Capsule Reviews: 1958 Watchlist Section Two – ‘Biopic’


the-goddess-movie-poster-1958-1020223684 TOOMUCHTOOSOON1SHWS After a year and a half of being all-inclusive, for an indeterminate length of time I’ll only be writing capsule reviews for the Top Ten By Year watchlist films. I’ll continue to engage with everything I see by informally writing in my film notebook, but as far as the blog goes, it’s more manageable this way. I’ll list the other films I’ve seen recently with their letterboxd score, but keep in mind that scores are used for vague personal markings, not value judgments.

As I did with 1992, I’ll be going through 1958 by sectioning the watchlist off into broad sections, usually by genre or geography. These mini-units take the specificity of year one step further into the realm of case studies such as where was the Western at in 1958? and other such musings. The 1950’s in American filmmaking was a time of Method, the omniscient influence of theatre, realism, location shooting, self-seriousness, message pictures, humorless renderings. Glamour was replaced with stern representations. Black and white no longer shimmered; grays looked, well, gray. Placid. That’s putting it reductively. I hope to come to a more hands-on understanding of where filmmaking was in 1958, and where it was going.

The first of nine planned sections was technically Crime/Noir/Mystery but I was using the paper I’d written notes on as a bookmark for a book I left at the doctor’s office. Yes, I know. And now it’s been too long so I’ll forgo that first section. For now, here’s one of the shortest sections from the watchlist; the ‘Biopic’. There are only two first-time viewings. My re-watch for the ‘Biopic’ was Robert Wise’s I Want to Live! starring Susan Hayward, which proved much more trying than I had remembered, peaking very early on with Hayward’s introductory bedtime silhouette shot. For a ‘factual’ social drama, it somehow lets the human element fall through the cracks, in no small part due to the lead actress’s Oscar winning performance which reeks of showcasing and is made up of thunderous brass ad infinitum. I was going to have a re-watch of Ivan the Terrible Part II in here, but upon consideration decided to disqualify the film because it was shot in the 40’s, and its release in 58 isn’t even remotely representative of the time.

That brings us to Too Much Too Soon and The Goddess, showbiz ‘biopics’ that unsurprisingly circumvent relationships to craft, focusing instead on the (at this point in film) more commonly depicted dilemmas of addiction/personal demons. The former is based on Diana Barrymore’s memoir, the latter a three-part fictional legend written by Paddy Chayevsky and rumored to be inspired by Marilyn Monroe’s chronic loneliness and severe psychological childlike forms of dependency. too-much-too-soon-1 Frank acknowledgment of addiction was a sort of hot topic by the late 1950’s, still new enough for its directness to have a knowingly transgressive tinge. In Too Much, Too Soon, alcoholism is often played like a horror show. In one scene Diana (Dorothy Malone) returns to her father John’s (Errol Flynn) cavernous castle to find darkness, the ornate bird cage now empty, broken bottles, and the ominous sound of tinkling glass coming the shadows. Where’s Dad?

Are we watching Errol Flynn play Errol Flynn or Errol Flynn playing his friend John Barrymore? This being a year before Flynn’s death, and knowing his personal history, it’s hard to tell. What I do know is that it’s the best he’d ever be onscreen. It’s a perfect example of how acting had translated from the studio heyday into the 50’s. This larger than life star, once an untouchable heroic screen presence, was now revealing himself to be cripplingly human.

Too Much, Too Soon is Post-Oscar Dorothy Malone, taking names and lead roles. The film focuses on the inescapable impulse to give parents the benefit of the doubt. Split into John and Post-John eras, the latter half sees Diana picking up where her father left off. She goes through ill-advised and abusive relationships (never has a tennis ball been more intimidating), and slides into a drunken abyss of existence. Both this and The Goddess are eager to provide comprehensive roots for their characters behavior. Scenes from childhood are carefully doled out. Diana’s (Malone playing Diana as a schoolgirl starts us off on a bizarre note) incessant need for her father and his attention while the lonely Emily Ann (Kim Stanley) is an unwanted child who tells her cat about her day because it’s all she has.

Both work so hard at laying down the psychological groundwork that neither film takes off the way they should. At the time this was a novel approach, but now it reads as somewhat inert. The turmoil serves to prove that the actors can get inside their characters heads, but the film’s themselves can’t cross that bridge. Too Much, Too Soon arguably suffers from this more. Its second half can be summed up as; Dad’s dead, Dad passes the alcoholic baton to Diana, Diana drinks. A lot. It isn’t a rise and fall narrative because, well, Diana never really rose. It’s more a get-to-know-the-famous-pop and fall. Diana and her emotions are so tethered to Papa John, she is never made compelling in her own right. But the second half makes up for the loss of John/Errol by punctuating Diana’s descent with oddities in tone and performance. Malone’s voice goes crackly. And she appears in proto-Baby Jane makeup in one of the more grotesque, effective, and grotesquely effective rock bottom scenes in recent memory. Think a late 50’s rendition of Ellen Burstyn’s lipstick party in Requiem for a Dream. the-goddess-0191 The Goddess is built around Chayevsky’s Paddy-talk monologues. It only takes nine minutes for the shrieking to begin. Bringing to life the sensationalist inspiration (doubly notable because Monroe still had 4 more years of life ahead of her by the film’s release and was a larger than life current star) was fellow Actors Studio student Kim Stanley making her film debut as Emily Ann Faulker/Rita Shawn. There is some serious movie career momentum being set up here for the stage actress. Now that the movies favored psychological portraiture, the foundation was set for a new generation of actors to take the reins and represent complex characters inside and out.

