Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #115-119


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#115. Universal Soldier (1992, Emmerich) (US)

Any film with opening credits that superimpose the names of its two action stars over said action stars being zipped up in body bags has got my vote. There may have been a more streamlined way of saying that, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure it out.

Diverting in its liveliness and earnestly serious absurdities. Having Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren play machines effectively lifts the acting duties off their strapping shoulders, allowing the conceit to play into their limitations. But Van Damme has, make no mistake, seriously intuitive comic timing. He’s like a sad and unassuming lost child here, and it is peachy keen delightful to witness. I can honestly say that Van Damme is the only one from the streak of hyper-muscular action stars to come out of the late 80’s to early 90’s that I find myself crushing on. Dude’s hot.

Cat-and-mouse pattern; Lundgren catches up to Van Damme, and a small business gets obliterated in the ensuing mayhem leaving the country folk perplexed, but not without a zinger or two. Rinse, repeat; it gets tiresome. Universal Soldier outstays its welcome with that formula, but restores itself to badassery with a rousing rain-soaked finale full of methodically precise and concentrated bludgeons.

This was Roland Emmerich’s first major project, replacing director Andrew Davis. He uses the widescreen aspect ratio like he’s known it his whole life. The icy blues of the controlled laboratory are contrasted with the real world reds and yellows of the desert environment. Ally Walker’s wired yet casual chain-smoking reporter is exhausting. She throws herself into the role as best she can, but that admirable commitment only makes Veronica more difficult to bear.

What better way to end a capsule review than to plug the fact that there’s a healthy helping of Van Damme’s derriere? You can thank me later.

It’s the Little Things:
-Soooo, based on the buzz, it looks like I should see Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, huh?

The Yards 1
#116. The Yards (2000, Gray)
(US)
So I liked this so much more than Little Odessa. A return to the dual resurgence of the familial and the criminal, and within that the return of a son to those he left behind. It’s about loyalties, the past informing the present; you know the drill. The kind of intimate and heavy mid-tier crime drama that would be in fashion for 70’s American cinema but in 2000 grabbed nobody’s attention. And it’s a shame, because what a piece of work.

Everything carries a palpable weight to it, the precision of story and performance locking it all into place, making everything matter. Everyone speaks in hushed tones, the interpersonal and criminal given the same importance, one and the same. The first act, a welcome home party for the recently paroled Leo (Mark Wahlberg) should be taught in screenwriting classes. Everything is brilliantly set up with all the major characters, outside of the absent but integral Frank (James Caan), accounted for.

My favorite performances from Mark Wahlberg (Boogie Nights, I Heart Huckabees, and now The Yards) showcase his brand of underutilized vulnerability. His Leo is observant and hesitant, one foot always in or out the door. Joaquin Phoenix makes the potentially unsympathetic Willie not only sympathetic, but kind of heartbreaking. His arc is felt every step the downhill way. Phoenix makes us feel it all slip away from him, with the inevitability of his foibles in tow, as if in slow-motion.

Can we talk about the late great Harris Savides for a second? Because this is exquisitely photographed, shot in golden musk. The scenario at hand is literally made to weigh down on these people in shadows. A sequence that sticks out for its divergence from the rest of the film is the big picture tussle between Leo and Willie midway through. Inspired by Rocco and his Brothers, we step back, as if a neighbor watching it all unfold from across the street. We’re normally so close to these characters, but in this moment we’re allowed to take in the physicality of this fight, messy and whole. All-in masculine energy.

It’s the Little Things:
This is the most attracted I’ve ever been to Charlize Theron. And that’s saying something.

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#117. Cold in July (2014, Mickle) (US)

Set up as a ‘meek’ (read: average) man-out-of-his-depth period slice of Americana crime horror. Sprints through a feature length of story in 30 minutes, daring us to ask ‘where do we go from here?’ The first 30 feels very much like a Cape Fear kind of story. Stalking, lurking revenge, and the ever-threatened home. And then suddenly it seems like Cold in July is gearing up for its finale. So again; where is all this going? Well, somewhere quite different from the beginning.

We first see Michael C. Hall’s (who I’m so so so glad to see in something not called “Dexter”) Richard sweatily defending his home from a burglar, and with an itchy trigger finger to boot. By the end he’s walking into a building with intent to kill, turned vigilante. I don’t want to say anything more, because one of the joys of Cold in July is moseying along with its directional shifts. Suffice it to say, Richard ends up in the literal back seat of what was at one point his story, hijacked by the more prominent and potent concerns of Sam Shepard’s Russel.

I love the way these three men (the other being swaggering Don Johnson) are cobbled together in an unlikely, weirdly lovable partnership, and a difficult situation. Even though the vigilantism supports Hall’s new-found manly energy, sustained by feeding off the presence of Shepard and Johnson, as solution to all (something that needed to be fixed apparently), in a supposition too old hat to hit.

The oversimplified dialogue in its climactic scene, and the way it plays, is genuinely moving, pushing against the destination of processed violence (though Jim Mickle always finds creative ways to keep the final act creative and edgy, even in its more overly drawn-out moments). Any sluggishness or dead end syndrome is offset by Mickle’s bravura behind the camera, and the varied trifecta of lead performances, most impressively Sam Shepard and his perpetually cocked head.

It’s the Little Things:
– I’ll sign a petition if it means Vinessa Shaw gets to stop playing thankless roles. As per usual, the wife is just sort of there. And then not.

A Heart in Winter
#118. A Heart in Winter (Un coeur en hiver)
(1992, Sautet) (France)
Both 1992 French films with ‘Winter’ in the title (the other being Rohmer’s A Tale of Winter which I’ll cover in my next post) depict love triangles with a twist. Effectively deployed one-time-only voiceover narration (something that tends not to work) at the start informs us that Stéphane (Daniel Auteuil) defines himself by his boss Maxime’s (André Dussollier) daily grind. It’s factual and routine. Maxime considers Stéphane a close friend, but the definition isn’t mutual. It’s not anything Maxime has done. Stéphane just doesn’t consider anyone his friend. He cannot, or will not, form self-defined personal connections with others even though he clearly has a rapport of some kind with several. Is he denying himself investment as a protective shield, or is he just missing warmth and the ability to truly connect?

Whichever it is, it has lent Stéphane a permanent air of superiority, above such trivialities as human connection or even having opinions in philosophical or political conversation. He goes about intellectually seducing Maxime’s new girlfriend, violinist Camille (Emmanuelle Béart), just because, or maybe because he’s unwilling to admit he’s drawn to her. So you have a very familiar illicit scenario but with an unusual player at its center, skewing all expected developments. This is first and foremost a character study about Stéphane and his reliable inability to change. He’s cruel in how far he takes his anthropological curiosities. He shows more of an intimacy with the inanimate violins he lovingly repairs.

Music is at the center, Ravel’s specifically, and several scenes of Camille playing show her intimacy with the violin (which is the shared bridge between the two) as she carries out its lyrical potential, a potential only possible because Stéphane has fixed the instrument for her. Béart, in what has got to be the only time she ever has or will have to be on the other side of an unrequited love, is magnificent, understandably tormented and confused, always achingly human. A complex film that goes into the answerable qualities and inadequacies of ourselves.

