Movie Music Mix: 1992


Let my series of 1992 posts commence! This is the 5th chosen year I’ve devoted significant time to exploring in my Top Ten by Year series. Each time I expand the festivities a little more. This time I’m initiating a Voters Poll, gathering up readers Top Tens and aggregating them into a set of results. The Movie Music Mix idea began with 1965 and then I went back and created one for 1983. The last year in this series, 1943, did not have a mix because of how difficult it proved to find anything I may have been looking for.

Everything involving 1992 has proven considerably more difficult because of the sheer volume of content. This mix was the toughest to create, not in terms of choosing what went on, but the ordering. The mix itself is all over the map, not feeling quite as quintessentially 90’s as one would expect.

The criteria is that the music on the mix is either part of an original score or music that comes from the time the film was made. For example, that means nothing from Reservoir Dogs was eligible. There are a few pieces I was unable to get access to. I would have liked something from J. Mascis’s score for Gas, Food, Lodging, and the song playing at the end of Hyenes. Additionally, I tried very hard to get “The Final Game” from A League of Their Own on there, but it’s an unwieldy and at times overly bombastic 13 minute piece that just wouldn’t fit.

This isn’t a mix meant to definitively reflect the year in film. It’s a mix that caters to my music tastes which I hope, and to a degree assume, will be enjoyed by others. And I must have seen the film in order to include its music on the mix.

The next post for this series will be What I’ll Remember About the Films of 1992: A Personal Sampling, an example of which can be found for my 1943 entry. It’s something I do to construct a scrapbook of sorts for all the viewing done in the past few months.

One last note: On 8tracks, you are only allowed 2 songs by an artist in a mix. There are three Danny Elfman pieces in my official mix, but on 8tracks ,”Birth of a Penguin II” has been cut. Below is a track listing and a link to 8tracks where you can listen to the entire thing. Enjoy!

8tracks link:

1992 Movie Music Track Listing: 
1. “Birth of a Penguin I” – composed by Danny Elfman – from Batman Returns
2. “Birth of a Penguin II” – composed by Danny Elfman – from Batman Returns (not on 8tracks version)
3. “Scrooge” – The Muppets (written by Paul Williams) – from The Muppet Christmas Carol
4. “Main Title” – composed by Thomas Newman – from The Player
5. “Deep Cover (aka 187)” – Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg from Deep Cover
6. “Waiting for Somebody” – Paul Westerberg – from Singles
7.Complain, Complain, Complain” – Tim Robbins – from Bob Roberts (very choppy version, with 20 seconds of silence at the end, but the best available on youtube)
8. “Thankful Heart” – Paul Williams (sung by Michael Caine) – from The Muppet Christmas Carol
9. “Prince Ali” – Alan Menken (sung by Robin Williams) – from Aladdin
10. “Helen Spies” – composed by Alan Silvestri – from Death Becomes Her
11. “Selina Transforms” – composed by Danny Elfman – from Batman Returns
12. “The Pink Room” – composed by Angelo Badalamenti – from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me
13. “The World Has Gone Insane” – Alan Tam – from Full Contact
14. “The Crying Game” – Boy George – from The Crying Game
15. “Questions in a World of Blue” – Julee Cruise – from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me
16. “It Was Always You, Helen” – composed by Phillip Glass – from Candyman
17. “Promentory” – composed by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman – from Last of the Mohicans (longer film version, not the soundtrack version)

Calling All Submissions! Top Films of 1992: Voters Poll

Porco Rosso

I’ve basically closed out my 1992 viewings (just a re-watch of Porco Rosso left). Along with upcoming posts citing Honorable Mentions, Personal Remembrances, a 1992 Movie Music Mix and the Top Ten, I’m including a Voters Poll as well (and will continue to moving forward). 

What I’d like to know is; what would make your list of Top Films of 1992? It doesn’t have to be in order, it doesn’t even have to be 10 if you don’t want. I’ve gotten most of my votes from twitter followers, but I’d love to get some additional contributions. 

Leave your picks in the comment section. Results will be posted early next week. I’m so looking forward to diving into the upcoming series of posts on 1992! 

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #140-144

Still trying to catch up here, so these will be much shorter than usual. As I mentioned in my last post, I just got back from a trip, am moving and have a lot of stuff to do, so I’ll get back into a regular rhythm here soon.

gas food lodging

#140. Gas, Food, Lodging (1992, Anders)
“I’m just afraid of running out of daydreams”

The power of artificial melodrama and the voiceover narration of a blossoming adolescent with nobody else to ramble to is our introduction to this frank yet delicate American indie about two sisters and their single mother trying to get by in a New Mexico trailer park. J. Mascis’s score (oh how 90’s) is just right, with plenty of moments when your ear catches just how great his contribution is here. And Fairuza Balk (one of my favorite actresses) is touching as the endearing Shade (oh how 90’s), trying so hard to change her circumstances and those around her with idealistic and naive solutions.

It’s the Little Things:
“Look that’s the best I can do. I’m tired”
“Women are lonely in the 90’s; it’s our new phase”


#141. Orlando (1992, Potter)
An elaborate mirage on gender identity and stigma, where past and present are just an edit away and where there is little fixture in space even within specific time periods. Sally Potter approaches this Virginia Woolf adaptation (a novel I loved in concept but felt removed from in reading) with witty presentational candor and Tilda Swinton sells it with softness and a hearty wink. Singular, amusing, and honest.

