Top Ten By Year: 1978


For those unaware of my Top Ten By Year project:
The majority of my viewing habits have been dictated by this project since September 2013. Jumping to a different decade each time, I pick weak years for me re: quantity of films seen and/or quality of films seen in comparison to other years from said decade. I use list-making to see more films and revisit others in a structured and project-driven way. And I always make sure to point out that my lists are based on personal ‘favorites’ not any notion of an objective ‘best’. I’ve completed 1935, 1983, 1965, 1943, 1992, and now 1978. Next I’ll be doing 1925.

So, we’re finally at the end. 1978 contained my longest watchlist and the longest time spent on an individual year in the Top Ten By Year project. I was reminded just how much I love 70’s cinema. That it’s not just about New Hollywood and the force of macho film-school bred auteurists. 1978 catches us between two worlds in American cinema. On the one end is the reign of the thinking man’s picture, mid-scale character dramas, revisionist genre play, and expansive rule-breaking. On the other end, this is three years after Jaws and a mere year after surprise phenomenon Star Wars; studios are quickly realizing that youth is the most potentially profitable demographic. Superman is about to become the first film deliberately constructed blockbuster, with the now ubiquitous strategic ad campaign and excessive merchandising. Though we now recognize the overlap between the two, the modestly scaled and heavily auteur-driven genre play of the 70’s will soon give way to the big-scale classic pop genre play of the 80’s. With Vietnam three years in the past, filmmakers are beginning to investigate the country’s very messy recent history. And while we somewhat rightfully refer to the nostalgia drenched culture of today as a poisonous succubus that has only recently swallowed up pop culture, looking at some of the top films of 1978 such as Grease, Superman, National Lampoon’s Animal House and Heaven Can Wait, demonstrates this as an age-old custom.

All Top Ten By Year: 1978 posts:
Poll Results
Movie Poster Highlights 
1978 Movie Music Mix
What I’ll Remember About the Films of 1978: A Love Letter (includes Suggested Double Features and Favorite Shots)
10 Honorable Mentions plus Grease

Biggest Disappointments:
California Suite
Same Time, Next Year
Alucarda
Capricorn One
Empire of Passion
Despair
Five Deadly Venoms

Some Blind Spots:
Gates of Heaven,  Perceval le Gallois, La Cage aux Folles, The Tree of Wooden Clogs, Who’ll Stop the Rain, The Boys from Brazil, Big Wednesday, The Green Room, Fingers, Graduate First (so sad I couldn’t find this), Lord of the Rings, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, Every Which Way But Loose, The Big Fix, Convoy, My Way Home, Crippled Avengers, American Boy: A Profile of Stephen Prince, Don, Nighthawks, China 9, Liberty 37, The Buddy Holly Story, The Shooting Party, The Scenic Route

I had seen 16 films prior to this. I’ve now seen 64 films from 1978.

TOTAL LIST OF FILMS SEEN IN 1978: (bold indicates first-time viewings during research, italics indicates re-watches during research):
Alucarda, Always for Pleasure, Autumn Sonata, Avalanche, Blue Collar, Blue Sunshine, California Suite, Capricorn One, The Cheap Detective, Coma, Coming Home, Dawn of the Dead, Days of Heaven, Death on the Nile, The Deer Hunter, The Demon, Despair, Drunken Master, Empire of Passion, Du er ikke alene (You Are Not Alone), Eyes of Laura Mars, Fedora, Five Deadly Venoms, Foul Play, The Fury, Girlfriends, Grease, Halloween, Heaven Can Wait, Heroes of the East, Interiors, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, In a Year of 13 Moons, Jubilee, Killer of Sheep, Krabat (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), The Last Waltz, Long Weekend, The Mafu Cage, Magic, The Metamorphosis of Mr. Samsa (short), Midnight Express, Mongoloid (short), National Lampoon’s Animal House, Panna a Netvor (Beauty and the Beast), Pretty Baby, Remember My Name, Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (The Meetings of Anna), Same Time Next Year, Satiemania (short), The Shout, The Silent Partner, Straight Time, Superman, Thank God It’s Friday, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, An Unmarried Woman, Up in Smoke, Violette Noziere, Watership Down, A Wedding, Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?, The Wiz

Key:
FTV = First-Time Viewing
RW = Re-watch
LTF = Long Time Favorite

Mafu Cage 110. The Mafu Cage (US, Arthur) (FTV)
Top Ten By Year: 1978 is bookended with films directed by women. I couldn’t really say whether The Mafu Cage is well-regarded or not because it’s not regarded, period. Hell, it doesn’t even have a wikipedia page. In one way this makes sense; the majority of people are likely to be turned off by this claustrophobic and perverse story. In another way, it makes no sense whatsoever; just where oh where is the cult following for The Mafu Cage??? Come out from behind those bushes, people! There are so few of us (thank you author Kier-La Janisse, whose essential book House of Psychotic Women brought the film’s existence to my attention)! It’s massively fucked up and pretty tasteless, but surprisingly stirring, very intimate, and so very very loaded. It’s also one of the more bizarre and discomfiting fictional realms I’ve ever been invited to participate in. This is really uncomfortable stuff, people (extended appropriation of African culture as characterization and monkeys that no doubt felt some level of trauma in real life from the filming of this); familial support gone horribly horribly wrong. 

Where does The Mafu Cage fit within female-driven horror? Is it horror? Absolutely, (although it’s equal parts psychological chamber drama), especially its incorporation of taboo subjects and the way narrative plays out in regards to Cissy’s victims. It could easily be a companion to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and other psycho-biddy films. Just take out the aging camp legends and insert the apocalyptic Carol Kane.

I’ve always loved Carol Kane but this is a whole other can of worms; she is absolutely unapologetic here. What’s wrong with Cissy? Well, what isn’t wrong with her? She lives in self-imposed seclusion with her sister in a Los Angeles home that recreates the African jungle of her youth. She’s like a child, living off delusions and whims. She says “DUMBSHIT” when provoked, which is often. She screeches and yells a lot. She is possessive, entirely irrational, and in no way equipped to be functional within anything resembling reality. Capable of momentary self-reflection, it’s only a matter of time before she  inverses self-awareness. Kane plays Cissy as someone trapped in her own patterns of behavior, which are unfortunately defined by the death of people and animals alike. She is a tantrum-led woman suffering from severe unchecked mental illness. Her sister Ellen (Lee Grant) means well but is ultimately an enabler, keeping a promise to their father to protect her, shielding her instead of getting her the help she so clearly needs.

Karen Arthur was the first woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Directing in a Drama Series (for a 1985 episode of “Cagney and Lacey”). She was the second female member of the DGA. Arthur does a beautiful job with this material, and it’s a shame the film mostly exists at a video quality level. The film is filled with strangely bewitching images. She confronts Cissy even though we and those around her walk on eggshells in her presence. Montages cement her behavior as part of a cycle. The Mafu Cage played at Cannes, received a good reception and then a weak independent release only to disappear. I’m hoping at least a few people seek it out because of this post.

i wanna hold your hand9. I Wanna Hold Your Hand (US, Zemeckis) (FTV)
From time to time Robert Zemeckis marries touchstone history to the lives of his characters. His success rate varies but his first film, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, is scaled to chaotic perfection. This isn’t Forrest Gump haplessly stumbling through hallmark events like a walking gimmick; this is a dogged unshakable group of fanatical girls who very much want to shove their way into a national moment; by gaining access to The Beatles on the day they’re set to perform on the Ed Sullivan show (February 9th, 1964).

In my Honorable Mentions post, in reference to Thank God It’s Friday, I mentioned my love for One Crazy Day/Night films (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Modern Girls, Adventures in Babysitting, After Hours, Magnolia, ParaNorman; the list goes on and on). I Wanna Hold Your Hand is a lesser known treasure of the subgenre. It starts at the eventual final destination, with Ed Sullivan’s rehearsal session, and quickly branches out to our core group, made up of obsessives and reluctant and/or opposed tagalongs. When our characters enter the abyss of countless fanatics on the same quest, they quickly find themselves splintering off, and soon the characters are having their own individual adventures.

The most entertaining of these is the soon-to-be-married Pam (Nancy Allen) who at one point finds herself alone in The Beatles hotel room. I’ve grown so fond of Nancy Allen’s bright-eyed cherubic quality over the years, and seeing her lust over leftovers, instruments, and whatever else she can get her hands has become an instantly iconic movie moment for me.

Zemeckis’s debut doesn’t look down on or solely gawk at the devotion of fanaticism; it just hops on the insanity train. Regarding the tone it could have employed, I’m reminded of the recent snarky reactions from people, largely men, towards the collective mourning from One Direction’s largely female fan base over Zayn Malik’s recent departure. I Wanna Hold Your Hand playfully looks at Beatlemania as a phenomenon of ‘hell hath no fury’ fans, but also recognizes that fan bases are made up of individually felt emotional extremes, a very authentic loyalty, and sincere commitment.

 

The Shout8. The Shout (UK, Skolimowski) (FTV)
The only comparison I have for the cryptic and unknowable experience of The Shout are the films of director Nicolas Roeg and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The ‘unknown’ at the center of The Shout, made up of aboriginal mysticism and an unreliable narrative, makes for a disturbing nucleus that resides underneath consciousness. Even the credits are hazy and out of reach.

Like our next film, sound is central to The Shout, employing an innovative Dolby mix to disorient. Alan Bates, who disrupts the lives of a young couple in the countryside (John Hurt and Suzannah York), claims to have attained occult powers, specifically ‘The Shout’, which apparently has the power to kill anyone who hears it. John Hurt plays an experimental electronic musician, and several scenes take place in his home studio as he records various noises. To him, ‘The Shout’ becomes the holy grail of sounds; something he, at least initially, denounces as hogwash. And finally, the score by Tony Bates and Michael Rutherford of Genesis, is an ambient soundscape that further dislodges the viewer. But then, everything about The Shout dislodges the viewer.

This is a world where everything may be a lie, or worse, everything may be true. A world where people can be controlled as long as you have their belt buckle. The cricket game in the framing device carries a waiting room kind of menace, as if this world will end as soon as one team wins. Films like The Shout are the kind I wait and hope for. These mind-fuck movies that are legitimate and hypnotic, fueled by rhythms that defy standard logic and are populated by mysteries that defiantly refuse to be solved.

invasion of the body snatchers7. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (US, Kaufman) (RW)
Philip Kaufman spends the first half of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a remake of Don Siegel’s 1956 film, establishing a paranoid mood piece where the threat infiltrates safe spaces before we’ve even had time to settle into the picture. They may just look like plants, but fuck do they move fast. Everything is in plain sight right from the beginning, covering both the corners and foreground of the frame, and there is nothing anybody can do about it. Kaufman secretly plans to have it both ways by filling in the run-run-run second half with some startling practical effects sequences, allowing mutating slime and atmospheric smoke-screens to give way to each other.

