Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #120-124


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

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

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

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

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#121. Bitter Moon (1992, Polanski)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Missing Picture

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

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

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#124. Mystery Train (1989, Jarmusch)

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

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

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

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

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Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #39-46


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#39. Grand Piano (2014, Mira)
Full review over at Criterion Cast: http://criterioncast.com/reviews/catherine-reviews-eugenio-miras-grand-piano-theatrical-review/

From http://www.davidmullenasc.com/gangsallhere4.jpg

#40. The Gang’s All Here (1943, Berkeley)
Busby Berkeley, taking on Technicolor, pushes the visionary of geometric extravaganzas as far as he, or anyone in the studio era, was apt to go. I love getting to that certain point while watching a film when you are asked to just let go and hop on for the ride. The answer may be no as often as yes but those ‘yes’ moments are ones to cherish. My answer to The Gang’s All Here was ‘yes, Yes, YES!’ Color is used for grand elegiac expression, such as the “Paducah” under an all-encompassing lavender swirl that predates what An American in Paris would do with dancing and color eight years later. The camera, and the effects work, is periodically used to disorient, heightening our sense of movement and curiosity to a drug-inducing degree. Eugene Pallete’s disembodied head croaking out a song. A camera that arches and lilts over women holding sexualized bananas. The mere fact that a number called “The Polka Dot Polka” serves as a finale with women in purple outfits that look like futuristic workout gear holding neon-pink lit hula hoops.

It’s also, quite simply, a lot of fun despite a central storyline that can exhaust with boredom. Although it must be said that Berkeley himself seems to view it as filler. What makes up for this is that Alice Faye grew on me, that James Ellison is blissfully absent for the entire second act, and that their romance is amusingly resolved with barely a shrug, an afterthought that clearly doesn’t deserve center stage when there are polka dots to be had.

Carmen Miranda is Queen. It’s taken me this long to actually see her in a film, though I was obviously well aware of her before this. A lot can be said for the ways in which her nationality was used as a gimmick as well as a garish ‘foreign’ stereotype, but what about what’s actually there? How about the performance and the work and the fact that she was able to secure a spot for herself within the studio system where every other star also, it must be said, had a minutely constructed screen persona. Miranda is vibrantly hilarious here, with an innate sense of comic timing, over-the-top in every moment (not just when she has dialogue), with the English language locked-and-loaded as her plaything (notably mainly restricted to our idiosyncratic sayings, not the foundation of the language). To say she steals the movie is an understatement. Berkeley sets up a world where the more heightened the better; a world fit to hold and showcase Miranda at the center. She is the purest harbinger of future camp and drag queen aesthetic and performance in the 1940’s.

Charlotte Greenwood, hip society matron and proto-Marcia Wallace with high-swinging legs is a favorite.

From http://thelastdrivein.com/category/top-classic-horror-films/flesh-and-fantasy-1943/

#41. Flesh and Fantasy (1943, Duvivier) 
Julien Duvivier’s follow-up anthology film to the previous year’s Tales of Manhattan. Dead ringers for three future “Twilight Zone” episodes, the stories address beauty, fate and self-fulfilling prophecies as they are linked to the occult. The first and second shorts, with their darker twinges, were my favorite. The first suffers a bit from its lack of prelude material. That Henrietta’s experience causes the beauty within to not only materialize but to then transition to the outside is frustrating, mainly because it suggests that the two are inseparable. But I loved this for its vaguely Von Sternberg vibe, its haunted yearning, and for Betty Field with her ratchety voice and hollow-lit face. The second story; “You’re going to kill someone Mr. Tyler”. Still cannot get that oft-repeated line out of my head. Who doesn’t relish watching Edward G. Robinson lose his mind, feverishly talking down an imaginary double and his own self-fulfilling impulses? This is some creepy stuff, with a horror-noir lit sensibility. The third story, featuring Charles Boyer and Barbara Stanwyck, is solid if less interesting. Fate is a central sentiment in many romances, and so this plays out more straight-laced than an occult-led story might have you believe. But Boyer and Stanwyck have enough chemistry together to carry it through, as well as the shimmer of Stanwyck’s lyre earrings. The entire film is beautifully photographed, with a constant tangible sense of the other-wordly just within reach.

From http://trueclassics.net/2011/08/11/play-it-on-the-g-string/

#42. Lady of Burlesque (1943, Wellman)
Notable if only for the opportunity of seeing William Wellman and Barbara Stanwyck re-team for a B-movie at the height of her career (or was it?) based on a novel by Gypsy Rose Lee. Stanywyck sings (badly), does splits (!) and cartwheels (no, seriously, it’s awesome). Highlights include the antagonistic romance between Dixie and comic Biff Brannigan and a lived-in seedy setting that the film supports and backs 100%. But this is largely dull, with endless group interrogations and no central mystery for the audience to grab, even if the killer’s motives fall in nicely with the notion of burlesque camaraderie.

From http://acertaincinema.com/media-tags/mickey-rooney/

#43. The Human Comedy (1943, Brown)
Exactly the kind of film that theoretically worked like gangbusters on an American WWII audience looking for idyllic patriotism. Also a prime example of a WWII Hollywood film I find fascinating, for lack of a more original word, as a cultural artifact. It is one of the most inconsistent films I’ve ever seen, wavering from a poignant and studied slice-of-life to the pushed-to-the-hilt brand of saccharine Americana that reads as nauseating today. This was Louis B. Mayer’s baby, with heaven always in sight and lessons always one step away from being learned, all in warm deep focus. The loose vignette-like structure is slightly ahead-of-its-time for Hollywood; narrative takes a backseat to the on-goings in the microcosm homefront town of Ithaca.

Any genuine moments, and there are quite a few, are subsequently undercut by five unbearably syrupy developments or beats that undo anything that rang true mere moments ago. You know it’s rough when they make the illiterate kid’s struggles unintentionally funny by way of overbearing. A prime example of The Human Comedy’s chronic overkill habit comes at the end. The film’s loveliest moment occurs when Mickey Rooney’s Homer (in by far the best work I’ve seen from him) plays horseshoe with James Craig during his walk home; a brief respite before having to deliver some devastating news to his family. This segues into the final scene in which the loss of death is immediately substituted by an orphan character looking to weasel his way into the family before they’ve even learned the horrible news-to-come. What would normally be seen as creepy and invasive and stalker-like is welcomed and championed by the film. Hell, it’s even supported by the dead! We get it; The Human Comedy, like many WWII-era films, promotes a set of ideal and wholesome standards and values with which to strive towards in turbulent times. But by the time the kid in the library just keeps repeating “All these! All these!” over and over again, patience has long lost the battle.

