Hello all! Welcome to the new year! I’m closing in on my 2013 viewings. There are 5 more available must-sees for me to watch and then I’ll embark on 2013 lists. This year for my round-ups, I’d preferably like to do them in groups of 5. It’ll make for more posts and easier promotion, and more consistency. I’ll also be keeping monthly track of countries and decades represented at the bottom of certain postsc.
#1. Planet of the Vampires (1965, Bava) (Spain/Italy)
Slightly ahead of its time with its notion of sci-fi/horror, a genre blend that wasn’t often mixed by 1965. And this isn’t just sci-fi/horror like, say, Invasion of the Body Snatchers; it’s horror in space. Mario Bava does his thing by using the physical space, cavernous ultra-low budget sets, pop color smog, and an eerie electronic score to create an inescapable atmosphere. But here’s the rub; the entire film feels like a total flatline. There’s an inexcusable monotony that takes hold instead of the intended dread. I can’t say I felt one thing during the film. It’s known these days as an uncanny precursor to Alien. Bava often discards characters and story in favor of aesthetics, and he’s praised for this today, but I’m leaning towards not really being a fan of his. Of the four Bava films I’ve seen, only Kill, Baby…Kill! is the only one I’m outright fond of. His brand of atmosphere tends to run transparent and empty for me personally.
2. Loves of a Blonde (1965, Forman) (Czechoslovakia)
Coming-of-age triptych built on a naive clutch for escapism via romance. There is a constant back-and-forth between characters who criss-cross within comic setpieces, trekking through social and domestic debacles with a wry tracking observation. The first sequence in particular has the camera functioning almost as a sports announcer, catching increasingly lumbering developments from all sides.
Andula’s initial reluctance towards Milda reveals a self-awareness that once distrust turns to trust, she’s all-in. He of course is a cad of the first order, inverting a self-defense lesson to advance upon her as well as a faux-interest in her attempted suicide. The way his methods of persistence casually reveal this fact about Andula reveal an underlying sadness to the film. What impressed me most about it was how Forman’s second work has a quick-witted touch, laced w/ Czech pop music and a kind of farcical comedy-of-errors, but there’s a sincere sadness underneath it all that may or may not be reconcilable.
#3. Bunny Lake is Missing (1965, Preminger) (UK)
Second 1965 film seen based on an Evelyn Piper novel. Could be read from a feminist perspective as it uses the ‘but they do exist!’ film to prey upon our assumptions of women as hysterical and mentally unstable creatures with maternal fixations only to slam it back in our face. There’s also quite a bit of onscreen manipulation to make this possible, most notably if our first shot of Ann had started five seconds earlier.
Once the reveal takes place, we set upon a conventional kind of climax, but it also sets the film free from information withholding (for better or worse), becoming manic with perverse incestuous and infantile elements, and a gloves-come-off formalism by Preminger to match. It’s both conventional and delirious, like watching an extended improv exercise with impossibly high stakes.
The more grounded first two-thirds are won over by the supporting cast of British eccentrics reveling in grotesquerie. There’s Noel Coward as a gay masochist who speaks in drolly slimy propositions. And there’s Martita Hunt as Ada Ford, a retired shut-in who lives in an attic listening to tape recordings of children describing their nightmares. Anna Massey is her upright golden self. Carol Lynley and Keir Dullea give performances that don’t quite fit in with their surroundings but it works, separating them from the rest just as they are in the story. The two groups of performances fall into coarse vs. whimsical. Not sure where Olivier fits in. We’ll put him in the category of ‘Olivier’! There; problem solved.
How about that creepy doll hospital, huh? There’s also a deeply misplaced tie-in with The Zombies (whom I love dearly), foreshadowing future par-for-the-course industry tie-ins of all kinds. The first time appear, on a pub TV, it’s painfully awkward. The second time, played over Ann’s escape from hospital, works really well and predicts the way music will be used in film very shortly afterwards. Preminger uses his busy lingering frames to feel like a maze of the mind, but whose mind, and how do we find out?