Peter's Friends
#119. Peter’s Friends (1992, Branagh) (UK)

Enjoyable even though it’s aggressively uneven and rote. Stephen Fry is always such an unbridled joy to watch. But we all knew this already. His Peter wears his heart on his sleeve as a distraction for his motivated guardedness. He watches as a happy reunion turns ends up holding critical moments for each former college buddy. Some are able to turn the curve, some, well, TBA. Very hopeful, in ways largely unearned (although I really liked the Hugh Laurie/Imelda Staunton story who sell an unrealistic marital shift wholesale). Carol (co-writer Rita Rudner) and Brian (Tony Slattery), significant others of Andrew (Branagh) and Sarah (Alphonsia Emmanuel), stretch broadness to the limits. Though Carol is allowed a nice scene with Maggie (Emma Thompson), the film can’t wait to dispatch of them, leaving us with the core group of six. Most of Peter’s Friends falls somewhere between a sitcom and bittersweet dramedy, not particularly succeeding in either. Branagh is too go-to on the long takes; sometimes it works, other times it’s lazy.

Emma Thompson’s character disappointingly undergoes the Ally Sheedy Treatment, in that she ceases to be a character once she’s had her makeover.

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Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #105-109


savage nights
#105. Savage Nights (Les Nuits Fauves) (1992, Collard) (France)
AIDS stories, still, are mostly either told from heterosexual perspectives or are glaringly saccharine or simply don’t exist. Sift through all of that and hopefully you’ll eventually find your way to Cyril Collard’s Savage Nights, a searingly open and personal portrait. Collard, the writer, director, and star, was HIV-positive, dying three days before the César’s (where the film took the top prize that year). He smartly addresses the disease by not addressing it. Jean’s (Collard) resolute inability to process haunts the entire film and his actions (or rather inaction). It is made the backdrop for a story about toxic relationships, where Jean’s condition indirectly informs all interpersonal drama.

Jean wears a key around his neck, a permanent personal indicator of what he carries within. His inability to reconcile his status leads to externalizing his destructive tendencies. He inflicts suffering on others without really fully meaning to. Jean’s not a directly malicious guy; in fact he’s full of charm. But his refusal to engage directly in relationships, letting others fawn, yell, tear their hair out over him without ever really putting in or pulling out, stands in for the ways he also refuses to engage with his virus, substituting hedonism for reconciliation.

It may be salaciously called Savage Nights, but Collard is preoccupied with dawn and dusk. Between the car rides and the obsessive pull of emotions, the camerawork tactfully implies (refreshingly not through quick editing) a fast living whirlwind with an at-times trained circling. Blue, red, yellow, the primary colors, predominate the film. The building blocks of living; separate, not in tandem.

Question; how did Romaine Bohringer not catapult to sustained stardom? I’m convinced that Jean was Laura’s first though she insists otherwise.

A tad overlong. The triangle suffers from imbalance, leaving Samy (Carlos López) and (the most taboo material) the realization of his sadistic inclinations underexplored. He ends up feeling like an afterthought compared to Laura.

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#106. The Long Day Closes (1992, Davies)
(UK)
As the opening credits unfold over The Long Day Closes, the roses on the left decay via dissolve, while contrastingly, the ageless music plays. Very similar to Distant Voices, Still Lives in its autobiographical origins of Terence Davies’s 1950’s Liverpool upbringing and the ‘no story’ impetus. This time the father is already absent. It’s like a memory box framed by wall-to-wall song, depicting the essence Bud’s childhood. Davies has described himself as having a ‘photographic emotional memory’ and that’s exactly what this is. These aren’t snapshots. But lingering imprints. Film is used here  to interpret, preserve, represent and capture individual experience in the way memory works. Not as a quickening flipbook like The Tree of Life. But honoring the experience of memory as sense-driven, not narrative-driven in a way at once filled with minutiae and universality.

It’s like a sifter; we don’t see Bud living through childhood, but the act of remembering with a mix of fondness and sadness. I found it to be a lonely film despite its comforts. Bud is always centered, facing directly towards us, addressing us within his own recollections. It makes him removed, never fully part of anything around him good or bad. He is like us; a co-observer.

Rarely have I been more impressed by the use of both sound and dissolves. The preciseness of its construction is a wonder. Like the music, the sound of preexisting cinema is used as an additional aural layer. We hear fanfare and dialogue from the movies Bud has assumedly gazed at. Wind and rain are constants. The film brought up a wide array of reactions in me; one minute I was transfixed (“Tammy”, the shot of the rug) , the next minute listless. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, yet parts of it felt so precise as to be distancing.

rock hudson's home movies
#107. Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992, Rappaport)

Combines visual essay, humoring commentary, and a grand amount of artistic license; this is the kind of loosely defined documentary that today is common to conceptualize and execute in an age where everything is reconfigured into something else many times over. But in 1992 it’s safe to say this wasn’t the case. Rock Hudson, his persona, and his work, are reappraised, using him to reflect back at us the societal norms and expected gendered behavior of past and present. The artistic license is a bit jarring and Eric Farr lends a stilted video-exhibit feel. But it balances the more thesis-like aspects with the humor so well, never letting one encroach or take away from the other.

It’s the Little Things:
– Paula Prentiss ‘fishing’ montage
– Anything involving Tony Randall

Brother's Keeper
#108. Brother’s Keeper (1992, Berlinger/Sinofsky)

Brother’s Keeper isn’t about whether or nor Delbert Ward actually killed his ailing brother Bill. It’s about the dynamics of small communities like Munnsville, NY, where the Wards are fervently supported, without question, by all their fellow townspeople. They put up bail money, hold benefit dinners, and attend the trial with all the muster they have. Part of this support has to do with how iconic the Wards (three brothers total, not including the deceased) within the community. Some kind of know them, some kind of don’t and a few know them quite well. The populace protects the reclusive, mostly illiterate, and mentally debilitated Delbert (same goes for all three) because he is one of their own. They are, as defender, prosecutor, and populace say, ‘simple folk’. The big city versus little town friction comes into play in a major way, mostly in how the Wards were treated by the higher-ups during crucial events like interrogations and the signing of documents.

Owing great debt to the Maysles Brothers, who the film is dedicated to, we oscillate between life with the Wards, interviewing the townspeople, and the anticipation and resolution of the trial. Though the filmmakers are clearly fascinated with these people and this story in a slightly condescending way (though I really don’t know how one would avoid it), it takes a non-judgmental stance as far as the case itself. This is incredibly gripping and mysterious stuff, with more questions than answers by the end. The camera expertly observes the Wards in their environment, attempting to understand and not able to truly break through the supposed simplicity, lending to its power.

It’s the Little Things:
– Warning, there is quite a graphic pig slaughter
– I can honestly say that the scene with Lyman taking the stand is one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to watch.

Film Title: Non-Stop
#109. Non-Stop (2014, Collet-Serra)

OK, so it all goes to shit in the final act, simultaneously predictable in the least inventive way and patently silly but without the fun. But the first two-thirds, publicly aired backstory and diminishing returns aside, are quite enjoyable. Liam Neeson can play these roles in his sleep, and even if I don’t for a second buy him as an on-the-outs alcoholic, watching his comfortably established late-career action man persona is always fun. And I’m a sucker for crisis-in-enclosed-spaces films (Speed, Cube, etc). I’m still waiting for people to admit that Jaume Collet-Serra is better than his reputation suggests. With Orphan he has automatic lifetime interest from me, and Unknown is considerably more astute than people seem to want to admit. Serra’s got some effectively economic moments, using the wide frame and tight shots to enhance the general incapacity for escape, particularly in how people are apt to overlap and share cramped spaces while in danger. Jaume Collet-Serra and Liam Neeson are shaping up to be a lively team, with a third collaboration currently in production.

