1982 Watchlist


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RW = Rewatch
Added but now shown:
Xtro, Pieces, Friday the 13th Part 3

Top Ten By Year: 1982. I know, I know. 1982? The year everyone, fanboys and cinephiles alike, drool over time and time again. 1982? The year of supposed near-countless riches? Isn’t the whole point of this project to pick what could very broadly and artificially be classified as under-the-radar years? Years I haven’t seen much from, that haven’t been as poked and prodded by the words of others? Well, yes. But there’s another important half to why I choose the years I do, and that is; what films do I want to see, and where do they reside? As it turns out, 1982 lays claim to a significant chunk of films I want to see more than anything else out there, films I’ve been meaning to see for years but haven’t gotten around to. Films like Cat People, One from the Heart, Der Fan, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Losing Ground, Smithereens, Personal Best, Starstruck, and Deathtrap. So why not kill nine flies with one slap and then some? So that’s how I arrived in 1982; because it has more films I’ve been itching to see than any other eighties year.

This watchlist is fluid. There’s obviously overlap in the fun-for-me categories, films that could be combined differently or put in other categories. I love categorizing things (while being conscious of the critical difference between categorizing and defining), and these groups help me organize my viewing plans. I don’t watch everything in a category with each other, but I do watch them together. Confused? For example, on Thursday I watched Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. When I get home from work tonight I plan on watching Diner.

You’ll see some biggies not on here. I have my reasons. Some I’ve seen, some I haven’t and don’t feel obligated to, at least for this project. I’ll drop some of these films along the way. At the beginning, everything seems essential. Right now you’d have to pry The Pirate Movie from my cold dead hands. Three months into this I might feel the opposite. Top Ten By Year: 1982 will undoubtedly take up the rest of 2016. Let the journey begin.

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Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #125-129


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#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.

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#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”.

weownthenight-brothers
#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

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#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.

 

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #120-124


A Tale of Winter
#120. A Tale of Winter (1992, Rohmer)

Roger Ebert astutely stated that A Tale of Winter “is not a love triangle because the person she (Felicie) loves isn’t there”. This is only my second Eric Rohmer film (the first being Pauline at the Beach). True to form, love and choices are dissected and philopshized. Words are used to withhold and dangle the future, a tether with which Felicie (Charlotte Véry) keeps two men in her orbit knowing (as do the men; Felicie is forthright to a fault) they are just placeholders for the long lost Charles. Maxence (Michel Voletti) and Loic (Hervé Furic) aren’t characters in their own right; they are to us as they are to Felicie — distractions. She puts all of her hopes and dreams into the idea of another man, a man she knew but briefly, their connection broken off by a silly address fluke. In the meantime (the meantime taking up most of the film), besides her unbreakable certainty she will be with Charles again, she is defined by her borderline manipulative use of indecision.

The bright topless summer fling of the start gives way to a five-years-later heavy-coated winter. Felicie is periodically shown entering and exiting places, the routine of her days shown for the chance present in comings and goings. And lo and behold! A happy ending! Of course, we have no idea what comes next for Felicie and Charles, but it’s a romantic close, full of hope and potential. At the very least, we are given access to the start of their fanciful reunion. The way everything quickly falls into place is enchanting instead of a cheat.

I use the word enchanting for a reason. There’s another 1992 film, which will be covered in my next capsule review post, that also closes with the picture perfect erasure of conflict and emergence of relationship kismet. This one sells it. The other one, I ain’t buying.

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#121. Bitter Moon (1992, Polanski)

Perverse, deeply ugly, and comically absurd; I loved it. At first glance Bitter Moon is just another to emerge out of the trashy kink, boundary pushing erotic thriller trend of the early-to-mid 90’s. But this is Roman Polanski, and the man has got a lot of poisonous and revealing fish to fry. Hiding behind camp and pig masks, this could be his most uncomfortably personal work. At the very least it feels like a purging. The sex relates to the endless potential of corruptible dynamics. Two couples out to sea on an ocean liner (Knife in the Water anyone?), one staid, the other extreme, have more in common than they think. Peter Coyote and Emmanuelle Seigner are the purist form of masochistic and manipulative chess game toxicity that can exist in a couple, a toxicity that Polanski posits exists on some level in all of us.

We’re trapped with the male perspective in each couple. Oscar (Coyote) is the classic unreliable narrator, a scumbag spouting the purple prose of failed authordom. He uses self-loathing as a catch-all excuse for his actions. His hesitant listener is Hugh Grant, who basically does a parody of his bumbling Brit. I’m not quite sure why Kristen Scott Thomas’s Fiona is consistently labeled by viewers as cold. Yes, she’s reserved. But cold? No. Is it because we’re stuck in the masculine? Is it because of audience expectations of her? Or a recognition of what we’re meant to be thinking? In that case, I’d say the film is cold towards her. As it is, the Brits are used as props to make a point about the destructive dependencies of human nature.

The structure, framing device aside, is marked into three shifts (making four total sections) between the dominant and submissive. Sexual games become a prelude for everyday power plays. Nigel (Grant) is disgusted by Oscar’s sordid tale, but he keeps coming back. And we’re revolted as well, first by the shameless ecstasy Oscar projects onto Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner), and then the bottomless pit of constant public degradation that transfoms poor Mimi, and is then reversed as she has her revenge; a revenge in which she’s still fated to him, locked in for life. The entire thing is a cruel joke on Nigel. Making each other miserable for kicks, enforcing dependency has run dry. So they turn it outwards.

On the one hand, Seigner (Polanski’s real life wife) isn’t very good, but the physical moments in her performance, gyrations and hair tossing, are incredibly effective in their lithe animalism. Yet what she lacks in acting abilities (at least in English) ushers in a sense of fragility, followed by blankness, which suits the character well. Oscar is a pig, in more ways than one. He describes Mimi as being all about sex, but he’s really describing himself. She is ultimately a cipher because he is pitifully limited in his view of her. “It’s no fun hurting someone who means nothing to you” is the defining piece of dialogue. It’s nasty and unapologetically honest.

The camera rocks and sways while on the boat with our teetering and destructive characters. At first it seems like a corny way of evoking ‘at sea’, but it coats the framing device with a somethings-gotta-give vibe, the woozy threat of a tipping point.

A big question, especially considering it’s what turned so many off at the time of its release; how much control does Polanski have over Bitter Moon’s tonal makeup? It’s a risky piece of work, less from content, and more out of an unequivocally bizarre sense of self. Is this a joke? Are we in on it? Is Polanski in on it? Does it obstruct viewers from seeing the unpleasantly complicated treaty at the center, or does it enable? Is this the only way to present something so dire and hopeless? I see Polanski as having far more control than he was at first credited with. Seigner pouring milk all over her breasts, looking like a zombie by the way, as Peter Coyote licks it off with George Michael’s “Faith” in the background is unequivocal evidence Polanski means Bitter Moon to be a kind of brazenly sadistic circus. These other 90’s erotic thrillers took themselves so seriously, so it must have been unmanageably jarring to see a film that at once did not take itself as seriously, yet contains twisted barbs of resonance.