Vivian-Maier-Self-Portrait

#44. Finding Vivian Maier (2014, Maloof & Siskel)
Review coming soon

From http://www.loopedblog.com/the-grand-budapest-hotel-yes-its-whimsical-and-yes-its-a-typical-wes-anderson-delight/

#45. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, Anderson)
Short review coming soon

From http://prod.entertainment.telly.sky.com/image/unscaled/2012/02/03/Jane-Eyre-1943-DI-1.jpg

#46. Jane Eyre (1943, Stevenson)
At a certain point, watching the 1943 adaptation of Jane Eyre becomes something approaching painful. This surely has to be one of the worst adaptations of a classic novel out there in the vast world of filmic interpretation. Moves from event to event, unforgivably skipping some (see ya formative Red Room incident), botching others (we don’t even get to see Bertha? Seriously?) to grossly failing to convey or understand the material in any way that would service even a mediocre motion picture. Joan Fontaine brings her permanently pained look to Jane, where characterization fears to tread. Orson Welles seems like he is talking to himself the entire time. He acts for himself, as if unaware that maybe, just maybe, he may want to consider playing a scene with the other people in the room. So the central romance, Jane’s arc, and connecting her emerging adulthood to her childhood experiences all fails to register. Restructuring the purpose and role of Rivers makes little sense from virtually every angle. The sets and photography help us through, evoking an effectively unfamiliar Gothic sensibility.

The last scene is a tour de force of unintentional hilarity. Welles, forever stumbling through his own ruins, momentarily turns into Ron Burgundy, only to then plant the most aggressively awkward kiss of the studio era.

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #189-202


Lots of horror films in this latest chunk as my (and many other fellow film freaks) seasonal Halloween viewings come to a close. Tragic, I know. Another year where I’m reminded that October is my favorite time of the year, not just for that transition into the autumnal bliss that is late-year New England, but because everyone in the online film community is watching, considering, and discussing horror films with the consideration and passion the genre deserves.

This Is the End
#189. This Is the End (2013, Rogen & Goldberg
)
Completely outlandish in its very existence, this is self-indulgence done largely right, a grand scale look at the raunchy things that amuse these actors. It’s also very much about their relationship to fame and friendship. Unsurprisingly, this was not a film I was looking forward to (though I actually really like Seth Rogen and most of these guys for that matter), because as if we need more of this kind of exclusively male club of comedy. It sold me because these guys know how to construct, depict, and exploit their own dynamic for laughs. It even uses an Emma Watson cameo to boldly reveal just why there is no room for women within the group (hint: they can’t see past their own vanity) Simply put, I laughed harder during this than any film I’ve seen in a long time. But it crumbles to pieces in the final third. From stellar set-up to entertaining down-time, the last third goes into spectacle mode, drowning out any of its humanistic remnats with bawdy effects-driven broadness. I don’t like spectacle-driven comedy so unfortunately Rogen & Goldberg’s experiment in meta-examination crosses the finish line in overblown fashion.

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#190. Opera (1987, Argento)
Features some of the most memorable kill scenes in any horror film I’ve seen, made further abrasive through its unconventional use of metal to contrast a soundtrack otherwise filled with opera. One moment in particular, a gunshot through a keyhole, reaches a state of rare brutal divinity that left me beside myself. Notable for the way Argento reaches into his more experimental side, (about half this film is a playful and genuine accomplishment about the act of seeing) unfortunately leaving the lame non-stories that often accompany giallo on fuller-than-normal display.

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#191. The Boxer’s Omen (1983, Chin-Hung Kuei)
Hong Kong horror that ranks alongside Hausu and Freaked as the full-stop craziest and most demented films I’ve ever seen. Absolutely loved this because it attains a very peculiar level of being at once extremely over-the-top and silly but also deeply unsettling in the way it spotlights goo, slime, sludge, ooze and the like in relation to the body. There isn’t a ton of blood in The Boxer’s Omen (relatively speaking; I mean yes a crocodile gets cut open, its entrails taken out only to be replaced by a mummified woman which they then stitch into the carcass to reanimate it), but the constant fixation on gook, and then the skeletal, in relation to the body really gets under the skin after awhile. It recalls of an article I once had to read (for what I don’t remember) which discussed these kinds of liquids in relation to the body, mortality, and decay; why these kinds of images get at something indescribable and irreconcilable. In its truly out-there and awesome way, The Boxer’s Omen gets at this with its hokey anything-and-I-mean-anything goes credo.

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#192. Magic Magic (2013, Silva)
Deserving of far more than its unfortunate direct-to-DVD fate, Chilean director Sebastian Silva makes an uncomfortable fray into mental collapse. It toes the line between treating Temple’s mental illness as such, staying true to her experience without embellishing too much for genre convention. What I love about Magic Magic is the way that it depicts the group of young people she is surrounded by as assholes. Her experience of them is paranoiac and completely different, and yet the components are all there; her initial isolation justifiably felt. The way Silva balances the social aspect of these off-putting folk and the way Juno Temple (in a fucking great piece of acting) distorts her mindset in relation to them is a different kind of subtle concoction than I’m used to seeing. Michael Cera performance is genuinely creepy-crawly. His natural ineffectual awkwardness is tilted left-of-center for an extremely unsettling character named Brink who seems at the start like he is either one extremely annoying/creepy individual or an outright sociopath. He makes the performance extremely naturalistic and seemingly on-the-fly which is what makes it so effective. But the last third takes a completely nosedive and undoes most of what came before for a blunt and distancing climax that is thrown in with all sense of control removed from every character, not just Temple, resulting in most interest lost. It’s a shame because the first two-thirds features some really strong material, acting, and dynamics through atmosphere and subjectivity created by Silva and Christopher Doyle.

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#193. Valley Girl (1983, Coolidge)
I was so hoping to love Valley Girl, but I didn’t even like it. It really all boils down to the fact that there was nothing for me to grasp onto, even in a superficial sense. Except for E.G Daily who should have been in every 80s teen film ever. I expect more craziness from an early Nic Cage performance. Peggy Sue Got Married clearly spoiled me on that front. The soundtrack is great and I find it compelling as a cultural touchstone (was the ‘valley girl’ subculture widespread at this point? still regional? It also seems to both occupy an exaggerated stereotypical space as well as a fairly grounded one) but this was uninteresting in its vapidity.

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#194. Zelig (1983, Allen)
A delightful yet somber high concept anomaly from Allen that pushes its themes of neurosis and Jewish identity completely outside of the box. It may deal with ideas of cultural assimilation but that wanting to fit in urge makes it universally relatable. It’s a curious piece of work; not one I fell head over heels for, but one I spent most of my time admiring.

The technical achievement of Zelig is, well, to be facetious, fuck Gravity. I’m going to spend my time being in awe of what Allen accomplished 30 years ago. He and cinematographer Gordon Willis spent years perfecting a wide variety of techniques getting the newsreel period footage to look accurate from the cameras they used, bluescreen technology, applying damage, etc. It’s absolutely seamless. On a final note, Mia Farrow channeling Liv Ullman is just a lovely thing.

