His first British production in decades, his country of origin, and his relationship with it, informs the film on many levels. Food is used to link sex and death throughout, never more apparent than an obsidian-drenched comic sequence involving a corpse hidden in a sack full of potatoes.

Review: Antiviral (2013, Cronenberg)


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Just because taking a swing at our swarming addiction to celebrity is a can’t-miss target, doesn’t make it any less pertinent. And just because we can lay a falsely prideful claim that, no, we don’t know what’s going on in the lives of the Kardashians, doesn’t make us any less culpable. There’s a line in Brandon Cronenberg’s sickly little debut Antiviral that stands as its central statement, and it is the film’s biggest takeaway. One character calls celebrity “a collaboration we choose to take part in”.

It’s a piercing statement because it rings true in a more openly direct way than other kinds of pot shots. Just because you don’t read tabloids, doesn’t mean you and I aren’t taking part in the collective. It pervades everywhere, through involvement in casual gossip and speculation, fandom, idolization, victimization and on and on. It’s not necessarily something to feel guilty about, as it’s out of our individual hands, but it is there.  Antiviral posits what the next step is. What opportunity, if given, could serve as a new level of celebrity commodification? How to complete the connection and devotion people feel towards certain mega-stars?

In Antiviral, competing clinics harvest viruses and illnesses from celebrities and puts them on the market for those willing to pay for injections. From them to you: one degree of separation.  It is a disturbingly intimate process, not to mention anything about the context of said shared fluids.  The ultimate marriage of devotion and masochism. The news is littered with the latest embarrassing celebrity snafu and all the characters are caught up in events not theirs. Even the clinic employees are not above the bullshit and their water-cooler substitution setting is the line to pick up various infection strands.

One employee is the cryptic freckle-faced Syd (Caleb Landry Jones), representing the Lucas Clinic. We soon learn he injects himself with viruses to smuggle them out and sell them on the black market to a man named Arvid (Joe Pingue). After a co-worker is arrested, he is sent to make a house call to one of the Clinic’s star contributors Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon) who is looking to sell her latest illness. But when Syd takes a sample from the incapacitated Hannah, and decides to inject himself without knowing what it is, things get hairy. Soon word leaks that Hannah has died from said unidentified virus, making the now-infected Syd highly sought after.

This is the kind of debut where my interest lies more in the promise of Brandon Cronenberg’s future endeavors, rather than outright praise for his first effort. The ingenious concept gets him far, which strikes a balance between being amusingly outlandish and legitimately plausible. One detail I love is that the process seems reserved for only the tippity-top superstars. It brings to mind when Scarlett Johannson appeared on Jay Leno several years ago with a cold.  She blew into a tissue which she then signed, and sold it for $5,300 that went to charity. Like I said: plausible. There are many other treats and insights into the habitual meat-market of celebrity culture, such as a literal meat market, skin grafting, copyright discussion and a machine that puts a distorted face onto viruses.

If the plot trajectory feels pedestrian and the characters empty ciphers, it’s because the focus is on an underworked tone. Since celebrity as an abstract is the name of the game, the characters don’t have discerning characteristics outside their immediate actions. They live and die by their clients and all conversations stem around them. The tone maintains an assuredness, but strikes a been-there done-that vibe of obvious clinical white non-color palettes and timed beats between sentences of dialogue. The body horror aspect, a type of horror that the young filmmaker’s father has commanded in the past, and a type that will always resonate with me, isn’t explored enough. Body horror gets its mileage out of the details of fleshly decay. Outside of a few hallucinatory images that stand out, the virus makes up a largely vague bodily takeover.

Thankfully, Caleb Landry Jones in the lead is exactly the kind of presence needed for a character that is a cipher more than anything else. He’s got the uncompromising stare and offbeat face of a Calvin Klein model. With his hunched posture, punctured cheekbones and pale unblinking canvas of a face, like a cross between Crispin Glover and Burn Gorman, Jones helps significantly to keep Antiviral afloat. He’s the kind of actor that wears ambiguity like a shadowy glove, diving into his role as smeared blood and disheveled hair replace stoic stateliness.

It all comes back to the “collaboration we choose to take part in”. Antiviral may not be able to capitalize on its potential through its unflappable commitment to an undercooked and somewhat obvious tonal monotony, but its ideas, lead actor and intermittent moments of merit carry it through a steady intrigue. More importantly, the question is what does Brandon Cronenberg have up his sleeve in the future? His debut convinced me to anticipate the answer.