I can’t think of a cooler ensemble than this; Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Veronica Cartwright, Jeff Goldblum and the recently departed Leonard Nimoy who uses his soothing demeanor to chilling effect. Donald Sutherland in particular is in peak form doing his baritone Chia Pet thing.

Layers and layers of heartbeats, electronic white noise and throbs, rain sticks, and clanging and banging push in on us; a contemporary comparison for the cumulative impact of Denny Zeitlin’s score is Brian Reitzell’s ingenious work on “Hannibal”.

My first time seeing Invasion, I was totally unprepared to discover it’s the kind of slick and smart artful mainstream horror that doesn’t come around too often. Full of applicable social commentary, a genuinely rattling air you desperately want to shimmy off, and filled with fodder to dissect every which way you turn.

The Fury6. The Fury (US, De Palma) (FTV)
Pauline Kael’s review of The Fury is one of her most famous because it’s an anomalous hyperbolic rave, a viewing experience that sounds like it amounted to something like an orgasm. Much of the review’s notoriety stems from the generally lackluster reaction people tend to have to Brian De Palma’s follow-up to Carrie. De Palma devotees drool over it, and most others either casually dismiss or actively deride the film. But I’m with you Pauline. I’m with you.

On its face The Fury has a lot in common with Carrie. It’s also based on a novel. It’s also about a girl with telekinesis. It also features Amy Irving. But this one has conspiracies, chases, a father trying to find his son, an Xavier Institute equivalent. It’s a strange brew of supernatural spy thriller! Sound overcrowded? It is; but I love the hell out of The Fury‘s bloated convolution.

Even through its slower section The Fury is blisteringly alive. I can’t explain why, especially because John Ferris’s script (adapting his novel) is kind of a hacky mess, but it all felt like it mattered. Being thrown into the preposterous story, you either submit to it or scoff through it. Sure, the Kirk Douglas material is initially less interesting, but come on, who doesn’t want to see Kirk Douglas vs. John Cassavetes? How can one deny watching the star in his sixties, running around shirtless with a machine gun, and disguising himself to make him look, wait for it, old! And besides, this slowly but surely becomes Gillian’s (Irving) film. There’s also weird pockets of humor. De Palma often opens scenes by zeroing in on peripheral characters, whether it’s the cop who just got a brand new car, the little old lady who delights in helping out a trespasser, or the two security guards who like to trade Hershey bars for coffee.

It’s trademark De Palma to toy around with the nature of cinema, and The Fury is constantly interacting with itself. Gillian’s telekinetic link to the missing Robin (Andrew Stevens who is terrible, but I love sociopathic brat characters like this) is depicted visually, so the intimate and exclusive link between them also includes us. Since Gillian’s visions strike through sight (what else?), she acquires information by watching scenes play out in front of her eyes. She learns, and we learn through her. Gillian becomes, in her way, an audience member. This is cinema as the ultimate form of communication and information (surveillance is a recurring theme here too), something that can transcend the confines of the screen. At one point, Robin is even shown the first five minutes of the film! De Palma’s stylized techniques drive it all home; editing and rear-screen projection are used to emphasize and encompass, and characters are brought together by overlapping spaces and sounds. The camera often tracks conversations by moving around characters, covering all bases.

There’s a bravura four minute slow-motion sequence that turns the notion of the escape scene on its head. It isn’t until the end when we realize the slow-motion is in fact stretching out a character’s final moments. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a better send-off to any movie; I’m serious. It cannot be beat. Don’t even try to tell me it can. It’s the money shot to end all money shots, but shown from every possible angle. But it’s not just showstopper sequences like these that I fell in love with; it’s the whole damn film.

(There is a scene in which a horrified Gillian sees Robin, her face directed straight at the camera, horrified. This is exactly what Stanley Kubrick would do with Danny Torrance in The Shining a mere two years later.)

coming-home5. Coming Home (US, Ashby) (FTV)
Three years after the Fall of Saigon there were two Best Picture nominees that directly dealt with Vietnam. One was the wholly masculine collapse-of-camaraderie film The Deer Hunter. The other was the far more liberal-minded Coming Home, about tormented veterans and a woman who comes into her own politically and sexually following her husband’s departure for Vietnam. People tend to knock Coming Home for being a war film that ‘descends’ into something as ‘cliche’ as a love triangle. Is there any easier way to dismiss a film for daring to be about the female experience of wartime? These are three people (Jon Voight and Bruce Dern are the paraplegic lover and husband respectively) whose lives become inextricably linked through their traumas, their evolution, their bodies, and their love.

The film materialized through Jane Fonda’s tenacity, and her outspoken anti-Vietnam activism prohibits us from buying into the place her traditional sheltered wife character begins. But that doesn’t last for long. Everyone involved, not just Fonda, from Jon Voight to Hal Ashby to producer Jerome Hellman, were heavily concerned with post-war realities. Coming Home is a best case scenario message picture in the guise of an achingly human love story.

This was not a film I expected to have this kind of response to. Perhaps most of all, I had an all-in investment in the pairing of Jane Fonda and Jon Voight. Their relationship, which begins with, of all things, a broken pissbag, makes Coming Home one of the most erotic films I’ve ever seen. The two actors share a vitality that is not only palpable, but supports the core of the film; the basic necessity for people to connect with each other in times of strife, immeasurable hardship, and an unknown future.

Days of Heaven4. Days of Heaven (US, Malick) (RW)
Already with his sophomore feature, Terrence Malick brings his storytelling into the ether, the outer zones. The characters and their drama are contained in something bigger than themselves; the cornfields and the magic hour, and the narration of a child (Linda Manz), mumbling and halting. Her perception is omniscient if not all-knowing. It begins as a romanticized snapshot, not of Depression-era workers, but of what surrounds them. It gradually transforms into something else altogether, a kind of melodrama hiding in plain sight. The central house is like a mirage, and Days of Heaven is triangular, made up of people, land, and machinery, each interacting and needing the other. Like Badlands, there is a honeymoon period for these characters, the makeshift family, isolated but not wanting for anything. “I think the devil was on the farm” is just one of many Biblical allusions. Days of Heaven is as immense as the universe and as microscopic as a single house in the middle of a wheat field.

Satiemania3. Satiemania (short) (Yugoslavia, Gašparović) (FTV)
Visualizing the music of Eric Satie, Satiemania alternates between the mocking hustle-bustle of city life, where outsized caricatures fill the streets, and the melancholy hours where women drink and undress, their bodies of various shapes and sizes, eternally longing for something more. Not only do I love Satie’s “Gnossienne” pieces, but GaĹĄparović’s animation style is exactly the kind of aesthetic I tend to respond to; messy and sketchy, action shown through ever-morphing dissolves as if the nights are forever slipping away; moments are lost even as they happen. The illustrations are exclusively about people, whether singled out in a crowd, pushed together in a bar, or by themselves in their most private moments.

Blue-Collar2. Blue Collar (US, Schrader) (FTV)
Blue Collar is probably the best working mans drama I’ve ever seen. Systematically shattering, from the bowels of an incensed and very hungry monster. These are people at their wit’s end, backed into a corner by corrupt unions, with no exit strategy. Blue Collar is frighteningly relevant in its portrayal of corruption as a trap that sees working class solidarity as just another thing to be exploited, suppressed and dismantled. Paul Schrader, in his debut film, is on the front line with them, never taking the easy way out. It’s direct and didactic and illuminating.

There is the scene where our three characters, played by Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto, strategize about the stolen ledger. They talk about their options and each guy has a different idea. Three options are presented, yet it feels like they have none. These men aren’t stupid. They see through it all and make a concerted effort to exploit the exploiters. And it backfires. Big time.

The three main actors apparently all hated each other in real life, and it’s one of those things that results in a live-wire chemistry and onscreen camaraderie that authentically sings to the tune of empathetic disgruntlement. We become so attached to them and what they are to each other, whether together in the thick of it or blowing off steam. I sat at the edge of my seat sensing the trajectory of the film and wishing so badly to be proven wrong. Richard Pryor in particular is electric, by turns exhausted and exhausting. So earnest is he in his desire for change, a naive hope that he can make the system better if only he comes at it from the right angle.

girlfriends_sc1. Girlfriends (US, Weill) (FTV)
Let’s be honest, Frances Ha is an uncanny reworking of Girlfriends; narratively, structurally, thematically. Except this is way better (sorry ’bout it). There are hardly any films about women made by women from this era. Nowadays the fumbling twenty-something trying to figure it all out in NYC is an indie cliche. But in 1978?

This is a film to be cherished by everyone who sees it. No lie, my life can now be split into Before Girlfriends and After Girlfriends. Claudia Weill and screenwriter Vicki Polon have created something truly disarming here; an open and honest work about female friendships rightfully treated as life-defining, where change equals tailspin, resentment, and adjustment. It is equally about being comfortable with living alone, being comfortable with not living alone, and trying to build a creative career in a tough racket. The film is unstudied and charmingly choppy, primarily homegrown in its form. And at the same time, it’s entirely assured; the film and Susan (Melanie Mayron) are uniformly comfortable in their own skin, even when on the surface they doubt and fret. There is a painfully sincere and recognizable quintessential harmony at work with no affectation in sight.

The film admires Susan, loves Susan, but isn’t bewitched by her in that familiar way (you know what I’m talking about) where we shake our heads and coo ‘oh you’ at her. The film would be great regardless, but Melanie Mayron as Susan Weinblatt cements this as an all-time top 100 film of mine. I cannot even begin to do her justice. Drowning in hair with second grade glasses and a goofy and frumpy demeanor, she is completely laid-back in her neurosis, and somehow not awkward despite all this. A genuine character, and a special performance in a truly special film.

Top Ten By Year: 1978 – 10 Honorable Mentions plus Grease


I just started a second job so it’ll take a little while for the final Top Ten By Year post for 1978 to be written and go up (and then on to 1925!) Accompanied with that post will be a full list of the 1978 films I’ve seen and a Blind Spots list. For now, here are my ten honorable mentions. I always list and briefly write about five honorable mentions in my Top Ten By Year posts, but for 1978 and 1992 desperate times called for desperate measures. I’ve fallen in love with so many 1978 releases, which, of course is a great ‘problem’ to have. The fact that Violette Noziere, Pretty Baby and Long Weekend couldn’t even make the honorable mentions post shows how crowded this year was.