The Goddess is common among this long-running wave of serious-minded stories that convey information not by showing, but by telling. And telling. And telling some more. The Goddess is explicitly concerned with tracking how someone gets to be a damaged and dependent childlike loner. Dissolves are used to overlay in-the-moment significance with empty emphasis, putting an expiration date on the ‘during’. Stanley is oddly cast (she struggles to carry the early schoolgirl scenes and ditches sexpot allure entirely) making up for what she lacks in star quality with, well, some serious chops. Gal’s got gumption to spare. Yet for all the build-up surrounding her debut, it is Betty Lou Holland as her floozy-turned-pious mother who stands out most. This part was the highest profile role of her career and it’s a conspicuous and transformative powerhouse, the kind of heavy, leaden performance that could find a nice home in Citizen Kane.

One film ends with hope in the form of an old and newly bald friend, the other with the resigned permanence of formative trauma. Of the two films and their real-life inspirations, Too Much Too Soon is the only one of the four (Diana, Movie Diana, Rita, Marilyn) to end with light on the horizon. The Goddess sees Rita basically living as a free-roaming one woman asylum with an righteously overprotective assistant who will always, for better and worse, be there to take care of her. Everybody knows Marilyn passed away at the age of 36 a few years later. And lastly, a mere two years after Too Much Too Soon’s release, Diana Barrymore passed away of an alcohol and drug overdose at age 38.

Other Recent Viewings:
Honeymoon (2014, Janiak) **
The Bronte Sisters (1979, Techine) **1/2
Borgman (2014, Warmerdam): ****
The Congress (2014, Folman) ***

Top Ten By Year: 1992


I’m going to get right to it since my What I’ll Remember post covers most of what I’ve gotten out of this year in film. You can find previous 1992 installments including Ten Honorable Mentions Edition, What I’ll Remember About the Films of 1992: A Personal Sampling, Voters Poll Results, and Movie Music Mix on my blog. This one’s been a long time coming. I started research for 1992 back in April!

For those unaware of my Top Ten By Year column:
I pick years that are weak for me re: quantity of films seen and/or quality of films seen in comparison to other films from that decade. I am using list-making as a motivation 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 done 1935, 1983, 1965, 1943, and now 1992. Next I’ll be doing 1958.

Biggest Disappointments:
Swoon
Innocent Blood
In the Soup
Careful
The Story of Qiu Ju
Naked Killer
Once Upon a Crime (re-watch)

Notable Blind Spots: 
Pushing Hands, Unlawful Entry, Vacas, The Oak, La Sentinelle, L;627, Simple Men, This is My Life, The Public Eye, Boomerang, Dragon Inn, Royal Tramp, Love Field, The Wicked City, The Best Intentions, Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives, Swordsman II, For a Lost Soldier, Rebels of the Neon God

TOTAL LIST OF FILMS SEEN IN 1992: (bold indicates first-time viewings during research, italics indicates re-watches during research):
Aileen Wuornos: Selling of a Serial Killer, Aladdin, Bad Lieutenant, Baraka, Basic Instinct, Batman Returns, Beethoven, Benny’s Video, Bitter Moon, Bob Roberts, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Brother’s Keeper, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Candyman, Captain Ron, Careful, Centre Stage, Chaplin, The Crying Game, Damage, Dead Alive, Death Becomes Her, Deep Cover, Doctor Mordrid, Enchanted April, Far and Away, Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, A Few Good Men, Forever Young, Full Contact, Gas Food Lodging, Glengarry Glen Ross, Hard Boiled, A Heart in Winter, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, Honey I Blew Up the Kid, Honeymoon in Vegas, Housesitter, Howards End, Husbands and Wives, Hyenas, Innocent Blood, In the Soup, The Last of the Mohicans, A League of Their Own, Lessons of Darkness, Life and Nothing More, Light Sleeper, Little Heroes, The Living End, The Long Day Closes, Malcolm X, Man Bites Dog, Medicine Man, The Mighty Ducks, Mom and Dad Save the World, The Muppet Christmas Carol, Naked Killer, Noises Off!, Of Mice and Men, Once Upon a Crime, One False Move, Orlando, Out on a Limb, Passion Fish, Peter’s Friends, The Player, Poison Ivy, Police Story 3: Supercop, Porco Rosso, Radio Flyer, Raising Cain, Reservoir Dogs, A River Runs Through It, Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, Savage Nights, Scent of a Woman, Singles, Single White Female, Sister Act, Society, Stay Tuned, Strictly Ballroom, The Story of Qiu Ju, Swoon, A Tale of Winter, Tom and Jerry: The Movie, Toys, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Unforgiven, Universal Soldier, Wayne’s World, Where the Day Takes You, Wuthering Heights

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

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Top Honorable Mention (think of this as a tie with #10):
Howards End (Ivory) (UK) (RW)
What are other equivalents to the unique narrative bounty of Howards End? Other Merchant/Ivory productions like A Room with a View and Maurice (both impeccable in their own right) have recognizable conflicts and alliances. We know when and how to respond to what’s going on. But Howards End is different. We stand by conflicted while characters make compromises and go back on who we thought they were. Those who fall, fall hard, and those left are happy in a bittersweet sort of way. But it’s inaccurate to use the word happy. Happy and sad, light and dark aren’t exactly visible through lines here. It’s all way more complicated. All the characters besides Vanessa Redgrave, who moonlights over the proceedings as if drawing people together from beyond, are defined by their foibles. Everyone is too much ‘this’ or not enough ‘that’. It has the impeccable period design one expects from Merchant/Ivory, it made Emma Thompson a star in her own right (until then, she was Kenneth Branagh’s wife), and is a painfully human vivisection on class warfare.

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10. Centre Stage (Kwan) (Hong Kong) (RW)
For the few keeping up with these installments, my previous Honorable Mentions post refers to a film I’d been particularly struggling to find a place for–a film I’m moderately conflicted about. Well, this is the one. Centre Stage will not get out of my head. This was my second time seeing it, and it remains an elusive relic. Does this film, a biopic about doomed icon Ruan Lingyu that feels frozen in time and comes bundled up in a meta package, even work? Watching it is like going on a quest through the afterglow of the past. It’s a quest the filmmakers explicitly take part in, and they also come up short. Through the research and production process, can everyone involved reach the essence of who Ruan Lingyu was? Well, no. But that may be the point.