Films Seen in 2013: Round-Up: #80-85 & Reintroduction #31


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#80. Room 237 (2013, Ascher)
After a director and his/her countless contributing collaborators make a film, it gets sent out into the masses. In this post-modern world, what a director intends is only part of the collective identity that makes up the final product. In Room 237, five people have obsessively picked apart Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, offering up their theories as Rodney Ascher meshes them together in a blender of visual theses. There’s a lot of engaging digging to be had with Room 237, and I always love watching or reading about films getting picked apart. However, a pervading sense of theoretical extremism comes across. The theories posited are all loopy, giving an overall misrepresentative tilt to how cinephiles think of films, or at least how I like to think they do. Stanley Kubrick being the precise genius he was fully invites this level of outside-the-box examination with his works. His films give off an air of the infinite. I just wish the critical analysis felt a bit more substantive and less foolish and outlandishly idiosyncratic.

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#81. Witness (1985, Weir)
Filled with Peter Weir’s reliable brand of culturally specific serenity and anchored by an atypically subdued performance by Harrison Ford (his only Oscar nomination). Weir shifts between thriller and quiet culture shock drama nicely and he was the perfect director for this material. Lukas Haas reminded me a bit of little Bobby Henrey from The Fallen Idol, observant and ever-peering. But as the film moves towards its climax, we forget Haas exists. There are moments to cherish in each of its three distinct acts, but Maurice Jarre’s preposterously dated synth score distracts from the film’s impact. Though Weir’s reverence for the Amish community is considered and poetic (the indoor scenes are at times stunningly Vermeer-like), the tone lulls a bit too much overall.

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82. Face/Off (1997, Woo)
A blast and then some only begins to describe the elation of watching the flamboyant action gun-fu of John Woo’s Face/Off. Cinematic gun fights don’t do it for me, unless the emphasis is put on the anticipation of. There’s nothing physical or exhaustive about it and my only substantial complaint about last year’s The Raid: Redemption was that in order to get to the pencak silat, you had to sit through a half an hour of relentless gun slaughter. But John Woo makes everything balletic and flamboyant. If there’s anyone who can bring the machismo version of melodramatic camp to the world of action, it’s Woo. But the morality of gunplay, suits, birds, near-biblical proportions, stunts, explosions, loaded gestures and slo-mo, the things we expect from Woo, are only a small part of why I loved Face/Off.

The primary joy doesn’t even come from the action, but from the deliriously preposterous high concept of identity swapping, and the carte blanche it gives to Nicolas Cage and John Travolta. Now, we all know Cage can bring the crazy, and his beginning scenes as villainous Caster Troy do not disappoint. But for the majority, he has to play John Travolta’s somber and son-less Sean Archer and Travolta has to slip into Cage’s brand of wide-eyed frenzy. Face/Off is all about toying with audience expectations in regards to established onscreen personas and using that to explore transformation of identity. The film’s success rests on whether or not we can believe each is in the other’s skin, and we absolutely do. Travolta had to be able to match the energy of Cage’s early scenes and he does, giving the kind of performance I honestly had not thought capable of him. Not everyone would be able to successfully channel Nic Cage. Their transformations turn into a kind of hyper-kinetic existential crisis as scenario after scenario emerges. They’ve swapped faces, but they have identities and relationships to take on that come with it. So Travolta and Cage have to not only embody the other persona, but the other persona has to keep up appearances as the first persona. Trippy stuff.  Identity becomes malleable but also a trap and the mind-games that slipping into someone’s face affords each runs the gamut. Absolutely a new favorite of mine.

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#83. Switchblade Sisters (1975, Hill)
There’s something uncommonly developed about Switchblade Sisters that had me at hello, catapulting it to that top-tier level of exploitation. Yes, there’s that crucial scene between Maggie and Dominic that I wish to hell had been changed. Even in a genre as silly as this where bad taste and offensiveness run streaking in the streets, the aforementioned scene was a huge misstep. And I was also disappointed that these girls are still subordinate to their male counterparts and that the guys had to leave the girls, instead of the girls realizing that being treated like shit isn’t ideal. There’s an almost Shakespearean quality that’s been pointed out in the internal conflicts of the gang, rooted in scheming, betrayal and blinding loyalty that blend the ultimate in highbrow and lowbrow. As the film continues, the girls shed the male characters and go from the complimentary Dagger Debs to the independent Jezebels, teaming up with a group of black communist revolutionaries led by Muff.

