Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #189-202


Lots of horror films in this latest chunk as my (and many other fellow film freaks) seasonal Halloween viewings come to a close. Tragic, I know. Another year where I’m reminded that October is my favorite time of the year, not just for that transition into the autumnal bliss that is late-year New England, but because everyone in the online film community is watching, considering, and discussing horror films with the consideration and passion the genre deserves.

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#189. This Is the End (2013, Rogen & Goldberg
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Completely outlandish in its very existence, this is self-indulgence done largely right, a grand scale look at the raunchy things that amuse these actors. It’s also very much about their relationship to fame and friendship. Unsurprisingly, this was not a film I was looking forward to (though I actually really like Seth Rogen and most of these guys for that matter), because as if we need more of this kind of exclusively male club of comedy. It sold me because these guys know how to construct, depict, and exploit their own dynamic for laughs. It even uses an Emma Watson cameo to boldly reveal just why there is no room for women within the group (hint: they can’t see past their own vanity) Simply put, I laughed harder during this than any film I’ve seen in a long time. But it crumbles to pieces in the final third. From stellar set-up to entertaining down-time, the last third goes into spectacle mode, drowning out any of its humanistic remnats with bawdy effects-driven broadness. I don’t like spectacle-driven comedy so unfortunately Rogen & Goldberg’s experiment in meta-examination crosses the finish line in overblown fashion.

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#190. Opera (1987, Argento)
Features some of the most memorable kill scenes in any horror film I’ve seen, made further abrasive through its unconventional use of metal to contrast a soundtrack otherwise filled with opera. One moment in particular, a gunshot through a keyhole, reaches a state of rare brutal divinity that left me beside myself. Notable for the way Argento reaches into his more experimental side, (about half this film is a playful and genuine accomplishment about the act of seeing) unfortunately leaving the lame non-stories that often accompany giallo on fuller-than-normal display.

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#191. The Boxer’s Omen (1983, Chin-Hung Kuei)
Hong Kong horror that ranks alongside Hausu and Freaked as the full-stop craziest and most demented films I’ve ever seen. Absolutely loved this because it attains a very peculiar level of being at once extremely over-the-top and silly but also deeply unsettling in the way it spotlights goo, slime, sludge, ooze and the like in relation to the body. There isn’t a ton of blood in The Boxer’s Omen (relatively speaking; I mean yes a crocodile gets cut open, its entrails taken out only to be replaced by a mummified woman which they then stitch into the carcass to reanimate it), but the constant fixation on gook, and then the skeletal, in relation to the body really gets under the skin after awhile. It recalls of an article I once had to read (for what I don’t remember) which discussed these kinds of liquids in relation to the body, mortality, and decay; why these kinds of images get at something indescribable and irreconcilable. In its truly out-there and awesome way, The Boxer’s Omen gets at this with its hokey anything-and-I-mean-anything goes credo.

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#192. Magic Magic (2013, Silva)
Deserving of far more than its unfortunate direct-to-DVD fate, Chilean director Sebastian Silva makes an uncomfortable fray into mental collapse. It toes the line between treating Temple’s mental illness as such, staying true to her experience without embellishing too much for genre convention. What I love about Magic Magic is the way that it depicts the group of young people she is surrounded by as assholes. Her experience of them is paranoiac and completely different, and yet the components are all there; her initial isolation justifiably felt. The way Silva balances the social aspect of these off-putting folk and the way Juno Temple (in a fucking great piece of acting) distorts her mindset in relation to them is a different kind of subtle concoction than I’m used to seeing. Michael Cera performance is genuinely creepy-crawly. His natural ineffectual awkwardness is tilted left-of-center for an extremely unsettling character named Brink who seems at the start like he is either one extremely annoying/creepy individual or an outright sociopath. He makes the performance extremely naturalistic and seemingly on-the-fly which is what makes it so effective. But the last third takes a completely nosedive and undoes most of what came before for a blunt and distancing climax that is thrown in with all sense of control removed from every character, not just Temple, resulting in most interest lost. It’s a shame because the first two-thirds features some really strong material, acting, and dynamics through atmosphere and subjectivity created by Silva and Christopher Doyle.

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#193. Valley Girl (1983, Coolidge)
I was so hoping to love Valley Girl, but I didn’t even like it. It really all boils down to the fact that there was nothing for me to grasp onto, even in a superficial sense. Except for E.G Daily who should have been in every 80s teen film ever. I expect more craziness from an early Nic Cage performance. Peggy Sue Got Married clearly spoiled me on that front. The soundtrack is great and I find it compelling as a cultural touchstone (was the ‘valley girl’ subculture widespread at this point? still regional? It also seems to both occupy an exaggerated stereotypical space as well as a fairly grounded one) but this was uninteresting in its vapidity.

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#194. Zelig (1983, Allen)
A delightful yet somber high concept anomaly from Allen that pushes its themes of neurosis and Jewish identity completely outside of the box. It may deal with ideas of cultural assimilation but that wanting to fit in urge makes it universally relatable. It’s a curious piece of work; not one I fell head over heels for, but one I spent most of my time admiring.