Mauvais Sang (Film avec Juliette Binoche)_arc

#142. Mauvais Sang (1986, Carax)
“I love her and she loves me, but she already lights my cigarettes like I do”
“And I hope my prints on you fade”

Leos Carax lets his films live in the moment, forgoing a bigger picture. There’s an impulsive and purely cinematic drive to his work that feels like the process of discovery is taking place as we watch it. Story is a footnote. There’s a half-hearted peripheral disease at work that must have some parallel to the AIDS virus. But none of it works because it doesn’t matter. What matters are these characters defined by clothing, color, and by combinations of aesthetics and effects from silent film, French new wave and modernist techniques. Primary colors are used in a way that predates 1992’s Savage Nights. It’s all been said about the “Modern Love” sequence already but I’ll throw my perfection! exclamation into the mix. Juliette Binoche and a very young Julie Delpy exemplify why they had futures as French movie royalty.

step brothers

#143. Step Brothers (2008, McKay)
“Stop being a fucking dinosaur and get a job”

Overflowing with golden line deliveries (seriously, Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, in his comedy star career phase, are stellar) this absurdist comedy depicting the extremity of the literal man-child (these aren’t men-children, these are men literally pretending to be children. Like a combination of Dumb and Dumber and Clifford for the aughts.) has a wildly subversive streak, daring to run all the way in one direction with something brazenly meaningless. One of countless examples of how Step Brothers hilariously discards narrative is when we learn that the two step brothers have a sleepwalking problem. It adds nothing to the film, only setting up a later sequence, that also means nothing, in which the two sleepwalk into their parents bedroom with Christmas presents and jerkily chuck them in the air.

Goes for a third act momentum that undercuts the uselessness of what came before but this is trimmer than most mainstream comedies today and also dares people to fucking hate its guts. It shows that black comedies are still possible, if only we were able to notions of realism more. I honestly don’t know the last time I laughed this consistently through a modern comedy. I don’t think I’d like it much with lesser actors in these roles, but Ferrell and Reilly are a perfect match for each other.

#144. Careful (1992, Maddin)
Careful made me eager to watch the rest of Guy Maddin’s filmography; it’s full of ideas, interwoven humor, photographic verve unlike anything I’ve seen (riffing on German nationalist cinema, Bergfilme in particular, it mimics the two-strip Technicolor process). Despite all this, it mostly drags, at least as much as a film about outlandish incestual desire can. Shows more promise than anything else, and would have been better suited to being a full-on silent film.

Capsule Reviews (but mostly bullet points): Films Seen in 2014 #135-139

Have a batch of 1992 releases to catch up on, but for this post I’m rounding up my 2014 viewings and plopping them into one post. They get progressively more bullet point-heavy. I just got back from a trip and I’m moving soon so I’d like to haphazardly get these (and my next post) in so I can concentrate on the upcoming transition and finishing up 1992. When I get back from L.A next week, my next capsule review post will be those 1992 films (and bonus Mauvais Sang and Step Brothers). By the way, I’m closing out 1992 soon, a pretty big deal considering I began my exploration of the year all the way back in mid-May. I have two more films to revisit (Porco Rosso and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me) and three more first time viewings (Malcolm X, In the Soup and Life, and Nothing More)


135. Snowpiercer (2014, Bong) 
Full Review

Child's pose

#136. Child’s Pose (2014, Netzer)
The central conceit of Child’s Pose is a MacGuffin to show irrevocably disintegrating bond between an overbearing, to put it mildly, mother and a dismissive son. The death of an adolescent (who the son accidentally ran over, likely due to drunk driving) is propped up for a different kind of mourning. Netzer’s formal ‘verite’ aping proves both a distraction and a disservice. The most compelling scenes are the ones that go on longest because the camera calms itself, allowing the rhythms of the actors to take over. A scene between Cornelia (Luminița Gheorghiu) and Carmen (Ilinca Goia) is the standout.

Luminița Gheorghiu is the main reason to watch this. Starting from Cornelia’s perspective, we are gradually clued in to just how deluded and suffocating she is in regards to her son. She is armored with fur coats, obliviousness and an unerring penchant for morally bankrupt negotiations and takeovers. Gheorghiu plays her as at once ruthless and pitiable.

But it’s a dead end of a film, both in its inability to key into its story and because for all the acute observances of the breaking point between mother and son, its ending suggests that the son’s growth should matter to us when it no way does.


#137. Stranger by the Lake (2014, Guiraudie)
“We can’t stop living”
(Major spoilers ahead)
It’s a place of routine, where parking creates the same makeshift shapes and bodies hang unabashed and inviting. But the saturated regularity of surface nakedness belies murderous secrets and hidden longings. This is an insular world where death does not deter the community. Stranger by the Lake pits the assumed initial set-up of the dangers of anonymous hookups against the removal of anonymity and the ambiguity of desire trumping and further instigating a discard of safety and logic.

Franck is a romantic. He wants love so badly and he’s looking in the opposite place for it. He wants to be kissed when he cums. He wants a relationship. This is a reversal on the Gothic-influenced romance thriller, where romance segues into life threatening discoveries. Here, the discovery comes first, the notion of romance after. The tension comes from Franck’s knowledge (and that Michel doesn’t know of it) and continued self-endangerment. There’s something very lonely about Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), and thus about Stranger by the Lake in general. Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), the heart of the film and a sideline commentator, is also lonely, but looking for something more abstract.

The film takes place 100% at the lake. There is no score. It feels almost like a sexually rampant purgatory of sorts. There are two characters often in frame, the camera shooting head-on, direct. There have been so many Hitchcock comparisons, but the only reminder I felt were the voyeuristic elements. The final moments are of the type that would normally irk me. As of the past few years, I’ve overdosed on the ambiguous ending trope of smaller films. But this works for two reasons. First, because of how hauntingly black the shot is, only shoulder blades visible. Second, that Franck is calling out Michel’s name. After all this, after the climactic blood-letting and pursuit to kill, Franck still ends the film, even though he’s also now the pursued in the worst of ways, as the pursuer.

It’s the Little Things:
– Love that long take of Michel (Christophe Paou) coming out of water, at first a killer, then he begins to put on his sneakers and puts himself back together as someone we, and Franck, recognize.
Also fond of the odd bits of humor.