Chipmunk-like Robbie Lee, the striking Joanne Nail and plotting one-eyes Monica Gayle all unashamedly impressed me. It’s the best kind of bad acting there is, and call me crazy but I’m even hesitant to call it bad. There’s integrity to their performances (even if Nail is all over the map) that they and only they hold onto amidst the dopiness, making the roles their own and I admired that. Robbie Lee in particular, who looks about twelve and sounds like Vanellope von Schweetz but intimidates everybody, took me aback. She’s relentlessly cruel on the outside with barely-there tinges of empathy, but as the film moves forward her idiocy and gullible nature hold her back in relation to Dominic and Patch. She crumbles and then fuels that perceived weakness into misguided rage. I’d honestly also count this amongst a new favorite of mine as well despite it being wildly problematic and offensive, the way we expect a Jack Hill film to be. Closes with a memorable maniacal crescendo of a speech by Joanne Nail.

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#84. Hansel and Gretel (2007, Yim)
Just a warning; if you watch this on Instant Netflix, the frame rate is dismal. But I’d definitely recommend checking this one out. The kind of rejuvenated push I like to see in fairy tale inspired films. Instead of mythology and action and epic scales, Hansel and Gretel takes inspiration from the tale and molds a dark fantasy reminiscent of “The Twilight Zone” and coated with the youthful tragedy of Pan’s Labyrinth. Horror becomes more felt when you root it in tangible sadness and while the film overextends its explanations, by the end you feel not terror but melancholy, making you feel more than you expected. Hansel and Gretel finds its horror elements in the ways grown-ups can fail to provide a semblance of expected paternal comfort. Think the opposite; the film goes about it in some pretty unflinching ways. Though it needed to be trimmed by fifteen minutes and lead Chun Jung-myung waxes inertia, Yim Pil-sung and crew successfully takes a different tack by unsettling the viewer with its bright playground postcard of a house. It’s an inescapable child’s nirvana a little too picaresque, with inhabitants a little too smiley and ready-to-please. The perfect family always seems off-kilter and this is the conceit used to usher us into the protective and falsely euphoric fortress built by Man-bok, Young-hee and Jung-soon.

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#85. Sleuth (1972, Mankiewicz)
Glad to have finally caught this on TCM. I had seen the first hour years ago and it’s not available on Netflix. Sleuth is a tennis match of elaborate game-playing humiliation. Based on the 1970 play by Anthony Schaffer and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s final film, the tete-a-tete on display is exactly the kind of psychological chamber piece I love. The stakes get higher and higher as manhood is tested and the new generation takes over the class-obsessed old. And all in the bonkers reclusive circus mansion of wind-ups, automatons and self-obsession. Schaffer could have cut some of the dialogue as Olivier’s playacting becomes exhausting after a while. The last act is my favorite, a revenge-filled wordplay as time quickly runs out.

Reintroductions:

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#31. Phantom of the Paradise (1974, De Palma)
First Seen in: 2008
I’ll just get right to it; I don’t just love Phantom of the Paradise. I cherish it. It’s an admixture of influences and well-timed lampooning. It’s “Phantom of the Opera”, “Faust”, “The Picture of Dorian Gray”  and a slew of sprinkled horror references all rolled up into a low-rent camp send-up of the rock industry, eventually imploding upon itself as it goes deeper and deeper into an increasingly accelerated timeline of one-day-you’re-in-the-next-you’re-out. Anyone who knows the things I love knows Paul Williams is high up on the list. And this is as much a showcase for him as it is for Brian De Palma and his stockpile of inventive and lively camerawork. Writing the words and music, which fall into different waves of rock trends, and starring as the Satanic Swan, he is the fittingly ubiquitous glue of Phantom, summing up just how crucial and identity-making 1974 is to the film, especially in its satirical generational edge. And he somehow makes for one of the most oddly compelling, unexpectedly effective ‘villain’ roles in a film I’ve ever seen. Maybe it’s the unexpectedness of it. Certainly part of it is the way Williams plays it mostly straight, with a healthy dose of heightened caricature. It’s a comedy, but some of the best comedies feature performances that belie their labels. Same goes for William Finley, that gawky bug-eyed wonder of never-outgrown high school nerd-dom. Part of Phantom of the Paradise’s charm is that with Paul Williams and William Finley, you’ve got two of the most unlikely leads ever to be seen.