The technical achievement of Zelig is, well, to be facetious, fuck Gravity. I’m going to spend my time being in awe of what Allen accomplished 30 years ago. He and cinematographer Gordon Willis spent years perfecting a wide variety of techniques getting the newsreel period footage to look accurate from the cameras they used, bluescreen technology, applying damage, etc. It’s absolutely seamless. On a final note, Mia Farrow channeling Liv Ullman is just a lovely thing.

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#195. Gothic (1986, Russell)
Gothic never comes together as a compellingly over-the-top take on what inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein during her famed stay in Geneva but it does scar you in the way logic quickly disappears from the evening, replaced by Freudian fears and imagery which feel inescapable. There are a lot of images that are going to stay with me from Gothic, none more than the entirety of Timothy Spall as Dr. John Polidori in a feverishly repressed performance that becomes more and more revealingly skinned.

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#196. The Dresser (1983, Yates)
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen two more exhausting performances in a film. And I don’t mean this in a good way. The craft of the work is impressive in a sense, with Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay getting double lead actor nods at that year’s Oscars. But both are dialed up to ‘11’ from start to finish. This is ACTING in the most thespian of manners with both playing to the nosebleed sections at all times. It makes for an ineffectively abrasive experience with side effects that include not being able to hear myself think and an inability to appreciate the macabre tone of the piece and the meat of the story. They feed off each other and the basic components of storytelling such as dialogue, direction, and build-up so all that is eventually left is a collection of raving, screaming, hand-wringing, crying, and ineffectual mannerisms.

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#197. Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984, Zito)
Surprisingly enjoyable, especially considering I don’t care for this franchise at all. Basically it comes down to Crispin ‘dead fuck’ Glover, whose presence elevates every single scene with the group of teenagers to something damn near holy. I also greatly enjoyed Corey Feldman and his origin story-of-sorts as well as the family unit in general, all of which makes for a relatively fun slasher.

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#198. From Beyond (1986, Gordon)
Say hello to one of my new favorite films because From Beyond is kind of the greatest. A follow-up to Re-Animator with outrageously disgusting (and thus awesome) practical effects work, a purple-pink color scheme you won’t soon forget, the perfect lead trifecta of Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, and Ken Foree and so much more. These are the kinds of films we have to cherish because they don’t really exist in this particular combination anymore. You feel the work and the personal touch amidst and within the way the story’s limits are pushed on. It is at once ridiculous yet darker in tone than Re-Animator. I love the Combs/Crampton role reversal and the ways in which each embody their characters. Lastly, the ending is a perfect moment to close on, one of a series of stellar endings in the horror films I’ve been watching lately. Basically, yes to everything about From Beyond.

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#199. Asylum (1972, Baker)
Silly anthology film with an absurd, and thus fantastic, framing story. Most of the vignettes are flat and undercooked and at least one is outright boring (despite the presence of Charlotte Rampling and Britt Ekland). However, there is something to latch onto for each segment whether the crinkly sound of a head wrapped in paper, the empathy Peter Cushing is able to bring to anything, or Herbert Lom’s army of automatons.

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#200. Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982, Wallace)
One of those horror films that seems like it would improve exponentially in a crowd setting. I really love Carpenter’s idea about making Halloween an anthology franchise. It’s something that should have been implemented right after the first one. I’m weirdly fond of this even though I can’t say I liked it all that much as a whole. The leads are laughably miscast (oh Atkins and your manly man ways) and there are whole sections that fail to stir the imagination or even the basic attention a film asks of a viewer. But then there is a moment or a shot that would take me by genuine surprise every fifteen minutes or so. These bursts of creative or, at the very least, violent flair uprooted me enough to feel oddly fond of it. It is completely removed from the rest of the franchise with a Twilight Zone-esque story that is deceptively offbeat. Its best moments genuinely fucked with my head and it ends on an impossibly high note, a horror movie capper for the ages, that I walked away from it giddy, severe warts and all.

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#201. The Right Stuff (1983, Kaufman)
Looks at the the mythmaking hero by contrasting the idealized and unrecognized sage cowboy with the manufactured boyish build-up and media frenzy (the press are portrayed as a pack of fiendish animals complete with snake hissing and rattling on the soundtrack) of the Mercury Seven (miraculously without actually denigrating the men or their accomplishments). It takes a conventional model of the rah-rah USA historical film and does something very astute with it.

This is a surprising film in so many ways. I often found myself amazed by the way it takes on different sections of story, not worrying so much how it relates to the rest but concentrating all energy on making the section at hand seem front-and-center. I think of, for example, how much time we spent on the testing done for all Mercury Seven candidates. This section is treated as its own entity seemingly without the before or after in sight (of course it is), so you get distinctly wrapped up in each portion on its own terms. So during the testing section, while there a concentration on the ongoing theme of the childish one-uppmanship between comrades, there is also a vignette-like dynamic between Dennis Quaid and the cold nurse in charge of testing. It bears no storytelling drive to anything but itself, and for those ten minutes it becomes the entirety of content within the film. That’s just one of the many reasons and examples on why The Right Stuff gathers impact as it accumulates history, moments, and the idea of myth within American history. It smartly starts at the roots, with the test pilots and with Yeager, portrayed as incomparable forefather of everything that follows.