Planet of the Apes

#138. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014, Reeves)
Handsomely mounted by Matt Reeves with more care and tautness than I would ever expect, even after the relative surprise of Rise. It feels so redundant to talk about the effects work and performance capture, but it’s remarkable. Blue Eyes gives a little pause, but Caesar, Maurice, and especially Koba are so tangible that I’m still wrapping my head around the technical accomplishment.
– I cried. A lot. What can I say; I care about Caesar.
– The apes are our focal perspective point, the humans ushered in later like the intruders they are. A mainstream audience is forced to rely on simple gestures and visual storytelling for much of its first act; an uncommon request of a major summer release.
– But every story beat is painfully predictable and the mood is a representative of self-serious storytelling  overflowing with competence and entirely without surprises.
– It’s very much a middle film, really showing a necessary character transition and hard life lessons for Caesar.
– Battle scenes are a slog, carrying little momentum despite inspired moments like the 360 tank shot and long take of Jason Clarke on the run trying to evade apes
– Gary Oldman is forced into the story at every turn, a weak parallel for the Caesar/Koba conflict.
– Giving people backstories in post-apocalyptic settings have become the laziest because guess what? 100% chance their baggage is that they lost someone.
– Such strong production design all around. Loved looking at the scale of San Francisco microcosm. An antidote to
– Blunt and hits on things that are hot button right now.
– This would be a 5-star film if “Shock the Monkey” had played either during the end credits or instead of “The Weight” ”
– Jason Clarke an inspired casting choice. He has little to do but boy does he do even that well. Palpable sense of awe and I was invested in him for the humanity he projects as opposed to character specifics.
– Rote narrative that nevertheless grabbed me. But when the stakes came to matter as far as action goes, it became unengaging.
– Found other things to grab onto. Particularly the hope that a misunderstanding between Caesar and Clarke be dissipated, and that they have a mutual respect and understanding (so yes, I felt that heads touching shot like mad).

Jenko (TATUM) and Zook (WYATT RUSSELL) out on the field

#139. 22 Jump Street (2014, Lord & Miller) 
Just because you’re aware that your sequel is bloated, doesn’t mean you get ‘Cate Blanchett’, as Jenko would put it, to be bloated. Look, there’s a lot of hilarious stuff here; I laughed a lot. Lord and Miller, with their animation background, have a particular strength in swerving towards visual jokes. Hill and Tatum are still great together. Tatum’s Jenko is the character we thought we never needed but now can’t imagine life without. But a lot of 22 Jump Street runs in place. Not in a fashion where plot can be zanily discarded, but leaning on it without making narrative work in its favor.
– Wanted Jenko and Zuke to stay together.
– Feels like Jonah Hill was not edited down enough. He gets some of the film’s biggest laughs (Cyn-thi-a) but he’s playing less of a character here; it’s more a collection of scenes where Hill just runs with it. Which is fine as far as working methods go because it’s how Hill gets the job done (more than enough is better than not enough), but it’s only successful when post-production trims the material down to its essentials. The initial meetup with Tom Sizemore is a perfect example. It goes on forever.
– Hill and love interest; boo.
– Third act much improved over predecessor. In fact, the spring break section is my favorite, with that physical battle between Gillian Bell and Hill being the film’s highlight (I smell an MTV movie award!).
– There’s a difference between material strikes indifferently and actively unfunny material and unfortunately for every two genuinely funny moments, there’s something not funny soon afterwards. The entire Dave Franco/Rob Riggle scene did not sit well with me at all.
– Not as invested in Schmidt and Jenko as a pair this time.
– Amber Stevens major step down from Brie Larson
– Meet Cute. Bad trip. Schmidt’s Slam Poetry
– Major missed opportunity; Jenko in a Human Sexuality class. So much more could have been done with that.
– Meta jokes worked better as a whole than I expected even if they were relied upon far too heavily
– Probably the big detractor is that there are, much like Dawn, no surprises. With both I don’t talk about plot or some notion of twists or what have you. I talk about ways of approaching and executing the material. I love the way 21 plays with high school culture, its smart and disarming way of zigging when you think it’ll zag. But there’s none of this here.
– Wyatt Russell in more films please. Also saw him in this year’s Cold in July.

Review: Snowpiercer (2014, Bong)


Contains spoilers

Bong Joon-ho, and only Bong Joon-ho, would have a film that features its protagonist tripping on a fish, in slow-motion no less, during an axes-out action scene. Bong, and only Bong, would make a film that allows the wildly divergent performances of grim revolutionary Chris Evans and villain-out-of-a-Roald Dahl book Tilda Swinton to successfully play off each other in the same space. And how many filmmakers would make a blockbuster that has the audaciousness to suggest, especially since the film itself thrives off a directly parallel narrative structure of rigidity, that structural disbandment isn’t enough; that wiping the slate clean and starting from scratch may be the best solution to humanity’s suffering?

For those of you just getting on the Bong Joon-ho train; welcome. It’s a topsy-turvy world here, where this filmmaker’s greatest strength, constructing a tonal playground within genre films, would be anyone else’s weakness. His is a consistent inconsistency if you will. A strangely cock-eyed and playful sense of sick slapstick humor, a kind found in other Korean films but never to this degree or application. I always sit there marveling “how does this work?” Go back to the mourning scene in The Host or the chase sequences in Memories of Murder; the pitch black hilarity of bodies bumbling awkwardness presents itself in intensely serious or emotionally wrought moments. Despite there being much to love in Snowpiercer’s deployment of action, Bong relies too heavily on shaky-cam amidst broader conceptual inventiveness, trying to create chaos in the claustrophobic space rather than playing into his penchant for the Clumsy Body Ballet. It’s the only somewhat significant disappointment with the film I can claim, largely made up for by Bong’s outside-the-box approach to depicting decimation and physical conflicts.

The film’s structure and the train are uniquely one and the same. As we rise up the ranks the train design intricately details quarantined worlds of increasing color, imagination, and fanned out purpose. The gaps of the world gradually fill in for us and the characters. Narrative is literally pushed forward.