 

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #90-94


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#90. The Wicked Lady (1945, Arliss) (UK)
Once again, societal expectations of a bygone British era sets the stage for transgression. And once again Margaret Lockwood has her emerald eyes set to the limits of wealth and power, as in The Man in Grey. Unlike The Man in Grey, which saw Hester always in control without ever quite attaining her desires, Barbara acquires status, wealth, and a husband very quickly. She spends the majority of the film fulfilling her own need for excitement, danger, and adrenaline no matter the cost (and it is costly, I assure you). Her motives come from a valid place of stifling and boring expectations for women of the time, explored in a heightened thieving fashion, and through such a heartless character. It’s a win-win for the Gainsborough Pictures, allowing the audience to live vicariously through the Barbara’s deviancy, while doubling back to give her an appropriately nasty end. That she yearns for a traditional life at the end is almost too cruel to her, adding to the film’s ultimately very outdated gender treatment. Margaret Lockwood is wildly great, next-level Hester. James Mason and the rest of the cast apparently held contempt for the corny material and dialogue, but it only adds to the hateful energy, serving the film well.  Lots of cleavage and murder.

Sanshiro-Sugata

#91. Sanshiro Sugata (1943, Kurosawa) (Japan)
Akira Kurosawa shows some chops right off the bat, but I had a very difficult time engaging with this. Prototype for Red Beard,   following the same journey of young stubborn man learning humility from older wiser figure who is at first misrepresented to the audience. The blooming lotus and travels of a lost shoe stand out as soft visual touches.

Blue-Ruin

#92. Blue Ruin (2014, Saulnier) (US)
I’ve seen so many descriptions of Dwight (Macon Blair) that cite him as an incompetent idiot. Hmmm, that’s just not what I saw when I watched Blue Ruin, the anticipated much-talked about pared-down revenge noir. We mistake reality-based average competence, and being led by emotions but unprepared for the follow through, as idiocy. This is what works best about the film; seeing soft-spoken beach bum Dwight determined, but entirely out of his element. Everything in the narrative revolves around guns; their easy access, their power, and the implications of using one. Revels in its minimal story, allowing for an on/off structure of interactions and encompassing solitude. Blair is something else. Painfully ordinary; awkward and inward. But I’m not sure the film adds up to all that much besides a really solid genre exercise. It arrives at its destination and then just throws its hands up in the air.

Innocent Blood

#93. Innocent Blood (1992, Landis) (US)
An atrocious start to my 1992 watchlist. Unequivocally one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. It tries to be a never-before-seen genre hybrid; a self-conscious marriage between vampires and the mafia. Innocent Blood ends up botching both big time, wholly uncommitted with one toe half-heartedly on each side of the fence. Doesn’t attempt enough humor to be a comedy, nor scares to be horror, nor intimidation to be crime. Robert Loggia is aggressively over-the-top, and that’s before he rises from the dead. Anne Parillaud, in her first post-Nikita role, is woefully stilted. There’s a next-level category of bad films, and it’s the most offensive kind. When a film, somehow through its uselessness, manages to instill the impression of not even having watched anything when it ends. Innocent Blood is that kind of bad.

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#94. Godzilla (2014, Edwards) (US)
Even though we are living in an age of unrelenting spectacle, most films of this ilk have no idea how to utilize the concept. Godzilla excels at spectacle, no small feat indeed. From the sense of build-up, and the consistently human perspective from which we see the monsters, it conveys the palpable feeling that the film’s events are bigger than ourselves. Instills a distinct awe punctuated with incredible visual moments, perhaps most memorably the red-streaked plane plummet. Now here’s the rub; the people. To put it mildly, people are clearly not the point; they are place-markers. But Godzilla still tries to hit story beats within its minimal approach, stopping the film dead in its tracks when its only meant to usher narrative along its merrily destructive way.

You’ve got Bryan Cranston (who is marvelous; the man brings instant gravitas), Ken Watanabe, Elisabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, and Juliette Binoche in your film, and we get stuck with Aaron Taylor-Johnson, of all fucking people, for the majority of the running time? Whaaaaaa? Why are we stuck with young bland white males as audience surrogates every. damn. time. The way Watanabe and Hawkins are used works much better. They aren’t characters, and they aren’t supposed to be, but by casting compelling actors, their story-driven concern comes through effectively.

The monster-on-monster action is to-the-moon stellar; sprawling brawling. Things of beauty. Godzilla is far more engaging a being than anyone we see. The film starts small and goes big, a refreshing narrative trajectory lost on blockbuster films with setpiece-led structures. But in trying to blend humanity with the monstrous within the small-t0-big trajectory, it flatlines on the former. As impressive as Godzilla is on the spectacle front, and as much as I approve of how it sees the role of characters in theory, the screenplay insists on attempting to hit emotional beats that it can’t even begin to support. That it does this with a lead actor whose non-performance could put you to sleep is the tipping point.

– I just wanted to give Ken Watanabe a hug the entire time. Poor soul.
– A big fat kudos to the Taylor Nichols appearance

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #57-61


Hangmen Also Die!

#57. Hangmen Also Die! (1943, Lang)
I already have more appreciation for Hangmen Also Die! since watching it, especially in comparison to my largely indifferent gut in media res reaction. The lead actors are unable to make a connection with the audience, there are some moderately significant pacing problems and an unappealing stiltedness to its visual flow. Of Fritz Lang’s WWII quartet, the only other one I’ve seen is Man Hunt, which I felt similarly cold towards. Said quartet has been pretty uniformly overlooked in Lang’s filmography, but there have thankfully been recent surges in exploration and newfound adoration. I’m of two minds with Hangmen Also Die! because it (and Man Hunt), unsurprisingly given Lang’s (and other collaborators here) background and even his somewhat murky politics, engages with WWII in more complex ways that many other films of the time.

Its focus is on a more aggressive and far-reaching brand of anti-Fascist solidarity, going so much further than standard calls of resistance. The Czech underground movement in the film is not alone in defiance. The entire population is, without fail, as openly defiant as they are capable of being. This allows for a conspiratorial final act with such a satisfying and elaborate pay-off. The Nazi characters are portrayed with some degree of specificity; they are full-blooded bullies with subtle shadings as opposed to generically über-efficient. It’ll be hard to forget the eccentric cruelty of an elderly woman being forced to pick up part of a broken chair over and over. But it is Czaka, the traitor, who is seen as the worst offender, and that final act pay-off I mentioned is the film and characters going payback mode on his sorry ass. Hangmen Also Die! is a morale builder, like so many, but a pricklier and moodier kind. I get the sense my appreciation for it will grow as I revisit it years from now.

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#58. Air Force (1943, Hawks)
Surely one of the more objectively successful combat WWII-era films with its progressively concise team-as-singular-entity function. It’s also a perfect example of what the WWII combat film is meant to do in theory; turn the vague and often withheld details of the war into a specific entertainment-based narrative for the civilian audience. It gives a sense of context, something to grasp onto, however inaccurate, in the face of uncertainty. The B-17 is depicted as a sacred weapon and carrier of dutiful familial male bonding. It’s a perfect fit for Hawks. James Wong Howe shoots interiors with multiple men almost always in frame. Instead of reading as claustrophobic, it’s made to feel like a comfortable connective space. Less guided by plot points, more pushed forward by acts of teamwork that show the supportive and determined morale of the crew.

But here’s the rub; combat films couldn’t be of less personal interest to me. It says something that with so many 1943 combat films to choose from, and reading a handful of books on WWII films, that Air Force was the only one of its kind I put on my 1943 watchlist. Air Force is important for the time for successfully offering a scenario of idealized collaborative nobility, but it doesn’t transfer to either today (it’s part of the wartime package but racism abounds), or to my own personal taste, as something I could connect with despite the nice ensemble work and genuine feeling of camaraderie.