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#195. Gothic (1986, Russell)
Gothic never comes together as a compellingly over-the-top take on what inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein during her famed stay in Geneva but it does scar you in the way logic quickly disappears from the evening, replaced by Freudian fears and imagery which feel inescapable. There are a lot of images that are going to stay with me from Gothic, none more than the entirety of Timothy Spall as Dr. John Polidori in a feverishly repressed performance that becomes more and more revealingly skinned.

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#196. The Dresser (1983, Yates)
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen two more exhausting performances in a film. And I don’t mean this in a good way. The craft of the work is impressive in a sense, with Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay getting double lead actor nods at that year’s Oscars. But both are dialed up to ‘11’ from start to finish. This is ACTING in the most thespian of manners with both playing to the nosebleed sections at all times. It makes for an ineffectively abrasive experience with side effects that include not being able to hear myself think and an inability to appreciate the macabre tone of the piece and the meat of the story. They feed off each other and the basic components of storytelling such as dialogue, direction, and build-up so all that is eventually left is a collection of raving, screaming, hand-wringing, crying, and ineffectual mannerisms.

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#197. Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984, Zito)
Surprisingly enjoyable, especially considering I don’t care for this franchise at all. Basically it comes down to Crispin ‘dead fuck’ Glover, whose presence elevates every single scene with the group of teenagers to something damn near holy. I also greatly enjoyed Corey Feldman and his origin story-of-sorts as well as the family unit in general, all of which makes for a relatively fun slasher.

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#198. From Beyond (1986, Gordon)
Say hello to one of my new favorite films because From Beyond is kind of the greatest. A follow-up to Re-Animator with outrageously disgusting (and thus awesome) practical effects work, a purple-pink color scheme you won’t soon forget, the perfect lead trifecta of Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, and Ken Foree and so much more. These are the kinds of films we have to cherish because they don’t really exist in this particular combination anymore. You feel the work and the personal touch amidst and within the way the story’s limits are pushed on. It is at once ridiculous yet darker in tone than Re-Animator. I love the Combs/Crampton role reversal and the ways in which each embody their characters. Lastly, the ending is a perfect moment to close on, one of a series of stellar endings in the horror films I’ve been watching lately. Basically, yes to everything about From Beyond.

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#199. Asylum (1972, Baker)
Silly anthology film with an absurd, and thus fantastic, framing story. Most of the vignettes are flat and undercooked and at least one is outright boring (despite the presence of Charlotte Rampling and Britt Ekland). However, there is something to latch onto for each segment whether the crinkly sound of a head wrapped in paper, the empathy Peter Cushing is able to bring to anything, or Herbert Lom’s army of automatons.

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#200. Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982, Wallace)
One of those horror films that seems like it would improve exponentially in a crowd setting. I really love Carpenter’s idea about making Halloween an anthology franchise. It’s something that should have been implemented right after the first one. I’m weirdly fond of this even though I can’t say I liked it all that much as a whole. The leads are laughably miscast (oh Atkins and your manly man ways) and there are whole sections that fail to stir the imagination or even the basic attention a film asks of a viewer. But then there is a moment or a shot that would take me by genuine surprise every fifteen minutes or so. These bursts of creative or, at the very least, violent flair uprooted me enough to feel oddly fond of it. It is completely removed from the rest of the franchise with a Twilight Zone-esque story that is deceptively offbeat. Its best moments genuinely fucked with my head and it ends on an impossibly high note, a horror movie capper for the ages, that I walked away from it giddy, severe warts and all.

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#201. The Right Stuff (1983, Kaufman)
Looks at the the mythmaking hero by contrasting the idealized and unrecognized sage cowboy with the manufactured boyish build-up and media frenzy (the press are portrayed as a pack of fiendish animals complete with snake hissing and rattling on the soundtrack) of the Mercury Seven (miraculously without actually denigrating the men or their accomplishments). It takes a conventional model of the rah-rah USA historical film and does something very astute with it.

This is a surprising film in so many ways. I often found myself amazed by the way it takes on different sections of story, not worrying so much how it relates to the rest but concentrating all energy on making the section at hand seem front-and-center. I think of, for example, how much time we spent on the testing done for all Mercury Seven candidates. This section is treated as its own entity seemingly without the before or after in sight (of course it is), so you get distinctly wrapped up in each portion on its own terms. So during the testing section, while there a concentration on the ongoing theme of the childish one-uppmanship between comrades, there is also a vignette-like dynamic between Dennis Quaid and the cold nurse in charge of testing. It bears no storytelling drive to anything but itself, and for those ten minutes it becomes the entirety of content within the film. That’s just one of the many reasons and examples on why The Right Stuff gathers impact as it accumulates history, moments, and the idea of myth within American history. It smartly starts at the roots, with the test pilots and with Yeager, portrayed as incomparable forefather of everything that follows.

I’ve come to realize that nobody does vulnerability better than Dennis Quaid in his heyday. His hotdog hotshot persona and endless smile, whether in roles squeaky-clean or rough around the edges, belies an open heart I often find myself extremely moved by. See also; Breaking Away.

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#202. In the Mouth of Madness (1994, Carpenter)
Truly the most inescapable fictional scenario of them all. There are many ways to interpret this film, because its events are so tenuous and loopy. But I took it as the meta-trap it presents as the very non-existent reality. Characters have no agency in the sense of their fiction and creation. In the Mouth of Madness throws this in the mix which is an inescapable mind warp for everyone involved. Carpenter filters his deceptively simple methods into something increasingly unnerving. It has stuck with me really well and the end (completing my streak in incredible endings) is one of the best ever. Ever. EVER.

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #91-97


In the House

#91. In the House (2013, Ozon)
In the House will surely go down as one of my favorite 2013 films by year’s end. Right up there with Francois Ozon’s best work, a director who has avoided a solidified auteur status by climbing up and sliding around in genre playgrounds. But he deserves just as much attention, because let’s face it, we misuse and overuse the term as it is. His films lean toward an acerbic wit, adaptations of plays (In the House is an adaptation of Juan Moyarga’s The Boy in the Last Row) and playing with story deconstruction and manipulation whether carried out through his form or his characters. I went on an Ozon binge as a teenager and he remains one of my favorites. With In the House he reaches new heights, in a film that meta-intellectualizes the writing process, exploring our attachment to characters, the critical nature of tone and what happens when you get caught up in real life through fiction. This all sounds stodgy and overtly pleased with itself, but I assure you this is an entertaining class-conscious ride of melodrama and irony. I went into this not knowing anything, only knowing that it was the new Ozon film. And I was gripped from minute one all the way through to the perfect unpredictable, but ‘of course it needed to end this way’ final scene. In the midst of it all, there’s Ernst Umhauer, an alarmingly impactful new find. And he’s absolutely dreamy to boot.