It’s The Little Things:
– This is the 3rd 1992 film I watched in a short period of time to be centered around/lead up to New Year’s Eve. The other two were Peter’s Friends and A Tale of Winter.
– “Anything you can do I can do better”
– Seeing Bitter Moon now ended up being perfect timing for me re: the release of Venus in Fur.
– That dance between Seigner and Scott Thomas.
– When you think back, the first time Mimi meets Fiona and Nigel says a lot, as it’s not through Oscar’s perspective

The Missing Picture

#122. The Missing Picture (2014, Panh)
Free-floating memoir documentary about the discrepancies and overlap of personal experience, how an individual recalls being subject to history (in this case the unimaginable Khmer Rouge), and how events were presented by those in command at the time. The former is presented through clay figurines and narration. The frozen and expressively hollow faces, and their immobility, evoke a devastation so great that only something as simplistic as clay can hope to capture it. The latter comes in the form of archival propaganda footage from Cambodia, presenting the Communist Party of Kampuchea as an agrarian utopia. Emotional and apt, but it eventually felt like a reconciliation with no place for me as a viewer, if that makes sense.

The Immigrant
#123. The Immigrant (2014, Gray)
Full Review: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2014/06/21/review-the-immigrant-2014-gray/

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#124. Mystery Train (1989, Jarmusch)

Without a doubt my favorite vignette film by Jim Jarmusch as he continued to comfortably and safely play with his career focuses like happenstance, multiculturalism, the slight threat of melancholy by way of disappointment, meandering, lots of smoking, and hip tranquility. And of course capturing the lived-in spirit of a specific city or location, finding identity in the ignored details, and a central focus on music. My favorite vignette is the first one, that of the opposites attract Japanese tourists (Masatoshi Nagase exudes cool to the point of catatonia) who wander aimlessly through Memphis in their idolization of Elvis and Carl Perkins.

Actually, scratch that. My favorite is anything involving Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Cinqué Lee, The Arcade Hotel staff stuck in time, and witness to all. The eating of the Japanese plum is a perfect moment, perfect in how unexpected it is. I was unreasonably excited every time the film checks in on them.

There’s not a lot to chew on in Mystery Train, but that’s precisely what makes it so enticing. As characters pass through this narrow area of blocks, it feels like anything could happen. That Tom Noonan’s story could be true. That Luisa really does see the ghost of Elvis. That there could be something connecting Elvis, Madonna, and the Statue of Liberty. That sense of possibility isn’t like a jolt of energy. More the opposite. We watch with hypnotic nonchalance, taking in the glum humor, ever-so-anxiously awaiting Tom Waits’s DJ Lee Baby Sims to usher in Elvis’s rendition of “Blue Moon”.

It’s the Little Things:
– Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s flashy red threads
– Robby Muller’s cinematography which slightly recalls the radiating neons of The American Friend
– Masatoshi lighting his cigarette and throwing his lighter up in the air, catching it in his shirt pocket

Capsule Reviews: Films seen in 2014 Round-Up #6-10


12 years a slave
#6. 12 Years a Slave (2013, McQueen) (USA/UK)
Steve McQueen somewhat inverts his psychological studies from outside-in/how the body inherently relates as vessel between what we see of people and what goes on within. It’s all recognizably McQueen, with suffering as the nucleus, but everything about 12 Years a Slave feels inside-out. By this I mean one man’s story, which remains prioritized, is used as a catalyst for taking in, if not directly on, the larger whole, all stemming from the centrality of Solomon. There is a blanket focus on the broader sets of societal and ideological circumstances through character behavior required for atrocities to be normalized. It’s a story of perverse realities, realities that reinforce the importance of always continuing to confront history, to reexamine, to not forget. Shouldn’t have to be said, but apparently it does, that history reflects the present (not to mention that slavery, in different forms, still exists). There is an emphasis on papers, on the thin and simultaneously meaningless/critical line that determines Solomon’s, and everyone’s, fate. There is also an emphasis on the abruptness of comings and goings in the people Solomon comes into contact with. Eliza’s children, Eliza, Clemens and of course Solomon, now on the exiting end, as he leaves Patsey. It doesn’t linger on these comings and goings; no time is left to process. The moment Solomon leaves particularly resonates, because we leave with him. He is in the carriage, Patsey barely visible, a fuzzy dot in shallow focus, and we can make out enough to see she faints, and then she is out of the frame a couple seconds later.

Can we all agree that the Hans Zimmer score is a direct rip-off of his own work? Specifically the track “Time”, from the last five minutes of Inception. Considering that “Time” is my favorite piece of score Zimmer has ever done, I’m okay with this and understand his desire to self-rehash. But still.

It’s pretty clear that Lupita Nyong’o is sort of the transcendent soul of the film, or rather that Patsey is.

The riverboat sequence stands out as a distinct transitional marker. It formally supports the abhorrent process of being put into the system with atonal music and a focus on the riverboat’s wheel churning (also pulling him farther away from his family). It’s a sort of prelude to the way McQueen presents the material, with a no safety setting intact. Long takes, shallow focus, the pain showing on the face and being inflicted on the body. I also wonder about the focus on brutality in the film, and if maybe it’s sort of an easy way of addressing the institution of slavery that puts that blanket focus mentioned earlier in the shadows. It’s complicated to be sure.

I’ve tried to avoid talking about how I felt during the film because it’s the way most reviews have been framed. But I have to mention the emotional build-up, one of unsurprised but nevertheless tearless disgust, that gets released by the end. As Solomon looks on at his family, both familiar and unrecognizable, apologizing for the state of his appearance, the impact of the film hits all at once. Being lifted out of hell is more emotional, understandable as beginning vs. end of film, than taking the initial plunge.

Lastly, I get that Plan B Entertainment helped produce the film but I really wish someone besides Brad Pitt had been in that role who pulls out his Aldo Raine voice, which I hated the first time, to distract.

Simon of the Desert
#7. Simon of the Desert (1965, Buñuel) (Mexico)
Daunting to write about this one; I can’t pretend to know what Buñuel was trying to do. When it started, I didn’t think much of it, but its combination of overt moments of humor and a gentle sort of satire won me over wholesale by the end. Buñuel sympathizes with or at least pities Simon’s efforts even if the film lampoons the worthlessness of said efforts. One of the things, hell perhaps the thing, I most connect to with Buñuel is his atheism, and so I always enjoy seeing how he tackles religion in various ways throughout his career. What I took from Simon of the Desert was a depiction of misguided piety, and the way Simon’s extreme devotion to God, in which he spends years standing on a pillar, is actually sort of a cheat/empty gesture. That extreme isolation is sort of useless and meaningless; the real hardships are down there on the ground. In this parable, God and Satan exist, but the way faith functions for the characters is condemned. The local priests don’t know their own faith. A father, upon being granted the miracle of restored hands, uses them to slap his child. The townspeople react with indifference and change the topic to bread. Even Simon, who refuses all adornment and basic needs, accepts a larger grander pillar on which to stand upon.

Claudio Brook was giving me weird Bob Odenkirk vibes in his physical appearance.