Old Acquaintance

#59. Old Acquaintance (1943, Sherman)
Exactly the kind of ‘women’s picture’ I instantly flock to. Though it, of course, suggests that women can’t have both love and a career, its central female-driven study of lifelong friendships somewhat eclipses its more dated cautionary elements. It asks why oh why would someone, in this case Bette Davis, stay friends with someone, in this case Miriam Hopkins, so ceaselessly toxic? Davis’s Kit deserves to be treated so much better. Her best friend happens to be insufferable, dismissive, competitive, insulting and shrill. Kit’s accommodations don’t come from meekness or weakness; it’s voluntary loyalty bordering on martyrdom. She knows Millie’s more questionable traits come from a deep seeded jealousy and insecurity. It’s an extreme case of accepting someone for who they are, for having empathy and understanding when others, justifiably, don’t.

Split into three time periods, Davis is something divine in the first act which sees the characters at their youngest. She is breezily boyish and slack. She even goes to bed pantsless! Kit stays awesome pretty much throughout, but those first thirty minutes are to die for. Davis also plays a character who, in the last half, has to come to terms with dating a significantly younger man, and this seven years before All About Eve. This final half is a bit unfocused with its added youthful players and an newly introduced love triangle that Davis seems altogether too above being involved in. Although the same thing could be said for the love triangle of the first half, as Millie’s husband is a complacent sad sack too cowardly to do something about his own unhappiness.

I’m so fond of the end and its lack of sturdy conclusion in the traditional studio sense; two women, finding solace in forgiveness and each other even with the icky twinge of successful women = sacrificial element. But it’s more. That sense is there, but it circles back to the affirmation of loyalty. And if it puts forth that the two are mutually exclusive, at the very least it doesn’t suggest Kit and Millie made the wrong choice.

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#60. Nymphomaniac Volume II (2014, von Trier)
This second volume makes way for Joe and Seligman to openly discuss the structure of her storytelling and his literalizations. This allows their dialogue to freely move into much touchier, sometimes revelatory, sometimes squicky kinds of talk about such topics as sexual reactions to pain, pedophilia, and the use of the word ‘negro’. Joe reveals herself to be uncompromisingly direct to a fault, that directness stemming from her overreaching tendency to label herself (‘calling a spade a spade’), ushering in a more extreme variant of sexuality to the forefront in content and dialogue. Von Trier’s willingness to engage in a self-dialogue of sorts is rewarding in its matter-of-factness. Joe’s comments about pedophilia in particular are pretty much word-for-word in line with my own thoughts, well, outside of that ‘bloody medal’ bit.

I wish the second half felt consistently successful, but instead it’s anchored and labored. By far what I liked most was the Jamie Bell chapter. Although I think S&M is too often depicted in film with a desperate air, the way it is handled here completely fit within the circumstances of Joe’s predicament and mined engaging thematic territory. Jamie Bell, along with Stellan Skargaard and Uma Thurman are co-MVPs within the opus. His downcast routine-operating sadist blends a peculiar mix of directness and indirectness. The last chapter, Joe’s search and upbringing of a protegee, feels of a different realm and disengagement sets in never to be reclaimed. A final reel recasting of Shia Labeouf to reflect the passing of time is the final step to said realm. Nothing onscreen at that point feels connected to what came before, especially since Gainsbourg and LaBeouf are allowed to share scenes together earlier on. Joe’s rock-bottom moment proves indecipherable and grotesquely over-the-top from all angles (P pees on her? Fucking seriously?).

The final minute is meant to be confrontational but feels like a lazy fuck-you cop-out, von Trier carelessly shooting his own film in the face. Taken as a whole, Nymphomaniac is wildly inconsistent (I’d like to see the eventual 5-hour cut). Joe has high highs and low lows and so does the film; sometimes they match, sometimes not. While it isn’t one of my favorites from von Trier, I loved its structure, its enthusiasm for conversational discourse, and the ways it unsexily portrays sex as something at once explainable and inexplicable, and as relating to all things existential.

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#61. The American Friend (1977, Wenders)
I really need to make sure to consider and write down thoughts on a film soon after seeing it because I tend to get backed up quickly and now it’s been over a week since seeing this and I have no insights! And that’s with me jotting down thoughts in a notebook before even typing stuff up. But anyways, this is my first Wim Wenders film, which I realize is somewhat ridiculous. I’m in love with this. It’s a Ripley adaptation really in name only. The story is presented in a deceptively straight-forward way only to gradually reveal itself as existing on a different and slightly parallel plane from A to B, between traditional narrative and something hovering just above it, reality and concreteness just barely out of reach. There’s an eventual  prioritization of atmosphere and an unspoken mystique to everything. The two main characters and their motivations seem endlessly available for mining. Bruno Ganz is stellar, internally clinging to life, unwilling and skeptical, then all at once in too deep. Ganz singing “Baby you can drive my car” to himself is a perfect thing. And this might be the most hypnotic I’ve seen Dennis Hopper; quietly indecipherable and genuinely haunting. The visual component is a thing of green-and-yellow-hued beauty. The subway and train sequences are old-fashioned suspense in the best sense. Wenders’s regular cinematographer Robby Müller creates some of the best photography to come out of the 70’s.

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #16-20


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#16. For a Few Dollars More (1965, Leone)
Trumps The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for me (!). Found it more consistently engaging on a storytelling level, specifically the set-up of Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef as rival bounty killers who tenuously team up to take down El Indio. They tiptoe around each other for a bit; we are introduced to each via their disparate work strategies. Their first meeting is a special kind of dick measuring contest. Communication comes in boot-crunching, silent assessments and, in a patient bit of comedy with a matched pay-off, hat shooting. In fact the entire film is littered with pay-offs, most notably the finale (big shocker) which had me cheering out loud during a solo viewing for the first time in forever. Those kinds of moments don’t come around often; it’s always affirming to be swept off one’s feet, roused to such a degree and so firmly in a character’s corner as I was the moment Manco shows up with that timepiece.

The incorporation of the timepiece illustrates what I love so much about Ennio Morricone (besides the general fact that he cannot be beat) and his collaborations with Sergio Leone. Music becomes a tent under which the entire production gathers. In both For a Few Dollars More and Once Upon a Time in the West, non-diegetic and diegetic sound merge and inform each other with one common element. In For a Few Dollars More, it’s the timepiece. In Once Upon a Time in the West, it’s the harmonica. The music is a direct outgrowth of the story. Part of the fabric, its essence you could say, gallantly taking off in grander operatic directions.

This is also the most potent I’ve found Clint Eastwood’s presence as iconic figure. All fluidity in his essential movements; ever-watchful and unwavering. Waiting for opportunities to present themselves. Gian Maria Volonté has that Oliver Reed brand of magnetism (something I’d have picked up on immediately even if The Party’s Over hadn’t been the film I watched 2 days before this) with a beguiling touch of Hugh Bonneville. Co-lead Lee Van Cleef is best in show as Colonel Mortimer. Persistent weariness and endearing conviction. All three lead players compliment and elevate each other.

There is a moment that elicits a special level of ‘oh no he didn’t’ when Van Cleef dares to strike a match off Klaus Kinski’s back. I found myself instinctively shouting “WHAT ARE YOU DOING”  and proceeded to have Kevin McAllister face for the remainder of the scene. Sure enough, Kinski starts FACE-TWITCHING. Moments like this are priceless, folks. Priceless.

All in all, Leone continues to perfect frame-filling studies of the masculine face and the vastness around them. Sure enough, the soundtrack has already joined the rest my Morricone on the iPod to be listened to on endless repeat.

