Review: The Truth About Emanuel (2013, Gregorini)

Originally posted on Vérité November 26th, 2013:

In writer/director Francesca Gregorini’s sophomore effort (her debut was 2009’s Tanner Hall with Rooney Mara in her first leading role), she pulls focus on two deeply plagued women able to provide for each other within a rickety and artificial set of circumstances. There’s a lot of potential in The Truth About Emanuel (previously titled Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes), but realist fairy tales walk a tonal tightrope that requires a certain degree of truthfulness to make it work and Gregorini’s characters’ emotions are so imitative and spuriously performed that the film quickly becomes an actively aggravating experience.

On the surface, Emanuel (Kaya Scodelario) is your typical acerbic teenager who spends her time provoking everyone around her. She lives with her kindly father (Alfred Molina) and her well-meaning but overbearing stepmother (Frances O’Connor). Her birth mother died when she was born, leaving her with a permanent sense of crippling guilt as well as an unfulfilled need for a maternal presence. When new neighbor Linda (Jessica Biel), a single mother with an infant daughter enters the picture, Emanuel becomes infatuated her and they quickly become part of each other’s lives when the sullen teen is asked to babysit. Emanuel soon discovers something shocking about Linda but instead of telling someone, her desire to sustain and deepen their connection prompts her to keep said secret and be a complicit part of Linda’s world.

The opening minutes of The Truth About Emanuel succinctly encapsulate everything wrong with it. It’s almost always a warning sign when a film opens with voiceover narration that is used once and only once. It’s a convenient shortcut, a lazy way of presenting a character’s situation without organically fitting it into the story. Emanuel cuts to the chase, telling us everything we need to know about her with a purposely-galling statement meant to capture our attention. We see Kaya Scodelario centered in the frame and hear her self-defining confession: “My name is Emanuel. I’m 17 years old and I killed my mother”. She describes herself as “a murderer without a motive” and goes on to offer unsavory details about that fateful day of birth and death: “As she bled, the doctor pushed air into my lungs and pressed his hands repeatedly against my chest with the same rhythmic repetitive motion he used to jerk himself off that very morning”. That kind of sentence, setting out to shock with overwrought prose and pretension that masks a lack of voice, sums up the ways in which this film is misguided in its execution.

The Truth About Emanuel doesn’t know how to progress or effectively convey its story. Gregorini plays it straight as a coming-of-age film with some droplet poeticisms thrown in for good measure. But the unconscionably weak script fails to engage and resolutely sets itself up as a means to an empty end. The characters and their connections do not feel authentic, the inept construct goes nowhere, and Linda’s mental illness is insensitively piled onto what is already a ciphered catalyst of a character. This is a film about two women yet one of those women is treated like a plot point instead of a person. An unfortunate consequence that leaves us stuck with Emanuel.

There are few things worse than poorly written bitchiness. The ill-conceived character of Emanuel makes you appreciate even mediocre snark all the more. It doesn’t help that Scodelario has a rushed stiltedness to her line delivery, further demonstrating just how bad the material is. Like Linda, Emanuel never quite feels like a character, let alone a person we care about. This is a troubled girl and even though we are told and shown this time and time again, we never feel it. The only thing really going for Emanuel and Linda is that Scodelario and Jessica Biel have a chemistry that transcends what they have to work with.

The screenplay is the real problem here, given that Gregorini lacks any kind of discernible voice at this point in her career. Here is a semi-autobiographical story about grief, maternal bonding, and growing up but despite this personal connection, Gregorini is unable to flesh it out or make it heartfelt. The writing is on the wall at every turn. There is even a romantic subplot with a boy named Claude (Aneurin Barnard) but only because every rote coming-of-age film demands them in order to fill up the time. There is a scene where Emanuel unreasonably accosts him for not being on the same train as her, which of course leads to a kiss. It is a scene so painfully strained it becomes laughable. There was a glimmering nugget of an idea within The Truth About Emanuel as well as the potential for the rare depiction of the maternal connection between two women. Sadly, the patchy and transparent execution quashes all possibility.

Short Review: Possession (1981, Zulawski)

Possession Adjani
When I think about having to articulate thoughts on Possession I get overwhelmed, which makes me want to express them to my satisfaction all the more. How to convey the experience of watching something like this? Those who have seen it and latched onto its brand of mayhem know that Possession plays for keeps. It is at its core startlingly intimate and private, like an open wound filtered through a melodramatic phantasmagorical visage. Its sustained high-pitched skittish temperament is so explosive that most films never aim to touch the kind of cataclysmic outpour which makes up all of Possession. This makes it a uniquely exhausting experience. One of those I-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-myself-now dilemmas.