Buñuel lost money at the end of the production and had to tack on a quick ending, the result being rife with lunacy and the most drastic of all scene-changes. I’m not sure what to make of it, besides it being awesome, but there is an odd complacency on Simon’s part. Radioactive Flash!

Escape from New York
#8. Escape from New York (1981, Carpenter) (USA)
Even with Carpenter films that don’t do much for me, like this one, anything I get out of it directly derives from it being ‘a John Carpenter film’, even if said characteristics help make up my ambivalence. His tendency, particularly with films he has a writing credit on, are exceedingly simple set-ups to the point of near abstraction and a refusal to be bogged down with world-building. He periodically adopts a deliberate molasses-like pacing that promotes a precise foreboding atmosphere supported by his synth scores.

I didn’t feel much one way or the other towards Escape from New York. I enjoyed it enough but wouldn’t call myself a fan. Neither would I go out of my way to put it down. Predictably great cast; I always admire the actors Carpenter chooses to work with, assembling a varied group of regulars in the character actor vein. Even Kurt Russell feels like a character actor in star’s clothing. Donald Pleasence as the President! Was annoyed that Adrienne Barbeau’s character immediately stays by her dead mate to die alongside him. Of course the one female character stops living after her lover dies. Ugh. Harry Dean! Borgnine! Lee Van Cleef! Isaac Hayes! Tom Atkins (!) who I like to pretend is the bane of my existence. So many manly men.

My 3 takeaways were the score, the green-lit streets and alleys, and the ending. I would admittedly have liked a bit more world-building. There is a short casual scene in which Snake enters a decrepit theater where a stage production is happening. I liked that slice-of-desolate-Manhattan life and could have used a bit more of it.

Story of a Prostitute
#9. Story of a Prostitute (1965, Seijun Suzuki) (Japan)
I believe this is only my second Seijun Suzuki film? Can’t claim to have loved Story of a Prostitute when taken as a whole, but there sure as hell were moments, scenes, elements I am in awe of. What held it back for me, though this what probably makes it a more objectively ‘great’ film, is that its focus is far more on the military than is of interest to me, at least in this particular story. Seijun Suzuki served during WWII, and uses this story, which takes place during the Sino-Japanese war, as a gateway for criticizing Japanese military institutions. That aspect is pretty scathing; there is no winning, people are swallowed up like it’s nothing, the system is the one that betrays the individual. The most committed of the bunch, Private Mikami is a boy devoid of personality for his loyalty, and who goes to trial for being taken prisoner only to later commit suicide. It’s nice to see Suzuki reach outside that relentless pulp sheen for that scathing political surge, but I admit it lost me a bit for this same reason.

Yumiko Nogawa is outrageously physical and high-pitched; a force of nature if there ever was one. This is a representative example of Japanese actors/actresses often, depending on the melodrama or tragedy of other tone of the story, using their bodies and voices in ways that seem connected specifically to Japanese theater origins. Harumi is self-destructive, coarsely defiant, and desperate, but she’s fearless. That reliable style-to-spare of Seijun Suzuki’s makes for some remarkable moments within the whole such as using slow-motion and mismatched use of sound to heighten emotion and torment. These moments slow down the nightmare.

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#10. Short Term 12 (2013, Cretton) (USA)
So close to being great, and some of it is great, to the point where I still like this a lot despite what I’m about to write. It’s largely undone by an insistence on neatness and on failing to recognize the complexity of individuals by bluntly tacking on a predictable parallel backstory for Larson’s Grace which is rote and unnecessary. There’s also a faint whiff of it having gone to the Hollywood cleaners even if it hasn’t. What I mean is it’s a bit too shiny; a bit too neutered as to make everything more presentable. Just look at the way Nate is presented. He is the new employee and audience surrogate, our introduction into the foster care system. And he is flabbergasted by everything around him. Attempted breakouts, getting spit in the face, being called out on his naivete. Everything. And it’s like really? Really? It seems geared to represent audience reaction, which means the film is assuming that people live in under a rock and don’t understand how tough it is for everyone involved in foster care facilities.

So it’s a testament to the film that despite these major drawbacks, I really liked Short Term 12. When it isn’t stumbling, it has a natural grace, a commitment and attentiveness to both staff and kids alike, and the acting is stellar. I’ve been patiently waiting for Brie Larson to be given a chance to show people what she can do since her work on “The United States of Tara” (where she took the snarky teen role and created new nooks and crannies for her character tenfold) Her contribution to the film is incalculable. She has such a spontaneous charm, such conviction, such a lived-in quality. Her character has a pretty drastic arc, where the illusion of control and responsibility collapses completely. She’s so good that she sells Grace’s arc, and though I hate the direction they take her in, Larson is never less than captivating, selling it all wholesale. The same goes for the Keith Stanfield as Marcus and John Gallagher Jr. as Mason. These are some truly gifted performers. Marcus’ rap is heartbreaking and raw. Short Term 12 feels on its way to authenticity, and I encourage people to see the film even if it abandons its good intentions with clunky compact sheen.

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #225-234


Playing a bit of catch-up as I’ve fallen behind in transferring these from tumblr to this site but I should be caught up in a couple of days, which means lots of capsule reviews coming your way.

AP FILM REVIEW THE WAY WAY BACK A ENT
225. The Way Way Back (2013, Rash, Faxon)
The Way Way Back gets the awkwardness of teenage male introversion, the kind where simple sentences and basic social interaction is debilitating and near impossible. It’s that time in their lives where some kids struggle to have a personality. BUT! That ends up being the problem, because turns out that our protagonist Duncan is a total blank slate. There is nothing to this character. He has yet to start having any kind of identity and the film tracks the beginning of that change. And so kudos for trying to go past the more put-upon attempts of awkward adolescent characterization. But what makes it all so much worse is the weak script, which is packed from start to finish with cliches that are not supported by much quality or strength. We’ve got the shitty stepdad, the angsty-but-beautiful romantic interest, the carefree male mentor, the summertime job, the kooky side characters, the caring but equally stuck mother, etc. If the film had a stronger script which worked with archetypes instead of lazily playing into them, this could have been a much better film. There is a scene where Duncan has to ask some hip-hop dancers to disburse and the only way they’ll comply is if he dances in front of all the waterpark patrons. It’s a scene that of course ends in applause and a nickname. It is without a doubt one of the worst scenes I’ve seen in a film from any year. The first and last scenes are strong and Carell and particularly Rockwell get a lot of mileage from their characters but this mostly annoyed and grated on me.

The Iceman
#226. The Iceman (2013, Vroman)
So much potential here. A hitman who kills because he likes it, who finds himself having a human connection for the family he helped create. Two ruthless hitmen (the other being Chris Evans) who start out  as competitors and end up a freelance team. There’s a lot to like and Shannon makes the film largely compelling. But it’s too by-the-book, too focused on story when it purports to be a character study, losing sight of itself in the process. The one-scene Franco casting is incredibly useless and distracting. Winona Ryder is unforgivably wasted as ‘the wife’ though she is able to slip in some ambiguity as to what her character may know when she got the chance. It all comes back to what Kuklinski’s family meant to him and how they fit into his life yet they are too often shoved into the background in favor of the more immediately ‘crowd-pleasing’ antics of violent mob politics.