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#92. The English Teacher (2013, Zisk)
Full Review: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/04/26/tribeca-review-the-english-teacher-2013-zisk/

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#93. The Burning (1981, Maylam)
I consider myself a pretty big fan of horror films, and even if I’m always game to give into my baser senses and watch them, the slasher has always been near the bottom of the preferential pack. The distilled hypocrisy of their formulas always irked me, but at the same time from a cultural standpoint they remain juicily revealing. Like almost every genre, my top picks rank among my favorites. Those would be Black Christmas, Sleepaway Camp and Alice, Sweet Alice. The Burning is a pleasant and consistently entertaining surprise, almost but not quite nailing that top-tier level. My checklist for slashers there needs to be a dated, kitschy or fun tone or I need to enjoy the pack of oblivious victims. The Burning hits both requirements.

The characters are a joy to hang out with, and the actors achieved a naturalistic and playful summer camp camaraderie.  Many folks judge slashers by the quality of their kills. Tom Savini does reliably solid work, though had little time to prepare, but the kills are standard fare. Luckily, the tone and interplay between characters matter more to me. You’ve also got some notable film debuts here; Jason Alexander, Holly Hunter and Fisher Stevens. Lead soap opera actor Brian Matthews is hero-hunk of the hour and Ratner from Fast Times at Ridgemont High gets saddled with the outcast role. Probably most notable for being the Friday the 13th rip-off brainchild and one of the first Miramax films from the Weinstein’s, who produced and co-wrote. Friday the 13th is highly over-appreciated. Seek this one out instead.

Encore W. Somerset Maugham Kay Walsh

#94. Encore (1952, Jackson, French & Pelissier)
Encore is the third of three anthology films based on W. Somerset Maugham’s writings. The only one I now haven’t seen is the middle one, titled Trio. On the whole, Encore is just as accomplished as Quartet in bringing idiosyncratic vignettes to life, placing the emphasis on representing a literary perspective through film. The Maugham stories chosen tend to have a focus on the ways people can surprise you amidst established dynamics.

The first story, “The Ant and the Grasshopper”, is the weak link, mildly amusing and inconsequential with an unearned ironic ending. The second, “Winter Cruise”, is the best vignette of both Quartet and Encore combined. It is an ode to the persistence of character and unexpected attachment in the forced circumstances of shared company, with a genuinely rewarding ending, adding something to everything that came before. The last story, “Gigolo and Gigolette” deals with the ravenous hunger for tragedy from the haughty public. It is bookended with scenes from the perspectives of the splatter-hungry rich who flock to the venue on the off-chance the female lead’s risky diving feat will end in death. We then get to see the petrified state that has set into Glynis Johns’ mindset and how it affects her marriage to co-performer husband.

The thing about these barely known films is that their direction, which ranges from average to bungled, holds them back from becoming true successes within the realm of filmmaking. The reasons I love both of these films are the memorable stories being told through the short story form and the British character actors who are able to bring the characters to life (especially Kay Walsh whose ‘Molly Reid’ I’ll never forget). However the medium is never utilized to enhance, instead reduced to basic image capturing. It’s a big reason these films haven’t been remembered, which is unfortunate because there’s a lot to get out of them.

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#95. Prince of Darkness (1987, Carpenter)
Mid-range John Carpenter impresses by working to the filmmaker’s strengths, his palpable fixation with theoretical physics and atomic theory on full display. He achieves sustained dread through synths and anamorphic lenses, accumulating to an explosion of disturbing abstract imagery complete with Cocteau homage. Second in his apocalypse trilogy, Carpenter thrives off of putting his characters in an enclosed space to fight off evils that slowly become cognizant to the characters as they come together and split apart. That set-up works here because the hive mind of the group offsets Carpenter’s weak spot for writing individual characters. Donald Pleasance has first billing as ‘Priest’ but he never feels present in the slightest. If it weren’t Pleasance in the role he would have received a bit part billing. The developing relationship between mustachioed Jameson Parker and frigid Lisa Blount is established then amusingly dropped. I especially loved Parker’s apparently correct prognosis of frigidity came from her being rightly offended by a sexist jab he makes. Yes, clearly this means she is humorless and dead to the world around her.

The middle section treads a lot of water with the possessed students roaming around taking others over with Linda Blair look-alike Susan Blanchard at the helm. It makes the threat corporeal in a repetitive and uninventive way, which wears thin after a while.

The reasons Prince of Darkness impress are the constant blatant imagery contrasting the scientific lab equipment set-up within the holy space of the church. Most impressive is the climax which mystifies in its atypical form, representing some of the best work in John Carpenter’s career.

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#96. Cutter’s Way (1981, Passer)
Cutter’s Way is an uncut gem, one of the best American films of the 80’s, flying completely under the radar since its limited release in 1982. I had heard of it a couple of years ago amongst fellow dedicated treasure-seekers, and the hyperbolic acclaim was through the roof. Believe the long-deserved but still dreadfully unconsummated ballyhoo about this undiscovered classic. A character study with its own matchless identity of damaged individuals bound together by unimpeachable and unspoken personal history and codependency. None of these characters are healthy for the other, but they stay loyal for better and worse.  The set-up for a conventional thriller is established only to be abolished, using its genre fake-out to explore the ambiguous maybe-delusions of crippled patchy-eyed alcoholic Vietnam vet Cutter, played by John Heard in a remarkable piece of acting. I will never primarily see him as Mr. McAllister again.

These maybe-delusions are an outlet for his unsuppressed rage at the world and his experiences in it, a misguided effort to reclaim the long lost (ever there?) hero within him. He’s a volatile unreachable mess of a human, beyond repair. Along for the ride is indecisive best friend Bone, an excellent and often gloriously shirtless Jeff Bridges. Despite being known for keeping his distance from trouble and conflict, his life is built out of decidedly running in place. The third member of this codependent group is fellow depressed alcoholic Mo (Lisa Eichhorn, rounding out this trio of superb performances), a committed defeatist who picks her battles but always loses. The only anomaly is the Ann Dusenberry character, whose presence feels forced and disjointed from the rest of the proceedings. The open ending cements both the ambiguity and the loyalty of the central friendship in a heart-wrenching coda.

Modern Girls (Jerry Kramer, 1986)

#97. Modern Girls (1986, Kramer)
Modern Girls completely won me over through its flamboyant immersion into the then-present 80’s, the kind of film that needed decades to ripen and amass a following. It’s a conventional wild-night-out film that sees its three archetypal women (Virginia Madsen, Daphne Zuniga, Cynthia Gibb) getting into all sorts of hijinks as they run from club to club with unwitting male Cliff (Clayton Rohner). Its appeal lies in the dated culture shock, the youths of L.A represented by three idealized women. These women are written as the kind of ‘cool’ that young women would aspire to be. Hell, I found myself wishing I could be Margo. Their fashion sense, which I think holds up in its funky way, and obscenely confident demeanor (at least on the outside) give way to dream lives that writer Laurie Craig tries to make relatable through their oh-so-woeful work weeks as they waltz through dead-end jobs.