Christian Bale;Amy Adams

#17. American Hustle (2013, Russell)
Hodgepodge dress-up. I cannot for the life of me find a point to this, and I don’t mean a discernible ‘message’. That’s not a necessity for me and doesn’t automatically equate any failure. What I mean by ‘point’ is that it ostensibly brings nothing to the table; it stakes out zero territory for itself. On the one hand, it’s light as a feather but without effortlessness or charm. On the other hand, it’s also bogged down in self-imposed ‘seriousness’ but without carrying any weight or impact. It wants to be both comedy and drama. David O. Russell’s strength (right below his work with ensembles) has been toeing the line between the two in ways that service both. That strategy does nothing to lift this project.

Every time it feels like American Hustle might take off, it stays put. Hell, I didn’t even get all that much out of the interplay between actors, which is always what I look forward to from Russell. Basically, the man wants an Oscar so badly, going back to The Fighter, to the point where it wafts off his work, only to be masked by the newly acquired inordinate stink of hair product. On a basic level I enjoyed a lot of the film a little, which is a mite lacking in mileage.

Filled to the brim with endless story detail, the word ‘fun’ keeps popping up in reference to the film, but that didn’t reflect my experience. It pains me to reference performances, or anything for that matter, only in an awards context, but 3/4 of those acting Oscar nods are preposterous if not at all surprising (why hello there Mr. Weinstein). Jennifer Lawrence in particular, who is undeniably very talented (oh how the recent stirrings of backlash are so hilariously predictable and dull), nails the emotions of Rosalyn but is miscast and as a result unable to sell her character. David O. Russell is now 2 for 2 with casting Lawrence in roles too old for her. The only standout is Amy Adams who shatters into place the desperate self-denial of her character and the need to con herself from the inside-out.

The pageantry of the piece is self-conscious, or at least it feels that way. I still can’t tell if this is a good or bad thing. It’s a give-and-take. Was fond of the film pulling for the Bale and Adams relationship.

There are two bona-fide brilliant moments. First is Adams’ left-field bathroom stall howl, a moment of agony and ecstasy. Second is Lawrence, head-chopping and scrubbing away, belting “Live and Let Die” directly to the camera. These types of spontaneous alleyways, these peeks into character, are what I wanted more of.

The three times I laughed:
a. Cooper messing up Bale’s toupee
b. Cooper impersonating Louis C.K (I don’t know if I’ve seen a funnier moment this year)
c. Lack of resolution to C.K’s ice-fishing parable

I so dearly miss the David O. Russell of Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees. The issues I had with Silver Linings Playbook are irredeemable and more infuriating, but this one is yet even less of an achievement.

the train

#18. The Train (1965, Frankenheimer)
The bookends of moral dilemma serve as John Frankenheimer’s statement, with a steely action flick sandwiched in-between. Solid diversion in which it is easy to see the acclaim even if I can’t whole-heartedly hop aboard. Frankenheimer dollies around the premises with an excellent sense of establishing situation and place in one fell swoop. Burt Lancaster is game to play his own reckless stunt man, yet amusingly and unsurprisingly (and isn’t this part of the fun?), puts zero effort into convincing us he’s French. In this instance, Lancaster has a tough time connecting to the audience with his character and general presence, but this could also have something to do with his character being disconnected from the specific stakes in play.

Are inanimate objects, even masterpieces of art, worth the risk of human life? Frankenheimer and Lancaster’s Labiche answer with a resounding no. Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) is an obsessive connoisseur and appreciator of the arts to the point where he feels ownership to the masterworks at risk. In the meantime, Lancaster’s motives are purely revenge-based. So there’s a topsy-turvy quality to the motives in motion. The end is a statement coda and resonates in a confrontational way. Even if I don’t agree with Frankenheimer’s perspective, he throws a pile of dead bodies at the audience, right next to the pile of paintings that get to persevere as a result. Throw in a spiteful revenge killing and you’ve got an ending that leaves us on a dire note, a note that forces you to think and sit with the consequences. For that I admire The Train.

Le Bonheur

#19. Le Bonheur (1965, Varda)
It’s as if Agnes Varda’s point of view should be clear as day to me. Clear as the found and placed pop colors that populate the Le Bonheur, giving it a cognizant and joyful brightness. But the film is elusive, or at least I find it to be, and that’s what draws me to it so much. The more I think about it, and read about it, I keep coming back to the name (as ya do). Happiness. For quite a while the film soaks in a picaresque and tranquil happiness. Nature seemingly pervades but really conceals just-over-there civilization. The married couple (who are married in real life) have perfectly behaved little cherubs (yes those are also their actual children). They make love in the grass. There are no complaints, no problems.

When Francois finds a look-alike of his wife to also love, we get a portrait of a different kind of cad. A cad who honest-to-goodness has no idea he is one. He is happy. He is the happiness of the title. It’s not an affair borne out of the usual domestic tiredness. He simply has a compartmentalized way of looking at things. Self-excusing and wrought with florid nonsense as his explanations are, I agree with a lot of the basics of his thought process. But the fact of the matter is that he has embarked, solo, on a polyamorous relationship without the other’s consent. Without care or any spark of consideration for his other half, or even for his second other half.

His wife has little personality. She is loving, demure, shines bright. Her life is a domestic one; blissful, but it revolves around him. Everything she has is based on the notion that he is hers. That he thinks what he’s doing is okay simply because it doesn’t change how he feels is most selfish of all because Therese’s feelings are screened out. Not even on the table. She does everything she is ‘supposed’ to, but there’s still someone else. She can’t handle this but Emilie can and takes her dutiful place. The new and easily repaired couple walk off in newfound glory, seen in increasingly mournful distance, surrounded by the beautiful decay of autumn. I don’t know if I’m anywhere near the mark here (but whatever, individual interpretation is subjective so it’s okay), but this is what I took away from it.

Watching the onscreen ‘happiness’ at the start can take a toll on the viewer, and thus it takes a while for Le Bonheur to get going, but once it does it’s engaging. Jean-Claude Drouot looks exactly like Bill Hader. Varda’s camera is potent and sly.

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#20. Her (2013, Jonze)
Separate post coming soon 

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 #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

Review: Pacific Rim (2013, Del Toro)


Pacific Rim

This review contains moderate spoilers:

To start off, I prefer my action to involve actual human beings; hand-to-hand combat, chase sequences, and the like. Executed poorly, as they often are, and it can be just as tedious as anything else. Executed well and there’s a chance I’m watching in awe. Big-scale action set-pieces involving monster and machine (or Kaiju and Jäger), all conceptualized and constructed with CGI can only interest me so much. Once the human element goes chances are, so does my investment. This is not to disregard the countless men and women who poured their sweat, blood and souls into these special effects. Because I want to be clear; the special effects work on Pacific Rim is often stellar and all-encompassing. Creature design, machine logistics and how the two meet and try to destroy each other on the battlefield is top-notch from a technical standpoint. My aforementioned preferences make it tempting to write Pacific Rim off as an ‘it just wasn’t for me’ miss. But there are far too many fumbles, including piss-poor writing and combative redundancy, for that to be the case. Putting it simply, too much is too much; at a certain point Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em overkill renders everything onscreen null and void.

To very simply sum up the story, Pacific Rim is set in the near future where Kaiju, Japanese for strange creatures, have come through tectonic plates in the Pacific to attack major cities. The bulk of the film takes place in Year Seven of the attacks which show no sign of stopping. By this time, mankind has responded by building giant machines, or Jäger, which are manned by two co-pilots who must build a neural bridge, or handshake, so they can physically operate the machine. There’s a cast of characters headed by Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam), a has-been who hasn’t piloted in five years.