These 10 (plus Grease!) films are in alphabetical order

FTV = First Time Viewing
RW = Rewatch
LTF = Long Time Favorite 

Autumn-Sonata_2696030b

Autumn Sonata/HĂśstsonaten (Sweden, Bergman) (RW)
I figured that Ingmar Bergman’s mother-daughter showdown was a sure bet for my final ten. The Magician made my 1958 list even though I far prefer this over that. But 1958 was a different template with different scales.

Autumn Sonata could also be called ‘The Meeting of the Bergmans’. This was the one and only collaboration between Ingmar and Ingrid, and it carried a finality for both (it was the director’s last exclusively theatrical release and the star’s final feature film appearance). The familial chamber drama pits mousy neglected daughter Eva (Liv Ullman) against her famous pianist mother Charlotte (Bergman) after a lifetime of pent-up resentment and stunted emotional baggage. The toxic and frayed dynamic shows itself through the film’s bifurcated halves. An initial impenetrable barrier of niceties and separate stirrings gives way to one fateful evening when Eva’s charges against Charlotte spill out in hyperventilating fits of anger; the director’s penchant for inescapable close-ups carries through all.

Ullman plays the final half  of Autumn Sonata as if possessed by the distilled anxiety of her child-self; the mere presence of Charlotte triggers an uncontrollable summoning bigger than herself. Eva’s collapse into memory is so total that presentational single-image flashbacks make their way into the film. Gradually, the accusations against Charlotte become more and more vague, unformed, and even off the mark. By the end, we’ve seen something possibly irreparable, almost delusional, take place. Changed but not changed.

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Dawn of the Dead ( US/Italy, Romero) (RW)
For a horror film so universally worshiped, it’s easy to forget how peculiar the squib-filled Dawn of the Dead really is. It’s these peculiarities that so strongly lure me to it. The ragtag family of four. The zombies with an unsophisticated chalky blue tint on their cadaverous skin. The inevitable reclamation of consumerist domesticity as a mode of denial. The boldly goofy shifts in tone. The irreverent and hassle-free shopping montages. And spearheading all of this is the headstrong smoothness of Ken Foree as Peter, quite possibly my favorite male horror flick protagonist. This is George Romero at the peak of his powers.

drunken_master

Drunken Master (Hong Kong, Yuen) (FTV)
1978 was the year Jackie Chan’s career catapulted to stardom with Drunken Master and Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow. Replacing Bruce Lee as Hong Kong’s top box-office star, Chan molded his early screen persona as a scrappy underdog with acrobatic prowess, “comically exaggerated panic”(Bordwell, “Planet Hong Kong”), and an ever-resourceful reliance on slapstick. In the ludicrously fun Drunken Master, he plays the not with assured capability, but with a deer-in-headlights expression and the illusion that he is frantically grabbing any props within reach to defeat his opponent. Watching him feels like a sort of onscreen miracle, and every time I see a Jackie Chan film I marvel at his genius anew.

eyes-l-mars-main

Eyes of Laura Mars  (US, Kershner) (RW)
Soft focus, red herrings, confounding twist ending, voyeurism; this is what American giallo looks like. This is also what pop sleaze looks like. Fashion photographer Laura Mars (Faye Dunaway) unwittingly sees through the eyes of a killer whose crimes eerily mirror her controversial work. Laura’s work is surface-level provocation, using artfully arranged violence to sell product. Funny thing is, the nature of her work and the film itself are kind of inextricable from each other. There’s some commentary about the public reception to Laura’s photographs, questioning her responsibility to people who use the images she creates as violent inspiration (something else I love about this film is that it’s a horror flick about adults with full-fledged careers). There’s a perhaps unintentional level of self-reflexivity going on here (who knows; scripted by John Carpenter yet produced by Jon Peters, a man devoid of self-awareness), but regardless the film playfully inverts itself in multiple ways, such as when Laura, seeing through the eyes of the killer, is looking at herself as the next victim, as prey. The ultimate voyeuristic conundrum.

grease-1978-movie-still-1

Grease (US, Kleiser) (LTF)
In fourth grade we were assigned to make plaster masks for an art project. I made mine of Stockard Channing’s Rizzo. Sure I made her look like a melting hunk of cheese, but the dedication was there. The biggest money-maker of 1978 is a seamless blend of generations, a venue for peppy dressed-up youth to play out. It was released at just the right time, riding off the 50’s revival of American Graffiti from several years earlier and John Travolta’s newfound and entirely justifiable super-stardom. If you want to know what Grease is, just look at the climactic “You’re The One That I Want” number. Grease is Danny and Sandy’s DNA’s combined, a rare breed of wholesome filth that surely contributed to its mass appeal, feeding off the need for a hit musical that wasn’t dour in content and tone or cultish in origin and transgression.

Halloweenscreenshot-med-07

Halloween (US, Carpenter) (RW)
John Carpenter wastes no time bringing deep-focus compositions and inquisitive camerawork into the daytime streets of ‘Haddonfield, Illinois’, creating an unassuming town scaffold where peaceful suburbia ought to be. Michael Myers is a stark specter, his blank white presence is direct and his sneakiness is presented directly, entirely without sneak. The camera is on a constant swinging pendulum, roving between Myers and our trio of girls. We are never with either of them. Not truly. Halloween occupies the space between predator and prey.

One of the most successful independent films ever made, Halloween established John Carpenter as a defining directorial presence moving into the 80’s and kicked off the (while being far from the first one) the fad of slice-and-dice slashers. But Halloween has an atmospheric restraint, and is far more interested in sustaining and encircling the unknown; qualities that can’t be found in its offspring. Prelude aside, it takes fifty minutes before someone is killed. That’s a long way from the kill-sex-kill-break-nudity-kill structure that slashers would become known for.

in6

In a Year of 13 Moons (West Germany, Fassbinder) (FTV)
Rainer Werner Fassbinder made In a Year of 13 Moons in response to his former lover’s (Armin Meier) suicide. Opening with a beating, and text that tells of the fated tragedy of the cosmos, Fassbinder underlines that Elvira (Volker Spengler) is destined for doom. And it only goes downhill from there. It’s a high bar to clear, but this is Fassbinder’s most confrontational, openly hopeless work, a fusion of his evocative melodrama and his more anarchic leanings. When Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop” casually plays in the background of a lengthy scene, there is a conscious effort to make us feel off-center in our own skin. But nothing compares to the butchery sequence, in which uncompromising graphic footage of animal slaughter is coupled with Elvira’s increasingly frenzied pitch of a voiceover (think Willy Wonka on the boat or Judge Doom’s toon voice), adding up to a nauseating visual and aural assault the likes of which I’ve never quite experienced.

If I could only pick one performance from 1978, Volker Spengler as Elvira would be it. He makes Elvira and her dangerous acquiescence and her comfort in the familiarity of abuse, all too human and frustrating (Elvira can be a very troubling character when looking solely through the lens of trans portrayals but that’s a whole other conversation). Demure and devoid of self-regard, his face begs everyone and anyone to give her something, any reason to keep going. Nobody does.

Killer of Sheep
Killer of Sheep

Killer of Sheep (US, Burnett) (FTV)
A major work of American cinema. A mosaic of evocative naturalism that observes, empathizes, and communicates through the mundane routines of life in the Watts area of Los Angeles. Intimately caught between narrative and free-form, adults and children, and yet immovably rooted in the experience of impoverished black America.

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Krabat – The Sorcerer’s Apprentice/ČarodějĹŻv učeň (Czechoslovakia, West Germany, Zeman) (FTV)
Krabat was the penultimate film from seminal Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman. His far-reaching influence as an animator has inspired the likes of many, and after seeing this it’s easy to see why. In this dark-fantasy fairy tale, cut-out animation is assembled with carefully placed pieces of live-action background. The effect is a richly textured aesthetic where the stiff and often immovable expressions of the characters reflect the constrictions of the poor boys of the story, who are lured into forced labor.

Krabat is about conquering the oppressive and seemingly preternatural force of tyranny, a  tyranny that even conquers the mode of storytelling for the evil sorcerer is the only character given a speaking voice. The story is told by adult Krabat’s narration with the (even in its darkest turns) straightforward remove of a fairy tale which further forces the viewer to rely on the directness of the fixed animation. Krabat and his fellow captive apprentices learn to fear the cycle of life, and the inevitability of what is to come based on the season. Emphasis is given to the beauty of the seasons; at the inescapable and isolated mill, what should be a comfort has been curdled into something of a constant harbinger. And of course, it is love which must conquer all.

donna

Thank God It’s Friday (US, Klane) (FTV)
Just so you know, disco music and the ‘One Crazy Day/Night’ scenario are two of my favorite things to find in a film. Put them together? Time capsule movie gold. Everyone wants in on the discotheque where The Commodores are set to perform with dance contest in tow. A wide variety of characters fleetingly bounce off each other throughout. Highlights include Jeff Goldblum as a sleazy ladykiller, Debra Winger as a clumsy gal, a young Terri Nunn (!!), and Otis Day as ‘Wrong Way Floyd’ who you should never put in charge of your instruments. If the film had a little more shape to it (with this many story threads, it should never feel like the film is killing time) it might have made my final ten. As it is, it’ll have to settle for being the kind of film I can randomly put on to enjoy again and again.

an unmarried woman

An Unmarried Woman (US, Mazursky) (FTV)
Jill Clayburgh prancing around in her undies, giggling uncontrollably in the throes of foreplay, and performing with a rare in-character spontaneity. All this and more support Paul Mazursky’s dramedy about a woman trying to rebuild a life after her husband abruptly leaves her. There is a fascinating knowingness and a concerted effort to tap into the what the ‘modern woman’s picture’ may look like that is by turns outdated and still shockingly relevant. As Erica tries to figure out who and what will define her new life, Mazursky displays an immense care in the particular wants, needs, struggles, inner life, experiences, sexuality, and empowerment of his heroine.  

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #62-73


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62. The Catered Affair (1956, Brooks)
Bette Davis is in full-on ACTING mode with an over-enunciated Brooklyn accent. A kitchen-sink Father of the Bride in which poverty and debt are guaranteed if Debbie Reynolds’s wedding (of which Davis, not Reynolds, wants to make a big to-do) is carried out. Most importantly, the impending wedding illuminates the mother’s naturally cold relationship towards her daughter and her own marriage, built on a foundation of $300 and decades of loveless indifference and co-existing familiarity. The dialogue begins to get redundant as the characters circle back to the same conversations after so long of supposedly not addressing any of their domestic disputes. Why didn’t Davis wake Ernest Borgnine up at the end?!?!?! Aaaahhhh so stressful. Certainly recommended though; thoroughly watchable and often quite engaging.