I’ve come to realize that nobody does vulnerability better than Dennis Quaid in his heyday. His hotdog hotshot persona and endless smile, whether in roles squeaky-clean or rough around the edges, belies an open heart I often find myself extremely moved by. See also; Breaking Away.

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#202. In the Mouth of Madness (1994, Carpenter)
Truly the most inescapable fictional scenario of them all. There are many ways to interpret this film, because its events are so tenuous and loopy. But I took it as the meta-trap it presents as the very non-existent reality. Characters have no agency in the sense of their fiction and creation. In the Mouth of Madness throws this in the mix which is an inescapable mind warp for everyone involved. Carpenter filters his deceptively simple methods into something increasingly unnerving. It has stuck with me really well and the end (completing my streak in incredible endings) is one of the best ever. Ever. EVER.

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Review:: Enough Said (2013, Holofcener)


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Posted on Cine Outsider on October 23rd, 2013: http://www.cineoutsider.com/reviews/films/e/enough_said.html

Nicole Holofcener tends to deal with wayward women in some sort of semi-self-inflicted crisis. In Enough Said, her most audience-friendly effort yet, she skillfully observes a woman whose inability to trust her own judgment and have her own experiences gets her into some uncomfortably sticky situations. Holofcener looks at the loss parents experience when their children leave the nest, and the parallel terror of new relationships in middle age when the past lingers and the future is mined with vulnerable uncertainties.

Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is a masseuse and single parent gearing up for her daughter Ellen’s (Tracey Fairaway) impending college departure. At a party she meets Albert (James Gandolfini), also a single parent whose daughter is college-bound. The two click and soon begin dating.  At the same party Eva meets Marianne (Catherine Keener), a poetess whom she immediately idealizes and takes on as a client. Nothing out of the ordinary until she finds out that the ex-husband Marianne constantly complains about happens to be Albert. Instead of acknowledging the coincidence, Eva deliberately deceives both parties in a misguided effort to suss out and assess Albert’s supposed laundry list of faults. Unsurprisingly, the relationship begins to lose its identity when Eva starts seeing Albert through Marianne’s eyes.

Enough Said works so well in part because the script openly acknowledges that these characters have a lot of life both behind and ahead of them. It deals very honestly with the fact that budding relationships which come in middle age carry baggage and a past that both must reconcile. Each have daughters, ex-spouses, their own experiences and acquired defense mechanisms. In Hollywood, middle-aged romance is a sort of hazy hiccup in life that must be overlooked or ignored completely, despite being far more interesting for its sense of “burned once…” caution and mature perspective. That relationship history, so often lacking in the teenage love affairs that monopolize our big screen entertainment, is both a possible savior and destroyer for Eva and Albert’s relationship.

Holofcener puts Eva into a predicament and watches her make the wrong decision about how to handle it. As with her previous films, the director’s protagonists are often crippled by a layer of self-sabotaging selfishness, their weakness usually being the catalyst for a plot that ends in a lesson learned. Eva all-too easily starts to regard Marianne as this ideal person; perfectly composed, surrounded by perfect furniture and enlightened for having written some published poetry. On a pedestal, Marianne’s perspective sounds like fact and it quickly taints Eva’s experience of Albert. She loses sight of the fact that every relationship is different, and that grafting onto someone else’s past experience tampers with the future in ways that are unhealthy and unfair to the other person involved.

Some unsubtle predicament reminders acting as punch lines occasionally lessen the film’s poignancy and a corny score has Holofcener perched on the edge of a pit of rom-com polish at times, but the heartfelt performances and chemistry between Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini is what makes the film, saving it from any momentary concerns or minor redundancies. This is Louis-Dreyfus’ first starring role in a film, and her ability at making in-too-deep moments of awkwardness so entertaining give Eva enormous appeal, even as she blithely stumbles into uncomfortable situations of her own making. Louis-Dreyfus’ looks of astonishment encompass the broad comedy of her iconic roles on “Seinfeld” and more recently, “Veep”, but the humour’s focus is always on this very real relationship.

James Gandolfini is affable and genuine here, a presence we immediately connect with because he is the bear-like embodiment of loveable, everyday schlub Albert. An unlikely but perfect match for Eva, Albert is simple and shy but so caring and completely comfortable with who he is that we root for these two, even when Eva’s actions suggest she might not deserve him. The softness that came through in his extremely moving voicework in Where the Wild Things Are is present here as well. The performance is all the more cherishable because we witness a taste of the largely unrealized potential for Gandolfini as a romantic lead. Mostly, this is due to his untimely death, but it also has to do with the very narrow mindset of what romances can be about and who they can star. This too-rarely seen side of Gandolfini as a vulnerable jokester wearing his heart on his sleeve and never compromising himself or his habits, is every bit as complex as Tony Soprano, but so very different that we’re able to quickly forget the role he’s forever identified with.

The easygoing companionship of Eva and Albert is the force that earths Enough Said, and Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini are so natural together they inspire the kind of enthusiasm and investment from an audience that’s rare for a rom-com.