The groundwork for something worthwhile is here, spearheaded by Guillermo Del Toro’s giddy reference-littered boyhood passions. Del Toro’s obsession doesn’t quite transfer to the screen (though it’s concentrated in the Charlie Day character) instead existing in sheer volume, a staunch unwillingness to let up or trim the fat. The idea of the anticipatory build-up is not a concept that appears in Pacific Rim, making everything we see unearned. He gives the audience what they want right out the starting gate and doesn’t let up until the credits roll. This kind of structure simply does not work. Everything we see gets appreciated less as a result and any sense of trajectory for the audience is lost. When the fighting does let up, it’s only for table-setting and painfully lazy character arcs and dynamics.

An example of necessary fat-trimming: the fifteen minute prologue sequence featuring Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) and his brother doesn’t need to be there. Keeping the initial voiceover narration and saving other world-building elements for later would have yielded the same result. It is clear from the first moment how this will end. All that time is poorly utilized, failing to establish any investment in Raleigh and his brother. We could have learned about his past the same way we learned about Mako; during the drift. Mako’s flashback is far more effective than Raleigh’s prologue sequence even though it substitutes the predictability of revenge motivation for character development. It also helps that the girl they cast as young Mako has freakish emotive abilities.

Back to the original point; extract the emotional essence of that first sequence and save it for later as a memory. Then we’d first meet Raleigh on the wall. When Stacker (Idris Elba) helicopters in to see him, it could have been an intriguing introduction for both characters. Make us wait for the first battle. There is no difference between the opening set-piece and the next couple outside of the prologue’s use of editing to demonstrate the necessary cohesive teamwork between co-pilots and Jäger. But Del Toro has such an itchy trigger finger, immediately laying everything out on the table. Instead of a gripping opening set-piece, it is a trailer for what is to come, the answer of which is more of the same. And then, then the title appears. We’re supposed to think, ‘I can’t wait to see what else is in store’. But my thought was ‘Good Lord, we’ve only just begun and I’m already staving off waves of disinterest.’

Most of the fights lack interest due to a blandly monochromatic color palette which makes movement, sense of space and action murky to look at. The Kaiju and Jäger often fight in the rain and in the ocean, giving everything we see onscreen a dark blue-grey tint. It may help the effects work smoothly blend in with environment, but it washes over design detail and makes the causal effect of fighting blurry and therefore uninvolving. The later set-pieces improve on this. One set-piece late in the film, which takes place on the emptied streets of Hong Kong, is legitimately fantastic. Awash with a reflective neon rainbow backdrop, the Kaiju and Jäger become color-hued monstrosities that interact with their environment on a level other than destruction. It is no coincidence that the meat of the fighting becomes easier to discern as well as far more engaging to watch.

What is so upsetting about Pacific Rim, is that Del Toro clearly fancies this a humanist film. Believe it or not, he actually does care about the emotions behind these characters, what drives them and brings them together, the teamwork and completely underexplored connective tissue of the drift and how the Kaiju affects humanity on a global scale. But such a harmful imbalance of priorities leads to far too much of what could have been a good thing and far too little humanism, clearly meant to be a major contributing factor. What we get are cardboard archetypes led by a bland-as-can-be-lead, apologies to the talented Charlie Hunnam who is unable to turn nothing into something here, and some unforgivably stilted dialogue. I’m not looking for great characters in a film like this; but archetypes need to be well executed and these decidedly are not. The surrogate father-daughter bond between Idris Elba, who is unsurprisingly able to get a lot of mileage out of his character, and Rinko Kikuchi has a lot of potential (what’s there is quite good) but is given short shrift. The script uses characters as a delivery service for packaged up largely artificial emotion and it is too little too late.

There’s no doubt that Guillermo Del Toro world-builds like a master. But his sense of proportion leaves Pacific Rim a mostly hollow sluggish experience despite having an excellent director, a wonderful diverse cast of actors, top-notch effects work and a solid premise. With so much talent on display everywhere you look, it is a shame I was fully unable to appreciate its more successful elements (production and creature design, effects work) because I was too busy being suffocated by redundant cacophonous destruction.

Little Details:

– Rinko Kikuchi’s introduction is memorable
– The consistency in sound work re: Ron Perlman’s spur-sounding golden-tipped shoes.
– “1. Don’t ever touch me again. 2. Don’t ever touch me again” Also, Elba’s reaction to being touched was pure gold.
– Of course I really enjoyed Kikuchi’s try-out scene.

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #118-124


Pirate Radio
#118. The Boat That Rocked (aka Pirate Radio) (2009, Curtis)

I watched the UK version of this film which added an extra twenty minutes. I don’t have one good thing to say about this film. Not a-one. OK, one. The soundtrack is impressively extensive, so much so that though there are the cliched cues it is also chockful of excellent tracks.

Everything else about this incomprehensible clusterfuck is a major miss. Here’s a hypothetical; say BBC wanted to make a show using the days of pirate radio as a backdrop. The writers comes up with a fun wacky boys club of a radio crew. They shoot an entire season. But the show never ends up airing. They decide to use the footage and make a film. But which footage to choose? The film is eventually constructed by picking scenes out of a hat and randomly splicing them together. The original material wasn’t funny or entertaining to begin with. Now, chopped to all hell, it’s damn near intolerable.

This isn’t the story behind what happened with The Boat That Rocked, but it sure feels like it in a nutshell. It has zero interest in actually portraying the days of pirate radio. Kenneth Branagh as a stuffy Brit who hates rock n’ roll fiends is pure caricature. OK fine. So history not a priority. That’s fine. Maybe our raunchy radio crew made up of great actors, and let’s not forget that lesbian punch-line of a character, can at least provide some semblance of joy? Nope. No go. I love a lot of these actors, but they’ve got nothing to work with. They can’t even stumble onto something funny. There’s no saving grace.

The portrayal of women is despicable. No attempt is made to make any of them into anything other than harpy objects, two-timers and screeching backstabbers. It is truly horrifying; the kind of blatant mean-spiritedness that irks me more than any other kind of onscreen sexism. Richard Curtis decides to employ a slightly shaky camera to illustrate that they are on a boat!!! The Boat That Rocked might be the most haphazard production I’ve seen in years. I can’t even construct an articulate review about it. All flames on the side of my face.

Behind the Candelabra
#119. Behind the Candelabra (2013, Soderbergh)

Undoubtedly my favorite Steven Soderbergh film in a very long time (since Traffic?). Behind the Candelabra is biographical, campy, comedic, showbizzy, heartwrenching, bizarre and poignant all at once. You could watch it once and latch onto one of its parallel modes of design. Watch it another time and give yourself over to a different thread. Michael Douglas and Matt Damon have seriously never been better. And Rob Lowe is going to haunt your nightmares.

The film takes the conventional rise-and-fall relationship trajectory and uses that structure to examine toxicity and devotion. These relationships that Liberace embarked on were genuine for him, yet completely artificial in their almost unconscious ritual cycle. Douglas lets us see a little slime underneath the bedazzle, just enough to really grey things up. Scott on the other hand is supposed to be extremely young. As in, 19. As in, they obviously took liberties with the casting. But I’m completely okay with this because it’s Matt Damon! This relationship is new for Scott.  Also genuine on one level, but subtly duplicitous in the perks of living the life and the downward spiral he allows himself to go on.

The glitz, cosmetic surgery, PR work and pills make up this fragile veneer where everyone is going big or going home in a constant effort to keep up a transparent lie in more ways than one. Oh, and kudos for Cheyenne Jackson who kills every second of his tiny role. On a final note, the Matt Damon eye candy on at ridiculously high levels. So get on that people.

