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.

#92. The English Teacher (2013, Zisk)
Full Review:

#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.

Encore W. Somerset Maugham Kay Walsh

#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.

prince of darkness 6
#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.

#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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