We’re in the middle of an endlessly downbeat trend of self-serious blockbuster fare. Post-apocalypse looks and sounds the same, house style reigns supreme (thanks Marvel). Studios are petrified of projecting anything other than gravity. ‘Humor’ is either absent, forcibly injected via side characters, or filtered through the unappealing character trait ‘arrogance’. By contrast, the world of Snowpiercer is like a vital antidote, inspired by the best bits of Terry Gilliam and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (pre-whimsy overdose days) among others. Worlds within worlds of immaculate and invigorating production design. These spaces are used for all kinds of mayhem, as building blocks for creative and varied action, even down to the way the train’s movement itself, not just individual car settings, contributes to form and story on at least two separate occasions (night goggles and going around the bend).

Snowpiercer is also self-aware, having its first act look, and feel, like current filmic dystopia. World building mostly comes through naturally in dialogue or constant corners. One gets the feeling that repeat viewings will yield many rewards, always picking up something new along the detail-oriented way.

Even on a first viewing, there are so many tangible details that work their way into story, bringing the characters experiences, both daily and uncommon, to life. The restricted perspective of the proles, Happy New Year!, the Candy Land classrooms and propaganda, the contrast and mystery we feel as the woman in yellow visits the stables, missing limbs, are bullets extinct?, protein bars, the telling and unexpected relative indifference portrayed in the sushi scene, the last cigarette on Earth, the creation and use of cautionary tales, train and time being inextricable, train babies. The list goes on and on and on.

Curtis (Chris Evans) as the ‘hero’ is deconstructed and turned on its head in a way that recalls this year’s The LEGO Movie (in that case the ‘chosen one’). Curtis is kept a very narrow character; all these folks in the lower cars are defined by their plan and their goals. When we finally learn more about him, it cripples the rendering of this ‘reluctant hero’. His backstory (so horrifying it crosses over to being, again, weirdly funny) suggests a possible double feature with Gremlins for their out-of-nowhere Whoa, Shit Just Went Dark monologues. This is also the moment when A. focus and motivation shifts towards Song Kang-ho’s former prisoner Namgoong Minsu and B. Curtis becomes tempted by Wilford (Ed Harris). Was it worth losing so many people just to get to the front of the train? Is revolution more costly than productive? Is the logic of the system just the bitter truth of their circumstances, a necessary order amidst otherwise chaos? Or is Namgoong Minsu’s idea of obliteration, and beginning again, the way to go? Snowpiercer seems to takes up with the latter although it’s, again, more shaded than that, allowing Curtis his final act of personal redemption and an open-ended ending that can be seen as optimistic or pessimistic depending on how you look at it (Bong seems to feel optimistic, me a bit of both).

Snowpiercer’s messy absurdities coincide with the tightness of the world and structure, putting Bong’s commitment front and center. It’s a ludicrous premise that he wholly commits to, a commitment that makes acceptability of messy overtness. His offbeat and unpredictable extravaganzas can yield falters, but it’s the small trade-off for the twisted exuberance Bong spins off at us any given moment. Indeed, for all this praise, I’d possibly place Snowpiercer at the bottom of his work so far, which should say something about just how enamored of this man I am.  If you lift up its unsubtle outer shell, it’s a story with surprisingly dense ideas, and perhaps within is more unsubtlety, and within that…. well you get what I mean.

It’s the Little Things:
– I’ve said it before, but I’d be hard-pressed to find a filmmaker working today that I admire or revere more. I’m a Bong completest (not hard with only 5 films) and have read the only book written on his work. His films, without fail, make me feel invigorated and uncommonly (even for me) engaged with cinema (and within that, genre film) as a medium. I spent most of Snowpiercer either beaming at the screen, laughing at the screen, or in awe of the screen.
– I don’t think Gilliam (John Hurt) was in cahoots with Wilford. Just my take.
– The only time, that I can see, the camera move from right to left is when Curtis makes a big move toward Mason.
– So Wilford is basically kind of like a variation of Cristoff from The Truman Show. Except making eggs in a bathrobe casual.
– Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung starring in a badass father-daughter franchise. Someone make this happen.
Snowpiercer is so quotable, the idea of quotable films are sort of a rarity today. Mean Girls. What the fuck else is there? “I learned babies taste best”, “Be a shoe”, etc.
– I haven’t even talked about the performances. Song Kang-ho (who has more star presence than everyone and their families) forever and ever and ever and ever; obviously. He and Joaquin Phoenix are my two favorite living actors. And now I just want Tilda Swinton and Bong to collaborate again because the two are so in sync re: their twisted sensibilities that it’s a match made in heaven.
– So I don’t know exactly what Weinstein’s cuts were going to be, but I have a feeling it would have been a lot of the humor beats. Which is so sad because I feel like the culture at large is so allergic to risks in tone and having multiple planes of atmosphere. I realize there’s a lot of current pop culture bashing in this review, but I honestly think Snowpiercer is indicative of something that is lacking in big budget fare today.

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #130-134

#130. Belle (2014, Asante)

“I have been blessed with freedom twice over, as a negro and as a woman.”

Belle is much more than the following sentiment, but all the same; Amma Asante’s gratifying yet subversive period piece makes my heart go pitter-patter. Some may scoff at the love story (indeed a few reviews I’ve read knock it down a peg for just that) but what about how sweetly investing it is? The adorable abolitionist with unshakable moral footing (Sam Reid) is so steadfast that he amusingly dips into caricature at times. It becomes part of his charm, as does Reid’s slight woodenness. More importantly, Amma Asante gives a mixed race character the otherwise non-existent pleasure of participating in British aristocratic romance with all the heart-racing and letdowns of love and its foibles.