Point Break
#120. Point Break (1990, Bigelow)

One reason why Point Break resonates through the years, besides the justified Hurt Locker-inspired tidal wave of Kathryn Bigelow love resulting in another filmography assessment, is the unparalleled way it brings together blasts of cheese with jolts of visceral power. That kind of fusion is also in the story which brings together surfing, spirituality, bank robberies, undercover cops, skydiving and male bonding in a way all its own.

That committed spirituality gives Point Break a complex perspective because of the way a search for serenity is linked to Patrick Swayze’s Bodhi. The central friendship is deftly explored and while Reeves walks around with his pink surfboard and gives some pretty golden line readings, Patrick Swayze walks away with the film. His Bodhi is well-meaning but convoluted and desperate. He was written and performed with care, ambiguity and empathy. In other casting notes, Bigelow apparently pushed for Lori Petty. The writers were initially envisioning a thin blonde surfer chick. Instead Petty breaks out onto the scene, future cult icon stamping her presence with her brand of punk-rasp.

Back to the story, there is something really purely entertaining about Point Break but also arresting (like the on-foot chase scene) and often stunning (the surfing and skydiving scenes are breathtakingly shot and even oddly moving). It’s a preposterous film that goes beneath its potentially gimmicky plot to look at soft and hard masculinity and the search for peace through adrenaline while never being anything less than a complete scream.

Blood
#121. Blood (2013, Murphy)
Full Review on Cine Outsider: http://www.cineoutsider.com/reviews/films/b/blood.html
I chose not to post this review on my site because although I’m very happy with the end result, it doesn’t quite feel like it’s mine because much external editing went into it. But of course I urge anyone to read it!

PointBlank3
#122. Point Blank (1967, Boorman)

Lee Marvin, single-minded zombie in purgatory, is on a mission. He’s been double-crossed and he wants his $92,000. Point Blank is a  time-old tale of betrayal told with a sparse dream-fevered futile air. Walker isn’t a character but a blank slate. It’s not about the mission but its emptiness. Within the rabbit-hole grip of corporate crime, nobody ever sees money in the unbreakable daylight streaks of L.A.

Tangibles like the monochromatic color schemes and Walker’s single-mindedness collide with bursts of kaleidoscopic rainbows and a sustained feeling of Alain Resnais-lite deja vu. No wonder John Boorman’s French New Wave-cum-Antonioni inspired sensibilities didn’t come off with audiences in 1967. Characters rarely face each other, most often talking into the vast open space before them.

Boorman predates a ton of formal techniques later to be defined within the American New Wave; precision-like zoom, asynchronous sound, fully utilized lenses, playing with time through editing and acutely thoughtful and highly stylized composition. The opening credits alone are a series of Lee Marvin poses, memorable in silhouette  and hulking mass. Boorman was ahead of his time within American cinema with Point Blank and it still comes off with a burst of fresh experimental energy almost half a century later. I found engaged to the hilt by this film. Another new favorite (I have a lot of those). As it moves back and forth through time and as memory, ennui, and listless violence bleed into each other, the elliptical Point Blank captures you in its suspended atmosphere of free association. Neo-noir as innovative existential tone poem.

A New Leaf
#123. A New Leaf (1971, May)

A riotously dark screwball comedy that marked the beginning of Elaine May’s contentious relationship with studios due to perfectionism and an apparent inability to ever finish her work at any stage. This aside, A New Leaf is one of the funniest films I’ve seen, finding its humor through an unabashed commitment to perspective of Walter Matthau’s potential fall from wealth. It’s my favorite performance from Matthau, a perverted distillation of long extinct class customs. The joke is that he hasn’t built a life around his wealth; his wealth is his life.

When Elaine May enters as bespectacled oblivious waif Henrietta the joy comes from seeing these two characters clash. Their repartee is different from the banter game-play of various screwball twosomes.  First of all, May isn’t aware of said clash; from her perspective she is simply stumbling into a perfect match. The clash exists, oh does it exist for Matthau, but he has to do everything in his power to hide this conflict of interest towards her. Where she sees Prince Charming, we see a man seething from within, pulsating with repulsion, just waiting until he can off her. A New Leaf does its best to veer away from sincerity which could threaten to undo the somehow lovably nasty streak Matthau leads with throughout. May writes her dialogue with such a matter-of-fact drollness that on first glance belies its instant quotability and staying power. But there’s just enough redemption at hand for it to earn its conclusion without the film betraying itself.

– The ‘I’m poor’ montage took me completely by surprise and had me crying and howling with laughter more than anything I’ve seen in years. ‘Goodbye’

le-cercle-rouge
#124. Le Cercle Rouge (1970, Melville)

Jean-Pierre Melville is someone whose films I’ll always look at with the detached appreciation of a lover of film; not necessarily with a comes-from-within feeling of vitality. Although who the hell knows. I remember really being very fond of Bob Le Flambeur when I saw it long ago. As for Le Samourai; I need to see it again. I don’t trust my opinions on anything when I was 17.

So that detached appreciation comes in many forms and Le Cercle Rouge kept my interest throughout. It has Melville’s reliable stark sleekness, that essence of Parisian cool where its down-to-business at all times. Careful visuals and the use of cinematic space phase out the need for words. Alain Delon remains a physical representation up against those cool blue surroundings (with touches of forest greens) at every turn. Melville uses him as a statuesque icon, transferring his indelible persona to a state of poker-faced steadiness. Le Cercle Rouge in particular is stripped down to a skeletal story, uncluttered by character development or plot detours. It’s a prototype of cool that countless filmmakers would alter build off of. Characters slowly but surely make their way towards that fictional red circle, collaborating through an innate unspoken pull to each other and their heist.

Films Seen in 2013: Round-Up: #80-85 & Reintroduction #31


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#80. Room 237 (2013, Ascher)
After a director and his/her countless contributing collaborators make a film, it gets sent out into the masses. In this post-modern world, what a director intends is only part of the collective identity that makes up the final product. In Room 237, five people have obsessively picked apart Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, offering up their theories as Rodney Ascher meshes them together in a blender of visual theses. There’s a lot of engaging digging to be had with Room 237, and I always love watching or reading about films getting picked apart. However, a pervading sense of theoretical extremism comes across. The theories posited are all loopy, giving an overall misrepresentative tilt to how cinephiles think of films, or at least how I like to think they do. Stanley Kubrick being the precise genius he was fully invites this level of outside-the-box examination with his works. His films give off an air of the infinite. I just wish the critical analysis felt a bit more substantive and less foolish and outlandishly idiosyncratic.

Witness

#81. Witness (1985, Weir)
Filled with Peter Weir’s reliable brand of culturally specific serenity and anchored by an atypically subdued performance by Harrison Ford (his only Oscar nomination). Weir shifts between thriller and quiet culture shock drama nicely and he was the perfect director for this material. Lukas Haas reminded me a bit of little Bobby Henrey from The Fallen Idol, observant and ever-peering. But as the film moves towards its climax, we forget Haas exists. There are moments to cherish in each of its three distinct acts, but Maurice Jarre’s preposterously dated synth score distracts from the film’s impact. Though Weir’s reverence for the Amish community is considered and poetic (the indoor scenes are at times stunningly Vermeer-like), the tone lulls a bit too much overall.