Andrzej Zulawski constantly finds ways to throw us off in this nightmare world of tentacle sex, incestual copulation, subway seizures/miscarriages/?, orifice oozing, invasive hippies, pink socks, doppelgängers, and more. Set in Cold War Berlin where everything is binary helps create a lack of sync to how the characters relate to each other. Conversations are between people experiencing completely different things. Connections are frayed. Common ground is futile. Everything feels foreign. It is about the crumbling of marriage where the start is the end and it’s just a descent into literal hell from there.

Zulawski shoots in grays, blues, whites. The template is like the picture above, alternating between sterile and grimy. It feels dire and desolate. It feels like a morgue, a wasteland. The camera is often used to show the disconnect between the characters, particularly the central couple. But then we are thrown into uncomfortably close quarters, up close and personal. Isabelle Adjani breaks the fourth wall with her piercing gaze. Zulawski cuts in so close that we often repel.

Speaking of Isabelle Adjani, only someone a little off their rocker and in acute touch with their demons could have pulled this off. What to even say about her? That’s it’s possibly the most exhausting-to-watch performance ever? She alternates between trance and unchecked hysteria. Screaming becomes a medium. Adjani uses her body and her face to contort into this being who has lost her place and her ability to share experience or communicate. She is in post-psychotic breakdown mode, unable to be in anybody else’s space and function. She is far gone from the second we meet her.

Anna and Mark get stuck in the same motions. Mark rocks his chair back and forth, he twists and turns on his bed, writhing out of time. Anna repeatedly returns to the apartment, for what exactly? To demolish the place some more, to slice her neck with an electric carving knife.

Possession understandably divides people in a masterpiece-or-dreck sort of way. It stays at the same pitch, doesn’t let you breathe, doesn’t make much narrative sense and is the equivalent of someone running through the streets shrieking for two hours. There is not a moment that feels like it even teeters on the brink of normalcy. It is an acidic purging of the mind where human beings in the midst of crisis recede into their most demonic unreachable selves. In short, it is one of the most vital feeling films of all time. Yes, a masterpiece.

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up/Capsule Reviews: #208-213

I finally put my screening log for 2013 in a document which is how I realized that my numbers have been a little off. Hence this round-up post starting at #208 as opposed to #203.

Curse of Chucky
#208. Curse of Chucky (2013, Mancini)

What I find most notable about the ‘Child’s Play‘ franchise is Don Mancini’s start-to-finish involvement. 25 years, 6 films, and Mancini has either directed, written, or co-written each of them. Here he brings nixes the meta-comedy turn the series had taken, bringing it around to a more serious dimension and that most friendly of low-budget settings; the spooky confined house. There’s quite a bit that works, including Fiona Dourif (daughter of Brad!) as an assured paraplegic, a macabre scene of who-has-the-poisoned-food musical plates, the pristine design of the Cabbage Patch version of Chucky, and a last-minute cameo by Jennifer Tilly which made me clap because, duh, it’s Jennifer Tilly. The first half doesn’t have Chucky to rely on, and so it’s more involving in the way it doles out story and putting off the inevitable. Once Chucky takes over, the film isn’t capable of keeping the story it had set up on an even keel. Brad Dourif’s voicework goes a very long way, but it can’t take the film across the finish line effectively. But I commend Mancini for the intermittently successful parameters he set out for himself in an attempt to old-school up his franchise.

The Entity
#209. The Entity (1983, Lurie)

On the surface, a film about a woman who gets repeatedly raped by a ghost sounds like a more than a little exploitative take on the poltergeist trend. But this is a reductive description to what is a surprisingly raw look at post-traumatic stress and the horror of sexual violence. It’s by no means perfect; it uses assault as set-piece and distractingly postures it as the time and place for effects work to shine. But the focus is entirely on Hershey’s trauma, her psyche, and in conveying her experience of the attacks and post-attacks in a way that mostly feels like the opposite of salacious indecency. It deals with the terror of violation and the blame culture directed at women who have suffered in this way. The supernatural elements allow Hershey’s character to be seen as the root of the problem to everyone (mostly men) she opens up to. Sound familiar? There’s a nice touch in that it depicts a supportive female friendship with said friend being the first person to believe her.