Belle is inspired by a rare 18th century painting (a rare marker of what could and should be), and the life of its black subject, who is portrayed in the piece with equal height, dignity, and grace to her white counterpart. The film takes on a bit of everything (coming-of-age, race relations, period piece, romance, courtroom drama), a juggling that at times threatens to capsize. Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is a biracial aristocrat, allowing her a unique position not only in history but also in film’s depiction of history. She is ‘blessed’ with relative agency through her bloodline and financial independence, but while the white half of her is lauded, the other half of her lineage robs her of standing, saddling her with the self-loathing society embeds in her. She has a place in her family and is genuinely loved by them, but certain basic customs still keep her at bay. Her upbringing quarantines her from her slave heritage; she is an anomaly, with no connection or relation to her blackness, always aware of the ways she is made limited by it, but otherwise kept away from the accompanying culture and systemic atrocities. A lot of Belle is about the title character finding some sense of racial identity in a world that shuns her from doing so.

It’s not just Belle who is restricted. Her cousin and best friend Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon, a favorite up-and-comer) has to barter herself a husband to secure status. The fact that she has no dowry makes her an undesirable despite her standing and revered porcelain beauty. For her, and women in general, there’s also a bartering of flesh. You feel the humiliation and self-worth slipping from Elizabeth as she casts her line out, waiting for some dweeb or scumbag to hook. When Elizabeth and Belle fight, we don’t hate her. We’ve grown invested in their bond and in Elizabeth’s misguided infatuation and her peripheral disquietude. And then there’s our abolitionist who comes from a class lower than Belle or Elizabeth, his occupational drive seen as having a shallow ceiling.

There are a ton of subversive subtleties at work. In case you didn’t get the memo, race, class, and gender constructs are constantly being prodded at. The Jane Austen framework and conventions are used to further engage with obliviously embedded mindsets of racism. It’s a different angle for this kind of historical film, and in some way more complex than depicting the hard-hitting horrors of slavery. It takes the conversation outside the slave experience and more explicitly mirrors the racial politics of today.

This is a historical space where a feisty, playful, astute, contemplative and determined young woman fights to find a place and identity for herself, to embrace her heritage in a world that isn’t ready to afford her that. Somehow Belle keeps from feeling too weighty without ever glossing over its social, racial, or gender concerns. And Gugu Mbatha-Raw is just incredible. I don’t know how else to put it. Anyone who sees this will have her on their permanent radar. Raw flips through Belle’s youthful contradictions and the myriad number of her differing facets (that hey guess what, all young women have! But film rarely crafts or performs them this thoughtfully) with ease.

In some pockets there’s an interesting, for lack of a better word, streak of hesitancy to engage with the more vicarious tropes of period dramas. Belle plays in the same pond its characters do, recognizing that these obstructions are part of what can make period romances, well, so romantic. And for once, changing history to imagine direct historical impact and a conveniently happy bow is a hopeful and earned statement. It’s entirely moving instead of a cop-out. It’s a conclusive statement for Belle being an unapologetically revisionist romance, and by the end I had to wipe a happy tear away.

It’s the Little Things:
Tom Felton. And Tom Felton’s wigs.

Joe Cage Sheridan
#131. Joe (2014, Green)

“Smile through the pain”

Probably, and so disappointingly, my least favorite film of 2014 thus far (granted, I’ve only seen 30) and the second worst I’ve seen from David Gordon Green (I’m a fan). It comes down to the critical difference between letting ‘regional authenticity’ materialize naturally, and using it as your sole playing card for the deluded support of yet another masculine-soaked redemption narrative. Joe is, quite frankly, a barrel of overkill. I felt like one of those damn trees the characters inject with poison. Joe (Nicolas Cage) begrudgingly bonds with a boy named Gary (Tye Sheridan), who is stuck in a hopelessly repellent family situation. And guess what guys; Joe sees a bit of himself in this kid.

It’s a shame about Joe because the two lead performances, particularly their organic chemistry, are very good. I’m not going to play the Nicolas Cage Returns to Acting headline (it’s a reductive and uninteresting way of looking at his career) but yes, this is engaging work from him. Tye Sheridan stands out more though. There’s such a messy and loaded moment that must have been on some level improvised by Sheridan (it’s the standout moment of Joe), where he taunts his father with the drink. Gary Poulter and his story are an uneasy illustration of contradiction. Contradiction isn’t the right word, but I’m not sure what is the right word. Of course Poulter has some serious chops and it’s great that he was given this opportunity to play this character. I realize there’s no solution or responsibility that comes saddled with his casting, but then he’s just released into the last throes of alcoholism, playing out the end of his onscreen character and himself.

The couched hillbilly miserablism is used as a distraction/qualifier to fill out a thin and exhausted story. Not even the sense of hidden humanity that Green is able to peer at can make up for bleak tedium. Men make their living by illegally poisoning trees. There’s a dog named Dog. Lots of visual dog metaphors. Deer are butchered. Joe won’t take his girlfriend out to dinner. There’s a guy who works at a general store and collects war paraphernalia. There are lounging prostitutes. There’s incest. There’s endless mumbling and drudgery. There’s also a scene where Poulter and one of Joe’s employees yell the same things back and forth to each other at an escalating rate, a microcosm representative of the approach to Joe.

Its best moments all feel improvised. Gary asking Joe to buy his truck. The ‘smile through the pain scene’. The snake. There’s a lighthearted touch to these moments the rest of the film could take a note from. Not that Joe needs to be lighthearted. Far from it. I mention these moments because they were touches of texture otherwise missing. It’s as if the actors themselves subconsciously injected a bit of levity into the proceedings.

It’s the Little Things:
-The first shot
– Cage’s delivery of “Kristy, call the cops before someone gets killed. Would you do that for me honey?”
– I will say that the scene the brutal murder of that homeless man was profoundly disturbing. And not in just a shock value kind of way. It had a genuine effect on me in ways few things do. Yes, it’s the kind of unproductive ugly the rest of the film goes for, but it’s also frightening in that you don’t often see murder take place in film with this blend of senselessness and intimacy. I can’t properly articulate it.

