#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.
#87. Antiviral (2013, Cronenberg)
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.
#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.
#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.