 

 

Review: Gravity (2013, Cuaron)


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Originally posted on Vérité October 14th, 2013: http://www.veritefilmmag.com/

Moderate spoilers ahead

The text at the start of Gravity tells us that “life in space is impossible”. By the film’s end, there’s the understanding that this statement of common knowledge means something else. Living in the void is impossible. Not living your life is unsustainable. It’s a valid point to make, but Gravity is such a blunt instrument that it spells out its purpose before we’ve even seen anything onscreen. Alfonso Cuarón’s innovative, auteurist rendering of the infinite, attempts to marry the accessibility of  effects-driven survival stories with more thought provoking themes, but for all its painstaking craft, breathless spectacle and armrest-gripping action sequences, Gravity falls flat because the visceral nature of the film is undone by piss-poor content.

The basic plot is smartly pared down to its essentials with a clear conflict and goal established from the outset. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is on her first space shuttle mission accompanied by Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a veteran on his final spacewalk. While making repairs on the Hubble Space Telescope, the astronauts get word from Mission Control that a storm of debris caused by a destroyed satellite is headed their way. Caught in the debris before they can abort the mission, space rubble smashes into their shuttle, slingshotting them into untethered space.

As a cinematic thrill ride, Gravity doesn’t need to be particularly well-written, especially with such confident composition . There are countless films that exist on a more stylistic level, where layered story and character are not relied upon to convey meaning, but the slim content that’s on offer here is never better than bad. This becomes harder to ignore, given how Cuarón clearly wants this film to work hand-in-hand on two levels; one of immersive experience through technical innovation, and one of metaphor.

This story of an impossible crisis in the existential space of the negative, is really about the rebirth of a woman. It aims for simplicity, and a message everyone can connect with, but Cuarón and his co-writer son Jonás, aren’t smart about writing simple. Clunky exposition, broad strokes, stiff dialogue, and a total lack of nuance results in an overt metaphor so transparent as to be rendered ineffective and at times laughable.

Rooting a spectacle-driven project in humanism is a wonderful idea, something that should be explored much further and tested more often. Sadly, Cuarón’s execution of ideas pales in comparison with his immaculate visuals. Stone’s character arc can be effectively summed up as ‘The Crudely Depicted Rebirth of a Grieving Mother’. Bullock does what she can, but while her fear is palpable, her emotional trajectory and obligatory tragic backstory aren’t authentically felt.

The astounding realisation of space, with Earth as a breathtaking but unreachable backdrop, makes the bulky story stand out all the more, widening the black chasm between the film’s strengths and weaknesses, instead of swallowing them whole. Visually it’s hard to fault; the spatial depth conveyed in this world of nothing and everything feels appropriately weightless, real, unstrained, and often awe-inspiring. Cuarón and Emmanuel Lubezski use the camera in mostly long takes, floating in and out and around the characters. Cuts seemingly don’t exist in zero gravity, and while the long take technique becomes overwrought after a while, the construction of that ten-minute opening shot alone is a triumph unto itself. On an aural level, Steven Price’s bombastic score mostly works too. Never letting the audience go, it effectively (if incessantly) substitutes the lack of sound within the rest of the film.

Then there’s George Clooney in an uncommonly distracting piece of casting and performance. As Matt he is a smooth charmer, one of those guys who loves telling the same stories (and he has lots of them) over and over. He’s a guy who would normally get on people’s nerves but gosh-darn-it, that charisma! Starting and ending at Point A, Matt never feels like an actual human being, even a poorly written one. He remains calm in a crisis, focusing his energy on helping Ryan through her panic. Yet there is no point, not even for a second, in which the gravity of their situation can be felt through his performance. There is a difference between trying to keep calm for another person’s sake, and having zero reaction whatsoever to free-floating in space with little hope of survival and rapidly decreasing oxygen. Deprived of the ability to give a physical performance, Clooney plays up the smug calmness of his persona, as if this were Ocean’s Eleven in space.

Gravity has been surrounded by a dangerous amount of hyperbole from all corners. Individual responses are filled with genuine excitement and energy, but taken as a whole the reception feels slightly insane. It’s been heralded as a groundbreaking milestone and a new form of cinema, with meaningless comparisons to 2001 thrown in for good measure. It’s always exciting to see a film cross over all demographics, seemingly capturing everyone on a grand scale, even more so when the release of a non-superhero, non-franchise film is deemed an ‘event’ by the general public, because let’s face it, that’s a pretty rare occurrence. But genuine heart-pounding moments are in aid of a  simplistic story that rinses and repeats, feeling like the cut scenes of a video game rendered by innovators lost in space.

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #175-188


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#175. Prince Avalanche (2013, Green)

Subtle moving micro-budget male bonding film (and also apparently a pretty faithful remake of an Icelandic film called Either Way) and a great actors-piece with one of the best dynamics in a film this year. It’s a soft but lingering piece of work that bridges where director Green started and where he is now as a director. It is isolated and connected to the ground and to the wreckage among two men who need to reconfigure who they are in the world. At times beguiling but charmingly so. A real treat not to mention one of the best scores of the year by Explosions in the Sky and David Wingo.