On the outset, all they care about are men, but thankfully there’s some nice work done towards the end to offset their priorities by challenging the characters to favor long-standing friendships and daring to want things for themselves. If made today, I likely wouldn’t care much about Modern Girls. But this 1986 cult film is abundantly quirky and lively with a lot of neon dated character impossible to resist. Its female-centric focus also feels relatively rare for 80’s teen comedies. All in all, I adored the hell out of this one.

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #74-79


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#74. Days of Being Wild (1990, Wong)

And with only his sophomore effort, Wong Kar-Wai settles into his niche of depicting the humidified longing of youth with a cool sensibility. I don’t know how he does it but the singular Hong Kong treasure has always been able to take the simplest, the oft-seen of romantic woes, strip them down and linger on sensual emotional suffering. Part of it is that Wong understand and revels in the fact of ‘isn’t it all worth it’. It’s like he’s celebrating that suffering and longing by dressing it up and romanticizing the good, the bad, and the ugly. With ‘Days’, characters cross paths, and cross paths again, as the passage of time blankets all. With Happy Together, I couldn’t get past Leslie Cheung’s arrogant abuser, but here Cheung’s arrogant more self-aware abuser has a central throughline that made him worth digesting. Every time I see Maggie Cheung I just get depressed about her not acting anymore. Coupled with In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express as my favorite Wong Kar-wai films.

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#75. Spring Breakers (2013, Korine)

https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/review-spring-breakers-2013-korine/

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#76. Phil Spector (2013, Mamet)

This barely felt like a film, more an excuse for Mamet to rail his politics at us. Which would be fine, if he had been able to build a semblance of a picture around his ideas. Instead, the film ends before it even begins, drags on as Mirren blows her nose and Pacino pontificates about The Righteous Brothers and his success and people judging him for his eccentricities. You realize that Phil Spector himself doesn’t interest Mamet. The only thing that matters to him is making a case for Spector’s innocence or at least his ‘reasonable doubt’, which uncomfortable in its insistence.

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#77. Seed of Chucky (2005, Mancini)

Camptastic little meta-film even though it completely runs out of steam about halfway through. Adored seeing Jennifer Tilly ham it up as herself. The animatronics work continues to impress. There’s a mesh between horror-comedy and twisted domestic drama that it plays around with. The ‘seed’ made me laugh everytime he opened his mouth because he reminded me of the sketches in “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” where the troupe members played timid little schoolboys. Could have been so much better but it at least it nails the tone.

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#78. Fantasia/2000 (1999)

Fantasia is one of my top ten favorite films, racist warts and all, so it’s sad I’m just got around to this now, although it seems I didn’t miss much. Clocking in at 74 minutes, it crams in as many pieces as the original despite its short length. Its reliance on ‘innovating’ with CGI currency hurts the visual impact considerably. I understand the blending of CGI and hand-drawn animation is impressive and all, particularly for 1999, but I found it resolutely distracting. Fantasia is all about innovation, and the translation of that innovation to today’s world slumps in comparison to the outside-of-the-box feats of the 1941 masterpiece. Filter out the uninspired rip-offs, the duds (I’m looking at you Donald-as-Noah), and the potential-in-concept but lacking-in-execution (due to having nearly all CGI), and you’re left with four I liked. “Rhapsody in Blue”, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it “Carnival of the Animals”, “Firebird Suite-1919 Version” and from Fantasia, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. ” Despite bursts of creative flourish, my disappointment comes down to the use of CGI and fitting 8 pieces, including introductions for each, into a slim 74 minute block.

Evil Dead

#79. Evil Dead (2013, Alvarez)

An exercise in pushing the envelope of mainstream gore, Evil Dead is an audacious and memorable re-interpretation of the Sam Raimi classic. Shot by first-time filmmaker Fede Alvarez with a beautiful washed out decrepit woodsy feel, covered in dirty natural light. My complaints stem from its inability to even pretend to care about the central brother-sister relationship. It either needed to execute that storyline with a hell of a lot more sincerity, or ditch it altogether and spread that time over to its nondescript characters. It hits the most unfortunate spot of the in-between and contributes to its one-too-many climaxes. Not to mention that Shiloh Fernandez can’t act to save his life. My other complaint stems from its ultra-serious tone, which actually works for me. However, I’ve seen others refer to it as a comedy, which is perplexing. I laughed during the film from its absurdity, the way you do during slashers that push in this way, but I never felt it ‘go’ for comedy. If it was, it needed to be slightly more pointed, because I saw it as taking the opposite tack.

I admired its brutally over-the-top mayhem, its reliance on practical effects work, and I loved the central detoxing conceit. Loved loved loved.  I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen a mainstream horror film this violently drenched in red. It’s obsessed with the details of pain, never letting you forget the crunch and decay of what we’re seeing. At a certain point it hits achieves a level of abstraction, sullied by the domestic nonsense, where you don’t even feel like you’re watching a film. You’re just watching relentless blood-letting. And that’s a compliment. I’ve also realized that Cabin in the Woods has added a level of distraction to all cabin-set films for me. And lest I forget, Jane Levy is spectacular.

Viewings & Rewatches: February 17th-23rd, 2013


Rewatches:

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#16. Zero for Conduct (1933, Vigo)
First Seen in: 2006

Playful anarchy executed with a boisterous celebration of freedom in all its forms. I personally prefer this to L’Atalante because of the way poeticism becomes linked to unbridled youth. This is a highly personal work from Vigo harking back to his days being schlupped around boarding schools and his dead father’s anarchist ideology. There is a tight scenic structure but the content within each scene has the opposite feel, that of carefree openness. Vigo and cinematographer Boris Kaufman extensively use high overhead shots to observe the boys as a scurrying gleefully undisciplined unit and the efforts by authority figures to rework them into rigid awkward symmetry. The overhead shots allow us to see with a pragmatic eye how unnatural the rigidity feels to us and the boys. Anarchism is displayed as a joyous arena where freedom simply entails the natural state of things reclaiming itself. Formally, Vigo reinforces this disposition where magic tricks and feats of experimentation are used as a form of communication both for the director and for the young boys. I’m fascinated by the matter-of-fact homosexuality suggested between effeminate Tabard and older Bruel.

Jean Daste, who I had a major crush on when I first saw this (more here than in L’Atalante) and still do, is an odd duck in this black and white spectrum of instigators and authority figures. He supports the boys, an adult who never really grew up and is really uncomfortable as an authority figure, rejecting it outright most of the time. He has his head in the clouds and uses his body as a playful instrument just like the boys, communicating in headstands and skips.