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#63. Watch on the Rhine (1943, Shumlin)
Adaptation of a play written by Lillian Hellman in 1941 as a call to America for united closer-to-home-than-you-think alliance against Hitler and Nazi Germany. The 1943 film, obviously made with the US involvement in the war and neutrality no longer the firm stance. Bette Davis’s role is elevated to fit her stature in a thankless but nonetheless moving part as the noble stiff upper lip wife of Paul Lukas, reprising his Broadway role. Lukas and especially Lucile Watson (who represents US obliviousness turned reality check) are excellent but the film is driven into the dugout by a stodgy air, constantly halting for speeches (some of them worthy, some of them not) and a time-wasting subplot involving Geraldine Fitzgerald. Worst of all are the three children whose intelligence and multilingual abilities apparently translates to three performance akin to unbearably vexing, to put it mildly, robots.

A Corny Concerto

#64. “A Corny Concerto” (1943, Clampett) (re-watch)
Parody of Fantasia with Elmer Fudd in the Deems Taylor role, with two wordless segments set to Johann Strauss pieces resembling something akin to “Dance of the Hours”. The first segment is something special with Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd and his hunting dog performing dramatic death scenes, the dog sobbing in tune with the music and ending with Bugs wearing a two-piece, slapping a bra over his two opponents, and skipping off into the sunset. The second segment is pretty forgettable with a take on “The Ugly Duckling”.

Porky Pig's Feat

#65. “Porky Pig’s Feat” (1943, Tashlin)
My favorite of the seven I watched/re-watched within this post. It’s got much more of a throughline than most in the Looney Tunes series even as it sticks to the character-wants-something-and-is-constantly-thwarted-via-violence formula. Incredibly sophisticated and creative in its use of shots and visuals. Also contains the first of many uses of Raymond Scott’s now iconic “Powerhouse”. “EEEEEHHHH, FATSO????”

Scrap Happy Daffy

#66. “Scrap Happy Daffy” (1943, Tashlin)
Wartime short featuring a Nazi goat! Not to much to say about this except that the comic license cartoons had over the buffoonery portrayal of Nazis is on display here with their tantrum-laden insistence on immediately stomping anything outside their ideology.

Wackiki Wabbit

#67. “Wackiki Wabbit” (1943, Jones) (re-watch)
What this diverting enough toon comes down to is its fabulous abstract Hawaiian print backgrounds, largely unique to what I’ve seen in the work of Looney Tunes. Also of note is the fluctuation with which Bugs gains and loses control of the situation. Later on, Bugs will nearly always have the upper hand of a scenario and its accompanying developments and humiliations.

Falling Hare

#68. “Falling Hare” (1943, Clampett)
Speaking of Bugs being on the receiving end, here he is uncharacteristically taunted by a Gremlin while hanging out an at airbase. The final minutes are the most notable, the exhausting range of physical and emotional turmoil kicks into high gear as the plane plummets to the ground, only to run out of gas at the last second (literally).

THE CONSTANT NYMPH

#69. The Constant Nymph (1943, Goulding)
Due to legal rights, The Constant Nymph was unavailable to the general public for seventy years. I sincerely hope plenty make their way around to seeing this because it might be Joan Fontaine’s best work, and according to TCM her personal favorite as well. At age twenty-four, she is completely convincing playing a teenager. She attains the essence of a flittering girl who shuns proper lady-like demeanors with a free-spiritedness and the by turns demure and talkative impulses of her age. Fontaine’s Tessa gallops, stumbles, fawns, fidgets, insists and swoons. She runs barefoot and carelessly swings her legs around, her gawky frame believable as an innocent girl who is in love but unlikely to have (in this case) thought of herself as a sexual being. Even though Fontaine filmed this before Jane Eyre, I saw the latter before the former, so this put her back in my good graces after that shitshow of an adaptation.

The unrequited love, Joan Fontaine playing a teen, tragic overtones, musician male leads, and the connectivity of music all makes The Constant Nymph in certain ways a kind of warm-up companion piece to Letter from an Unknown Woman. The obliviousness on the part of the male counterpart is present in both, the critical difference being that Tessa is always of the utmost importance to Charles Boyer’s Lewis, whereas she remains the titular ‘unknown woman’ in the latter.

Alexis Smith also impresses in a tough role of opposition. Though Florence is classist and often rude, she is a well-rounded character I spent much of my time feeling sorry for. Lewis is purposely antagonistic towards her once the two settle into marriage, and Tessa giddily installs herself into Lewis’s life as a smitten fellow kindred spirit. Far too little Peter Lorre and Dame May Whitty, I say!

Considering the sincerity of the story and the direction it takes, Tessa’s underage crush on Lewis reads somewhat creepily today. What makes it work is their mutual connection centered around music and the creative mindset. The film is rooted in Romanticism, further extended by insisting Lewis needs to drop the Modernist vibes and put heart in his music which can only be acquired through suffering.

The direction favors longer takes with the backs of characters often visible in some fashion, resulting in a more natural blocking and camera movement by turns gentle and triumphant. The use of music at the end is ahead of its time in the way it is used as a climax and to cross-cut between spatially disparate happenings.

Tortoise Wins by a Hare

#70. “Tortoise Wins by a Hare” (1943, Clampett) (re-watch)
Completely deconstructs Aesop’s fable and puts it back together again with a lot of hi-jinks, mix-ups and gangsters in a very short amount of time. “The tortoise always wins” much to the frustrated confusion of Bugs who is worked up about it to say the least. The tortoise’s voice has a really amusing (“Clean living, friend”) low timber to it. Mel Blanc is tops even by his standards, especially towards the end as Bugs becomes delirious with joy and then rage, inches away from winning only to have gangsters descend upon him. “I’M THE RABBIT!!!!”

dumb hounded

#71. “Dumb-Hounded” (1943, Avery)
Droopy’s first appearance. Humor comes from contrasting the crazed globe-spanning efforts of the wolf to escape the effortless omniscience of Droopy. Favorite bit; the undertaker jumping off the building in order to take measurements as the wolf falls. Also, the wolf running off the film strip.

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#72. So Proudly We Hail! (1943, Sandrich)
Appeal here is the focus on U.S Army nurses and their experiences in Bataan and Corregidor played by the de-glammed glamour gals of the early 40’s. Does a surprisingly nice job, by Hollywood standards of the time, conveying the it’s-never-ever-ever-enough futility of the nurses efforts and the onslaught of attacks. The superficial characters shed their shallowness for the greater good. Veronica Lake, suicide bomber (!), is dispensed far too soon, though her character is a mainly a mouthpiece for vitriolic Japanese hatred. She is harshly lit, no softness to be found, and then in those final moments, preparing to die, she lets down her trademark hair. Great stuff.

The story targets and turns Claudette Colbert’s practical and clear-headed woman into a “hysterical schoolgirl” via romance with the block-headed George Reeves. She starts as a role model and ends up having the reverse trajectory of Paulette Goddard’s floozy character re: priorities. Still, an effective female-centric morale booster for the time even if it feels somewhat middling today.

The Hard Way 8

#73. The Hard Way (1943, Sherman)
This was everything I hoped it would be. I’d been dying to see it since reading a plot synopsis, couldn’t get hold of it, and thus blind-bought it (something I don’t have the money to normally do).

One of the best rags-to-riches showbiz claw-my-way-to-the-top yarns with older sis making sure little sis’s dreams of performing on the stage are realized. They rise up from an unhappy marriage, grey dowdy graduation dresses, and endless soot to contracts, furs and success. Like Old Acquaintance, it somewhat conflates women’s careers with the perversion and interruption of ‘natural’ gender roles. Like ‘Old’, this is offset by the individuality of characters with Helen’s (Ida Lupino) bold manipulations and Katherine’s (Joan Leslie) inherent sweetness. It could have spent more time on Katherine’s self-destructive phase, though that likely would have further implied what we can safely assume from that hectic superimposed paint-the-town-red sequence.

Ida Lupino’s eye-on-the-prize performance is electric (though she apparently was not fond of her work here), constantly looking for ways out and up, unabashedly seizing upon questionable opportunities that present themselves, gradually unable to tell the difference between success and personal happiness. Joan Leslie is equally as good, like a 40’s Jennifer Jason Leigh (with a dash of Larisa Oleynik?). She is increasingly torn and devastated, loyalty in check far past its expiration date.

The two male counterparts, played by Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson, are just as engaging. Paul (Morgan) sees through Helen and the two have a great dynamic as she tries to suppress feelings for someone who loathes yet admires her. Al (Carson) is an earnest and naive schlub whose pride and blinders prove too much. What I loved most about The Hard Way is the careful and complicated evolution between all four characters, with attention paid to who they are within themselves and in relation to each other through time as paths cross and double-cross. There’s a development in Act 2 that completely took me off guard. The direction and staging enhance our understandings of the character dynamics and includes visually stimulating and slightly surreal montage sequences.

The Hard Way plays on TCM June 12th. Don’t miss it.

 

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #47-56


I have no idea how to write about WWII propaganda, even well-made and entertaining pieces. I recently purchased On the Front Lines from Walt Disney’s Treasury Series, which collects a selected group of wartime shorts. During the war, the Disney studio’s output was making almost exclusively WWII-related works from countless training videos for armed forces and entertainment bits for those on the homefront. During these years, the studio itself was even armed and protected like a military base. This period in Disney history is woefully underwritten about. The books written about WWII Hollywood treat it like a footnote, though they were far and away producing more than anyone else, and an indispensable source for armed forces at the time. These shorts I review here fall in the entertainment category. Cartoons take a special kind of blunt reductivism within the propaganda sphere. It’s worth pondering what exactly the government was aiming to sell the American public with these shorts as well as if whether or not it accurately lined up with the general public’s perceptions. Thoughts on these four shorts will be more a collection of observations than summarized thoughts.

DerFuehrersFace
#47. Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943, Kinney) (USA)

  • The life of a Nazi and fascism seen as nightmarish all-work-and-no-play, almost inviting an implied empathy for anyone operating within its warped depiction of Germanic life.
  • Aroma de Bacon & Eggs
  • Literal yellowface. Even by 1940’s standards, the hyper-overt racism is supremely uncomfortable. But it falls in line with Japanese representation during WWII, being far more barbaric and grossly offensive than other Axis powers appaearances.
  • The structure is built heavily around the famous title song which is played out in full.
  • The climax is easily the highlight in which the short goes all Dumbo on us re: Donald’s escalating insanity making way for surreal disembodied color blocked images colliding into a cymbal crashing wake-up call.
  • Brought around to American democratic values at the end, where Donald (a super-patriot based on his room decor!) wakes up and is oh-so-grateful to be an American.

education-for-death
#48. Education for Death: The Making of the Nazi (1943, Geronimi) (USA)

  • Hitler youth as depicted by Disney, making for a weirdly abstract timeline.
  • Narrator is just-the-facts stern, giving a removed and deliberately unrelatable feel. The use of non-subtitled German language has similar effect.
  • Always acknowledges the master race but never the racial violence/hatred as the logical endpoint to that concept.
  • Adapted from a novel by someone who lived in German for nine years.
  • Awkward bit of apparently mandatory comedy doesn’t work at all.
  • Interestingly, another case of empathy towards those indoctrinated, anger directed at the big guns so to speak, and not the common folk.
  • May be my personal preference of the four watched, as there’s so much to pick over and admire as far as its effectiveness, execution and curio value.