Someday I’d like to write more about this film and really dig deep into why I love it. Lately, I’ve sort of gone-blank writing wise. It happens often, but I just have to force myself to keep at it. Suffice it to say, this is the ultimate cult film. Wall-to-wall with fabulous songs, reconstructing stories we’ve seen so many times and giving it a new campy edge that’s about as much fun as you can have at the movies. Second only to Blow Out as my favorite Brian De Palma film, I fell in love of every single second of this upon re-watching it. True love at second sight and a new Top 100 favorite. There’s so many little details that stick out, that feel entirely its own. Like Jessica Harper’s endearing and spontaneous cluck-like dance moves. The sacrosanct characteristics I watch films for. Moments like that.

Review: Spring Breakers (2013, Korine)


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Spring Breakers is a disturbingly funny nightmare reflection on the generational amalgamation of pop-culture bred youths. The contradictory messages, casual appropriation of black culture, indistinguishable line between fantasy and reality and the commodification of the female body all collectively make-up what the mainstream spreads as gospel. Our four central characters, constructed through acutely purposeful gimmick casting, are only indistinguishable from one another by levels of intended vagrancy. They are a collective mirror for us. It’s a neon-lit tone poem, with few actual scenes, instead populated with looped editing and audio effects (and the pulsing abrasiveness of Skrillex), a story told in repetition and doubling back, doubling back, doubling back. Its structure would have a brainwashing effect if Korine weren’t intent on distancing us in the way one would watch a wildlife program.

He drowns us in debauchery, sheds light on youth culture by indulging in it, one minute we’re horrified, the next we’re laughing. Korine shoots the four girls the way they’d sadly want to be shot if given the choice. Much of the film shows what young girls think of as ‘having a good time’, lowering themselves for the guys around them and the camera. Korine shot a lot of his footage amongst the actual spring breakers in Fort Lauderdale.They are told these are the kinds of real, authentic experiences to be cherished. And so that’s what they think.

Objectification becomes something the girls are in control of; it’s what they want. It’s part of the ‘having a good time’ package. And in the moments when they take control of their own narrative, there’s still a fascinating dichotomy between them loving the commodification of their bodies but constantly wanting to assert their control by claiming masculine tendencies. What makes all of the gender material so potentially rich and endless is that Korine never seems to be making a statement about it, so it’s all there for the analytical taking.

I’ve never seen a Harmony Korine film before this one, because honestly I haven’t cared to. He seems to me like the kind of blank-slate provocateur that dares you to project whatever meaning or non-meaning you want to in his work, claiming purposeful intent while he smugly lays back above the receptive smog. Same goes for Spring Breakers with everyone clamoring to say they totally ‘get it’, me included, as its admittedly justifiably become a springboard for a seemingly countless number of articles. It’s bizarre that a film of his is gaining mainstream attention, that people are being tricked into seeing an arthouse film and that unsurprisingly it’s often being taken at face value by the young general public going to see it, likely the same people that relish films like Project A and 21 and Over. And it’s even being taken at face value from some pundits, which surprises me because its more satirical elements of social commentary are blatantly obvious.

Does its looped structure feel redundant after a while? Sure. Do I think it’s a film that is more valuable for its controversy, resulting discussion, reflective purposes and frightening time-capsule appeal? Sure. But Korine smartly allows Franco’s much more definable and instantly-legendary Alien character to enter at the right moment and he populates his film with a few concrete scenes that every once-in-a-while that achieve something pretty spectacular. I’m looking at you “Everytime”.