Doused in silky blue lights, this isn’t the past recreated, but reflected back at us, nestled between the actual footage of Ruan and present day interviews. Everything feels like it’s being acted out in an empty deserted hallway, as if life doesn’t exist outside the room that characters inhabit at any given moment. We hear the same music in a dance hall at different intervals, like an echo chamber. The characters are stuck in their parts. Maggie Cheung is stoic, passive, demure. The greatest actress of her time can’t make the greatest actress of her time a compelling figure, and yet she’s outstanding. Ahh, and the heaven sent production and costume designs. It’ll be revisited every so often, and each time I’ll go into it thinking ‘this time I’ll understand who Ruan Lingyu was’. Yet I know that won’t happen. ‘But maybe this time’ is the spell Centre Stage casts.

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9. Bitter Moon (Polanski) (France/UK/US) (FTV)
Perverse, deeply ugly, and comically absurd. 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 in all of us on some level.

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 risque content, and more from 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 statement 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. Seigner pouring milk all over her breasts, looking like a zombie by the way, as Peter Coyote licks her with George Michael’s “Faith” playing in the background is unequivocal evidence Bitter Moon is meant as a kind of brazenly sadistic circus. While other 90’s erotic thrillers took themselves so seriously, it must have been quite jarring to see a film that at once does not take itself as seriously, yet contains twisted barbs of resonance.

Expanded review here

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8. Glengarry Glen Ross (Foley) (US) (LTF)

“Harriet and Blah-Blah Nyborg”. “Have you made your decision for Christ?!?”. “Because I don’t like you”. “Fuck the Machine!!!”. “Will you go to lunch? Go to lunch! Will you go to lunch?”. “Fuck you–that’s my name”. “Put. That coffee. Down”. “You stupid fucking cunt”. “Your pal closes, and all that comes out of your mouth is bile. Oooh, how fucked up you are”.

The more familiar you are with Glengarry Glen Ross, which at this point is like my film equivalent of a first cousin, the more there is to get out of it. There’s a giddy anticipation that builds leading up to, well, pretty much every line delivery in this thing. It’s no secret that for all the playing at man, swearing as desperate currency, and the repetitive Mamet-isms of the actual text, this is a film erected out of top-level high-wire performances. Whether it’s Al Pacino fully enunciating and emphasizing ev-er-y sing-le syl-la-ble, bringing off-key rhythms to his Ricky Roma Rendition, or early Kevin Spacey reeling in the unmovable dryness he’d later bring to Lester Burnham, everyone is firing on all cylinders even if their characters are sure as hell going nowhere fast.

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7. Deep Cover (Duke) (US) (FTV)
Neo-noir that deals with race relations and the hypocrisy and political corruption within the War on Drugs with surprising directness. Poetically edged hard-boiled narration delivered with the low steady hum of Laurence Fishburne’s cop who grapples with right and wrong, cop or criminal, and questions where can he do the most good within a cracked system that uses his race as an asset for the higher-ups. Then bring in Jeff Goldblum’s indispensable magnetic eccentricity to his role as a slightly unhinged lawyer yuppie, self-described as having a “condescending infatuation with everything black”. Yes, he’s fighting for power and money, but most importantly for respect among the criminal minded. A very moralistically preoccupied film about choices and compromise and defining the invisible line. I thought I had past my expiration date for undercover cop stories, but Deep Cover nixed that with its ability to balance heady and charged politics with two consistently engaging leads that transcend the walking clichĂ©s we’re used to seeing.

Brother's Keeper
6. Brother’s Keeper (Berlinger/Sinofsky) (US) (FTV)
Brother’s Keeper isn’t about whether or not Delbert Ward actually killed his ailing brother Bill. It’s about the dynamics of small communities like Munnsville, NY, where the Wards are fervently supported, without question, by their fellow townspeople. They put up bail money, hold benefit dinners, and attend the trial with all the muster they have. Part of this support has to do with how iconic the Wards (three brothers total, not including the deceased) are within the community. Some kind of know them, some kind of don’t, and a few know them quite well. The populace protects the reclusive, mostly illiterate, and mentally debilitated Delbert (same goes for all three) because he is one of their own. They are, as defender, prosecutor, and populace say, ‘simple folk’. The big city versus little town friction comes into play in a major way, mostly in how the Wards were treated by the higher-ups during crucial events like interrogations and the signing of documents.

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

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5. The Player (Altman) (US) (RW)

Ever notice that The Player has more handshakes per minute than anything else you’ve ever seen? This is Robert Altman in the belly of the beast, a beast he’s well familiar with, setting up conventions and then playing into them with bite. The reason this and Bob Roberts represent Tim Robbins’s best work is because each magnifies his smug impenetrability in different ways. In The Player, we see every step the pompous ass takes into the mud bath, unable to touch the reality of his situation because he and the film define it within the confines of narrative familiarity. You can track the film’s progress by the degree Griffin’s eyes have glazed over. In Bob Roberts we can’t touch him at all. Not even the camera can get close to him. In one he’s a familiar monster, the other a faceless one. Both are primo schmoozers.

The cameos fold in on themselves, and soon we’re seeing famous people populating the background as extras (oh hey there Jack Lemmon)! This is more plot-driven than some of Altman’s work, and it has to be, because Michael Tolkin’s script grafts the narrative of old onto satire. There’s an intriguing line the director tows between the subjectivity of a man who acts in the form of plot points (that scene when he hams it up for Whoopi Goldberg and Lyle Lovett who just laugh at him is gold. You can see ‘why isn’t this working? It works in the movies!’ all over Griffin’s face) and the outside-looking-in gaze that demonstrates how precarious success is in the movie biz. With Griffin’s job in jeopardy from the start, a constant threat is maintained that drives the picture; one minute you’re in, the next you’re out.