The pillow fight scene is justifiably the most famous and it was the only thing I remembered about it from my first viewing. It is fixes a moment in time using slow-motion with its otherwordly double inverted score by Maurice Jaubert. There are few moments in film that reach this level of majesty projecting a mythological triumph with its floating feathers and use of nudity.

Gold Diggers of 1933

#16. Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933, LeRoy)
First Seen in: 2009

Reintroduction Post #4: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/02/26/reintroduction-4-the-gold-diggers-of-1933-1933-leroy/

Film Title: A Serious Man

#18. A Serious Man (2009, Coen Brothers)
First Seen in: 2009 in theaters

I wrote a review of this when I first saw it. It’s very poorly written. This firmly holds its place as my second favorite Coen Brothers film. It ponders the impossible question of ‘what does it all mean’ through the examination of the Jewish faith. It even starts with a made-up Yiddish folktale that doesn’t exactly connect in theme, but in religion. It uses vague surrealism and repetition of conflict, images and sound to feel like Larry and us are struck in some sort of spiraling nightmare. What he’s actually going through is what most people go through at some point in their lives (there’s no real plot here), but the Coens present it as something like an existential vortex. A considerable reason for me loving this film as much as I do is Michael Stuhlbarg. It’s kind of absurd just how much of a crush I have on this man. He’s also the reason that Rothstein is my favorite character on Boardwalk Empire (along with Richard of course). He fails to gain leverage in any conversation, all of which are two-person scenes. It’s a mostly reactive performance requiring lots of confused frustration and it’s one of my favorite performances by any actor. Shout-out to Fred Melamed as Sy Abelman. And that whopper of an ending still packs a punch even by their standards.

black swan

#19. Black Swan (2010, Aronofsky) First Seen in: 2010, first day in theaters

Yeah, I still really love this. I wrote a big long review of it when it came out (which can be found on this blog) so I won’t really write much else here. It deals in repetition, the building blocks of ballet. And it mixes its over-the-top visceral subjectivity with a documentary-like realism in its cinematography and performances. Winona Ryder is absurdly underused (like Laura Dern in The Master level underused), but she does get to have a temper tantrum, get wasted, call Natalie Portman a whore and stab herself in the face with a nail file, all in what amounts to five minutes of screen time. Now that’s mileage.

New-To-Me:

la pirogue

#29. The Pirogue (2013, Toure): B+/B
Review posted for PIFF 2013 on Criterion Cast: http://criterioncast.com/film-festivals/piff-2013/moussa-toures-la-pirogue-piff-2013/

walking and talking

#29. Walking and Talking (1996, Holofcener): A-

I had some thoughts jotted down but I lost them all but suffice it to say I’m so happy to have finally seen this, and it’s certainly one of my favorite indie films of the 90’s. It has everything I gravitate towards. Honestly flawed and self-involved women coping with their own problems.

Smile

#30. Smile (1975, Ritchie): A

A brutally shrewd satire that pities its characters and lambasts the endlessly contradictory social and cultural rituals that flourish in America. There are so many moments in this film where the jokes cut so damn deep. The laughs carry more than a hint of uncomfortable bite and they often surprise. Just look at that last shot for a prime example. It’s a bold gut-punch of a statement in a film that’s full of them. Satirizing beauty pageants seems like an easy target, and it is, but what Smile does to layer everything is shine its spotlight on the adults involved in the Santa Rosa ceremony. Their lives are a pit of denial, none more so than Bruce Dern in a turn that deserves all the recognition in the world. His Big Bob Freelander is sort of an adult example of someone who lives by the superficial ideals set forth in the Young Miss America pageant. Ideals that sound good on paper, except when you realize those traits don’t make a person, even less so when you want everyone to commit to the same ones.

As for the girls in the competition, they are all mixed up inside, conforming to what others want of them without really examining the end game. They are told to be individual but what the judges really want is conformity, thus perverting altruistic traits into something meaningless. In the judges conference, we see a montage of many girls saying they want to help others. The one dissenter who never brings her answers in that direction (our main contestant Robin played by Joan Prather), is then led by the judges to say she wants to help others, much to their satisfaction. It’s a brilliant moment, one of many, and these moments work so perfectly because you don’t see them coming, making you feel their impact even more.

Lastly, Michael Ritchie never focuses too much on the competition, which highlights the pointlessness of it. The climax of Smile is as you would expect, with the announcement of the winners. But despite knowing that Robin and Doria (a young Annette O’ Toole) want to win, you feel absolutely no stakes in the reveal. And that’s exactly the point. As the girls scream and cry, hiding their own disappointment with sheer fake energy, we feel the emptiness of it all. Smile is unflinching with its bleak humor, pulling back the curtain on blind optimism and contradictory values, specifically in small-town America.

After the Wedding

#31. After the Wedding (2007, Bier): A-

Bring your hankies everyone. Bring your damn hankies to this one. And go into it knowing little. What looks like a soap opera on paper is deftly handled by Bier. The seemingly melodramatic turns go beyond the jolt and into their thematically tricky motivations and what it all means for the characters. The past catches up with Mads Mikkelsen, showing him inextricably linked to two decades previous. After the Wedding welds connections and peels back intent to devastating effect. The cumulative weight of it all hits at exactly the right moments. Using money for personal gain is unconventionally addressed, looked at from a new angle. What lies behind the motivation to help others and does it remain appropriate when it entails making decisions for other people? An ever-shifting interpersonal drama, shot by Bier with ruggedly Dogme overcast, with stellar performances from all four leads.

Happy People

#32. Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (Herzog & Vasyukov): C+

Review posted for PIFF 2013 on Criterion Cast: http://criterioncast.com/film-festivals/piff-2013/catherine-reviews-werner-herzog-and-dimitry-vasylukovs-happy-people-a-year-in-the-taiga-piff-2013-review/

the love parade

#33. The Love Parade (1929, Lubitsch): B+/B

It’s endlessly impressive how much of Lubitsch’s wit remains fresh more than 80 years later. This is probably my favorite role of Jeanette MacDonald, as the coy, indecisive and pouty Queen of Sylvania. It’s so funny that Maurice Chevalier is considered suave. Sure he is. But he’s also all twitchy smiles and fey stammering, a ladies man who exudes different qualities than you expect. Not much happens in The Love Parade, but what does happen is centered around sex. Who is in control? The Queen because she’s the Queen. But Chevalier can’t abide husband as sole occupation. Their courting is some risque role-playing as foreplay with doling out punishments and such, all the more charged because MacDonald is serving up some serious bedroom eyes. They call each other out, all is a series of tests.

Lubitsch’s fuses older methods while making some headway with talkies technology, still in its infancy at this point. A lot of the jokes are visual, beats you would see in a silent film. But so many of the jokes hinge on sound and the film as a whole is less stilted than you would assume at such an early juncture. The songs in Maurice Chevalier films never do much for me, but I must say the numbers between Lupino Lane and Lillian Roth are physical comedy heaven. I’ve always loved Roth (and I think I’ve seen most of her Pre-Code work at this point, which means I’ve seen most of her work) and she really shines here.