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #74-79


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#74. Days of Being Wild (1990, Wong)

And with only his sophomore effort, Wong Kar-Wai settles into his niche of depicting the humidified longing of youth with a cool sensibility. I don’t know how he does it but the singular Hong Kong treasure has always been able to take the simplest, the oft-seen of romantic woes, strip them down and linger on sensual emotional suffering. Part of it is that Wong understand and revels in the fact of ‘isn’t it all worth it’. It’s like he’s celebrating that suffering and longing by dressing it up and romanticizing the good, the bad, and the ugly. With ‘Days’, characters cross paths, and cross paths again, as the passage of time blankets all. With Happy Together, I couldn’t get past Leslie Cheung’s arrogant abuser, but here Cheung’s arrogant more self-aware abuser has a central throughline that made him worth digesting. Every time I see Maggie Cheung I just get depressed about her not acting anymore. Coupled with In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express as my favorite Wong Kar-wai films.

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#75. Spring Breakers (2013, Korine)

https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/review-spring-breakers-2013-korine/

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#76. Phil Spector (2013, Mamet)

This barely felt like a film, more an excuse for Mamet to rail his politics at us. Which would be fine, if he had been able to build a semblance of a picture around his ideas. Instead, the film ends before it even begins, drags on as Mirren blows her nose and Pacino pontificates about The Righteous Brothers and his success and people judging him for his eccentricities. You realize that Phil Spector himself doesn’t interest Mamet. The only thing that matters to him is making a case for Spector’s innocence or at least his ‘reasonable doubt’, which uncomfortable in its insistence.

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#77. Seed of Chucky (2005, Mancini)

Camptastic little meta-film even though it completely runs out of steam about halfway through. Adored seeing Jennifer Tilly ham it up as herself. The animatronics work continues to impress. There’s a mesh between horror-comedy and twisted domestic drama that it plays around with. The ‘seed’ made me laugh everytime he opened his mouth because he reminded me of the sketches in “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” where the troupe members played timid little schoolboys. Could have been so much better but it at least it nails the tone.

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#78. Fantasia/2000 (1999)

Fantasia is one of my top ten favorite films, racist warts and all, so it’s sad I’m just got around to this now, although it seems I didn’t miss much. Clocking in at 74 minutes, it crams in as many pieces as the original despite its short length. Its reliance on ‘innovating’ with CGI currency hurts the visual impact considerably. I understand the blending of CGI and hand-drawn animation is impressive and all, particularly for 1999, but I found it resolutely distracting. Fantasia is all about innovation, and the translation of that innovation to today’s world slumps in comparison to the outside-of-the-box feats of the 1941 masterpiece. Filter out the uninspired rip-offs, the duds (I’m looking at you Donald-as-Noah), and the potential-in-concept but lacking-in-execution (due to having nearly all CGI), and you’re left with four I liked. “Rhapsody in Blue”, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it “Carnival of the Animals”, “Firebird Suite-1919 Version” and from Fantasia, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. ” Despite bursts of creative flourish, my disappointment comes down to the use of CGI and fitting 8 pieces, including introductions for each, into a slim 74 minute block.

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#79. Evil Dead (2013, Alvarez)

An exercise in pushing the envelope of mainstream gore, Evil Dead is an audacious and memorable re-interpretation of the Sam Raimi classic. Shot by first-time filmmaker Fede Alvarez with a beautiful washed out decrepit woodsy feel, covered in dirty natural light. My complaints stem from its inability to even pretend to care about the central brother-sister relationship. It either needed to execute that storyline with a hell of a lot more sincerity, or ditch it altogether and spread that time over to its nondescript characters. It hits the most unfortunate spot of the in-between and contributes to its one-too-many climaxes. Not to mention that Shiloh Fernandez can’t act to save his life. My other complaint stems from its ultra-serious tone, which actually works for me. However, I’ve seen others refer to it as a comedy, which is perplexing. I laughed during the film from its absurdity, the way you do during slashers that push in this way, but I never felt it ‘go’ for comedy. If it was, it needed to be slightly more pointed, because I saw it as taking the opposite tack.

I admired its brutally over-the-top mayhem, its reliance on practical effects work, and I loved the central detoxing conceit. Loved loved loved.  I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen a mainstream horror film this violently drenched in red. It’s obsessed with the details of pain, never letting you forget the crunch and decay of what we’re seeing. At a certain point it hits achieves a level of abstraction, sullied by the domestic nonsense, where you don’t even feel like you’re watching a film. You’re just watching relentless blood-letting. And that’s a compliment. I’ve also realized that Cabin in the Woods has added a level of distraction to all cabin-set films for me. And lest I forget, Jane Levy is spectacular.