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#49. Reason and Emotion (1943, Roberts) (USA)

  • Tries to take our brain impulses and depict them as corporeal figures in an ongoing battle for dominance. Reason is an upper-crust fuddy-duddy. Emotion is a proto-Flinstones reject.
  • There are few moments in anything more amusing than when the short oh-so-subtly reveals its agenda, going from frivolous high-concept to propaganda. “That’s right emotion. Go ahead! Push reason out of the way. That’s great. That’s fine…for Hitler!”
  • Still, its relative indirectness makes it a welcome change of pace from the previous two.

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#50. Chicken Little (1943, Geronimi) (USA)

  • Perhaps the most effective, or at least the most transferable, when looking at these with a modern eye because it uses the fable as a cautionary WWII allegory. Unfortunately it is overall not very engaging.
  • Chicken Little himself is a particularly snotty little puke, even by this tale’s standards, prime for feeding lies and jump-starting chaos.
  • The end represents how dangerous face value beliefs and fed false truths are, which not only speaks to the nature of propaganda itself (the most resonant thing about the short) but to nurture-based sociopolitical norms.
  • Bleak as fuck end, even by this fable’s standards. Holy hell.

fox-and-his-friends-1
#51. Fox and His Friends (1975, Fassbinder) (West Germany)
These are the consequences when bourgeois acceptance becomes more important than self-respect. These are the consequences when bourgeois acceptance becomes more important period. Every single Fassbinder film is politically charged (on a broad level, but of course with specificity to West Germany), about the losing battle with societal norms.  For him there is no winning and everything is a compromise. Because if you turn to terrorism or anarchy or simple rejection, you still operate and are defined by those same constructs, just in opposition as opposed to compliance. Money catapults Fox, makes him useable. And Fox is gullible, bordering on willfully I would argue; sucked dry. Fassbinder’s other major career-spanning theme, masochism, specifically in relation to what he would dubiously call ‘love’, is also present. Well, that’s not much of an observation. It’s also in every single film of his. Mirrors are a visual cue as reflection of what is right in front of Fox’s nose.

Augen is truly despicable. I mean he really has to be one of the most distasteful characters I’ve ever come across. I loved Fassbinder as Fox, his eager-to-please naivete.  The rhinestone ‘FOX’ on the back of his denim jacket might as well say ‘SUCKER’. His unassuming character remains unconverted in spirit, but his identity, possessions and agency are corrupted. It’s very easy to spot the film’s downward trajectory because Fox’s ability to be deceived is made very clear both to us and everyone around him from the get-go, making his fate that much harder to watch. The final shot is searing stuff, carnival music bringing us back full circle under wildly bleak circumstances. Everyone has used him, nobody will stay with him even in death. Even the camera is fleeting, having gotten his story, backing away from him like a stranger. Use of “Bird on the Wire” potent and anticipatory, not to mention most welcomed.

– Fox’s telephone joke? ADORABLE.

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#52. Veronica Mars (2014, Thomas) (USA)

Like a full season crammed into about two and a half episodes. This sounds like an insult, so let’s switch ‘crammed’ for ‘distilled’, because I pretty much loved this. After some clunky recapping, we’re right back in Veronica’s head and all is right with the world. It clicks along with just the right amount of ups and downs. Veronica’s just-when-I-thought-I-was-out (OK nine years is not ‘just’) arc is used as a foundation with which to build stakes and revisit and reestablish old patterns and connections to the past. Even the central mystery harkens back to a high school-era crime. The titular character’s ten-year reunion takes place a year before mine would theoretically occur, thus my headspace  heavily related to the do-we-ever-really-change concerns. Most major players are serviced at least in some regard. That the film feels undercooked at intervals, as opposed to undercooked and rushed, is a bit of a feat considering how much ground is covered.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there lacks a big-screen feel to Veronica Mars; this is more made-for-TV movie territory in layout and stature. Most impressive is now largely natural the continuation felt, biting quickness and California-noir all fully intact.

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#53. Nymphomaniac Volume 1 (2014, von Trier) (Denmark, etc)
It’s difficult to have any conclusive thoughts when I’ve only seen half the final product (though I pretty much know most of what happens in Volume 2), but I’ll jot down some thoughts. Von Trier embeds twinkles of playful humor into the deliberately unsexy provocation this time around, and it largely works to his advantage. It’s easy and natural to focus on the cobwebs of by turns messy and provoking gender politics to be found. I still say that von Trier puts more thoughtful care into his female characters, which are Trier surrogates to begin with (which yes, brings us back around to the male but the point remains), than most male directors, regardless of what he puts them through. I’ve always found that suffering to be explicitly linked to himself, making it impossible to toss off as a function of misogyny. A film about a specific self-destructive case of hypersexuality isn’t going to be sex positive, because it’s not really going to be about sex. It’s about the strands of habitual addiction and damaging compulsions that can coincide with it, male or female. This isn’t sex with consequences. This is sex as unquenchable fulfillment within the human condition. Sex as desperate momentary grabs at feeling alive. This isn’t about women. It’s at even broader and far more specific. This is about people. And this is about Joe.

What makes Lars von Trier films so singular is that they increasingly feel like a form of self-therapy; he’s exposed and inextricably linked to his work, not as a filmmaker but as a deeply thoughtful, endlessly wily, and haunted man. Nymphomaniac is about unfillable emptiness. For all the wildly entertaining but misrepresentative marketing, the sex scenes, and the body doubles, the structure emerges as most engaging. The framing device as open-ended dialogue approaches philosophical, but is mainly based around Stellan Skarsgaard’s Seligman and his inability to relate to human experience, bringing his education and esoteric knowledge to the forefront, regularly chiming in the only way he knows how. These cultural reference points even dictate the chapter titles and guide Joe along with his room full of coincidental reminders. Skarsgaard is doing unsung wonders with that role by the way.

Speaking of unsung work, Stacy Martin as younger Joe gives a very subtle and perceptive performance. She remains stoic and removed, because her Joe doesn’t have to answer to anybody. Chapters 3 & 5 stand out. Chapter 4 stops the film dead in its tracks. Partly Christian Slater’s fault, whose tree-loving dad I don’t buy. But it’s mostly von Trier’s fault for indulging in monotonous drudgery for an extended period of time with no impact. Uma Thurman is everything you’ve heard. It’s a tour-de-force from an actress not given many opportunities to show what’s she’s capable of. Shia LaBeouf’s accent is a joke, which is a shame because I’m one of the people who thinks, nay knows, he can act. That accent isn’t strengthening my case though. Overall a solid entry, not ultimately one of my very favorites from the Dane; but as always, lots to chew on. Seeing Volume 2 on Monday night.

ErnestAndCelestine
#53. Ernest and Celestine (2014, Aubier, Patar, Renner)
(France/Belgium)
Sweet-natured beyond reproach, fully enlivening two distinct worlds (that of bears and mice) which are inextricably and antagonistically defined by the other. The lumbering wannabe thespian Ernest and the sprightly artistic Celestine enter a mutually beneficial dynamic which turns into inseparable friendship. From the creators of A Town Called Panic, the former’s chaos is recalled in spurts (the dual Police chase is a favorite) and calming downtime gives E&C room to blossom with us as witness. The animation has gorgeously fluid backgrounds with a watercolor aesthetic applied to still winters, pastoral spring, and two dream sequences that give more freedom to the animators. The characters themselves have a quickness of movement that also recalls ‘Panic’.

Little Women_1949
#54. Little Women (1949, LeRoy)

I’m picky with my Little Women. The 1994 Gilliam Armstrong film is a precious and sacred entity to me, to the point where even the source material itself doesn’t tickle my fancy. But surprisingly, I liked this! Most praiseworthy is its use of Technicolor and all technical contributions to the looks; cinematography, costume, and art direction. So a lot of the mise-en-scène touchstones. It’s one of the most strikingly photographed films I’ve ever seen. There’s an illustrative quality to it, with tones somehow both warm and vibrant, every color fully felt. And the cast mostly meets the criteria. Janet Leigh’s Meg is appropriately just sort of present. Margaret O’Brien makes for a much younger Beth (and edges Claire Danes out of the Weepiest Beth award). Elizabeth Taylor’s distracting blonde wig notwithstanding, gets at the put-upon haughtiness of Amy. And June Allyson, who I don’t normally think of as being an actress I particularly like, makes a wonderful Jo, particularly in her portrayal of Jo’s desire for everything to continue forever unchanged. The men don’t fare well; Laurie is dull as a sack of potatoes and they hilariously cast an Italian actor as Professor Bhaer….while keeping the character German.

Five Graves to Cairo
#55. Five Graves to Cairo (1943, Wilder)

Billy Wilder’s underappreciated second feature film is easy to get undeservedly lost among WWII-era pictures. Adapted from a play originally set during WWI, the isolated action is moved to a hotel in North Africa where espionage, undermining, and deception all run amok by the core cast. Despite its eventual committed seriousness, quite a bit of Five Graves to Cairo is light on its feet, until it isn’t, treating its subject with a winning mix of popcorn fare and brass tacks purposefulness. Fortunio Bonanova’s buffoon of an Italian general pretty succinctly sums up the way Italians were portrayed during wartime; as largely nonthreatening underlings. Erich von Stroheim, one of Wilder’s idols, walks away with the film. His Field Marshal Erwin Rommel is cunning, particular, and direct.

#56. Muppets Most Wanted (2014, Bobin)
Short review/rant coming soon

Films Seen in 2014: #26-38


Catching up with these, some of which had been written a month ago, some of which won’t be written and some of which were written recently. February being such an upheaval of a month for me, I could not get around to constructing thoughts on some of these films with everything in such a state of turmoil, so I’ll provide a 1-5 star rating for those, if only for some ballpark sense of my reaction to them on a positive/negative scale.