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#34. The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962, Levin & Pal): D+

3-strip Cinerama is trippy stuff. Photographed with three lenses on a projector that produces three strips of film, it is one of only two feature-length narratives photographed using this method (the other was How the West Was Won). It was meant to draw people away from their TV sets, giving them a more encompassing experience. It was even projected on a panoramic screen with curvatures. This format is both the reason to see it, and what ruins it. Not only is the story and the fairy tales within the story uninteresting and awkwardly performed and shot, but 3-strip Cinerama means that the whole world is crammed into every frame. There are no close-ups. There are barely medium or long shots. The format is too grandiose to accommodate even the simplest of camera distances. But it’s fascinating to see, for a while. You can even see the lines separating the three cameras. Karlheinz Böhm, ridiculous but entertaining claymation and a few wtf perspective shots kept me going on this one. Each shot felt like an overambitious diorama.

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#35. A Fierce Green Fire (2013, Kitchell): B-
Review will be posted on Criterion Cast soon

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#36. Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966, Klein): B+
Review: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/02/22/review-who-are-you-polly-maggoo-1966-klein/

Circus of Horrors

#37. Circus of Horrors (1960, Hayers): B-Enjoyable B-movie schlock from Anglo-Amalgamated. Well-paced and entertaining from first to last mainly because of its absurd central conceit, which is by its nature not a plot I’ve seen in another film. Trying to test the envelope-pushing in horror with scantily clad women meeting their grisly ends. Anton Diffring, a waxy British Dennis Hopper is fun. Most importantly, where else are you going to see Donald Pleasence trying to drunkenly dance with a bear only to get mauled in the process? Nowhere.

Viewings & Rewatches: February 10th-16th, 2013


Rewatches:

Rear Window

#10. Rear Window (1954, Hitchcock)
First Seen in: pre-2005
I realize I’m jotting down thoughts about films that have been written about to death. But that’s what a lot of these rewatches are; classics in the canon. What to say about Rear Window? It’s the film above all other films I’d say that should and is taught in an Intro to Film course. It has all of the basics of filmmaking presented in such a boiled down masterful way that I’d be hardpressed to find a better example of the visual storytelling capable within cinema. It’s a two-hour master class.

Hitchcock always tells his stories through visuals, film being a visual medium. Dialogue for him was just another aspect of the sound. Nowhere is this more evident than here. He links the audience to the protagonist whose personal dilemmas are linked through the mini-stories being told outside his window. And it’s all about that favorite theme of voyeurism, something inherent in the act of watching films. We watch the movie, peeping in on Jeffries—>Jeffries watches his neighbors peeping in on them—>we watch the neighbors along with Jeffries linking us back to him. There’s so much of this going on in such intricate ways.

Miss Torso, Miss Lonelyheart, the composer, the murderer and his wife, the newlyweds. All of these neighbors, and when and how Hitchcock shows them, gives us internal information about Jeffries all through coupling what he sees/his reaction shots. The construction of this film is insane. Characters are linked such as Lisa/Miss Lonelyheart) through wardrobe, jewelry, reaction shots, dialogue, blocking, etc. Everything has double meaning. The neighborhood is a microcosm of the world according to Hitchcock. All of this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Special shout-outs to:
– Thelma Ritter; nobody tells it to you straight like her.
– Grace Kelly’s introductory shot (it’s downright startling in its beauty) and her self-parade of “Reading from top to bottom. Lisa. Carol. Fremont.”
– Lisa’s sea-green suit with the white halter top. Tippi Hedren would also wear a suit of that color in The Birds.

Manhattan

#11. Manhattan (1979, Allen)
First Seen in: 2003 or 2004

This was a film that I merely liked when I first saw it as a teenager despite its reputation as a masterpiece. I liked it more this time around but I still don’t consider it in my top Woody Allen films. Its highlights are Gordon Willis’ iconic black and white photography which took my breath away every few minutes with alarming regularity. And the George Gershwin soundtrack is Allen’s best.

By mythologizing Manhattan, Allen makes the relationships going on within the city feel even more futile. He uses a cyclical pattern in dialogue and camera movement so there is a repetition of conversations that either leave the characters in the same place or with even less than they started with. Scenes like the fight between Issac and Yale are stationary because it’s a break from the sameness. Another example is that the camera settles down when Isaac is with Tracy, often allowing for a calm and comfortable stationary shot with both in the frame together. Most of the time, Allen engagingly tracks his camera around the room in one take, repeating character movement as well as who is in the frame at different intervals.

This repetition is impressive and says a lot about relationships but it never quite invests me. I cared about Isaac because I have a soft spot for the director’s self-protagonists. And I cared about Tracy a lot, who just wants to be taken seriously. She is wise beyond her years, possessing a delicate maturity.

As for Diane Keaton, well…I couldn’t stand her in this. Her indecision, insecurities and pseudo-intellect were all grating and I just found her insufferable. But the scene when Allen meets her and is similarly put off (she dismisses Bergman for God’s sake!) is the funniest in the film.

the apartment

#12. The Apartment (1960, Wilder)
First Seen in: 2005

What impresses me most about The Apartment is how much it does at once. It starts under the guise of a surprisingly frank satirical look at sexual mores of the time, but it effortlessly shifts in and out of romance, comedy and drama throughout. Without it ever taking over the picture, there is a very bleak undercurrent about where men and women stand in the facelessness of corporatism and sexual politics. The men rise through a brotherhood camaraderie that has nothing to do with actual work. That camaraderie leaves women used and left at the bottom of the picking order with unfulfilled empty promises, either unemployed or suicidal. Thank goodness Billy Wilder has made a film light enough to save its leading lady from where a different film might have left her.

If I have drawbacks from this undisputed classic, it’s that the first act drags a little for me. I start to love this film once we get past that first half hour. Jack Lemmon is wonderful in this and another casting choice would have made his situation unsympathetic. But I do admit that I have to be in a certain mood for Lemmon’s ceaseless enthusiasm. Shirley Maclaine is majestic and heartbreaking here. She knows what’s right for her but she has such a hard time breaking free. I have a significant crush on young Shirley Maclaine. The Trouble with Harry and The Apartment have reminded me of this fact.

Quartet 2

#13. Quartet (1948, various)First Seen in: 2009
Reintroduction Post: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/02/16/reintroduction-3-quartet-1948-various/

Bleu

#14. Trois Couleurs: Bleu (1993, Kieślowski)
First Seen in: 2003

When I saw this at 14, over ten years ago, I just saw it in the most basic manner. Sure, I liked it but it didn’t truly connect with me and I didn’t connect with it. My experience this time around classifies as a momentous occasion. Kieslowski juxtaposes Julie’s coldness and self-isolation with the warmth and lushness of its sensory images. It expresses the inexplicable and the forms grief takes. Scenes like the one where she ferociously eats the candy she finds in her purse or when she drags her knuckles painfully across the stone wall stand out as smaller but all-important examples of this. Can we cut ourselves off completely and what does this entail? Julie systematically purges herself of both her old life and her identity.