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#176. From Up on Poppy Hill (2013, Goro Miyazaki) 

Luscious animation and a catching sense of time and place are not enough to distract from a humdrum coming-of-age story that never coalesces. There are about three strands of story floating around here which all feel like underdeveloped filler, not to mention each is not particularly interesting on their own to begin with. The characters are appealing and I adore that it is a story about teenagers in 1963 Yokohama. But it’s a shame that father and son couldn’t come up with something more than mildly diverting, gorgeous though it is.

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#177. The King of Comedy (1983, Scorsese)

This had been a major blind spot for quite some time and I couldn’t be happier now that I’ve finally seen it. 80’s Scorsese is without a doubt my favorite Scorsese era. Anything dealing with celebrity/fame obsession tends to read as more prescient today no matter when it was made and the same goes for The King of Comedy. A satire shot with a decidedly restrained camera for the filmmaker, all the more emphasizing its unflinching tone. Nothing should distract from making us feel De Niro’s performance as Rupert Pupkin, a beaming open wound unwilling and/or incapable of touching ground for even a second. Similar to some other De Niro performances in its extremity, but fueled for entirely new purposes, he is relentless here, making sure the audience feels as uncomfortable as possible. Scorsese glues reality and fantasy together with a matter-of-fact fluidity, making that final scene all the more ambiguous. Sandra Bernhard is to die for. Her scenes with Pupkin were particularly enjoyable as they play two delusional fanatics sparring with each other in the streets of NYC. There are so many quotable moments, so many unsettling undercurrents. It’s a mix of unease, sorrow, truth, and desperation. These sort of anomalies within Scorsese’s filmography are the ones I find myself most attracted to as years go buy. And this is a new favorite.

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#178. Star 80 (1983, Fosse)
Short Review Coming Soon

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#179. Blood and Black Lace (1964, Bava)

I think for me to really attach myself to a giallo film, there has to be an ‘it’ factor. I’ve seen very few, but the ones I love go beyond the coming together of the genre’s defining characteristics and grab hold of something that’s immediacy rooted in weirdness. The original opening sequence of Blood and Black Lace does that for me. Our cast poses as mannequins with Bava being upfront about the way he, and the genre, uses characters. There are scenes of color explosions that foresee the way giallo will use expressionistic color as its language of choice, as a setting for lurid sexually-soaked demise. But Blood and Black Lace didn’t have that magic for me as a whole, despite its phantasmagorical moments influence and place as a staple of the genre.

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180. Local Hero (1983, Forsyth)

A perfect storm of a film; if it connects with you it does so in a big way. Local Hero is such an odd and disarmingly charming film that I don’t even know how to properly describe it. The village of Ferness has a slightly surreal sensibility where anything feels possible but where the possibilities reveal themselves drolly and without announcement. There’s a light dose of magical realism thrown in, something that is difficult to pull off, particularly in film. There is a story, with goals to be achieved, but the film is so relaxed and so loose in the way it soaks in the village and its people that we spend the runtime taking a slow stroll along the beach to our destination. It’s so funny, but also quite somber. This film is so many things. I fell for it hard (even though the women are just the perfect unattainable voids of male fantasy) and was so glad to be spending my time with it. And it has stuck with me so well.

Oh and Peter Capaldi is adorable in this (and 25!). Thank goodness tumblr similarly has a hard-on for him (although this unfortunately seems prompted by the Doctor announcement and not because um; Capaldi!) because it means there’s lots of Danny stuff to enjoy.

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#181. Silkwood (1983, Nichols)

Before it gets constricted by the vague confines of a conventional activist film, Silkwood relaxes us into the slice-of-life on-goings of three freewheeling plutonium plant workers. To get right down to it, the first half hour is wonderful, the rest by-the-numbers, but beyond that it struggles to fill itself with anything that feels natural to the characters involved. Hands down one of Streep’s best performances.

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#182. Eureka (1983, Roeg)

Eureka is one of the most inconsistent films I’ve ever seen. Some of it, including the first 20 minutes which ranks among of the best cinema I’ve ever seen, is genius. Then Roeg gets bogged down in undercooked family dynamics, a long court epilogue, and draggy scenes involving Joe Pesci’s gangster character. Yet about half of Eureka is mind-bogglingly stellar, like a cross between Citizen Kane and the as-yet-unmade There Will Be Blood (there’s no way in hell PTA hasn’t seen this). Roeg has become one of my favorite all-time directors. When it clicks, it’s feels unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. But when strands of lifeless narrative get in his way, it’s hard for him to work around it. He bides his time until he can film the most horrific death I’ve ever seen on film or a 10 minute orgy smack-dab in the middle that is fucking bananas. This is the kind of stuff we wait for, not for its easy shock value, but because he uses elliptical editing and unpredictable zooms to hone in on these acts in an utterly unique way.

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#183. Happy Birthday to Me (1981, Thompson)

Refreshingly gender-neutral in the way it handles its kills. Surely (spoiler) having a female killer puts a different spin on the proceedings. Fun little flick but it has got to be the slowest damn slasher film I’ve ever seen. 110 minutes?!?! For a slasher film!?!? In no way does the content justify its length, so it has some deal-breaking pacing issues. There are some interesting structural decisions that were initially appealing but then the film throws in a twist five minutes before the end which has to be seen to be believed. It makes no sense. And I mean ZERO SENSE. It couldn’t make less sense if it tried. That’s part of what makes it a fun failure.