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#227. The Hunt (2013, Vinterberg)
That a film like this is an easy potshot of ‘look how useless people can be’ in a herd mentality scenario doesn’t lessen its impact as heralded by Thomas Vinterberg and powerhouse star Mads Mikkelsen. I had been waiting to see this for quite some time and it did not disappoint. Links back to the director’s seminal Festen by looking at another accusation of sex abuse, this time a decidedly false one. Vinterberg never lets go of his grip on seeing the constant gears of the snowball effect setting up and going into motion. Standard narrative manipulation aside, everything about this feels like an eerily plausible train wreck you can’t stop from happening. Everybody is depicted as well-meaning individuals whose reactions are understandable (Fanny assailants aside) given the circumstances yet still avoidable. It reminded me of Beyond the Hills in that way. It’s one of the more successfully frustrating ‘audience-can’t-reach-out-and-set-things-straight’ experiences. Its study in mob mentality, importantly a mob mentality rooted in genuine search for justice borne out of rightly placed protection, offers no easy answers as it mourns the loss of innocent and pure interactions between adults and children. Those early scenes can’t even exist in their purity because we know what’s coming.

Mikkelsen is really who brings all of this home with his kind and giving character, his respectable stiff upper-lip slowly giving way. That church scene is UNREAL. Some of the best work I’ve seen from him, some of the best work I’ve seen from anyone in a long time. Vinterberg directs assuredly, constantly getting behind the eyes of characters, always tracking those gears. A highlight that comes to mind is the way with absolute clarity we come to understand how Klara comes to her made-up confession. This reminded me that I need to seriously re-watch Festen, a favorite of mine, and also see his supposedly failed English-language efforts which definitely have pockets of appreciators. Its ending is a far more interesting a place to leave off than where the depressing descent of the Danes would leave you to believe we’d land. Also giving really memorable work are Thomas Bo Larsen and young Anika Wedderkopp.

Computer Chess
#228. Computer Chess (2013, Bujalski)
This is actually the only film I’ve seen from ‘mumblecore’ helmer Andrew Bujalski, and it’s an ambitious undertaking. In the simplest of terms it’s a lo-fi analog comedy (but it’s a lot of things, a muted philosophical curio) that sets itself up only to purposely deconstruct at every single turn. It strides off to little side streets, to seek out late-night wanderings. It goes full-on in its public access period piece look, using an old 60’s Sony video camera to catch a flat and fuzzy landscape, ugly and kind of eerie. Bujalski keeps this going with hiccups and a form that defies normal rhythms and expected framing. This is a film that could easily be of one-note existence but Bujalski has so many heady things on his mind and wants to touch on them. Looking back at the pioneers of late 70’s/early 80’s technology who are looking ahead, and not in a nudge-nudge way either. The oddness of the act of computer chess. Possible sentience. Conversations with creations. Cultural movements crossing paths. Getting stuck in filmic loops. Everything is slightly off and it’s hard to put your finger on its brand of off-kilter ‘reality’. It sifts through the steady monotony and looks for real meaning in a gently comedic and deadpan way. It’s sneaky and unexpected, a film that I liked quite a bit even if I don’t have the adoration for it that many do. Wiley Wiggins is just the most.

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#229. No (2013, Larrain)
A wonderful and consistently engaging film on many levels. Fuses form with the visual language at hand. Embraces the absurd humor inherent in the concept of selling democracy to people through advertising language and branding without ever feeling like it side-sweeps what is at stake. Hot diggity all that archival footage is gold. Tells story through assumedly fictional central figure Bernal who strides through the film freely aware that philosophy and political discussion sadly don’t have the market appeal of say, a jingle. The film’s very focus further supports this idea as does its aesthetic low-def 80’s form. Bernal makes his enigma of a cocky wunderkind full stop captivating. So yeah, I really loved this. Brings back vague memories of learning about Chile in my Latin American history class.

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#230. Would You Rather (2013, Levy)
I hope someone remakes this someday because it has a deliciously gruesome concept that is just jackhammered into the ground by a redundantly unimaginative script and some of the worst and clunkiest direction I’ve seen in some time. Levy is at a loss with even simple camera blocking and there’s a jammed wheel-turning to the editing and framing that feels rudimentary. There are also desperate editing techniques that splice in earlier conversations with the present happenings that are meant to keep flow. Still, you’ve got Jeffrey Combs chewing scenery as if his life depended on it and it’s reliably enjoyable to watch him try to single-handedly make up for the entire cast. Oh Sasha Grey. I want to like you but you have maybe six lines and manage to give the worst performance ever with that little. You can tell she had a bigger part but that she’s been edited to shreds in hope to salvage something kind of convincing. But no. I did kind of enjoy Brittany Snow though. But yeah no, this is a big skip.

A Band Called Death
#231. A Band Called Death (2013, Covino and Howlett)
Another doc case of love the subject matter, not the delivery. It’s a more-than-worthy story blandly told. More concerned with surface-level narrative than actually going deep into anything. Which is a shame because deceased brother David seems a tricky figure worth further exploration. Then it spends far too much time on recollections of rediscovery. I don’t need countless people detailing their reaction to hearing this music to know it’s good. The last section is dedicated to that rediscovery and yes, it’s definitely fascinating to see how the internet brings people together and bridges these threads until it gets all the way to Drag City. But full circle with the next-of-kin is a point to hit, not to dwell on to the degree this does. Fabulous and vital music though.

A nos amours
232. À nos amours (1983, Pialat)
The first film by Maurice Pialat I’ve seen. This resonated with me a lot. The way time is handled and depicted reminded me a lot of another recent viewing, Blue is the Warmest Color; in both, time moves at an unacknowledged but somewhat speedy rate. Like a steady speed train through late adolescence filled with exploratory sex and a severe and almost perverse family dysfunction. The whole thing is held in by Bonnaire; resilient, removed, testing the waters, always looking for a way out of whatever the current situation. She is impossibly young here with a wholly distinctive set of features.

The last act and that show-stopper of a dinner scene is the highlight. What rises this above other coming-of-age sex dramas (complete with baby ingenue-of-the-moment) is how Suzanne grappling with who she is and what she wants is equally tied into a domestic situation where surreal hysterics, and other complex forms of familial desire and function, are brought together under one roof. She becomes a scapegoat of blame but is also trying to fill in an emptiness, to prove herself wrong. The brother character is one of the most awful lecherous creatures ever. The scenes between Bonnaire and father (played by the director himself) are particular highlights.

Christmas in July
#233. Christmas in July (1940, Sturges)
Capable of igniting a ‘why don’t they make films like this anymore’ inner monologue. I tend to grapple with Preston Sturges quite a bit but this hit every checkbox of ‘things I enjoy’. Fuck ‘minor’; firing on all cylinders, this breezes by at 67 minutes as ambitious do-gooder Dick Powell is catapulted to false success by a simple prank that inspires reverence in all, simply because an advertising contest supposedly verifies a person’s importance and abilities. There’s quite a bit here about what success is predicated on and how it ties into capitalism and the American Dream. And there’s something striking about the image of a bunch of tired, smoking, arguing white guys pent-up in a meeting room sifting through shitty slogans while 2,947,582 hopefuls wait to hear their fate.