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4. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (Lynch) (US) (RW)
The first time I saw Fire Walk with Me was a week after I’d watched the show, not something I’d necessarily recommend. I walked away from that experience sufficiently disturbed and shaken up, particularly by Sheryl Lee’s work. As a whole though it felt…overreaching. There was a new Donna to get used to, a first act that mistakes deadpan for deadness, Kyle Machlachan’s all too brief and reluctant appearance, some material that’s one step past nonsense, and a significant frequency adjustment from the show. I even remember saying after it was over, “I liked it, but it’s not my Twin Peaks”. Then I waited six years and watched it again for this list, where it sideswiped me like a “BOB” out of hell.

That gap purged me of preconceptions I had taken from the show. It dumped the residue bullshit of seeking out answers to a world that, being Lynch, is an intuitive and abstract kind of hell devoid of rules or explanation. The film simply became Laura’s story. And that’s what it is. Laura’s schizophrenic, mournful, harrowing end. It takes the iconic dead girl trope and makes her whole, beyond the realm of voiceless victim. It’s the Lynch film that is both most and least tethered to reality. By magnifying the trauma and horrors of sexual abuse (and adolescence) as an actual and inescapable hell, by purifying and heightening the emotions in play, it becomes perhaps the most consummate and visceral film on the subject. In “Twin Peaks”, “BOB” is Leland. In Fire Walk with Me, Leland is “BOB”, and it makes all the difference. The supernatural all registers as metaphor here.

Laura Palmer is real to me, and Sheryl Lee is what makes her crushingly real. If there’s a better female performance from the 90’s, I haven’t seen it. She turns herself inside out as Laura, mythic and fragile, self-destructive and strong, youthful and timeless. Laura Palmer is a victim, but there’s nothing submissive or resigned about her. She constantly breaks through the ‘victim’ archetype, and Lynch films her with admirable and melancholy reverence without ever simplifying her down to an object through which we funnel our pity. As Fire Walk with Me ended, I found myself overwhelmed with emotion. I sat and cried hard full tears for who knows how long. Laura stayed with me for days after. A week later I was driving, and I started thinking about her, and the tears came again. I can’t think of another instance of such residual impact. But I do know that Laura will always be with me, and with countless others.

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I have to pause here for a special mention to the last fifteen minutes of Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans, a sequence containing three movements as good as the medium has to offer. The climax is an elegy during the fact, tracking a procession of deaths. It approaches the mainstream climax from an atypical point of execution. Familiar content is presented with the flow of an unstoppable avalanche in slow-motion. The score has two themes competing with each other, one measured, the other bursting to get out from underneath. And then everything slows down with Alice (Jodhi May) on the cliff. Shots and moments are held a few seconds longer than they normally would be. Every glance, every gesture carries weight. Alice’s decision hits so much harder due to how peripheral her and Uncas’s (Eric Schweig) romance has been up to this point. The sidelines function of Alice and Uncas provokes a ‘wait-what-is-she-doing’ response we aren’t prepared for. All we can do is sit frozen, breathing in tandem with the score, the bass signifying the act of letting go, and wait for her to carry out her fateful decision.

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3. Husbands and Wives (Allen) (US) (RW)
It’s safe to say the Mia Farrow era of Woody Allen’s career is my era of choice. The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, and this account for my top three. It’s the messy end, an ugly piece that spoons bitter truths out of caustic penetrating humor. The faux-documentary construct illuminates the characters (and their motivations) and their inability to reconcile self-analysis with action, specifically within relationships and marriage. How well do people know themselves, and how does that correlate, or not correlate, with an ability to adapt and/or function with another person? There are different levels of self-awareness and all-too human unseemliness in Gabe (Allen), Judy (Farrow), Sally (Judy Davis), and Jack (Sydney Pollack).

Significance comes through flawed characters and ruptured editing techniques. At times we jump from moment to moment, other times we stay on someone’s face far past our comfort level. At the start it’s the neurotic Sally that seems most intolerable. By the end it’s clear she’s got the best head on her shoulders. She sort of learns from her experiences, or at least knows what she needs in a relationship, realizing that for better and worse her and the deplorable Jack (played with odiousness by Sydney Pollack) should be together. It’s not good or bad. It just…is. Nobody gets off the hook including us; every character succumbs to their worst selves at one point or another or several or many. Our varying esteem (it’s a low bar folks) for them is equated with how upfront they are about themselves to themselves. The dichotomy between this brutal form of measurement (Mia Farrow’s Judy oh-so-interestingly comes out on bottom) and the Bergman influenced dissection of the two couples is where Husbands and Wives finds its tense and mordant complexion.

Michelle Pfeiffier Batman Returns

2. Batman Returns (Burton) (US) (LTF)
I was five when 1992 came along, so my top two are, unsurprisingly, formative works inextricably linked with my childhood; not in mere nostalgia, but deep personal meaning. I like to call Batman Returns a “DNA” film. It’s a phrase I use for formative features (we’ve all got a handful of ’em). They become mythologized, bigger than themselves, immeasurable in impact for the individual.

A knotty, expressionistic, and uncommonly grim superhero film fueled by the Tragic with a Capital T emotional arcs of its villains, this still stands as a risky endeavor. It doesn’t follow a cookie cutter way-to-be. There’s no house style, not a trace of anonymity or comfort. Tim Burton just does whatever the fuck he wants, favoring approach and impression over now-hip grit and the samey-spectacle that came with the advent of CGI. It gleefully eschews fan expectations and even its hero (and hell, even its story) for an imposing and deeply disturbing operatic vision that plays around with the sexual, the psychotic, and the putrefied.