Hard Boiled

#26. Hard Boiled (1992, Woo) (Hong Kong)
Melting pot of virtually every action movie cliche there ever was. Widespread mayhem, avenging lost partners, undercover cops, hotshots, antagonistic teamwork banter. It all comes together with fluid chaos through Woo’s ‘bullet-ballet’. And all of it, I mean all of it, is kicked up to an outrageous plane. Even for Woo. Arms arsenal hidden underneath a hospital? Babies in jeopardy? Guns hidden in library books? Protagonists who are able to dodge an endless onslaught of bullets while everyone else around them gets hit? It’s all there.

Gunfights are my least favorite kind of action scene and even John Woo: Master of Ammo can’t entirely alleviate that. It makes up the entire second half which is pushed to dizzyingly destructive heights. It becomes a bit too end-all-be-all for me to stay with it for keeps. From the John Woo I’ve seen, I much prefer The Killer and Face/Off. Chow Yun-Fat and baby-faced be-still-my-heart crane-building Tony Leung are marvelous. The early tearoom and warehouse fight sequences are my favorite and Woo has a knack for instilling marvel in the viewer from the sheer chaos and stuntwork within the frames and cuts. Can’t forget that 5-minute hospital take that predates what all future first-person shooter games. It’s unfortunate that the hour-long onslaught actually flattens Woo’s cinematic language instead of purifying his brand of explosive mayhem. This is probably why the earlier standalone action sequences did more for me. But I have the utmost respect for a film that hinges its climax on a baby urinating down Chow Yun-Fat’s leg.

Pierrot le Fou

#27. Pierrot le Fou (1965, Godard) (France)
Pierrot le Fou is sort of invaluable from an auteurist perspective. It is uncommonly locked and loaded, marking a major turning point in Godard’s career. But it’s not a turning point before-or-after. It’s a turning point in progress, and that’s where I find most of the film’s return value. Godard goes about self-destructing his own refined patchwork formalism even as he continues to engage with it. American gangster tropes remain but he’s not invested in them, not even remotely, not even as passive pastiche.

Starting out in an ABC manner, the second half is like it was caught on camera. The story is in the spaces, the non-events, the improvised restlessness. Ferdinand and Marianne are static opposites; There’s nothing particularly investment-worthy about them and their connection never feels quite sustainable. Or rather there’s always something disingenuous about them. Marianne wants to live, be active, and if liveliness comes through in criminality so be it. Ferdinand wants to write, to philosophize about the world around him, but it’s a dead-end. He shuts himself off, doesn’t acknowledge Marianne. So it’s a stalemate. And of course it’s a stalemate that in some ways mirrors the disintegration of the Godard/Karina marriage.

Primary colors pop everywhere. The first half has a lot of stylistic wow moments, my favorite being the nighttime car scenes with accompanying UFO-circling lights. And then there’s the color-coded bourgeois boredom. Godard seems to be contemplating the words that come courtesy of Sam Fuller’s cameo.

Those oppositional personalities also come into play through the overlapping voiceover, which doesn’t necessarily have competing narrative battling, but a singular narrative being fought between two people. The sea is crucial to the film, its open, endless, hazy blue picaresque backdrop for the ‘idyllic’ couple-on-the-run story.

I don’t know if I’ll ever find Godard as rewarding. as a whole, as so many people do. The way he incorporates story within his formalism often feels incredibly cardboard or inconsequential, if impressively rigorous and risk-taking, instead of renegade pastiche cool. But I’d like to get an intellectual handle on his life’s work, all of it (not just the hip 60’s stuff, some of which I do happen to love) with whatever accompanying appreciation that eventually brings. There’s a lot of airily marvelous stuff here that is off-the-cuff in content; again, like it’s been caught. Like it’s constructing its own narrative or lack thereof as it goes. That’s a great thing to see as a viewer. I’m particularly fond of Belmondo’s Michel Simon impression and his conversation with the man with the song in his head.

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#28. Fists in the Pocket (1965, Bellocchio) (Italy)
Next-level dysfunctional family films are kind of my bag. Films that leave behind any trace of quirky dysfunction (actually forget leave behind, more like not even considered or acknowledged) in favor of the kind of fucked-up toxicity where black comedy lurks at the edges and may give way to horror which may give way to new tonal territories.

So I knew I’d love this. This was Marco Bellocchio’s first film, and it upends Catholic devotion and the ways they come in hand with family priorities, bonds and loyalties. On the surface, nothing about the film seems subtle but there actually are some nice narrative slight-of-hands played on the audience without fanfare, and through slow unfolding. They don’t even play directly into narrative developments, but significantly add to it as a character piece.

At the outset, it looks as if Augustus is being pitched to us as the ‘normal one’. That he is our protagonist. Turns out not only is he least useful to the story and to himself, but Bellocchio sees him as being worst offender for having thoughts and not acting on them, however bad. He feigns altruism. He never expresses rage at Ale’s suggestions, secretly hoping they are carried out. The inactive escapes to happier things bare the consequences of their misguided intentions. The end irony is that Ale is the very thing he hates. He may not be part of the ‘incurables’ like the mother and Leone, but he kind of is. He’s just as dependent. And he resorts to murder just to separate himself from those he sees as helpless an dependent.

Seamless and jarring scene transitions keep everything slightly askew. Behavior is in a generally regressive state of play. There is an emphasis on hands. Most importantly is the focus on spontaneous gesture, on communicating with jolts of the body.

Lou Cassell is explosive. Everything at once. Inner child, killer, dependent, impulsive, hesitant, inept, depressed, operatic. The finale is borne out of an attack that positions those body-driven moments as the climax.

The snowy mountainous landscape is gorgeous and isolated. Ennio Morricone’s dirge-like score sounds like a siren calling from the deep. It is echoing and mocking. Challenging work in terms of character motivations and dynamics. It’s all laid out on the table for us, but you soon realize all that surface level regression is a show. It’s an empty banquet. The reality is off in the corner, and we never quite get to see it though the film’s aggression makes us think we do. It’s in that ambiguous time passage in the attic. It’s in all the unspoken background. For this, and many other things, I love it.

The Passenger

#29. The Passenger (1975, Antonioni) (Italy/Spain)
Rests comfortably below L’Avventura and Red Desert and above Blow-Up, L’eclisse and La Notte. All the Antonioni trademarks are present, still feeling vitally introspective and universal to how existentialism fits into the act of living. It’s a study on alienation and loneliness of course. And certainly of depression in a way I can’t recall feeling from his other films. It’s about an unfillable void, which is why the negative space is central to compositions. The search for answers, for a new identity, is a dead end.

Thoughts on The Passenger cannot exist without addressing the bravura 7-minute take at the end. It’s a new way of showing, or not showing, death. The logistics and accomplishment of the thing is impressive enough. But the way it makes death unpunctuated, with no fanfare. As something that is as secluded as secluded gets, passing by while a child plays outside, where the sun keeps shining. The other side of the window. The Girl recognizes David. Rachel doesn’t. And how about that other take early on as the David’s blend together in past and present, the camera tracking Nicholson as he makes his decision.

Just who are we? David doesn’t want to be David anymore. But you can’t escape yourself; just the external components. Just the baggage. He is a reporter. He’s seen a lot, been many places. But he’s just a perpetual observer working within the accepted guidelines. Just look at his interview with the President of an unidentified African nation. The old life and the new life collide and squeeze him dry.

The Passenger has the markings of a thriller, but it’s incidental, used to push the character study. Jack Nicholson gives such an atypical performance for him, and it stands out in ways that need to be seen to be believed. He is vulnerable, desperately wanting to change, going about everything cautiously even in newfound freedom. Hard to reach, but ready to be open. Waxing philosophical.

I hope Criterion or some other respected video distribution company picks this up and gives it the release it deserves. Its current DVD condition is really rough stuff. Would kill to see this film looking its best.

Random Notes/Highlights:
– Seeing Barcelona, specifically Palau Guell and the roof of La Pedrera, was a special treat.
– David’s camera getting turned on him, the questions saying more about him than interviewee’s answers.
– David being approached in the church. The way Nicholson plays that entire scene, particularly his slow turn.
– “What are you running away from?” “Turn your back to the front seat”
– Love David’s green suit. That green suit and mustache look.

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#30. Red Beard (1965, Kurosawa) (Japan)
Couple this with Ikiru, and you’ve got Akira Kurosawa’s two most humanistic films (of the 11 I’ve seen). All about empathy and the human experience, Red Beard has an edge of sentimentality to it, a do-unto-others quality that could have easily felt naive or saccharine but is instead intensely sincere and beautifully observed. Perfectly paced, with each character having their own story, their own beaten down struggles which we are made privy to.

His last black-and-white film, and generally a major transitional marker in his career, Kurosawa makes exquisite use of depth perception and the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. His use of horizontal planes and angles make for compositions that fiddle with distance and closeness, cramming people together and forcing them apart in equal measure. The enormous contained sets make the tragedies feel more resonant and the victories that much more radiant. And it even manages to sneak in a healthy dose of Toshiro Mifune Kicking Ass when he beats the tar out of a group of petty criminals.

#31. Love is Colder than Death (1969, Fassbinder) (West Germany): **1/2 
#32. Katzelmacher (1969, Fassbinder) (West Germany): **1/2 
#33. Siren (2014, Peyronel) (USA): **

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#34. The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na Korze) (1965, Kadar & Klos) (Czechoslovakia)
Sneakily broaches its subject by bringing the fledgling everyman, not the heroic everyman, into the systematic erasure of his Jewish neighbors. Flirts with comic sensibilities with its plucky nightmare strings which in fact are building to an agonizing pressure-cooker last act where cowardice flips to bravery flips to drunken cowardice flips to really drunken cowardice flips to Holy-Fuck-Tell-Me-That-Did-Not-Just-Happen. Josef Kroner is bravura, a kind of sad sack Bob Denver.

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#35. Tokyo Olympiad (1965, Ichikawa) (Japan)
Momentous national pride is paired with a worldly look at physical human strength and feat; what the human body can do and where it can go. What starts as evenly distributed straightforward coverage begins to take many different forms as we move from sport to sport. Fish-eye masters, slow-motion recaps, shaky mediums. Narration often disappears. What is left is something for everybody. With the outcome rarely at the center, athlete and spectator participate to break records and to marvel at human will.

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#36. The Wind Rises (2014, Miyazaki) (Japan)
Hayao Miyazaki goes out on a majestic grace note, giving us something he’s never done before while remaining identifiably him; aeronautical fixations, concerns over the impact of human intent (albeit too tiptoeing here), languid pacing. There is no filmmaker I love more than Hayao Miyazaki, and so it was very emotional once this film reached its end. The realization that I’d seen all there is to see of his work for the first time hit hard. That this was it.