#132. Enemy (2014, Villeneuve)

Enemy had been one of my most anticipated films of 2014. I’d read José Saramago’s The Double, which became a favorite book despite its callous dismissal of women. Doppelgängers, bifurcated identities, dream logic, psychological angst, etc. This all screams ‘KATIE’. But I don’t know what to make of Enemy. Much of it feels somehow easy; artificially symbolic and existential. Like Denis Villeneuve looked at a stripped down template of psychological mind-fucks and never followed through with expansion. It has a simple recurring framework; spiders, Toronto as a piss-cream smog factory with an endless emphasis on presence of skyscrapers and criss-crossing wires (webs), music and scale that recalls German Expressionism. Ever notice that a clarinet, if used in a certain solitary way, suggests an off-key almost paranoid melancholia? Well, Enemy understands and makes good use of that. This isn’t Villeneuve re-teaming with Jake Gyllenhaal after Prisoners; Enemy was shot first. This is the re-teaming. Lacking as these two films are, in one sense it’s worth it for the  Gyllenhaal performances, which have double(triple?)-handedly made me invested in his career again.

Sarah Gadon (hello again!) leaves the biggest imprint out of anyone or anything here. Her expressiveness, and the way she shares her secrets and fears with the camera represent the best work I’ve seen from her. Anthony (Gyllenhaal) looks past her constantly, so she carves out a special bond with the audience in these silent scenes. I do like the disbursement and sense of psychological space taking place within the inner. But Enemy’s few developments (there’s a way to do effective minimalism; this isn’t it) are rendered blank because the flow is careless to anything outside conveying monotonous dread. The first meeting between Adam and Anthony is inertly underexplored. It doesn’t release any of its built-up energy. It’s so concentrated on maintaining atmosphere that character becomes background, in a frickin’ doppelganger story, despite Gyllenhaal’s subtle rendering. How do you have a film about identity without, in some way (again, this can do this visually but these are just not enough), foregrounding character? Even its final image is desperate, a last gasp at food-for-though, but the joke seems to be on us.

#133. The Story of Qiu Ju (1992, Zhang)
“He’ll pay. That means you’re right and he’s wrong”

Qiu Ju’s (Gong Li) efforts to be heard are emphasized by sight and sound. Qiu Ju is not made special by the camera. She is not centered visually, always caught in long or medium shots. She also isn’t especially heard, her voice always threatening to be drowned out by those around her. She is compromised or diluted in her own ramshackle environment, and in the big city she is simply overwhelmed. The characters knock about different ideas of justice, none of them particularly fulfilling. There are increasingly comic dead ends as we climb up the bureaucracy, and enter fish out of water territory. There is repetition through the same piece of music, linked with the tiresome act of travel. Qiu Ju chases something that doesn’t really exist. The higher up she goes the more elusive her goals are as well as and the powers that be. Her chiles are gone. And her husband is upset.

The cyclical comic roundabout of the story didn’t engage me; it’s just a taste thing. What I find most interesting is admittedly extratextual; its placement in Zhang Yimou’s career (trading prestige for rural), how China felt about him and Gong Li up to this point, and how this turned the tides. Also, the hidden cameras give us a priceless look at modern day China. It is unprecedented in that way, but not much else.

#134. Hyènes (Hyenas) (1992, Mambéty
“Life made me a whore, so now I’ll make the world a brothel”

I shamefully, but perhaps unsurprisingly, have very little experience with African cinema so I can’t speak to a larger context. Explicitly anti-colonialist, using the cautionary fable to illustrate the slippery slope into superficial Western modernity. Colobaine is in an economic crisis, and all it takes is one person to come in with their vendetta, their goods, their temptations; but change comes with a blood price. The mayor says the village’s decision is not for the sake of money. He uses the values of past wrongdoing as a transparent excuse for turning on their most popular resident. Dramaan Drameh (Mansour Diouf) is literally consumed. The transition from incorruptible to corruptible is a bit forced in its mechanization, point or no. Linguere Ramatou (Ami Diakhate) is transformed into an icon of power, using money for revenge but not as reconciliation for her own experiences. So money doesn’t make up for hardships, but it does sustain bloodlust. She is surrounded by adornments and even a Japanese security guard! The tone is perfectly gentle and lacerating.

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #125-129

#125. Enchanted April (1992, Newell)

Bitter Moon was the final film in the ‘Relationships’ section of my 1992 watchlist with Enchanted April segueing into ‘Women!’. Four women, in varying degrees of desperation, seek rejuvenation away from their husbands and the rainy cobbledom of 1920’s London in an idyllic Italian castle for one month (guess which). Contemplative solitude and reflection against the tabula rasa pastoral gardens provides a backdrop for magical realism. Set-up conflicts, all involving marital strife, fade away in favor of reconciliation. I wanted to feel the hope and power of sojourn spirituality at work in Enchanted April…but it proves impossible.

Based on a novel of the same name written by Elizabeth von Arnim in 1922, its approach to marriage certainly reflects the era of the story’s inception. It dares to present marriage as this broken down union lacking in communication, respect, and understanding, only to gloss over everything for an unearned whole; a much less forgiving resolution for a film made in 1992. Sure, the magical realism suggests the potential for reset reality once everyone returns to London, but “that’s another story”. Give me that then, not this. This is like A Midsummer Night’s Dream with unhappy spouses instead of young love. No thanks.

These marriages seem to be dead ends all-around, so there’s nothing to root for besides the women finding inner peace with themselves for themselves. At first that’s the focus, and then one by one the men come clomping, or humming, back in. The women’s aim for identity, agency, and hell, even just mutually respected companionship is invalidated, and all in the name of putting all your eggs in the escape-to-the-countryside basket.

A paragraph of questions:
So what, Frederick (Jim Broadbent) now loves Rose because she throws herself at him? It was her prudishness that needed to change? Not Frederick’s philandering or inattentiveness or endless humming? Rose is just so bowled over by Frederick’s arrival that all her feelings and doubts are reconciled? Even though he didn’t even go there for her in the first place? And George (Michael Kitchen) was taken in by Rose (Miranda Richardson) and not Lady Caroline (Polly Walker), all because he’s got shitty eyesight? Even though he comments not once, but twice, on how much Rose looks like the the Madonna? Give me a break. Give me lots of breaks. In fact, just give me all the breaks.