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#184. Abuse of Weakness (Breillat)
NYFF Review: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/10/13/review-abuse-of-weakness-breillat-nyff/

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#185. Gravity (2013, Cuaron)
Review coming soon

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#186. House of Versace (2013, Sugarman)

I’m consistently amazed by Lifetime’s ability to make original movies that don’t feel like I actually watched anything. Too non-existent to be entertainingly bad, but it does feature a legitimately great performance by Gina Gershon who is firing on all cylinders with work that is at once over-the-top and surprisingly grounded. Too bad it’s in the middle of a non-film.

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#187. Freaked (1993, Stern & Winter)

This past week I’ve seen two of the top five craziest everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-and-then-some films ever and Freaked is one of them (the other is coming in my next round-up post). It has a bit of a following but I’m surprised this isn’t appreciated on a larger scale within the cult spectrum. If a film can produce an inventive atmosphere that shows me a) things I haven’t seen before and b) feels like anything is possible, I consider it a win. Because really, it’s such a rare accomplishment and an undervalued asset from modern day film-goers. Freaked wasn’t exactly my cup of offbeat-tea but it’s a lot of fun and has an inventive streak for miles with killer effects work from the impeccable to the handmade.

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188. It’s a Disaster (2013, Berger)

Low-key apocalyptic comedy that nails the awkwardness of being thrust into a new social entanglement and the weird dynamic of third dates. It’s an ensemble with a great rapport with Berger and the cast keeping up this chamber piece by going in various amusing reactionary directions. If some of the characters never become interesting or move past their introductory vibe, it’s a relatively minor detractor in what is one of the most consistent and enjoyable comedies I’ve seen in some time. More people need to see this. The final scene is spot-on.

 

 

Review: Abuse of Weakness (Breillat) (NYFF)


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Originally posted on Criterion Cast October 12th, 2013

One of the most appealing things about the films of Catherine Breillat, if describing her work as such is possible, is the way she refuses to psychoanalyze her own characters. Her films are often about the unknowable actions (or lack thereof) of people, particularly women. These actions (or lack thereof) tend to be rooted in the masochistic, the transgressive, or the incomprehensible. That predilection for the unknowable sometimes offsets a stationary structure that can overtake her films. Abuse of Weakness heads into this territory at times, introducing a complex bond between two people but circling over it again and again instead of taking it in any direction. It comes back around for a remarkable final scene, but what really makes Abuse of Weakness is the contextual knowledge that it is autobiographical, resulting in a film both chillingly revealing and purposely opaque.

In 2004 Catherine Breillat suffered a stroke. Three years later she met a known con man named Christophe Ranconcourt who she wanted to star in her next film. Periodically over the next two years she loaned him almost all of her money. This is the outline used for Abuse of Weakness with Maud (Isabelle Huppert) and Vilko (Kool Shen) playing director and con man respectively.

The film is mostly about Maud’s relationship with Vilko, but it begins with a wrenching depiction of the initial onset of her stroke. The stark-white visuals and horror-tweaked strings emphasize bodily contortion and the ceaseless willfulness to have physical agency within oneself. Maud is a fighter, someone who can bounce back from the brink of paralysis no matter what it takes. Isabelle Huppert never lets us forget the minute effort involved in this kind of daily existence, from its first jolting presence to its long-lasting impediments.

Breillat decides to interlope the story of Maud’s stroke, and the incomprehensible powerlessness that comes with it, with the story of the duplicitous Vilko. This establishes separate physical and emotional branches to their locked-in power play, a long-standing mutual attachment containing acknowledged manipulation and needs from both sides. Vilko is a bulging presence, seemingly having the physical upper hand, but the way Maud relies on him for everyday tasks puts her partly in control as well. Why? Vilko often mentions that he is her slave and that she enjoys getting men to do things for her. She has a tendency to milk her impairment as a source of joyful command.

On an emotional level Maud has the unreachable veneer that Isabelle Huppert has mastered as her signature manner. The script puts Maud at a severe distance from her family and loved ones; she seemingly spends much of her time in Vilko’s company. She uses coy spurts of laughter as a defense mechanism and he is alternately frustrated and captivated by his inability to provoke a reaction from her. Vilko is a pet project for Maud, someone dangerous and unapologetic, someone she wants in her life for better or worse. And so in this way she apparently has an at-arms-length emotional upper-hand. Then it gets away from her. It goes without saying that though their bond never crosses into the sexual, this being a Breillat film, and dealing with a complicated sadomasochistic-like power-play between a man and woman, the undertones are always cautiously present.

Maud casually dispensing her money reveals that Vilko is in control of far more than she thinks. Part of what makes this dynamic compelling is that he is introduced to Maud (and us) as a semi-famous con man. Then Vilko’s intentions become entirely transparent to the audience, but arguably not to Maud. In the beginning we are thrown in the trenches of her profound physical suffering; the lack of control strikes right through us and we are thus dialed into her experience. The transparency of Vilko’s intentions cuts us off from Maud, leaving us to watch from a distance as draining financial transactions become commonplace.