More than any other films, animated or live-action, I just want to step into the worlds, fantastical or reality-based, Studio Ghibli’s animation team creates. They are skies to ground corporeal within their own creation. They are complete and inspiring. This is no different. The Wind Rises might be his most visually appetizing film (then I re-watched Princess Mononoke three days later and realize that statement is more a suggestion). From the sheen of the planes to the chug-chug of the trains to the crackle and fire of the earthquakes and those inimitable color spectrum spanning skies. The wind brings all of it together, used as a common denominator.

Miyazaki takes on the standard biopic, replacing the bullet points with poetic airs. Sure, things happen, but they aren’t used to strum forward. In fact, the film halts later on and turns into a weepie melodrama, a move I fell in love with (although Naoko abandons her current residency one too many times and is more of a prop than I’d like). Not something from Jiro’s actual life, the fatalistic romance sets up the sacrifices Jiro makes in order to innovate and create beautiful things. And I think that compromise can in a gentle way represent all of the real life compromises that make up a great deal of the film’s post-release controversy.

I will say that while I don’t think that some of the naysayers are completely off the mark here, I don’t quite see how it is Miyazaki’s responsibility to address these issues. He has a very clear and distinct focus here. The film swirls around Horikoshi’s quote “All I wanted to do was make something beautiful”. Miyazaki is a bit too forgiving of Jiro because on a basic level, he connects with him.

Miyazaki uses film to concentrate on what hope he can see in the world and what soulfulness he can find in his characters despite being a pessimist at heart. Obviously the downplaying of certain key issues isn’t in his purview, although the essay he released, and his well-known pacifist status, when the film came out in Japan speaks to where he stands politically (where he always has). So he’s catching it from all possible sides here. It would have been very easy for Miyazaki to concentrate on the bigger issues, and he isn’t this wistful man who ignores them, but it’s simply not his MO here. Nor should it have to be. People who want it to be are looking for a completely different film than the one they got. I see the downplaying as speaking to a bigger problem, one that is far more evident in where Miyazaki places the Germans in relation to the Japanese within the story.

That said, it was frustrating to see Miyazaki walk up to the issue of beautiful innovations used for unspeakable atrocities at the very end without actually doing anything. I would have liked a bit more at the end, a conversation that felt thought-provoking and irreconcilable perhaps rather than tossed off the way it is.

But I really loved this. A big step up from Ponyo; a mature and understated swan song that sums up everything I love about this man whose work I’m going to miss so so so much. Thank God Studio Ghibli has two upcoming projects I’m stoked about. New Takahata!

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#37. The LEGO Movie (2014, Lord and Miller) (USA)
The most high-energy film I’ve seen since…Scott Pilgrim vs. the World? Or going further down the line, Moulin Rouge! An astonishing sense of ceaseless forward momentum. I’d actually use the word ‘manic’ as a descriptor. Visually kind of mindblowing with its combination of CGI and LEGOmation, resulting in a specific aesthetic none of us have seen before. The visual qualities parallel the essence of the toys at their most imaginative with constant motion and an always evolving landscape. In fact, it’s impossible to process everything you are seeing at any given point and warrants several re-watches on this quality alone. Lord and Miller bring their irreverent and slightly absurdist brand of humor from “Clone High” (hear that dolphin sound fellow fans?) into this world. The jokes are so quick that when they miss it flashes by in an instant and lands on something  uproarious. “Spaceship? Spaceship! SPACESHIP! SPACESHIP!!!”

As far as objectives, it bites off a bit more than its capable of chewing by the end. There’s a lot of ‘don’t conform!’ to ‘but rules are good! to ‘corporation=bad’ (but it’s a LEGO movie you say! Yes, we hear you) and ‘you just have to believe’ to the importance of imagination and creativity. Luckily the film has pretty interesting ways of going about each of these objectives, and I found its final act rug-pulling pretty inspired even if I’m still working through how I feel about it. Yes, it ends up being even more directly promotional to LEGOs, but I admired the way it addressed the ways in which children use toys (and specifically the nature of LEGOs) not only as an outlet from their personal lives but as an environment which fosters creativity and imagination in some essential ways. The reveal also makes glorious parody of the done-to-death stories of prophecies, chosen ones and vague dictatorial villains in that it credits these cliches into something a child would make up. And “Everything is Awesome” is addicting and really captures the film’s spirit.

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#38. Stormy Weather (1943, Stone) (USA)
About Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson’s life, except that it really isn’t at all. What this is is an all-out revue with minimal pretext. With an all black cast in a Hollywood picture, as a response to MGM’s Cabin in the Sky, its a one-off to say the least, especially considering that the characters, while struggling to make it in the business, are allowed the kind of frivolity afforded to many studio system productions. It surprisingly sidesteps piety and unsurprisingly sidesteps critique in favor of neutrality (hello white filmmakers) but also kind of refreshing if only in its sense of lightness. What we get is a kind of time capsule treat of legendary black performers of the era, a production so rare that a new musical number occurs every couple of minutes as if the film had to cram in and make sure to represent everything these icons had to offer in one fell swoop. Because, well, ain’t that the truth. Highlights include Horne’s “Stormy Weather”, Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin'”, dapper Cab Calloway and his droopy drawers, and The Nicholas Brothers who give the most impressive feat of a tap-dance routine ever committed to celluloid. It’s a show-stopper.

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #235-239


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#235. Blue is the Warmest Color (2013, Kechiche)
A seminal relationship, the search for identity, heartbreak and hope all in extreme close-up, all mapped out on faces. The 3-hour runtime flew by for me because the film is largely free of narrative commitment, and is more tethered to an almost verite-like observation which captures intense personal experience. The camera is incapable of tearing away from Adele Exarchopoulos and it does so only to attach itself momentarily to Lea Seydoux. There is a ruthless commitment to the vigorous lifeblood of a young woman which is embedded in everything from the extratextual unpleasant filming experiences to the naturalistic self-discovery and epic fumbles of Adele’s character. She has a lust for life in eating, dancing, masturbating; the basics of life and living are depicted through that stumble towards an uncertain identity and sense of self. This goes beyond the depiction of a lesbian romance, existing on a broader level; a lot of the film is of Adele in her various environments, without any additional narrative motivation, almost feeling like a documentary at times. A scene of Adele at a rally early on is absolutely captivating. Environment is established, she is established within it and the film flies free that way. The scene, like most of them, goes on for quite some time and it could have gone on for much longer without any complaints from the peanut gallery.

Time is handled interestingly; quite a bit of it passes, with only one really direct clue at the very end as to just how much. And so time flies by, but the scenes given focus contain a great deal of real-time patience and unfold naturally. Yes, that includes the sex scenes. I think a lot can be said for their problematic claims and yet there’s an audacity and animalism to them that is so pulsing, vital, sweaty and real to their relationship that the idea of them, nature of the content and the actors experience aside, is important. It’s the kind of stark eroticism and explicitly frank depiction of sex I think we need more of. We stay with them to the point where, for better or worse, it feels like we enter another realm and it fits with the film he is making, exploitative or not (to which I say both yes and no).

The unwillingness to tear away from the face at times hurts the film. We are introduced to some potentially compelling aspects to the dynamic of the relationship which are not explored enough. It’s more interested in the lead-up to and aftermath of rather than getting into the nuts-and-bolts of an actual relationship between two women outside of a physical level. And there are other little nitpicks; some on-the-nose dialogue and those completely horrible and unrealistic group of high school girls.

I am especially taken with how meaninglessly Adele fucks up. It’s so spot-on to actual experience. We never see her trying to communicate to Emma how she feels, and her all-too human fuck-up is driven by inexperience with relationships and how to handle their downs, and a general restlessness. We see the moment she realizes the irrevocable damage she has done; those moments when it all slips out of her fingers (in the blink of an eye by the way, in direct contrast to how everything else unfolds) before she’s even begun to process anything is heartbreaking and almost unbearably palpable.

Also almost unbearably palpable is the diner scene towards the end, a wrenching depiction of can’t-go-back heartbreak, regret and pain on both sides. A contender for my favorite scene of the year. The journey we go on just in that scene is mind-boggling.

Lea Seydoux became a favorite of mine last year with Sister and Farewell My Queen. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a full-blown crush/been this attracted to someone in a film. But there you go. I really can’t handle her in this. It’s simply too much for my libido.

This takes an all-too familiar trajectory and at once goes into it on both an extreme micro and macro level. Held together by the astonishing lead performances it’s resonating with a hell of a lot of people and for good reason. It’s told with a patience, fascination and an innate regard to the uniqueness of first experiences and the gift of youth.

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#236. Frozen (2013, Lee & Buck)
Such a delight from start to finish (but with an asterisk attached). Ultimately about the bond between sisters, a pretty-much-never-broached subject for Disney, charting the paths of the two very different siblings. Two! As in more than one female protagonist! How exciting! And though most of the film sadly hinges on their separation, it all comes back to the Anna and Elsa relationship, which still counts for something. It plays around with expectations quite a bit, effectively promoting the concept of getting to know your ‘soulmate’ and developing a connection and dynamic with them over the traditional ‘princess narratives’ that almost uniformly favor the ‘love at first sight’ sentiment. There’s some direct commentary on this as well as other little subversions along the way.

The voicework is really strong; obviously Idina Menzel stands out through her singing abilities and Kristen Bell infuses a really personable and relatable brand of clumsy naive spunk into Anna.

What strikes me about Frozen is that it feels in the ballpark of greatness, which make its shortcoming that much more irksome. One is that it moves at a too-brisk pace. It felt like there were opportunities for a fleshed-out breather that were missed. I’m also not crazy about several of the songs. Sue me, but I tend to be picky in this regard. Even though we get the showstopper “Let It Go”, something critical like “Do You Want To Build a Snowman” grates on me even as it comes around to a poignant end. Taken as a whole, the songs are just decent; not exemplary. And Olaf? Well, part of me loved the character and part of me would have paid extra money to make him melt. Such is the way of Disney sidekicks.

Lastly, while some of the CGI is beautiful, my nostalgia for hand-drawn animation kicked in and I couldn’t help thinking how much more I’d love this particular film if it weren’t CGI. There’s some stunningly magical imagery, but on the other end of the spectrum some of the animation felt weirdly flat at times, the characters would awkwardly mesh with their environments, and it depicts an world with backgrounds that often felt bland and without dimension or character.

So yes, I do think there are some things holding Frozen back from greatness but this is a film I can see myself watching every so often for sure. I also should probably see Tangled.