Juliette Binoche could have played Julie like a zombie, all but dead to the world. But she doesn’t; she instead plays it with a riveting and understated cold determination. She is shedding herself, trying to fit into an ordinary and hollow existence. The color blue absolutely represents the past, the inescapable link; that much is clear. But this film is so much more than that; the combination of the layered abstracted imagery, the symbols and framing, the use of filters and lenses, the linking of images and sound, the integral music by Zbigniew Prisener and that astounding lead performance. So much of the sensory experience that Blue offers is its ambiguous depiction of the internal; its oblique instinctual pull links us with Julie as well as the camera’s insistence on staying close to her. The first act is Julie’s purging. The second is her new empty existence. Her third is her reemergence. This is a revelatory sensory experience that impacts with its calm unflinching honesty and its lyrical precision.

aliens
#15. Aliens (1986, Cameron)
First Seen in: 2004

It’s going to be hard not to talk about Alien in my write-up to Aliens but I’ll try and keep it to a minimum. Suffice it to say that I much prefer Ridley Scott’s film and its sterile maze of psychological claustrophobia using negative space. But I digress.

Aliens has injected a lot into the fabric of action/sci-fi/thriller films of its kind moving forward. I love the transformation of Ripley as action hero and her amount of constant agency is impressive. It works as a big loud and expertly mounted roller-coaster. Cameron is really into the design elements here, crowding his frames with machinery and the nuts and bolts of the future. Ripley stumbling upon the Queen Bee’s hub stands out as a highlight. There are a lot of little effects that I like, such as the use of strobe lights (and flashing lights in general) to represent the gunfire, adding to the visual dynamic of action scenes. Hmmm. What else do I like? Bishop, though Lance Henrickson is criminally underused. Ripley’s trauma from the events of Alien is well established. OH! And of course the sound design and effects work, especially the much-improved mobility of the alien(s) and the power loader. That Queen Bee marionette design is just….wow.

Everything involving Newt is painful and it isn’t helped with the young girl’s performance. The characters in Alien were largely undeveloped archetypes, but at least there was a variety. Here we get a bunch of jacked-up Marines, part of Cameron’s grand Vietnam metaphor, who are a largely uninteresting bunch. We are on the outskirts of their camaraderie as is Ripley and it keeps us from ever feeling one with them. The Paul Reiser character never represents the corporate threat he should have. It’s not his fault; it just feels like the script drops him before actually doing anything of note with him.

Listening to the commentary track was a real treat. Cameron covers so much ground and he’s got such a practical problem-solving head on his shoulders; it’s an educational listen.

New-to-Me:

The Trouble with Harry

#22. The Trouble with Harry (1955, Hitchcock): B-

Gets a lot of mileage out of the rural cast of memorable characters, especially the lead foursome who bands together. Same goes for the New England setting; the Blu-Ray transfer is indescribably gorgeous; the daytime autumnal season pops as if it were just shot this past November. The setting, Bernard Herrmann’s skip-in-its-step score (his first for Hitchcock), and the nonchalant shrug-filled manner in which the characters work through their predicament make up the way this comedy finds humor in contrasting the situation with its presentation. My issue is that there isn’t much variety in the humor; its a sustained understated tone mirroring Hitchcock’s British sensibility that at times feels minor, forgettable and samey. I can see why he was so fond of this one though, it’s very unlike anything else in his filmography. Arnie the kid was quite obnoxious. I love the scene where Sam asks everyone what they want when he sells the paintings; it was then that I realized I had grown quite fond of this group. And Sam’s “beat it creep!” to Arnie in the last scene had me cracking up.

Sunday Bloody Sunday

23. Sunday Bloody Sunday (1970, Schlesinger) : C

This is a somber look at two individuals involved in a tricky entanglement in which they share the same man. This man (Murray Head), comes and goes when he pleases with a half-involvement that always leaves the two (Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson who share one scene together) wanting. The point is for them to have their freedom, but Bob is the only one who really has it.

All of this sounds interesting but Sunday Bloody Sunday never takes off for me. A lot of it has to do with not being able to appreciate its cultural context as a story immediately after the Swinging 60’s, depicting the atmosphere of the troubled aftermath. But its examination felt distant and dry, so low-key as to not register at all. The dialogue never intrigued either. The only thing that held me was Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch, both very good.

There is a shot I love towards the end. Jackson sits in the bottom of the frame in a chair that swivels and Murray Head is hanging a clock at the top of some stairs. She swivels back and forth, alternating between the chair taking up most of the frame and her appearing in it.

Le-Tableau-The-Painting-post

#24. The Painting (TBA, Laguionie): B-/C+
Review: http://criterioncast.com/film-festivals/piff-2013/jean-francois-laguionies-the-painting-piff-2013/

Kennel Murder Case

25. The Kennel Murder Case (1933, Curtiz): B/B-

Reprising his role for the last time as Philo Vance, William Powell completes his warm-up round for his forthcoming Nick Charles in this short, snappy and ferociously paced whodunit. This is 100% about the central mystery with no irrelevant fat to be found. It is in this way that it stands out. It moves along in such a clip that you are thankfully left with no time to work through the questionable logic of said mystery.

the window

#26. The Window (1949, Woolrich): B/B-

A unique film noir that places a child in the leading role in a take on the boy who cried wolf fable. Suspenseful with a palpable sense of increasing desperation. Bobby Driscoll sells his predicament so well and Ted Tetzlaff photographs him in prison-like shadows where stripes and cage-like shapes shroud him as he has nowhere to turn. The unglamorized setting of a lower-class New York City tenement also stands out. This is a Ralph Kramden-level run-down living space. It makes everything feel more foreboding with its narrow staircases, bare blotchy walls and leaky roofs. Would make a good double feature with The Fallen Idol; similarities in decade and child perspective but the wholly different purposes and stories would keep it from being redundant.

When Ladies Meet

#27. When Ladies Meet (1933, Beaumont) : B+Full Review: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/02/16/review-when-ladies-meet-1933-beaumont/

Tremors

#28. Tremors (1990, Underwood): BA really fun monster movie comedy that earns its cult status. These characters have lived in Perfection Valley forever, so the long-established love/hate relationship between everyone is well felt. You care because these are simple but likable characters with a sense of humor who work hard to earn their lives with everything the writer throws at them. The question of how-will-they-get-out-of-this is answered in some exciting ways and it switches up where the characters are throughout, constantly forcing them to come up with new plans. And the creature effects are fun to watch as well.