#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.
#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.
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.
#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.
#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.
#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.
#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.