Maud is both swindled victim and willing participant. Breillat offers up her own autobiographical tale of fiction with the detached presentation she is known for. We understand what Maud and Vilko get out of each other but her acquiescence defies explanation with a such-as-it-is stamp I found brave and, though it may not immediately seem so, honest.

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #164-174


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164. Museum Hours (2013, Cohen)
A must-see of 2013. Forces us to consider snapshots of life the way we would a painting. It focuses on the neglected details of the everyday as well as the way we look at and consider art. The scarcity/non-existence of narrative allows Cohen to mold a free-form structure that becomes invigorating to watch. It also depicts a lived-in and cloudy portrait of Vienna with the kind of familiarity that dispels any touristy perspective. It gets far too pointed in its final scene but this was an absolute delight and one of my favorites of the year so far.

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#165. Stories We Tell (2013, Polley)
I really admire Sarah Polley and how she uses exposure to investigate truths and tales. It was great to get to know her family and hear about their stories and experiences. But the film runs out of steam and Polley and her family spend far too much time talking and pontificating about the purpose of the documentary. Once was enough. Twice is pushing it. Twenty minutes of this? No. Just no! But perhaps most disappointing is the fact that this is Polley’s story and she refuses to incorporate her own perspective. That self-distancing kills so much of the impact.

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166. The People Under the Stairs (1991, Craven)
I’ve never been too big on Wes Craven as a whole despite liking several of his films, particularly New Nightmare. The People Under the Stairs, a bizarre eccentricity within his filmography, is all over the map but damn if that isn’t what makes it a good time. Some misguided but well-meaning attempts at race commentary soon gives way to a cartoonishly horrific free-for-all where earnestness slips into comedy; it’s an ineffective yet devilishly fun concoction. Its main problem is that it does not take the story in enough directions. ‘Fool’ goes back into the house voluntarily; instead of this signaling an act that switches things up a bit, it redundantly puts both he and the audience back in the same situation.

90’s go-to kid Brandon Adams gains our sympathies but the real breadwinner of the endeavor is Wendy Robie who gives the drag performance of a lifetime (Owen Glieberman actually thought Robie was a female impersonator, something he wrongly included as fact in his 1991 pan). It’s also a joy to see Nadine and Big Ed Hurley onscreen together even if McGill’s similarly outlandish performance misses the mark. It feels like he’s auditioning to be a third crook in Home Alone, channeling Artie, the Strongest Man in the World two years before the fact.

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#167. She (1935, Holden & Pichel)
At their worst, the earliest adventure films get trapped in the tropes they simultaneously establish. Merian C. Cooper, hot off of King Kong, tries to top himself with She. Working off an H. Rider Haggard novel, he moves the story to the Arctic and plays around with fusing the ancient and futuristic in its sense of spectacle and theme. While the spectacle of the piece is indeed accomplished, the overwhelming grandiosity of it locks in a static non-movement and lack of energy that appears right from the beginning. When the characters get to where they’re headed, the film shuts down right when it should be getting started. The acting, Nigel Bruce aside, is by-the-book to a fault (begone Randolph Scott (!) and Helen Mack who is basically a low-rent Lillian Roth). The story itself has potential but everything about the execution stultifies movement or entertainment in almost every way.

The one true highlight (besides the impressive effects work) is the costume for Helen Gahagan in the picture above, an outfit that clearly was taken and used in two years later for The Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

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168. American Mary (2013, Soska Sisters)
Even though American Mary doesn’t know what to do with itself it entices and prods in equal measure. The tenuous story is held together by a non-judgmental fascination with the body modification community (reminding me of the way freeganism is depicted in The East), the dissociative emotionless aftermath of trauma, and an inquiring detective. Writing this in just two weeks to get it to Eli Roth might have something to do with its hodgepodge feel. But what holds this together is Katharine Isabelle, reminding me that she needs to be in everything; stat. It’s a dry and ambiguous performance which becomes more stunningly remote as the finale approaches.

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#169. Blancanieves (2013, Berger)
A startling and evocative silent retelling of Snow White where the magic of the fairy tale is replaced with the magic of form. Berger wisely doesn’t restrict himself to loyally aligning with an authenticity to conventional silent filmmaking. Instead he uses it as an opportunity to blend the old (most notably a European silent sensibility) with the newly creative. The form also fits really nicely with the big broad strokes of fairy tales, allowing us to feel the heightened melodrama and emotion. Alfonso de Vilallonga’s score is perfect as is the entire cast. Maribel Verdu is gloriously over-the-top without ever losing the creepiness she brings to the role. Simple heroines tend to be difficult roles to fill. How to make us genuinely care? Macarena Garcia brings such a naturally radiant presence that you immediately root for her. That it struggles to be anything more than pleasantly diverting is a mite disappointing but it’s hard to complain when everything onscreen is wondrous even though it stops just short of dazzling.