Powell’s slogan is something awful but he’s hedged all his bets on it and we are never allowed to forget it. It’s a zippy, biting riot of a film from start to finish. Powell is excellent but Raymond Walburn is the standout here. His initial conversation with Powell is a HOOT. “I can hardly wait to give you all my money” goes in the Line Deliveries Hall of Fame.

the clock
#234. The Clock (1945, Minnelli)
Proto-Before Sunrise (to be seriously reductive) as made through the studio system. Romance set in an urban landscape where an idealistic but heartfelt depiction of NYC reigns supreme. A city defined by and littered with chance encounters of whirlwind romance and milk runs. Robert Walker and Judy Garland sparkle through their (offscreen) mutually assured destruction. Minnelli’s camera glides through the masses to settle on the meant-to-be pair, further emphasizing how important setting is despite none of the film being shot in NYC.

A couple of the chance encounters fall flat such as Kenneth Wynn’s sloppy drunk and just how honeydew and on-the-nose the milkman and his wife are. And The Clock really loses something when it becomes all about the rush to get married. But it comes back around for a coy morning after sequence that is sexy, sweet, and dialogue-free. The wedding ceremony is an almost comically ugly affair and while my modern eyes wish that Garland’s tears had been about the aftermath of absurd decision-making instead of the makeshift ceremony, that’s nowhere near the kind of film this is, and The Clock remains an infectiously fated romance-drama all the same.

Top Ten By Year: 1983


March 14th, 2015 edit: Looking back at this list, I’d switch out Local Hero for Star 80 at #10.

My second Top Ten By Year feature took significantly longer than the first. Why? Well between Halloween viewings, a short trip away, and 2013 films creeping up, the last months of the year are a very busy time for film enthusiasts! But here it is!

1983 was a more slippery slope than 1935. For one thing, there were more films to choose from; 20 first-time viewings, 7 re-watches, and 40 films total. The lingering powers of many of 1983’s releases also took me by surprise. I imagine these obvious factors are going to prove a Sophie’s Choice dilemma quite often in future endeavors. I guess what caught me off-guard is that while I wouldn’t think of calling any decade in film a weak one, comparatively I don’t find the 80’s as rich (at least on a scale of quantity) as many other decades.

A balance I always try and strike as a lover of film, especially important to a list I post, is staying loyal to my own taste whilst continuing to develop a keen understanding of what I respond to the most. And something you learn as you watch more and more films, that can’t be overstated, is how important long-term reaction is, even over initial reaction. I like to refer to it as how a film ‘sits with me’, like a heartily digested meal. More intelligent and analytically-minded bloggers/film writers would have this time be about expanding on a film’s purported success or failure. For me, it’s a much more instinctual and intuitive process.

For those unaware, I pick years that are weak for me re: quantity of films seen. I’m using listmaking as a motivation to see more films and revisit others. And I always make sure to point out that my lists are based on ‘favorites’ not any notion of an objective ‘best’. Before embarking on this list I had seen 16 films from 1983, many of which I was not too fond of. It had been a struggle to come up with ten films I felt positively towards. Of course now it’s a different story. The year saw directors making major stylistic and tonal breakthroughs (Scorsese, Reggio, Allen), late career and/or final films from masters (Bresson, Tarkovsky, Fosse), the beginnings and ends of franchises (the Vacation series, Star Wars, Project A, Sleepaway Camp), Stephen King adaptations (The Dead Zone, Christine) and David Bowie (Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, The Hunger)

I’d like to pay tribute to films that didn’t make the cut but have left a palpable impression on me. So here are some that more than earn a mention (many would be likely to show up on anyone else’s list and with good reason). Because as much as this is a ‘top ten’, I’d like to get a broader view of what I took from the collected viewings.

Star 80 (Fosse) in which Eric Roberts gives one of cinema’s great performances, a portrait of sociopathic self-hatred while Bob Fosse caps off his career by looking at the shady line between fame and the endless outskirts.

Sleepaway Camp (Hiltzik) in which the jolts come through in the final shock-moment, otherwise settling in for a campy brand of do-it-yourself non-scares which finds its horror in the impossible-to-navigate waters of puberty and adolescent cruelty. Desiree Gould wins the award for Greatest Bit-Part in a Film Ever.

À nos amours (Pialat), which memorably blends the tropes of the French coming-of-age sexual exploration film with the breakdown and slightly perverse criss-crossing desires of collapsing family dynamics. All anchored by the furrowed brow of ingenue-of-the-then-moment Sandrine Bonnaire.

Mr. Mom (Dragoti), a nostalgic favorite which I’ve seen countless times and still enjoy the hell out of, outdated gender politics aside. Michael Keaton is the most handsome father of all the fathers and manages to make his purely unsympathetic arc unbelievably entertaining. Woobie, Schooner Tuna, “South to drop off moron!”

Nostalghia (Tarkovsky) Often referred to as one of his more austere films, certainly not a place to start with Tarkovsky, but his controlled and painterly compositions of puddles and ruin, of hotel rooms and hallways, of an unresolvable purgatory between place and cultural identity, held me in its grip almost entirely. It is one of a couple of films that just as easily could have made this list.

Pauline at the Beach (Rohmer), my first joyous venture into Rohmer, where romantic bouts reveal a lack of self-awareness and an abundance of pontification in youth.

Biggest Disappointments: 
Silkwood
The Dead Zone
The Dresser
Valley Girl 

Some Blind Spots (films I have not seen and were thus not considered):
The Fourth Man (one of the reasons I chose 1983 and turns out it’s nearly impossible to get ahold of), Entre Nous, The Store, Angst, El Norte, Educating Rita, Ballad of Narayama, House of the Long Shadows, Tender Mercies, Gorky Park, Bad Boys, Rumble Fish, Trading Places, Sugar Cane Alley, El Sur, Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain, Streamers

Full List of 1983 Films Seen:
A Nos Amours, Barefoot Gen, The Big Chill, The Boxer’s Omen, A Christmas Story, Christine, The Dead Zone, The Dresser, The Entity, Eureka, First Name: Carmen, The Hunger, The King of Comedy, Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, L’Argent, Local Hero, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, Mr. Mom, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Nostalghia, One Deadly Summer, The Outsiders, Pauline at the Beach, Project A, The Right Stuff, Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, Sans Soliel, Scarface, Silkwood, Sleepaway Camp, Star 80, Terms of Endearment, Three Crowns of the Sailor, Valley Girl, Videodrome, WarGames, Wend Kunni, Zelig

Eureka (1983)
Honorable Mention:

Eureka (1983, Roeg)
There are many other films that should probably get the honorable mention; films I enjoyed more on the whole, that felt far more cohesive, successful and visionary. But when Nicolas Roeg aligns with my sensibilities, he does so in a revelatory way, filling me up with life, shock, and a sense of mysticism. Downhill career trajectory and all, and even with his ‘masterworks’ that didn’t gel for me, he is a favorite of mine. Eureka is bar-none one of the most inconsistent films I’ll ever see. It never comes together the way you want it to; leaden narrative strands topple the whole thing over, Joe Pesci sticks out like a sore thumb, and it’s undercooked for long stretches of time including a courtroom epilogue that refuses to end.