The blossoming connection between Rose (Miranda Richardson) and George is sapped in an instant by the film and Rose, as if it had been nothing of consequence. Our clairvoyant guide into these blissful surroundings is the skittishly exhausting and intrusive Lotte (Josie Lawrence). Enchanted April feels as if it were made by Lotte, like it takes place in her deluded head or something. We wait for the other shoe to drop in her desperation but it never does. Because it turns out that for her there will be no rude awakening. Everything she says about her fellow tenants and the power of the castle turn out to be correct. It doesn’t matter that she’s inconsiderate and oversteps her bounds by trying to solve everyone’s problems.

I’ll admit that part of my dislike of Enchanted April comes from a rare break on my ‘expectations’ rule. Basically, and I say this with an asterisk to risk generalizing, it’s a big pet peeve of mine to mark against a film by saying ‘it’s not what I expected’. That puts all its supposed value onto the individual’s preconceived notions, either from marketing, reputation, or picked up assumptions. The weight of preconceived notions on a film’s value gives the advantage to said preconceived notions, not the actual content. I take issue with that. These are natural feelings to have of course; however, there are constructive ways to frame them, meaning engaging with what the content is opposed to what the content isn’t.

This rant is to say that, yes, in this case, for some reason I thought Enchanted April was going to be about female bonding surrounded by lots of pretty flowers, and not about reconciliation with husbands, so that certainly didn’t soften the blow. Nevertheless, I’m all for buying into romanticized fairy-tale hope (as in A Tale of Winter), as long as the material earns it. And Enchanted April does not earn it.

The relaxed pace interspersed with low-key moments of characters soaking in their new temporary milieu with hard-earned basking is appropriately sweeping. My favorite moment comes when a small lizard makes its way up Miranda Richardson’s hair, and so despondent in this moment she allows it. Speaking of Richardson, she is able to use her naturally cold demeanor for exacting enigmatic ends and unexpected subtle reactive strokes of comic timing.

#126. Marlene (1984, Schell)

Maximilian Schell makes a mistake trying to engage with Marlene Dietrich near end of her life, and knowing each other going back to Judgement at Nuremberg twenty years earlier doesn’t help smooth things over. In fact, nothing does. Schell works under very strict stipulations, the most obvious being her refusal to be seen on camera at age 83. So we hear her barbs with director, interviewer and friend as archival footage plays in the background, usually undermining in some way what she is saying. Dietrich is aggressively staunch, constantly dismissive of her own legend and work, or downright confrontational. Everything is ‘kitsch’ or ‘rubbish’.

We hear someone seemingly uninterested in their own legend, yet defiantly unwilling to risk tarnishing it by showing herself. Although I can’t fault one’s understandable vulnerability about being seen at age 83. But still, she attempts to preserve in her own way. She also inadvertently tries to support her legend by insisting on their being ZERO craft in her work. As she puts it, she just did as she was told. Nothing is really revealed about her if you solely hear her words. Marlene is about the discrepancy between public legend and self-representation; between sad shielding and what’s beneath. How they create a tear within a person. Dietrich wants nothing to do with this documentary, yet she takes part. Is it just because Schell is her friend? She repeatedly references her autobiography. This is someone who wants to (understandably if misguidedly) control her own narrative after the fact, even as she wants to disassociate from it.

Early on, she claims not to have seen any of her work. It’s a transparent statement from the start, and later she is proven wrong (though not thankfully called out on it). When being shown a copy of The Scarlet Empress she claims it must be a different version because the edits are wrong. She dismisses sentiment, only to be moved to tears by a sentimental song at the end.

That’s all there is to Marlene. Yes, it ends up being an anomaly of a project, in some enticing ways, but overall its few revelations build up to a wholly frustrating experience that not even Schell’s sly undercutting of words with images can erase.

It’s the Little Things: 
– According to Dietrich, women’s lib was all about “penis envy”.

#127. We Own the Night (2007, Gray)

It’s become clear to me at this point (with only Two Lovers left to watch), that James Gray gives Joaquin Phoenix grand character arcs that run record long distances in a short period of time. In The Yards he’s fun-loving and supportive, then cowardly and jealous to all kinds of too-far-gone mixed up. In The Immigrant he’s a charlatan to a possibly dangerous stray dog in love to sacrificial raw meat. And then there’s We Own the Night, which could also lovingly be called The Joaquin Phoenix Show. Full of dismissive defense mechanisms towards his family (getting high and feigning boredom) and underground success and love but by the end, it’s a 180; something lost and something gained. What is lost is Eva Mendes and the self-chosen club environment and (dependent) success he naturally drifted towards. What he’s gained is a position society can be proud of, and the love of his family, most importantly his brother. One love traded for another very different kind of love. It’s an incredibly bittersweet trade-off, and not just because the bridge between the two is the loss and subsequent vengeful recompense of their father.

Phoenix spends most of the film, even when he’s sticking his neck out for them, an outsider looking in on his own family, a tolerated third wheel.

Once again with James Gray; Choices, Family, New York. Gray and the cinematographers he works with have an uncommon ability to constantly and observantly capture actors; nothing seems preordained in these performances. The writer/director works with familiar stories and genre conventions while having a knack for spending all that narrative time oh-so-carefully mapping out characters and their multi-faceted relations. In this case it’s all about Bobby (Phoenix), so much so that pretty much everyone else ends up being a bit underwritten as a result. Where Bobby stands with those in his life is constantly charted. Everything flip-flops for him. What would normally be a fraught and traumatic, but ultimately uphill, battle ends up being an complex aforementioned trade-off. Conventions come through characters and their choices, as opposed to characters and their choices coming through conventions.

Well, it’s certainly safe to say that the man knows how to end a film. There is something indefinably powerful about that final image. What is it? The simplicity of it? The words being spoken out and not towards? That slight zoom or how head-on it is?