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#170. The Whole Town’s Talking (1935, Ford)
An underrated slice of comedy that fuses Capra with Little Caesar. This is in no large part due to the screenplay by Robert Riskin’s (co-written by Jo Swerling), who also wrote a great number of Capra classics. In fact, this script was sandwiched between his work on It Happened One Night and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town! This is a must for Edward G. Robinson connoisseurs, myself included. He plays dual roles; the solitary and prompt bank teller Jones and Public Enemy #1 Killer Mannion. He puts inspired and subtle spins on each part with standout moments on both sides. Furthering the Capra connections, this is the film that established Jean Arthur’s archetypal no-nonsense dame. She is so natural here that it feels like the folks at Colombia found her on the street, put her in front of the camera, and told her to react to her surroundings. The film suffers from some tonal dissonance when it shifts to its second half. The first half has a lighter touch where the second seems to give way to the more criminal elements of the story, which by the way becomes quite convoluted by the end. Arthur also disappears at the hour mark, and with her goes a lot of the comedy. But this was such a welcome find and it’s got a killer Edward G. Robinson drunk scene; “Goodbye, slaves!”

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171. Alice Adams (1935, Stevens)
Katharine Hepburn is radiant here, a determined force of nature to be reckoned with. But her character is so exhausting, so misguided and overeager that we never break through her defense mechanisms. And when we do, all we see is that she’s in desperate need of re-prioritizing. The first act where Alice relentlessly tries to fit in with the upper class is heartbreaking and a tour-de-force. It’s painful to watch Hepburn as a ticking time bomb, smiling to keep the tears in. But when that gives way to the main plot, it’s an empty shell of a story. Alice talks so breathlessly and with such energy and lies that the film sidesteps conversational dialogue. This results in nearly everyone else reading as inert, none more than Fred MacMurray, a non-entity here, unable to make us feel or understand his infatuation with her. When dealing with flawed characters who eventually change you have to be invested in the character. I was not invested in Alice and therefore was not invested in the film.

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#172. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971, Hancock)
A low-key psychological horror that is impressively less concerned about what’s actually happening and more concerned about getting inside Jessica’s (a wonderfully unhinged Zohra Lambert) head. Its use of sound is what stays with me, an in-the-moment use of voice-over as well as a sonic landscape where focus is left-of-center with drowned out elements. This fleshes out how Jessica gets lost in herself and forces us to experience it as well. They also shot the film 15 minutes from where I work in Connecticut which was crazy to see, particularly the Chester ferry at the beginning!

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173. Christine (1983, Carpenter)
Forgive me, but I’m still on such a giddy high from this film. Christine is not a film I ever had much of an interest in seeing outside of the fact that John Carpenter was at the helm. A killer car movie? No thanks. Color me shocked; I fucking love Christine. It isn’t one of John Carpenter’s most acclaimed works and yet I actually prefer it over most if not all of his other films. To be clear, this isn’t a knock on anything else he’s done (although I’ll never understand the love for They Live; sue me). It just goes to show how taken in by this I was to the point where, as you can see, I’m a rambling mess about it.

Christine accomplishes the seemingly impossible in that it plays its ridiculous concept relatively straight when anyone else would have smartly taken a different tonal route. Apparently in the book, the spirit of the car’s previous owner is attached to it, explaining its power. Screenwriter Bill Phillips audaciously gets rid of that entire notion, suggesting in the first scene that the car was born evil. This abstraction is not only far more interesting, but it allows for Carpenter and Keith Gordon to push  the presence of a sexual connection between Artie and the car, an idea that is pushed just enough and is anything but laughable; it’s goddamn entrancing and completely fucked up. That moment (and music cue) when Artie says “Show me” sort of left me speechless.

Christine is only a horror film in name only. There is surprisingly little gore and it doesn’t try very hard to scare. A reason I love it so much is that it’s a horror film based in its characters. It’s about friendship, feeling out of place, change, the more frightening aspects of adolescence, the wedges that can be driven between friends. And the performances are spot-on. Keith Gordon plays up his initial nerdiness making his transformation that much more jarring. I immediately became enamored of John Stockwell’s endearing Dennis. Their friendship grounds the film, a pair cemented in a loyalty and unlikeliness that it smartly never comments on. Of course Alexandra Paul is barely a character but this isn’t exactly surprising. Nearly everyone from Roberts Blossoms to Robert Prosky to the high school bullies who must be at least 40; all spot-on.

Carpenter’s use of Panavision is full of expert touches (that shot above caused my jaw to drop) and his music cues are consistently effective. His camera is touchingly lyrical, roaming at the perfect moments. Dennis seeing Artie and Leigh at the football game is a favorite. And the use of 50’s and 60’s rock n’ roll is creepily otherwordly. You guys; I love pretty much everything about this to the point of unbridled gushing.

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#174. The Dead Zone (1983, Cronenberg)
I always forget how much I love Christopher Walken and then performances like this remind me that he’s pretty much the greatest. And it’s a good thing Walken is here to hold down the fort because The Dead Zone personally disappointed. Definitely an important work within Cronenberg’s filmography re: working within a more traditional narrative/mainstream cinema but that doesn’t equate good. After watching this it’s clear why it as made into a TV show because the film itself feels like 4 or 5 potential episodes piled up next to each other. It has an episodic structure, using Walken’s character arc as the consistent throughline. Problem is that none of the separate stories are remotely fetching from the serial killer to the boy he tutors to Senator, etc. It’s all just sort of there and the film as a whole ended up feeling that way as a result.