It’s the best Batman film, by far, and my favorite superhero film no contest. Why? Because it isn’t even really a superhero film, and I never view it as such. It’s about the grotesquerie of the Penguin and his search for identity through ‘Oswald’. It’s about Selina Kyle’s reclamation of identity and self through mental collapse and shock. After all this time, Danny DeVito’s Penguin still makes me sick to my stomach with his gallows humor and sullied sweaty sack of a costume, oozing green and going out with a gurgle. But here’s the power of the film; a scene as inherently absurd (one of many) as a group of penguins acting as collective pallbrearers for DeVito’s corpse as they slide him into the sewer water is not only affecting, but genuinely haunting and heavy with tragedy.

And for all its many wonders (Danny Elfman’s ghostly score being at the very top of that list), it all comes down to Michelle Pfeiffier as Catwoman. Some know how much her work here means to me, and they tend to be others (because there are a lot of us)  who’ve been similarly impacted by what she does with this role, which is, well, what doesn’t she do with it? Her Selina grows to own herself at the expense of her sanity. She helps others at the expense of her ‘goodness’. She desperately tries to fill that hole inside her to no avail. The slinky dominatrix garb she makes for herself is a one-off, and by the end the rips and tears are showing the unhinged chaos and suffering underneath. There’s a gravitas to her work that reveals an escalating depth of sorrow. And she gets the last shot of the film; risen, triumphant, and ever-so-slightly nodding at her own perseverance.

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1. The Muppet Christmas Carol (Henson) (US) (LTF)
I’ve been foolishly psyching myself out in regards to writing about The Muppet Christmas Carol because from the start I’ve been treating it as an attempt to convert or convince others of its greatness. Like I have to make up for eye-rolling that may or may not occur from those who will wrongfully dismiss this as a ‘clouded by nostalgia pick’ (though I have more faith in my readers than that). Or maybe I’m just overthinking it.

But I’ve ditched the idea of treating this like a pitch. I’m not going to say much about the film because it’s all there in my heart and in my gut and it’s difficult to extrapolate on the why’s of its effect on me. It’s unbridled joy, and a truly beautiful blend of two iconic properties (The Muppets and Dickens) that services both and compromises neither. Three spirits visit Ebenezer Scrooge, but it’s the spirit of the (then) recently departed Jim Henson that looms largest over the proceedings. A moving air of gratitude blankets all. Not a mournful air, but an appreciative one, a big thank you for your creations and for your preposterous wit and heart. Paul Williams, one of my favorite people ever, graces us with songs that are by turns jolly, chilling, and full of thanks. And all of them memorable; there’s not a dud in the bunch (the cut but narratively essential “When Love is Found” notwithstanding).

Every time I watch it, which used to be many times every Christmas season but has now taken on a one-time-saved-for-last occasion, I look forward to every little bit without fail. Whether it’s fawning over cousin Fred or watching Miss Piggy’s saucy side come out as Mrs. Cratchit when downing a toast like a shot. Or the moment when an annoyed Gonzo and a mischievous Rizzo the Rat (our narrative guides) face each other in silence only for Rizzo to lean forward and lightly kiss Gonzo’s curly nose. Or the power Michael Caine (my ideal Scrooge, this is a performance that, like the rest of the film, is near and dear to me) manages to ingrain in the many reaction/shots of observance he has throughout. His arc is all there in the face. Caine considers this one of his most cherished roles. That the experience meant something to him only makes it resonate even more.

This would rank on a list of my 20 favorite films. I hate to quantify my love for something with amount of tears shed, but emotional response is an easy marker to reference. Every year close to Christmas, Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline shows a print of the film for a sold out crowd of kids and adults alike. Last year was the first time I went, marking the beginning of a new yearly tradition. I steadily cried, no exaggeration, about 75% of the runtime. They weren’t tears of joy or sadness, but tears of meaning; I’m, quite simply, moved by its open heart. And as a gal who doesn’t naturally drift towards heartwarming or uplifting lessons learned, I can say without a doubt, that somehow, someway, this film has grown to mean the world to me.

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up #246-257


Here you are; my last batch of capsule reviews for films seen in 2013. My 2013 film lists will be posted within the next month. Usually I do a slew of posts including favorite and worst posters, song usages, worst films, performances, a myriad of top fives, and finally top 30 films split into 2 posts. This year I’m going to whittle down the favorite posters, worst films, and song usage into the top fives post. I’ll also continue what I started last year with a Personal Sampling of takeaways from the year in film.

new world

#246. New World (2013, Park) (South Korea)
Mob movies have to work a little extra to earn my commitment. I’m not adverse to them, and there’s actually quite a few I like or love. But it’s not a genre I automatically care about. New World, written and directed by I Saw the Devil scribe Park Hoon-Jung more than earns my commitment. It pulls you in from the word go. It’s more about the characters and how their long-standing relationships go hand-in-hand with the choices that are made than strictly adhering to mob tropes. There is an unforeseen ripple effect that the characters can’t quite define, but they all know it’s there. The parking garage fight scene is a kinetic stunner, right up there with the final minutes of Drug War and The Grandmaster fight sequences for year-best. I seriously cannot stress that enough. All of the performances are incredibly strong, none more so than Hwang Jung-min, his doofy swagger acting as a posturing veneer. This is swift, smart, and impressive all-around. It felt like a kind of unspoken love story between two ‘brothers’; the curious coda falls in line with this reading.