This focus I describe makes The Entity very difficult to watch; it uses an abrasive score to accompany and carry through the suddenness of the attacks. We never know anything about the ghost; he is given no identity, no motive, no reasoning. This also helps broaden the scope of The Entity and I personally found the way it handled its subject matter to be more affecting and hard-hitting than most films that take on the topic.

I had major issues with the rinse-and-repeat structure and lack of forward motion within the 2-hour time frame. And yes, the last act becomes very convoluted and silly, a desperate grasp at overgrown climax and an antithetical direction from the rest of the film.

Barbara Hershey is pretty phenomenal here, giving an uncompromising performance in which she has to work through constant scenes of horror and mental anguish. To boot, she has nobody to act off of in the aforementioned pivotal scenes. The way she makes you feel her paralysis links up beautifully with the way Lurie conveys and makes us feel the anticipatory fear of violation via canted angles and a gazing dread that carefully skirts implicating the audience in atypical favor of aligning us with Hershey. These things overcome the film’s unfortunate ultimate commitment to convention and clarity.

First Name Carmen
#210. First Name: Carmen (1983, Godard)

I have a very strange and indescribable ambivalence towards Jean-Luc Godard, especially because there are a few films from him I consider favorites! I guess I’m dubious of him; that’s the only way I can think to describe it. The God-like status he has, which I recognize is for largely good reason. Radical formal innovation rendered through impossibly cool pop sensibilities and genre play will get you far (I realize that’s a reductive reading but not an entirely untruthful one). I guess I just prefer so many directors to him. And I never care much about what he’s getting at. There’s an unappealing coldness within those hip genre cages. This is coming from someone who is often attracted to ‘cold’ filmmaking. Maybe one day I’ll be able to describe it. I can’t be the only one who feels this way, right? I still find it interesting that many who love him are largely unfamiliar with his later work which make up half his career. I recently enjoyed reading an article that discussed Lincoln Center’s retrospective and the way the programming destroyed any binary notions by mixing up the former and latter eras of his career.

Anyways, there’s a lot that piqued my interest in First Name: Carmen. His reliable penchant for using sound as jarring connective at-odds-with-each-other tissue, the director’s screen presence in which he lampoons himself as a loony crone spouting philosophical, the use of the Tom Waits ballad “Ruby Arms” which gives us gorgeous shots like the one pictured above, the enticing muse that is Maruschka Detmers. But when it comes down to it, to put it ridiculously and crudely, I didn’t care enough to care. This is the way I feel about him about half the time. So it goes. I still need to see Pierrot le Fou damn it!

#211. Tenebre (aka Tenebrae) (1982, Argento) 

How connected is an artist to his work? Or rather, how reflective is it? Color scheme ceases to exist, this is the anti-Suspiria in that regard, as Argento strips down his world to broad daylight, whites abound, and architectural puzzle places. A white-out plane where sexual ‘deviancy’ and humiliation are laid bare, pursuing scars. All the better for red pumps to make their way around, fate trussed up. The Goblin score (or score by former members of Goblin rather) is impossibly cool moving between distorted lurking or eerie permanent lullaby. The kill scenes are far more about the the build-up than the actual death. Except that is, for the ex-wife whose murder becomes canvas art in one explosively red fell swoop. And how about that omnipotent dog?

Will John Saxon ever not be hammy? Even in a sea of dubbing and questionable acting, he hams it up. A Charles Ruggles for the 80’s. Daria Nicolodi is always such a welcome sturdy presence.

The female critic claiming sexism is portrayed stereotypically but ends up being on the money. Hmmm. And then she’s of course voyeuristically murdered. Double hmmm.

The completely over-the-top tour-de-force tracking shot best illustrates the detachment with which violence is conveyed. I far prefer Suspiria and Deep Red to this but was extremely fond of it and would take it over Opera and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. So it seems that while I don’t think giallo is really my thing, that Argento without a doubt is. He’s like a spiritual brother to Brian De Palma.

Possession Adjani
#212. Possession (1981, Zulawski)

Short Review post coming soon.