#4. The Spectacular Now (2013, Ponsoldt) (USA)
Indie darling coming-of-age romance based on a YA novel? Doesn’t sound like my cuppa. Oh, but in this case it was. Brings us into the characters lives on their own level of experiencing first loves and mistakes and conflicting flutters and people letting them down. This ushers in a level of investment on our part uncommon in most romances; we come to care deeply for Sutter and Aimee, separately and, for better or worse, together. Ponsoldt makes us feel like part of the story; we feel as they feel. The uncertainty, the butterflies, the ways people change and don’t change and the self-doubt.
I cannot stress enough how great Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are; it’s to the point of hyperbolic-free ‘revelatory’. Ponsoldt keeps long takes with the two actors, both in frame, so we can see how they share physical space and their physicality with each other. Their scenes feel unrehearsed, clumsy, vulnerable. We catch how substantial and new the blossoming relationship is for her, how casual and freewwheeling for him, and the ensuing changes on each end. We know Sutter. He’s a class clown type, clinging to high school because he sees no forward-motion for himself. He’s always deflecting. Woodley is just as impressive, if not more so, because the film doesn’t favor her perspective and yet she’s able to elevate a ‘nice girl’ role into something so beautiful and fragile. We become so excited for her, and then protective of her.
The Spectacular Now is so good that it manages to come out on top despite falling into a few conventional coming-of-age trappings. The ‘I’m just like my father’ subplot lacks oomph or subtlety. So that unfortunate side-trip takes up a lot of been-there-done-that time. There’s also a framing device that immediately undercuts and underestimates everything between.
I’m über-picky with romance. But I was struck by the maturity with which this story and these characters, even the secondary ones, are crafted. People are neither wholly good or bad, everyone is flawed and capable of weakness, ill-advised coping and the hardships of living with oneself. It’s an obvious truth, and one that films tend to forget in service of tropes. I guess what I’m saying is that The Spectacular Now doesn’t view its characters as characters, it views them as people. And I responded very positively to that.
It also gets the fumbly awkwardness of courtship, particularly the mismatched intentions of them (playing half-hearted and whole-hearted investment off each other) and new-to-them experiences like sex. And I’m not talking movie-awkward, I’m talking awkward-awkward. But a normal kind of awkward. A kind we all relate to and recognize. It’s a quality you can’t miss. It’s due to the performers and that James Ponsoldt is so committed to telling this story with honesty and sincerity.
A final thought was that a new kind of feeling to have towards a coming-of-age romance was conflicted feelings about how I wanted it to end. It’s not cut-and-dry and I found myself wondering ‘what do I want for these two?’ Aimee may be good for Sutter but Sutter really isn’t good for Aimee, and her undying loyalty to him shuts out her own potential. You see it happening; it’s frighteningly casual. When and how the film comments on this is a stand-out. Have I mentioned how great Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are? Because it bares mentioning again.
Also, I think The Spectacular Now would make a fitting double feature with The World’s End.
#5. The Past (2013, Farhadi) (France)
Companion piece to A Separation in that it takes a multi-player domestic crisis right up to the point of melodrama, flirts with it, but stays on the side of caution, using its energy and resources to comb through the minefield of clashing perspectives and human emotion. Farhadi’s strength, and the film’s, is his lack of judgment; he acts as a resolute and humanistic seeker of truth and escalating bursts of hardship along the path to dust-settling. I know some reacted negatively to the plot overload, but the film plays with melodrama, and that’s what melodrama is rooted in; heightened plot developments that seem not to cease and which threaten familial or romantic implosion. Maybe it’s because Farhadi feels more naturalistic and observed in formal ways and so the melodrama sticks out as somehow being below him or crass amongst the rest. Me, I like the marriage he finds between the two. It’s hard to call it over-plotted when all of the developments go back to an event that has already taken place; developments simply equal secrets being revealed and confessions being made, in this case like a Matryoshka doll.
What I did take slight issue with was that there seems to have been a shrill women vs. calm and exhausted men dichotomy set up that felt iffy. Bèrènice Bejo, as great as she is, isn’t afforded quite the same level of understanding as the other characters, most emphatically when placed against Ahmad, who may as well bear the title of Shitstorm Cleaner, the character we most immediately empathize with. I also felt the resolution, or lack thereof, to be limp. Between this and A Separation, Asghar Farhadi is becoming a favorite of mine. I’d really love to see About Elly.