Blackfish
#247. Blackfish (2013, Cowperthwaite) (USA)
Serviceable documentary that barely has to work to earn empathy, which ends up being an eventual disservice to the film’s quality. It does what it needs to do, it gets this story told. But there is an art to documentary filmmaking; they are not simply an information delivery service. And there are many conventional documentaries that succeed with flying colors. But Blackfish is very narrow, very blunt and lacking in nuance. Yes, it is gut-wrenching and very emotional stuff. Yes, it is effective. Yes, it is important for people to see. But delivering that information efficiently is not all it takes to make a great documentary; just a decent one. For instance, showing the Sea World ads is an easy potshot. Sure, show them once. But several times? Enough now; that’s lazy. What I did find the most interesting, this being an example of the film going beyond info-delivery service, had to do with the former trainers who were caught between being kept out of the loop (but sensing or knowing something was amiss), but staying on out of loyalty to the animals and the apparent relationship between them; a relationship that we come to see is part genuine and part one-way street. That is an aspect that comes through as we see the interviews, and it’s a collective experience happening below the surface of the text. It’s called layering.

I’m also intrigued by the way it uses the orcas’ intelligence as a way to gather further empathy, but not addressing the idea that all animals, mostly of lesser intelligence, kept in zoos and the like is kind of on a similar scale? It’s not a knock on the film, and yes I’m talking about going from the specific to the very broad. But as I watched it, many of the basic actions taken against these animals in their separation and captivity can all apply to any zoo or park. In one way it feels like a way to pat ourselves on the back for caring without us having to address the larger scale ethical issues at hand. It’s a rough sketch of a thought I had.

Blackfish does a nice job summing up its subject matter, but I’d have liked if it relied less on how easy it is to get its audience to be horrified by what we see as a substitute for craft.

Those Magnificent

#248. Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965, Annakin) (UK)
In theory I love the epic race films of the mid-1960’s. It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World is a favorite of mine; a farce to end all farce. But that is the only one I like! The Great Race has its moments but is too high-pitched as a whole and this one goes absolutely nowhere. It is steeped in slapstick with machine-driven repetition and it doesn’t know how to create and/or build comic situations. It’s stuck in first gear from all angles and is too attached to the aviation accuracy (which, yes, is pretty cool and Annakin’s knowledge is palpable and evident) to craft a story around the machines. All Western nationalities are brought down to the same level of buffoonery. Well, sort of. The reveal of the Japanese pilot speaking in a perfect British accent is legitimately hilarious. Most other crass jokes fall flat. The American cowboy protagonist is a total buzzkill. But as for the good things, there’s the whimsically animated title sequence, a spunky Sarah Miles, a young (and thus very much a looker) James Fox and
yeah that’s about it.

Cutie and the Boxer
#249. Cutie and the Boxer (2013, Heinzerling) (USA)
An engaging portrait of two NY-based Japanese artists and how art and marriage intertwine and repel. I found myself very attached to Noriko, whose marriage to Ushio feels like a sad and settled kind of familiar loyalty. She’s been through so much with this man and struggles for the kind of respect she deserves as both a woman and an artist. The feeling it has of biding its time both helps and hurts the film.

Hannah Arendt
#250. Hannah Arendt (2013, von Trotta) (Germany/Luxembourg/France)
I could have done without characters stating that Hannah Arendt has no feeling about a dozen times. Hannah Arendt is consistent in its moderate interest, but it isn’t until the response to the New Yorker article finally kicks in that the film really takes off in ways philosophically transfixing. Sukowa is stern, likable, and has more conviction than the rest of us as Arendt. I particularly responded to the refreshing depiction of a healthy relationship in her marriage to Herr BlĂŒcher, and an equally healthy friendship between women with Arendt and Janet McTeer (who is awesome here) as author Mary McCarthy.

The Nanny
#251. The Nanny (1965, Holt) (UK)
Surprisingly astute ‘psycho-biddy’ film dominated by excellent camerawork by Harry Waxman and future Kubrick camera operator Kelvin Pike. It’s slightly less straightforward than I expected, which I liked, and it maintains an inescapable atmosphere throughout.

Prisoners

#252. Prisoners (2013, Villeneuve) (USA)
Presents moral dilemmas without really taking them anywhere. Feels like a season of procedural crime drama crammed into 2+ hours. On a basic level, it’s thoroughly watchable, but only intermittently engaging. Anything and everything going on with all four parents was more than a little rote, and while Hugh Jackman really gives his all, it’s a burly performance that lacks form. Jake Gyllenhaal on the other hand is compelling and magnetic in a way I’ve never quite felt from him. We know next to nothing to nothing about Loki (except tattoos and twitching!) but every moment with him feels informed in a fully-realized way. He’s tired and going through the motions but he’s still all in. The way he handles the scenes with Jackman, trying to calm him down, is mechanical, and says a lot about him without really saying anything. Melissa Leo reminds me of a Hollywood-version of a patron from my library. Which is freaky. Roger Deakins partially saves the day, making Pennsylvania a foreboding and chillingly stark place where hope seems to have evaporated and everything cuts just a little but more. A late sequence that functions as one of the film’s climaxes, features cinematography as the star. A blue-streaked and bloody race to the hospital becomes a year highlight.

Rapture

#253. Rapture (1965, Guillerman) (France/USA) 
The definition of an undiscovered jewel. Patricia Gozzi, looking like a gamine teenage Juliette Binoche, is uncut, honest, and raw as the troubled Agnes. Everything feels like a highly fractured fairy tale; delusional, grand, and run-down. It’s keyed into French New Wave sensibilities but isn’t led by them. The isolation and family dynamics sit somewhere above us, slightly inexplicable and unconventional but visible all the same. Dean Stockwell is sort of impossibly good-looking in the 60’s, something I wasn’t aware of until now. Seek this out when you can. It’s sumptuous, troubling, and off-kilter in equal measure.

Dark Knight Rises
#254. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013, Coen Brothers)
 (USA) 
Inside Llewyn Davis uses the Greenwich Village scene to evoke the warmth of community, and creative outlets amidst the chilly haze of winter (courtesy of Bruno Delbonnel), and one man’s anonymous search outside that epicenter for success, purpose, and place. When trying to describe how I felt after this film ended, I mistakenly landed upon the film having the kind of heart I don’t often find with the Coen Brothers. But this wasn’t the sentiment I was looking for. They often have heart; but there’s a softness, an emotional center to this film that I haven’t quite experienced from them, at least based on my emotional response by the time the credits rolled.