Daughters of Darkness
#213. Daughters of Darkness (1971, Kümel)

Pretty much the definition of my cup of tea. Occupies a slightly peculiar space that is neither the lesbian sexcapades nor the frightening vampire horror some may expect/want. It is instead an erotically charged mood piece that exists in the sultriness of dusk and the lost hours of the night. That it isn’t scary and is ultimately somewhat chaste may chase some off, but this is exactly the kind of Gothic psychological beaut that I am drawn towards. It’s bolstered by Delphine Seyrig whose enigmatic worldliness by way of Old Hollywood glistens throughout. Nobody; not the characters or us, can escape her orbit.

The fade-to-reds preface those of Bergman’s Cries and Whispers by a year. Daughters of Darkness has been claimed as a feminist text by some. While I don’t think Valerie ever breaks free on her own terms the way I would have liked, her arc is still one of empowerment all things considered. The film pulls the rug out from under the notion of hetero-newlywed bliss. The honeymoon is used as the time where the curtain is pulled back on who you thought your partner was. Once the deceit and abuse of the couple’s dynamic reveals itself, Valerie must choose between loyalty to her husband or to herself. Seyrig’s place in the film complicates everything for everyone and makes the film about a man and woman battling over the possession of a third woman.

Andrea Rau is impossibly luscious here. She has a proto-Wednesday Addams outfit in her Louise Brooks hairdo and I just want to be her basically.

My First Podcast Appearance! MatineeCast Episode 98

Escape from Tomorror

Hey everyone! I finally broke the podcast cherry and momentarily overcame my nerves to appear on Ryan McNeil’s MatineeCast over at his website The Matinee. The main film discussed is Escape from Tomorrow, a film I very strongly disliked. If you want to hear us discuss that film as well as others like Alice in Wonderland, The Shining,  and more I urge you to check it out. It was a lot of fun to record and I hope it’s fun to listen to as well.

MatineeCast Episode 98:

Short Review: Star 80 (1983, Fosse)

Mariel Hemingway_Eric Roberts_Star80
For all its qualities, Star 80 will not leave your mind alone primarily because of Eric Roberts who is astonishing in a searing and deeply disturbing portrait of a hanger-on parasite unable to overcome his own insecurities. This is based on a true story and his Paul Snider does some horrific things but because of the performance and the script we feel for this monster. This man who was beaten by himself, unable to adjust his social dial when needed. Though the film ends with a rape/murder/suicide, I had just as hard a time watching a scene where Snider meets Hugh Hefner. He introduces himself by misquoting Hef, his pimped-out loser persona made up of self-loathing and desperation oozes out of him to the point where it becomes difficult to watch. And then he obsesses over the encounter afterwards. He’s identifiably nervous and rightly over-analytical of himself.

He ‘discovered’ Dorothy but couldn’t hold onto her, couldn’t keep her. The act of ‘discovering someone’ doesn’t go any further than the initial action requires and so Paul is left on the sidelines, back to proudly hustling together wet T-shirt contests which fail to make the projected profit. As Dorothy rightly breaks away from Snider (he is clearly a ticking time bomb), he tries to refocus his energies as advised by his roommate. When he tells Dorothy over the phone about his new health spa pet project, she is uneasy and unenthusiastic about the whole thing. She wants out of the marriage at this point, and it’s just a matter of getting up the nerve to tell him. And though he will be the one to end her life, and though we couldn’t be more empathetic to her conflict of interest, Eric Roberts makes us feel for this man in that moment when we see that he’s trying and she’s over it. We’ve seen characters like this before, these desperate hustler types trying to inch in at a taste of the spotlight. Reconciling the impossibility of actual fame with the hopefulness of at least being surrounded by it. But Roberts takes it to a new level of complexity, impressive all the more because of the context of the story.

Fosse never lets us forget where the story is going; happy moments are tinged with the future. This was a filmmaker who burrowed in deep, who lives in the dark corners and presents them to us with a streak of pizzazz and patterns of repetition. This is exploitative material, based on something that happened two years before the film’s release. It’s the type of story that immediately gets turned into a tawdry and untimely Lifetime movie (and of course there was an even earlier take on this material in the form of a TV movie starring Jamie Lee Curtis) but Fosse lifts it up and actually does something with it. He looks at that line that divides fame and the endless outskirts. What gets you in and what keeps you out? The Dorothy Stratten story is a worst-case scenario of what this craving does to a person when its a perfect storm of insecurity, mental imbalance, and ambition.

A special shout-out to Mariel Hemingway, equally impressive with a less complicated role. She carries with her an indefinable innocence and a buoyant youthfulness that becomes far more difficult to see stamped out than other potential actresses in this role.