It’s the Little Things:
A black-and-white montage of New York police photos transitioning to Joaquin Phoenix in red walking towards reclining Mendes while “Heart of Glass” plays; sexiest thing in a film I’ve seen since re-watching The More the Merrier

#128. Vampire Academy (2014, Waters)

Every so often you run into a film that you recognize as being a scattershot botch job, seemingly beyond repair, but you still like it, a lot, despite everything. Vampire Academy is one of those films. Now that suggests all the pieces are somehow lacking, which isn’t the case. There’s a lot that works about Vampire Academy, and despite its box-office flop status and universal pans, I believe the film will slowly but surely find some kind of audience.

The main detractor is that it suffers from the kind of Adaptation Inflammation that tends to plague adaptations of world-building heavy YA films. This one even has the nerve to throw terminology as onscreen text, like a trippy test review session. The harder the  world-building efforts (also taking into account its low budget), the more everything feels inconsequential as opposed to realized. So there’s an unfortunate dwarfing effect from the get-go. As if the exposition weren’t enough, Vampire Academy makes the mistake of acting like the start of a movie franchise so are endless extraneous elements and characters that have no bearing on the story at hand, and are there to assuredly set up  future installments that will only exist in the books. So there is no shortage of dead, and undead, weight.

World-building skeletons with a side helping of complicated etymology exists in all self-serious YA franchises. But Vampire Academy blends (to inconsistent results) that skeleton with the playfully bitchy high school lampoon act its makers (Mark Waters of Mean Girls and Daniel Waters of Heathers) are known for. But instead of the latter subverting the former, they end up feeding off each other til there’s not much left.

But on second thought, I’d say there’s quite a bit left. Yes it’s a mess, but damn if it isn’t an entertaining and sardonic mess. Zoey Deutch alone is a real find, heavily recalling both Ellen Page and a young Lauren Graham, with constantly varying and left-field comic sensibility. She can be annoying and a bit much, but I found her Rose Hathaway badass and lovable, an antidote to the furrowed brows and self-sacrificing heroines of dystopian and supernatural worlds. It would be a travesty, yes a travesty, if we don’t see a lot more of her in the future. Lucy Fry as Lissa is quite memorable too, regal and fluttery; good enough to make us forgive weak screenwriting that flat-out says NO to the transition and logic of character motivation.

For all the bland-boy romance (and let’s be honest, so many female-led films suffer from Bland Boy Syndrome), the friendship between Rose and Lissa (Fry) comes first. It is never lost for a second that they have the most important bond, in sync and connected forever. They are soulmates. Lissa even gives a speech at the end where she’s all ‘I wish you all could have your own Rose Hathaway, I’m the luckiest gal in town’. And Lissa, and the film, even make room for welcome and timely commentary on slut-shaming.

All in all, I wanted to stay in this world. I even want to pick up the second book and give it a try. Mark Waters and Daniel Waters drown a bit in the fold of YA, but with the help of Zoey Deutch they are able to come up for air quite often. The results allow teenage girls to have all kinds of non-judgmental sexual yearnings in a PG-13 world, with snarky growing pains winning out over the arduous and usually meaningless weight others of the same cloth so often bore us to tears with.

passion fish
#129. Passion Fish (1992, Sayles)

Literary and laid back in ways May-Alice (Mary McDonnell) and Chantelle (Alfre Woodard) can only strive towards. John Sayles (this is admittedly the first film I’ve seen of his) attains the restfulness and ease both seek. The characters catch up to the film. They are restricted to backwoods Louisiana for different but not dissimilar reasons. Rennie (David Straitharn) and Sugar LeDoux (Vondie Curtis-Hall) recur as potential male companions, but everyone else visits once and only once. People pass through while the two remain stationary.

Fade-to-blacks are usually used as prelude to a passage of time, but Sayles consistently and overtly uses them to emphasize a lack of movement or change. That progress is at a standstill for May-Alice because of her self-absorbed obstinance. Stasis, and the gradual movement away from it, and the acceptance that erases it, is at the center of Passion Fish. From May-Alice’s attitude towards her paralysis to Chantelle’s inner demons and dependency on her job as caretaker. When Rennie takes the two out for a late-film boat sojourn it critically signals movement within stasis, an openness to their surroundings and to each other.

Mary McDonnell and Alfre Woodard give two beautifully realized performances as equally willful women with a push-pull dependency built on hesitance. The former spouts and drinks, swears and lashes out. The latter desperately bottles everything to keep control of herself, her guardedness hiding immense vulnerability. Chantelle is at once sheepish and direct. Their friendship, though both would hesitate to call it that for most of the runtime, is constantly shifting and developing, the two actresses always able to pinpoint where their characters are (even if the audience isn’t made privy) at any given moment. May-Alice comes to realize she needs Chantelle (both for support and as someone willing to stand up to her) long before Chantelle admits this, or accepts this as mutually beneficial beyond survival.

Sayles does right by the Louisiana milieu outside of some random bouts of broadness (Precious anyone?), recognizing that there was a reason May-Alice left Louisiana as soon as she was old enough, without dipping into pandering. Passion Fish could so easily smack of a been-there-done-that TV movie (or shitty movie) territory or worse, of a black character entering the scene to help stabilize a white character. And though Chantelle is introduced into May-Alice’s story, it very quickly becomes a co-lead film, where each are paid equal mind, mutually dependent, not one an appendage of the other. In fact, as great as McDonnell is, Woodard as Chantelle emerges as the character and performance that resonates more deeply. Have I mentioned how amazing she is in this? Because I’d say from all my 1992 watches and re-watches so far, it’s this lead female performance that has knocked my socks off. Interracial friendships and bonding depiction in film can also easily end up being a catalyst allowing white people to feel good about themselves (for a most egregious example, see; The Help), placement and purpose renders them props no matter how well-written or performed the individual character(s) is(are). Passion Fish sidesteps all this for a deft and carefully observed study of two fully realized women whose fates are intertwined for better and worse.