But, to blatantly reference the film, it strikes gold in the most provocative and staggering of places including the opening 20 minutes which ranks among the best that cinema has to offer, period. At its best it comes together as an atypical progression from Citizen Kane on its way towards the eventual existence of There Will Be Blood. Riches leave Gene Hackman a hollow hateful thing surrounded by self-made family dysfunction. It contains perhaps the most horrific onscreen death I’ve ever seen, and no I’m not even talking about the one in the opening sequence. This and a ten-minute bacchanal orgy that smacks of dark sexual chaos are not the easy shock value they may seem. Roeg uses his innovative way of throwing avant-garde sensibilities into narrative film through elliptical editing, creating thought-provoking patterns of imagery which support an nightmarish and off-kilter worldview.

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10. Local Hero (UK, Forsyth)
When I first finished Local Hero, it’s placement here was a sure bet. But as time went on, a lot of what stayed with me were its arguably twee aspects, a kind of preciousness I tend not to take to. I had a similar after-stewing with Frances Ha recently. Despite that, Local Hero makes a memorable connection with its enchanted comforts. It is so odd and disarmingly charming. The village of Ferness is a slightly surreal place where anything feels possible but where said possibilities reveal themselves drolly and without announcement. 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, often in ways that take you by surprise (in every way I’d describe Local Hero as a surprising film) but it’s 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 glad to be spending my time in this world with these people. Peter Reigert plays the perfect existential rock. Perhaps most enjoyable is Peter Capaldi who, at the tender age of 25, could not be more adorable.

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9. The Boxer’s Omen (Hong Kong, Kuei Chih-Hung)
Hong Kong black magic squish-fest ranks alongside Hausu and Freaked as the pedal-to-the-metal craziest and most demented films I’ve ever seen. Peculiarly, The Boxer’s Omen is extremely over-the-top and silly but gradually accumulates in a deeply unsettling way as it spotlights goo, slime, sludge, ooze and the like in relation to the body. There isn’t a ton of blood in the film (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 the hard and soft bodily categories of gook and the skeletal gets under the skin after awhile. It recalls an article I once had to read (what it was and what it was for 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. The film suffers from a rinse-and-repeat structure but The Boxer’s Omen gets at this notion through bizarre sliminess with its hokey anything-and-I-mean-anything goes credo. And it’s the midnight movie you’ve been looking for. Trust me.

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8. The Right Stuff (USA, Kaufman)
A film that has grown even more in my estimation since watching it weeks ago. There’s a mysterious quality to The Right Stuff; it floats around time, characters, and innovators with the same sense of legend and heroism it wants to examine without ever oversimplifying. Philip Kaufman seemingly packages the film in the conventional model of the rah-rah USA historical film, but it’s really not that at all. It astutely starts in at the roots with the test pilots and with Yeager, who is portrayed as the incomparable forefather of everything that follows.

The Right Stuff 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). 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 said section seem front-and-center. I think of, for example, how much time is spent on the testing for Mercury Seven candidates. The sequence 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. And this is a wonderful thing.

I’ve come to realize that nobody does vulnerability better than Dennis Quaid in his heyday. Or at least what I pick up on as vulnerability. His hotdog hotshot persona and endless face-covering smile, whether in roles squeaky-clean or rough around the edges, belies an open heart I often find myself extremely moved by. I’ve come to think this is because in a weird way I see him as a completely transformed and idealized version of my father, so it really all ties back into this loaded personal connection. See also; Breaking Away. Those last moments with Quaid are majestically earned.

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7. A Christmas Story (1983, Clark)
I am one of those who have had A Christmas Story in my life for the whole of time. Someone who has seen it in numbers that likely approach the 300’s and could probably replay the entire film in my head with moderate accuracy. Someone whose family consumes it with either complacent loyalty or never-gets-old fervor. I’m firmly in the complacent loyalty camp. There are some films that are early favorites which you move on from and some you never ever will. A Christmas Story is somewhere in the middle and its yearly endless consumption makes it a unique case. It offers no new pleasures but its old pleasures are a comfort even in their mild staleness, a staleness which, to be fair, would come with most films viewed this many times. It’s about wistfully recounting childhood from the perspective of adulthood. But what makes it special is that Ralphie rarely narrates the film with an all-knowing removed perspective. He recounts it in-the-moment, as if it is something that, hilariously florid looking-back prose aside, he is experiencing all over again. What makes it such a relatable tale of childhood nostalgia is that it’s growing and overexposed status in pop-culture means that Ralphie’s childhood, in essence, became part of ours in the long-run. And that is something I’ll cherish forever.

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6. Barefoot Gen (Japan, Mori Masaki)
In a simplistic effort to express just how crushingly agonizing the experience of Barefoot Gen is, I say that it makes the much more oft-cited WWII-from-a-child’s-perspective anime Grave of the Fireflies look like a relaxing stroll through the park. I’m only half kidding. I remember watching this for an Anime class I took and being bowled over by the sweep of decimation and its hot-and-cold depiction of the bombing of Hiroshima. Based on a manga series, it’s a film that deserves to be much more widely known than it is. And what’s more, the source material is based off author Keiji Nakasawa’s actual experience as a child who went through Hiroshima, losing almost all of his family and left to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of atrocity.

Barefoot Gen employs a cold fact-based narration from the skies where everything looks removed and small, only to cut in as deep as deep goes. Only the art of animation and illustration can create the kind of expressionistic horror needed to convey such unspeakable events. And unflinching only begins to cover the melting zombie world of decay, darkness, emaciation and loss that Barefoot Gen conveys. It starts out as a touching drama of a struggling family with characters who are able to find moments of joy and wonder with each other as they scrape by. Once the bomb drops, the film, as well as the characters, work their way to sustained survival through unity under impossible circumstances. Each little victory comes at a further price, and it ends on a heartbreaking note that pays respects to those lost while looking towards a persevering future. The film is a singular one; it leaves me shaken and mortified, overwhelmed and moved in a way few films have done.

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5. Terms of Endearment (USA, Brooks)
To me, Terms of Endearment represents the ideal American middlebrow film. I remember when I first saw it, back in high school days during a “Tearjerker Marathon” I was having with my best friend, and how struck I was by its entirety. It may get the ‘tearjerker’ label, but those developments only appear in the last 45 minutes. I was unprepared for its uncommon liveliness, its well-observed humor, and the fact that it passes briskly thorough life with such ease that its third act never feels worked toward. Like in life, Winger’s diagnosis comes out of nowhere, like the film itself is completely caught off-guard by it.