It attaches itself to cyclical journeys within journeys, streaked with surreal touches and a cat (well, more than one cat) that overtly represents the idea of journey (the cat’s name is Ulysses!) It’s about how we are and who we are within the universe, but also about the search for something that might not be there; in this way it reminded me of an acute depression. We drift along with Llewyn, as he comes to life through song and only through song, a dreary wanderer whose supposed lack of routine reveals itself to be just that. Attempts to break the cycle lead him to the start. It’s clear the guy has lots of talent but he seems destined for the eternal winds. The film has a spiritual and structural connection to both Barton Fink and O Brother Where Art Thou?

Oscar Isaac is a revelation. There are a lot of showier performances this year (not a knock), but Isaac might be the one that ends up sticking with me most. He’s resigned and has a chronic tendency to burn his bridges. But he’s got this stuff in his blood, and Isaac is this guy here, always suggesting a fullness of character that doesn’t come around too often. If I have one complaint, it’s that Carey Mulligan’s Jean stands out as even more shrill and cartoonish than most Coen Brothers supporting characters. It’s written and played to the hilt in a way I didn’t find satisfying or successful.

Anchorman 2
#255. Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013, McKay) (USA)
I liked this quite a bit overall. McKay and team have a throw-everything-at-the-audience and see what sticks kind of mantra, which lends a hit-and-miss quality to their work. This is evident in most broad comedy I like (I’m also very picky with my broad comedy and Anchorman happens to be an instance when it works for me big time). I’m not sure the sequel ever feels like a full film as it’s more concentrated on the parts, but a lot of those parts are hilarious so it’s hard to complain. It’s also worth noting that this is the kind of film that works least on a first viewing. It’s built for re-watches, the kind where you latch onto your favorite things and sort of ignore the duds.

But basically I just love seeing these guys work as these characters. Ron Burgundy feels like the role of Will Ferrell’s career; he slips into it so naturally. They all have an innate sense of timing and rapport with each other that just becomes a pleasure to watch. Carell’s role as Brick is obviously much expanded. It can become a bit much but many of its finest moments come from him. A scene where Brick shows up to his own funeral and the guys have to convince him he’s still alive might have been my favorite part. I wish a lot more had been done with the satirical elements it introduces involving the advent of the 24-hour news network. Idea kernels are there but undeveloped. And all of the racial humor fell flat for me; I’m not really sure what they were trying to do with this but it was one-note and mostly uncomfortable as opposed to funny uncomfortable. I’m also disappointed that Christina Applegate is given next-to-nothing to do. But for every failed subplot or flatlining punchline, there’s a scene that starts with Brick, Brian, and Champ laughing their asses off at Garfield comics or a delightfully random section involving sharks and a lighthouse. Such is the way of comedy, and for all its weaknesses, these happen to be man-child characters I enjoy watching, and so the performances ultimately hold this thing together.

The Wolf of Wall Street
#256. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013, Scorsese) (USA)
Review coming soon

YOUAINT-articleLarge
#257. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (2013, Resnais) (France) 
Alain Resnais’ late-career film proves he is still challenging and pushing the medium of cinema up until the last. That’s a vibrancy and inventiveness I on’t take for granted. However, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet feels limp. It calls back and forth to itself, hides and peeks out from within, but in effort of what I’m not sure and ultimately can’t seem to care. The parallel stories that come to life by a group of actors playing themselves is never involving, and the tricks on display only furthered my awareness of this.

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #240-245


The Grandmaster
#240. The Grandmaster (2013, Wong) (Chinese Cut) (Hong Kong/China)
Full of the simmering wooziness we expect from Wong Kar Wai’s imagery. The fight scenes glimmer and flow as the elements and body movement are highlighted. Kung-fu is shown as a delicate and elegant art form, akin to dance. And that’s what this film is about; the art form that is kung-fu, its ancestry and many subsets and schools of thought. How does art fade, die, rebirth, adapt and reconfigure itself as a reaction to history? This lends an incredibly mournful quality to The Grandmaster, so powerful in its cumulative effect that I became very emotional by its final minutes.

I understand that Zhang Ziyi as Gong Er is cut down quite a bit in the American cut, which is a shame because not only is she a co-lead but I actually felt like it was her story even more than Ip Man’s. She is the driving force of the film as far as I am concerned. The character and performance, as well as her tying most strongly into its themes, are what I connected to most on a content level. In short, I dearly loved this.

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#241. Rewind This! (2013, Johnson)
(USA)
Effectively sums up the advent and effect of the video industry mainly from the perspectives of film fanatics/devotees (also importantly branching out to many other people) while contemplating a future where physical media likely won’t exist. OK, so it does nothing to dispel the notion that videohounds/underground cinema buffs/cinephiles are largely made up of, to quote Film Forager, ‘pasty white dudes in their 30s’. Minor setback aside, this contains so many worthy pockets of information, from the then-credo that anyone-can-distribute to the need for video preservation to how things like “Everything is Terrible” (woo-hoo!) and Winnebago Man re-contextualizes the endless and otherwise lost oddities of video. It stands out to me because of all the side streets it goes down, all threads of the past and present that make up what video was and how it exists and doesn’t exist now. I especially appreciated its stance on the idea that everything has value and that is grasps the scope of how much will be lost in the coming years.