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82. Face/Off (1997, Woo)
A blast and then some only begins to describe the elation of watching the flamboyant action gun-fu of John Woo’s Face/Off. Cinematic gun fights don’t do it for me, unless the emphasis is put on the anticipation of. There’s nothing physical or exhaustive about it and my only substantial complaint about last year’s The Raid: Redemption was that in order to get to the pencak silat, you had to sit through a half an hour of relentless gun slaughter. But John Woo makes everything balletic and flamboyant. If there’s anyone who can bring the machismo version of melodramatic camp to the world of action, it’s Woo. But the morality of gunplay, suits, birds, near-biblical proportions, stunts, explosions, loaded gestures and slo-mo, the things we expect from Woo, are only a small part of why I loved Face/Off.

The primary joy doesn’t even come from the action, but from the deliriously preposterous high concept of identity swapping, and the carte blanche it gives to Nicolas Cage and John Travolta. Now, we all know Cage can bring the crazy, and his beginning scenes as villainous Caster Troy do not disappoint. But for the majority, he has to play John Travolta’s somber and son-less Sean Archer and Travolta has to slip into Cage’s brand of wide-eyed frenzy. Face/Off is all about toying with audience expectations in regards to established onscreen personas and using that to explore transformation of identity. The film’s success rests on whether or not we can believe each is in the other’s skin, and we absolutely do. Travolta had to be able to match the energy of Cage’s early scenes and he does, giving the kind of performance I honestly had not thought capable of him. Not everyone would be able to successfully channel Nic Cage. Their transformations turn into a kind of hyper-kinetic existential crisis as scenario after scenario emerges. They’ve swapped faces, but they have identities and relationships to take on that come with it. So Travolta and Cage have to not only embody the other persona, but the other persona has to keep up appearances as the first persona. Trippy stuff.  Identity becomes malleable but also a trap and the mind-games that slipping into someone’s face affords each runs the gamut. Absolutely a new favorite of mine.

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#83. Switchblade Sisters (1975, Hill)
There’s something uncommonly developed about Switchblade Sisters that had me at hello, catapulting it to that top-tier level of exploitation. Yes, there’s that crucial scene between Maggie and Dominic that I wish to hell had been changed. Even in a genre as silly as this where bad taste and offensiveness run streaking in the streets, the aforementioned scene was a huge misstep. And I was also disappointed that these girls are still subordinate to their male counterparts and that the guys had to leave the girls, instead of the girls realizing that being treated like shit isn’t ideal. There’s an almost Shakespearean quality that’s been pointed out in the internal conflicts of the gang, rooted in scheming, betrayal and blinding loyalty that blend the ultimate in highbrow and lowbrow. As the film continues, the girls shed the male characters and go from the complimentary Dagger Debs to the independent Jezebels, teaming up with a group of black communist revolutionaries led by Muff.

Chipmunk-like Robbie Lee, the striking Joanne Nail and plotting one-eyes Monica Gayle all unashamedly impressed me. It’s the best kind of bad acting there is, and call me crazy but I’m even hesitant to call it bad. There’s integrity to their performances (even if Nail is all over the map) that they and only they hold onto amidst the dopiness, making the roles their own and I admired that. Robbie Lee in particular, who looks about twelve and sounds like Vanellope von Schweetz but intimidates everybody, took me aback. She’s relentlessly cruel on the outside with barely-there tinges of empathy, but as the film moves forward her idiocy and gullible nature hold her back in relation to Dominic and Patch. She crumbles and then fuels that perceived weakness into misguided rage. I’d honestly also count this amongst a new favorite of mine as well despite it being wildly problematic and offensive, the way we expect a Jack Hill film to be. Closes with a memorable maniacal crescendo of a speech by Joanne Nail.

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#84. Hansel and Gretel (2007, Yim)
Just a warning; if you watch this on Instant Netflix, the frame rate is dismal. But I’d definitely recommend checking this one out. The kind of rejuvenated push I like to see in fairy tale inspired films. Instead of mythology and action and epic scales, Hansel and Gretel takes inspiration from the tale and molds a dark fantasy reminiscent of “The Twilight Zone” and coated with the youthful tragedy of Pan’s Labyrinth. Horror becomes more felt when you root it in tangible sadness and while the film overextends its explanations, by the end you feel not terror but melancholy, making you feel more than you expected. Hansel and Gretel finds its horror elements in the ways grown-ups can fail to provide a semblance of expected paternal comfort. Think the opposite; the film goes about it in some pretty unflinching ways. Though it needed to be trimmed by fifteen minutes and lead Chun Jung-myung waxes inertia, Yim Pil-sung and crew successfully takes a different tack by unsettling the viewer with its bright playground postcard of a house. It’s an inescapable child’s nirvana a little too picaresque, with inhabitants a little too smiley and ready-to-please. The perfect family always seems off-kilter and this is the conceit used to usher us into the protective and falsely euphoric fortress built by Man-bok, Young-hee and Jung-soon.

sleuth

#85. Sleuth (1972, Mankiewicz)
Glad to have finally caught this on TCM. I had seen the first hour years ago and it’s not available on Netflix. Sleuth is a tennis match of elaborate game-playing humiliation. Based on the 1970 play by Anthony Schaffer and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s final film, the tete-a-tete on display is exactly the kind of psychological chamber piece I love. The stakes get higher and higher as manhood is tested and the new generation takes over the class-obsessed old. And all in the bonkers reclusive circus mansion of wind-ups, automatons and self-obsession. Schaffer could have cut some of the dialogue as Olivier’s playacting becomes exhausting after a while. The last act is my favorite, a revenge-filled wordplay as time quickly runs out.

Reintroductions:

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#31. Phantom of the Paradise (1974, De Palma)
First Seen in: 2008
I’ll just get right to it; I don’t just love Phantom of the Paradise. I cherish it. It’s an admixture of influences and well-timed lampooning. It’s “Phantom of the Opera”, “Faust”, “The Picture of Dorian Gray”  and a slew of sprinkled horror references all rolled up into a low-rent camp send-up of the rock industry, eventually imploding upon itself as it goes deeper and deeper into an increasingly accelerated timeline of one-day-you’re-in-the-next-you’re-out. Anyone who knows the things I love knows Paul Williams is high up on the list. And this is as much a showcase for him as it is for Brian De Palma and his stockpile of inventive and lively camerawork. Writing the words and music, which fall into different waves of rock trends, and starring as the Satanic Swan, he is the fittingly ubiquitous glue of Phantom, summing up just how crucial and identity-making 1974 is to the film, especially in its satirical generational edge. And he somehow makes for one of the most oddly compelling, unexpectedly effective ‘villain’ roles in a film I’ve ever seen. Maybe it’s the unexpectedness of it. Certainly part of it is the way Williams plays it mostly straight, with a healthy dose of heightened caricature. It’s a comedy, but some of the best comedies feature performances that belie their labels. Same goes for William Finley, that gawky bug-eyed wonder of never-outgrown high school nerd-dom. Part of Phantom of the Paradise’s charm is that with Paul Williams and William Finley, you’ve got two of the most unlikely leads ever to be seen.

Someday I’d like to write more about this film and really dig deep into why I love it. Lately, I’ve sort of gone-blank writing wise. It happens often, but I just have to force myself to keep at it. Suffice it to say, this is the ultimate cult film. Wall-to-wall with fabulous songs, reconstructing stories we’ve seen so many times and giving it a new campy edge that’s about as much fun as you can have at the movies. Second only to Blow Out as my favorite Brian De Palma film, I fell in love of every single second of this upon re-watching it. True love at second sight and a new Top 100 favorite. There’s so many little details that stick out, that feel entirely its own. Like Jessica Harper’s endearing and spontaneous cluck-like dance moves. The sacrosanct characteristics I watch films for. Moments like that.