Before that, it’s about a mother and daughter going separate ways, falling into the same old traps of life, and some new ones too. James L. Brooks’ adaptation of Larry McMurty’s novel never shows constrains of story; it feels like we are watching life itself. A lot of this goes to the tone which shifts from wry comedy to just-enough sentiment to brushes of melodrama with ease. And a lot of this goes to the performances which all feel beautifully lived-in. The developing relationship between Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson is a favorite; his prime-past astronaut Lothario is the perfect foil for Aurora Greenway; I can’t even think of them without smiling. Speaking of perfect, that final moment, which in a lesser film would have been hitched up another fatal notch, epitomizes the unexpected ways people can come through for you the times one needs it most. Last but not least, it lives up to that tearjerker status as far as a tear count is concerned; I’ve seen it twice and I was in a puddle of my own sobs by the time it was over.

Christine

4. Christine (USA, Carpenter)
Without a doubt the biggest surprise of 1983, one of the biggest surprises of the entirety of my 2013 viewing (as its placement reflects). 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 it seems to have become my personal favorite from him.

Christine accomplishes the seemingly impossible in that it plays its ridiculous concept relatively straight. Carpenter seems to think he took the film lightly, but I don’t see it that way at all. 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 completely fucked up and goddamn entrancing. In that way it also bears a similarity to the next film on my list. That moment (and music cue) when Artie says “Show me” leaves me speechless.

Christine is a horror film based in its characters. It’s about friendship, feeling out of place, change, the more frightening aspects of adolescence, and 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.

Carpenter’s use of Panavision is full of expert touches 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 (plus again with that music cue placement! That entire scene is moviemaking kismet). And the use of 50’s and 60’s rock n’ roll is creepily trance-like. You guys; I love pretty much everything about this, clearly to the point of unbridled gushing.

Videodrome

3. Videodrome (1983, Cronenberg)
There’s a prescience at play in Videodrome and its concerns with TV, media, and the trafficking of images that is completely rooted in of-the-moment 80’s technology. David Cronenberg is one of my favorite directors and this is my second favorite film from him (behind Dead Ringers, a veritable masterpiece). It stays true to the director’s fixation on practical effects for visual metaphor and a decidedly 80’s brand of genre storytelling. It’s all about sex and hardware and the perversities of each; it reminds me of Crash in that way. It has a funky little combination of being plot-driven but making little sense; it reminds me a bit of The Big Sleep in that way. When does video influence, with its beaming streams of image, penetrate in a literal way? Hallucination and reality become one. Flesh and hardware become one. It all becomes interchangeable.

In Videodrome, influence and possibly subliminal power reach a peak when combining sex and violence. This is TV as catharsis, ultimate power, communicator, and mirror. Max Renn becomes an assassin for both sides, losing control of his body. A VHS tape and gun get put inside of a vaginal opening on Renn’s stomach. The TV throbs and has the ability to respond with sensuality. Videodrome combines body horror in a new and inventive way by having transformation, interactive brainwashing, and sex run both ways, meeting in an uncertain messy middle. This is something that really resonated with me. What is our ultimate relationship with images in a box, in this case a sexual and sentient box with fleshy insides? 2 years before David Cronenberg pushed body horror as far as it could go on both a physical and emotional level with The Fly, he uses Rick Baker’s unforgettable work to envision a frightening upside-down world where TVs and tapes are made flesh and where people are drones – transmitted beings with a purpose and cause undecided by themselves.

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2. The King of Comedy (USA, 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 perceptive 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 dark 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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1. Sans Soleil (France, Marker)
Like 1935, there was never any doubt what my #1 would be; in this case, the indescribable Sans Soleil. I lack the capabilities to describe this film so I’ll resort to a short spout of hyperbole supported by urging anyone who hasn’t seen it to seek it out immediately. It’s one of the few films I’ve seen that feels life-altering in some vague sense, in that it gives you the tools to momentarily see the world around us differently, with unique voice and insight. It’s not a documentary and it’s not a narrative. It’s rather a new blended form of filmic essay and of intimate observational prose, combining Marker’s (at least the majority of footage) otherworldly travelogue under the guise of a ‘fictional’ narrator with philosophical musings.

As we switch back-and-forth mainly between Japan and Guinea-Bissau with side-trips to other locations, we are asked to think about memory, experience, the imprints of time, cultural tradition and ritual from a poetic perspective. Like Videodrome, it fixates on the effect of the TV image in both content and consumption; but it’s also seen as another world where image becomes stripped synthesized abstraction. Sans Soleil is unlike anything else, at once grounded in cultural ritual but drawn to technical innovation, all wrapped up in a singular package that feels real and surreal and contemplative in the richest and most spellbinding of ways.

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up #214-224


I’ve got a bit of catch-up to do here. And I’m also 2 films away from being ready to work on my Top Ten of 1983 list (finally!). It took longer than I thought. And I still don’t know what the ten are going to look like. But here is a round-up of some films watched this month.

Drug War

#214. Drug War (2013, To)
I’m happy to say that Drug War lived up to my cautiously set expectations (meaning that expectations are a dangerous and destructive tendency to have with films and so I avoid them as much as I reasonably can, even with a film such as this). 2013 seems to be the year where the film community has taken on To’s intimidating filmography with rigor. It’s an exciting development largely triggered by Drug War’s Western success. Not including Drug War, I’d only seen a couple of To’s films (everyone needs to see The Heroic Trio because it has amazing Hong Kong lady stars becoming superheroes and kicking ass!) and Drug War definitely left me pining for more of his work.

This is rigid, disciplined, alive. Entirely driven, on a content level, by its plot mechanics which make up a serious and twisty crime/action film laced with politics of Mainland China where rigidity is a false pretense because everything feels like it can go bust at any second. And oh boy does it ever.

On its surface it may on first glance look like a really solid action flick, but when you watch it, it doesn’t quite feel like others of its kind. It’s hermetically sealed and about the illusion of order. Everything is slick (what glorious sound!), not supported by the notion of ‘cool’ so much as the notion of pure craftsmanship. There is an immaculate tracking of space and place. You can tell this is special just in the way it goes about introducing all the key players at the beginning. It doesn’t dumb down character intros but it’s a casually intricate map rooted in clarity. Drug War gets more compelling by the minute and is contains a pretty fantastic female detective played by Huang Yi.

I went from really wanting to see Blind Detective to really really really wanting to see Blind Detective.

Only God Forgives

#215. Only God Forgives (2013, Refn)
Short review coming soon

Pauline at the Beach

#216. Pauline at the Beach (1983, Rohmer)
My first Rohmer film! And I found it delightful. It’s a brisk comedy/coming-of-age film about the lack of self-awareness that young (well mostly) idealistic folk carry around with them when it comes to how people talk about love versus how they actually partake in it. The lesson here is that active self-awareness is a virtue but self-awareness in and of itself doesn’t get you far if you don’t know how to apply that knowledge to your actions. These characters talk about love and other characters prospects. But they are unable to listen to their own advice. And so we spend the film watching a small group of people making poor decisions driven by naivete and their own weaknesses. What’s additionally amusing is that the ‘love’ in question purposely lacks any potency.