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#237. At Berkeley (2013, Wiseman)
Don’t be surprised if this ends up as my #1 of the year. Right now we’re headed in that direction. Legendary Frederick Wiseman makes my ideal kind of documentary and he continues to stay true to his verite, no talking heads, no narration, fly-on-the-wall approach even in his 80’s. He comes back to looking at institutions, this time higher education, after a recent focus on the body in motion, with the 4-hour At Berkeley.

As always, he acts as a guide, not a documentarian with an overt agenda, employing purposeful control over the material in what footage is chosen, the order which it is put in, and where cuts occur. It’s a heavy task, and Wiseman spent 14 months editing this film. He never forces his point-of-view on the viewer, though of course he has one. We are left to make our own judgments; he just gives us the tools and the means. To say it’s engrossing is an understatement. This is a fully comprehensive portrait of the higher education system. We are given highly special access to administrative meetings which tackle budget cuts, class lectures, lively and complex discussions, and a woefully misguided student protest which is kind of embarrassing to be honest.

It’s a thorny film with no easy answers, indeed, no answers at all. For every sliver of hope, there’s something undercutting. For every moment that feels like the system is densely irrevocable, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Hope and hopelessness walk hand-in-hand. Administration is well-meaning and they do an inordinate amount to keep the wheels turning, but them’s tough odds, and the trickle down effect of that effort doesn’t look felt by the students. I can assure you from my own experience it often was not. But then there are moments when the admin feel truly dismissive and disconnected. But there’s passion and determination in the students, even though at times they don’t know what the fuck they are doing (see: aforementioned protest). And then there’s that horribly depressing moment when a student breaks down because of what financial loans are doing to her parents and her own life, with the financial adviser having essentially nothing to reassure raw emotion. So a lot about this film struck close to home for me, I gotta say. But you don’t come out of it feeling sad. You just kind of feel everything.

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#238. Byzantium (2013, Jordan)
Tell-tale yarn fraught with dicey dynamics and the eternal past. Centers around Saoirse Ronan but it’s Gemma Arterton who captivated me most. You feel the weight of time and the world on her shoulders even though she likes to pretend it isn’t there. Moira Buffini, who I like quite a lot at this point, concocts a vampiric story of women staking a claim for themselves in a male-dominated construct. Lush imagery supported by the notion that female characters can take control of their own narratives. Caleb Landry Jones confirms that he is this generation’s Crispin Glover, and this is a great thing.

Much Ado About Nothing

#239. Much Ado About Nothing (2013, Whedon)
Sounds like a dream project. One of my favorite Shakespeare plays? Whedon? Populated by Whedon regulars? Check, check, check. But while this playful low-budget adaptation has some delightful highs, I could never shake the whole Whedon-and-his-pals-amuse-and-indulge-themselves-by-performing-Shakespeare thing. Basically taking the Shakespeare parties they’d have and kicking it up a notch. I think that’s what made it charming for so many but it distracted me about 50% of the time. I had a hard time losing myself in it. But it’s thoroughly enjoyable the other half of the time. So there’s that. Acker, Fillion, and Maher are standouts. But ever-so-critically, Alexis Denisof makes a wooden and uninspiring Benedick, which the film never recovers from, to the point where a large part of that 50% comes from his screen-time.

 

 

 

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #175-188


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#175. Prince Avalanche (2013, Green)

Subtle moving micro-budget male bonding film (and also apparently a pretty faithful remake of an Icelandic film called Either Way) and a great actors-piece with one of the best dynamics in a film this year. It’s a soft but lingering piece of work that bridges where director Green started and where he is now as a director. It is isolated and connected to the ground and to the wreckage among two men who need to reconfigure who they are in the world. At times beguiling but charmingly so. A real treat not to mention one of the best scores of the year by Explosions in the Sky and David Wingo.

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#176. From Up on Poppy Hill (2013, Goro Miyazaki) 

Luscious animation and a catching sense of time and place are not enough to distract from a humdrum coming-of-age story that never coalesces. There are about three strands of story floating around here which all feel like underdeveloped filler, not to mention each is not particularly interesting on their own to begin with. The characters are appealing and I adore that it is a story about teenagers in 1963 Yokohama. But it’s a shame that father and son couldn’t come up with something more than mildly diverting, gorgeous though it is.

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#177. The King of Comedy (1983, Scorsese)

This had been a major blind spot for quite some time and I couldn’t be happier now that I’ve finally seen it. 80’s Scorsese is without a doubt my favorite Scorsese era. Anything dealing with celebrity/fame obsession tends to read as more prescient today no matter when it was made and the same goes for The King of Comedy. A satire shot with a decidedly restrained camera for the filmmaker, all the more emphasizing its unflinching tone. Nothing should distract from making us feel De Niro’s performance as Rupert Pupkin, a beaming open wound unwilling and/or incapable of touching ground for even a second. Similar to some other De Niro performances in its extremity, but fueled for entirely new purposes, he is relentless here, making sure the audience feels as uncomfortable as possible. Scorsese glues reality and fantasy together with a matter-of-fact fluidity, making that final scene all the more ambiguous. Sandra Bernhard is to die for. Her scenes with Pupkin were particularly enjoyable as they play two delusional fanatics sparring with each other in the streets of NYC. There are so many quotable moments, so many unsettling undercurrents. It’s a mix of unease, sorrow, truth, and desperation. These sort of anomalies within Scorsese’s filmography are the ones I find myself most attracted to as years go buy. And this is a new favorite.

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#178. Star 80 (1983, Fosse)
Short Review Coming Soon

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#179. Blood and Black Lace (1964, Bava)

I think for me to really attach myself to a giallo film, there has to be an ‘it’ factor. I’ve seen very few, but the ones I love go beyond the coming together of the genre’s defining characteristics and grab hold of something that’s immediacy rooted in weirdness. The original opening sequence of Blood and Black Lace does that for me. Our cast poses as mannequins with Bava being upfront about the way he, and the genre, uses characters. There are scenes of color explosions that foresee the way giallo will use expressionistic color as its language of choice, as a setting for lurid sexually-soaked demise. But Blood and Black Lace didn’t have that magic for me as a whole, despite its phantasmagorical moments influence and place as a staple of the genre.

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180. Local Hero (1983, Forsyth)

A perfect storm of a film; if it connects with you it does so in a big way. Local Hero is such an odd and disarmingly charming film that I don’t even know how to properly describe it. The village of Ferness has a slightly surreal sensibility where anything feels possible but where the possibilities reveal themselves drolly and without announcement. There’s a light dose of magical realism thrown in, something that is difficult to pull off, particularly in film. There is a story, with goals to be achieved, but the film is so relaxed and so loose in the way it soaks in the village and its people that we spend the runtime taking a slow stroll along the beach to our destination. It’s so funny, but also quite somber. This film is so many things. I fell for it hard (even though the women are just the perfect unattainable voids of male fantasy) and was so glad to be spending my time with it. And it has stuck with me so well.

Oh and Peter Capaldi is adorable in this (and 25!). Thank goodness tumblr similarly has a hard-on for him (although this unfortunately seems prompted by the Doctor announcement and not because um; Capaldi!) because it means there’s lots of Danny stuff to enjoy.

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#181. Silkwood (1983, Nichols)

Before it gets constricted by the vague confines of a conventional activist film, Silkwood relaxes us into the slice-of-life on-goings of three freewheeling plutonium plant workers. To get right down to it, the first half hour is wonderful, the rest by-the-numbers, but beyond that it struggles to fill itself with anything that feels natural to the characters involved. Hands down one of Streep’s best performances.

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#182. Eureka (1983, Roeg)

Eureka is one of the most inconsistent films I’ve ever seen. Some of it, including the first 20 minutes which ranks among of the best cinema I’ve ever seen, is genius. Then Roeg gets bogged down in undercooked family dynamics, a long court epilogue, and draggy scenes involving Joe Pesci’s gangster character. Yet about half of Eureka is mind-bogglingly stellar, like a cross between Citizen Kane and the as-yet-unmade There Will Be Blood (there’s no way in hell PTA hasn’t seen this). Roeg has become one of my favorite all-time directors. When it clicks, it’s feels unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. But when strands of lifeless narrative get in his way, it’s hard for him to work around it. He bides his time until he can film the most horrific death I’ve ever seen on film or a 10 minute orgy smack-dab in the middle that is fucking bananas. This is the kind of stuff we wait for, not for its easy shock value, but because he uses elliptical editing and unpredictable zooms to hone in on these acts in an utterly unique way.

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#183. Happy Birthday to Me (1981, Thompson)

Refreshingly gender-neutral in the way it handles its kills. Surely (spoiler) having a female killer puts a different spin on the proceedings. Fun little flick but it has got to be the slowest damn slasher film I’ve ever seen. 110 minutes?!?! For a slasher film!?!? In no way does the content justify its length, so it has some deal-breaking pacing issues. There are some interesting structural decisions that were initially appealing but then the film throws in a twist five minutes before the end which has to be seen to be believed. It makes no sense. And I mean ZERO SENSE. It couldn’t make less sense if it tried. That’s part of what makes it a fun failure.

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#184. Abuse of Weakness (Breillat)
NYFF Review: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/10/13/review-abuse-of-weakness-breillat-nyff/

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#185. Gravity (2013, Cuaron)
Review coming soon

"House of Versace" Day 09 Photo: Jan Thijs 2013
#186. House of Versace (2013, Sugarman)

I’m consistently amazed by Lifetime’s ability to make original movies that don’t feel like I actually watched anything. Too non-existent to be entertainingly bad, but it does feature a legitimately great performance by Gina Gershon who is firing on all cylinders with work that is at once over-the-top and surprisingly grounded. Too bad it’s in the middle of a non-film.

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#187. Freaked (1993, Stern & Winter)

This past week I’ve seen two of the top five craziest everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-and-then-some films ever and Freaked is one of them (the other is coming in my next round-up post). It has a bit of a following but I’m surprised this isn’t appreciated on a larger scale within the cult spectrum. If a film can produce an inventive atmosphere that shows me a) things I haven’t seen before and b) feels like anything is possible, I consider it a win. Because really, it’s such a rare accomplishment and an undervalued asset from modern day film-goers. Freaked wasn’t exactly my cup of offbeat-tea but it’s a lot of fun and has an inventive streak for miles with killer effects work from the impeccable to the handmade.

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188. It’s a Disaster (2013, Berger)

Low-key apocalyptic comedy that nails the awkwardness of being thrust into a new social entanglement and the weird dynamic of third dates. It’s an ensemble with a great rapport with Berger and the cast keeping up this chamber piece by going in various amusing reactionary directions. If some of the characters never become interesting or move past their introductory vibe, it’s a relatively minor detractor in what is one of the most consistent and enjoyable comedies I’ve seen in some time. More people need to see this. The final scene is spot-on.