Viola
#242. Viola (2013, Piñeiro) (Argentina/USA)
Bohemian-esque youths of Argentina loop-de-loop around Shakespeare. Seems simple but reveals itself as deceptively sly. Feels like a series of introductory scenes that aren’t carried through anywhere, but Viola is about cyclical snapshots, not an A to B narrative. This is a give-and-take of pros and cons, coming out on the side of the positive. Piñeiro’s use of camera and sound are striking. His camera is elegant, alternating between baton-like tracker or hyper-focus. By adopting very refreshingly atypical rhythms, he gets at the crux of how this group of 20-somethings interact and connect in a brisk 65 minutes.

the 10th victim
#243. The 10th Victim (1965, Petri) (Italy/France)
Goes from being a harmless kitschy time-passer to torturously hollow and unstimulating in the blink of an eye. The concept sounds like a can’t-lose but the film peaks five minutes in when Ursula Andress shoot someone with her boobs. It fails at larger conceptual ideas like assuming that a lust for violence is the only thing that causes war. Andress and especially Marcello Mastroianni sleepwalk through the whole thing and have zero onscreen chemistry. It comes back around for a solid final second (you read that right; a final second). My main takeaway is the theme music which sounds like a scatting Betty Boop and I love it so much.

Leviathan
#244. Leviathan (2013, Castaing-Taylor, Paravel) (France/UK/USA)
Pushes visceral filmmaking to a new possible extreme without ever actually gripping me. I guess this doesn’t make me one of the cool kids but so be it. We need more of this kind of one-with-the-elements work where the camera, and by extension we, are made privy to new sensations. But I don’t think this really works as a feature-length. Furthermore, I have no particular interest in feeling like I’m part of the commercial fishing industry no matter how it’s presented. There are sequences that are so surreal and transportive, like looking at the world through new eyes. And then there are sequences that bored me stiff. I support anything that forces us to rethink what cinema and particularly documentary filmmaking can be, but I don’t have an affinity for this particular venture when taken as a whole.

Chimes at Midnight
#245. Chimes at Midnight (1965, Welles) (France/Spain/Switzerland)
Shakespeare’s war plays are easily my least favorite from his vast array of work. It is also difficult for me to grasp his language by seeing it played out first rather than reading it. Reading it first, at my own pace, is what helps me understand the line-by-line comprehension of what is being said. And then there’s the fact that this is a mash-up of several plays. So for these two reasons I admittedly had a bit of a struggle with certain sections of Chimes at Midnight. But by the end, I had grown fond of the film.

Chimes at Midnight is a particular triumph for Welles. Never has character and persona meshed in such a way in his career. And he knew it too. This is his most personal work. And Falstaff is his kindred spirit. Each puts on a face, and Welles has the blustering presence of a god equally capable of vain benevolence and fury. A vulnerable man of self-made myth. Yes, a genius.

A lot of what I took away from Chimes at Midnight was related to how important this was for him. What it took to fulfill this project is even more fraught than his other creative struggles. Looking at the production history, he scraped and made the film piecemeal; he needed to make it. The friendship between Falstaff and Prince Hal was my real access point story-wise, which would make sense because it makes up the core of the film. Did I mention that this has the battle sequence to end (or influence rather) all battle sequences? A stunning hodgepodge of interception, senseless chaos, and muddy comedown.

 

Short Review: Star 80 (1983, Fosse)


Mariel Hemingway_Eric Roberts_Star80
For all its qualities, Star 80 will not leave your mind alone primarily because of Eric Roberts who is astonishing in a searing and deeply disturbing portrait of a hanger-on parasite unable to overcome his own insecurities. This is based on a true story and his Paul Snider does some horrific things but because of the performance and the script we feel for this monster. This man who was beaten by himself, unable to adjust his social dial when needed. Though the film ends with a rape/murder/suicide, I had just as hard a time watching a scene where Snider meets Hugh Hefner. He introduces himself by misquoting Hef, his pimped-out loser persona made up of self-loathing and desperation oozes out of him to the point where it becomes difficult to watch. And then he obsesses over the encounter afterwards. He’s identifiably nervous and rightly over-analytical of himself.

He ‘discovered’ Dorothy but couldn’t hold onto her, couldn’t keep her. The act of ‘discovering someone’ doesn’t go any further than the initial action requires and so Paul is left on the sidelines, back to proudly hustling together wet T-shirt contests which fail to make the projected profit. As Dorothy rightly breaks away from Snider (he is clearly a ticking time bomb), he tries to refocus his energies as advised by his roommate. When he tells Dorothy over the phone about his new health spa pet project, she is uneasy and unenthusiastic about the whole thing. She wants out of the marriage at this point, and it’s just a matter of getting up the nerve to tell him. And though he will be the one to end her life, and though we couldn’t be more empathetic to her conflict of interest, Eric Roberts makes us feel for this man in that moment when we see that he’s trying and she’s over it. We’ve seen characters like this before, these desperate hustler types trying to inch in at a taste of the spotlight. Reconciling the impossibility of actual fame with the hopefulness of at least being surrounded by it. But Roberts takes it to a new level of complexity, impressive all the more because of the context of the story.

Fosse never lets us forget where the story is going; happy moments are tinged with the future. This was a filmmaker who burrowed in deep, who lives in the dark corners and presents them to us with a streak of pizzazz and patterns of repetition. This is exploitative material, based on something that happened two years before the film’s release. It’s the type of story that immediately gets turned into a tawdry and untimely Lifetime movie (and of course there was an even earlier take on this material in the form of a TV movie starring Jamie Lee Curtis) but Fosse lifts it up and actually does something with it. He looks at that line that divides fame and the endless outskirts. What gets you in and what keeps you out? The Dorothy Stratten story is a worst-case scenario of what this craving does to a person when its a perfect storm of insecurity, mental imbalance, and ambition.

A special shout-out to Mariel Hemingway, equally impressive with a less complicated role. She carries with her an indefinable innocence and a buoyant youthfulness that becomes far more difficult to see stamped out than other potential actresses in this role.

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.

 

 

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #118-124


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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#122. Point Blank (1967, Boorman)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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#124. Le Cercle Rouge (1970, Melville)

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

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