Pauline is the only one who takes anything away from the film’s events as she observes, grows, and learns from other people’s choices as well as her own. It ends on a grace note which signifies that her learned lessons will be kept to herself. People will behave how they want and believe what they will. Some will learn from their experiences and some won’t. The exclusive-feeling message that I took from it is that it’s better to affirm and to nod your head because people won’t take to a romantic reality even if you try and shed some light. This doesn’t go for everyone, but for a character like Marion? Honey, you are wasting your time. And Pauline knows this. A naturalistic combination of Kristy McNichol/young Scarlett Johansson/Ellen Page, Amanda Langlet is such a presence. She is our access point and without her the film would fail to bring us into the film’s world of fleeting bygone ‘love’.

Blue Caprice

#217. Blue Caprice (2013, Moors)
A case of love-the-approach, not the execution. Blue Caprice admirably goes for an unsensationalistic and determinedly opaque fictional take on the origin of the Beltway sniper attacks. But that opaqueness never coalesces into anything memorable. I also think it should have ended right before the shootings begin. Moors unwillingness or way of tip-toeing around depicting the crimes makes the final act feel sort of pointless. The focus is smartly not on ‘why’ but on how a father-son-like bond of such destructive force comes to be. It’s a deadly bond made up of outward world-is-against-me-blame and the silent pliable mind of someone who seeks a fatherly figure no matter the cost. It defiantly hits its plot points without magnifying them. But their somewhat cliched presence to begin with, the fact that these marks are hit at all if we weren’t going to focus on them much, makes them feel a bit like lead. Both lead performances are quite strong, each bringing a different kind of menacing quality to their roles. But Blue Caprice’s wishy-washy quality makes it forgettable and without much staying power. It has its moments but that resolute ambiguity doesn’t fulfill itself as a work about the unknowable nature behind an atrocity such as this.

Frog

#218-219. Frog, Frogs (1987, 1991, Grossman)
On the one hand most critics/reviewers would write this off immediately. And yet…Shelley Duvall’s brand of unrelenting well-meaning cornball and DIY charm that her exec prod. credit and general presence infuses is oddly endearing at times. Especially when you take into account the sequel which is surprising in the ways in manages to bring a lot of continuity to the table. Real thought was put into portraying the false posturing of adolescence and that it’s a time where identity can be lost as easily as it can be found. If you can look past Paul Williams career nadir as a lounge singing frog with a broad Italian accent, you’ll actually find yourself rooting for Robin Tunney (in her first role as an adorable scientist geek) and Scott Grimes to hook up and you’ll be wanting more Elliot Gould baseball analogies and Duvall life lessons complete with lizard slippers. I watched this with a crowd and against your better judgment you’ll be left wanting to incorporate rhubus as an insult into your vocab.

Three Crowns of the Sailor

#220. Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983, Ruiz)
Alternately engaging headspace of wandering mythos which would then go into bouts that had trouble taking me along the contemplative ride. It’s on a wavelength that constantly threatens to leave you behind if you’re not in the right frame of mind to latch onto its mysterious episodes. Gets into a lot about the act of storytelling and its contexts and cultural influences which felt like they went a bit over my head. Not in a sense of content but in its air of historical heritage and folklore that I’m not privy to. But there were a few sequences I loved and it left me wanting to see more Raul Ruiz as well as revisit this again several years down the road.

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#221. Bastards (2013, Denis)
Denis gets a bit restricted by tethering herself to the bare bones outline of this very dark noir story. On the one hand she still, as ever, places conventional narrative at the bottom of the totem pole, but in this case those noir bare bones can be a limiting cage of convention and trope without nuance due to Denis’ other priorities. So we end up with plot points you can see coming from basically the first minute as well as certain characters having confusing motivations on the most basic of levels in ways they shouldn’t be (I’m thinking mainly of Lindon). Denis is known for her opaque poeticisms but it clashes with the presence of tropes here and there is a bit of stumbling to be had.

So I got all of that out of the way because even though this is my least favorite Denis film I’ve seen, I liked it a hell of a lot and anything by her is far more interesting than most films that get released. She still doles out images that will stick with you for life. A bleeding and naked, still impossibly young, and yellow street-lit Lola Creton in heels click-clacking like a zombie down the backstreets of Paris will be with me forever. As will that last scene; My God. Even though the way Denis uses narrative can be a detract from Bastards, the way she uses that same ambiguity as an unwillingness to directly deal with the horrors of what’s going on, focusing on thematic and intuitive image, makes everything all the more unsettling and skin-crawling. Once again, Tindersticks provide ample support.

One Deadly Summer

#222. One Deadly Summer (1983, Becker)
Maybe ultimately a bit too faithful to the book? It certainly doesn’t help that I had just finished reading the novel before watching this, making me hyper-aware of the beat-for-beat story points and perspective changes. This makes it an overlong slog at times. But I still say this is a largely underseen film thanks in large part to Isabelle Adjani’s performance (and *lots* of nudity which manages to be somewhat empowering and also nice to look at). She somehow manages to capture Elle, a supremely contradictory, complex, and difficult character to grasp.  It’s a fresh take on the fall of man by a calculating woman which favors female perspective in ways that eventually undercut the typical male perspective. But ultimately it’s not one that makes its mark. It’s the definition of a solid piece of work said as a slightly backhanded compliment.

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223. Something in the Air (Après mai) (2013, Assayas)
We all have directors that we think of as ‘one of ours’. I’d have to say Olivier Assayas is one of those for me with his post-punk sensibilities and occasional all-time home-runs. This is easily my least favorite from him since demonlover (2 of the 3 Assayas films I haven’t seen are Clean and Boarding Gate), despite crackles of brilliance and the accomplished way it takes a blanket snapshot of the confusing aftermath of revolution from French youth of the 60’s when nobody knows what or who they want in life. This is when the film worked for me. It struggles when it reveals that Assayas wants to have it both ways. He wants that autobiographical coming-of-age romance too. The cliches of the personal story fall flat and can’t gain much interest because the film is torn by two sets of ambition, much like the protagonist. But there are still heights to be reached such as a sequence when we stay back at a party with Laure (Carole Combes) and a personal moment of loss is interrupted by a blazing fire. The time period also allows Assayas to show off his music taste and I always take any opportunity to say he has bar none the best music taste of any filmmaker working today. He puts most everyone else to absolute shame.

L'Argent
224. L’Argent (1983, Bresson)
A mite too didactic and unsparing (at times you think ‘we get it; money is evil, Good God man!), but certainly a masterwork of sorts. Engaging but partly in that kind of dry way in which you’d find a great thesis or textbook engaging. It follows the money trail to its natural sociopathic endpoint. It takes some time to lead us to our main character but once it settles into his lack of luck, this remains gripping to the end. Bresson’s language of spare absolutes makes for a brutally cold descent where sets and sound feel on edge and discomfiting in their pure purposefulness. His trademark use of non-actors make the sealed-off exchanges feel effectively robotic, as if real people barely even exist anymore. A treatise about money as corrupter, destroyer, weapon, power, and an agent for the erasure of humanity. While that didactic absolute can, as I said, be a bit much, it makes for an uncompromising last film that will haunt you in the days afterward.c