84-A-Thon Entry: Streetwise (1984, Bell)


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streetwise

In 1983 Life magazine featured an article called “Streets of the Lost”, written by Cheryl McCall with accompanying photographs by Mary Ellen Mark. The topic was the homeless and/or downtrodden teens of Seattle, kids who form their own loose civilization on the streets, surviving through prostitution, pimping, stealing, dumpster diving, donating blood; whatever it takes. Mark eventually convinced her husband Martin Bell that there was more to be discovered, and that making a documentary would be a worthwhile endeavor. And thus the uncompromising, devastating, sprawling, intimate, fragile Streetwise was born.

Its uncommon narrative throughline prompts an involvement of the same ilk as, well, a narrative feature. Not that it ever feels anything less than real, but the kind of investment, and the particular type of attention it summons, doesn’t resemble how one normally engages with a documentary (even a character driven one). Just how did Martin Bell and company capture, and then access and shape, this footage?

Critically, Martin Bell comes to these kids on their turf, on their level. Somehow, someway, there is no condescension, sentimentality, exploitation, or judgment expressed towards the subjects. They are given voices no matter what it is they have to say, whether it’s troubling or naïve or heartbreaking or offensive.

Though fourteen-year old Erin ‘Tiny’ Blackwell is the resilient heart of Streetwise, we get to know many kids, both centrally and peripherally, throughout. The street scenes counter and fill out the form, this insular community stitched together and then placed contextually within the environment of their time. Snippets of radio hits filter in and out of the audio for split seconds and city folk flood the concrete. It would be easy to mistake them for a bunch of students standing in the hallways between classes. They are a mix of romanticism and hard knocks. They are immature yet hardened. They are at once protective of each other but out for their own survival, and as we see, manipulation and con jobs pop up as survival of the fittest takes hold. They veer away from self-pity and their directness services the tone.

They talk their pasts and present so nonchalantly, their circumstances normalized so horror is just part of the conversation, not carrying the weight it should. In one scene, a group of four has a ‘he raped me too’ discussion with such a casual air they might as well be saying “Hey, I’m wearing those jeans too”. This discussion wasn’t even about rape in their histories, but about being raped recently by the same individual as two girls warn another not to go into business with the pimp in question.

Parents are the common denominator, either present with love nowhere near conducive to good parenting, or absent as we hear runaways talking on a payphone to their parents. Loads of shitty stepfathers lie spoken of in the margins.

Streetwise is like a harrowing vision of kids playing dress-up—but so complex and textured that a simple description such as that proves reductive. There are unconscionably moving scenes in their own right, which has little to do with poverty. Tiny’s farewell with Rat is the most beautiful scene never written. An achingly real conversation that says more about teenage crushes, loneliness, companionship, unrequited feelings, parting ways and the coded communications of young people than you are likely to find anywhere else. “You should have figured it out by now”.

Streetwise is that rare masterpiece (seriously, it’s in my top 15 films ever made and sits with Stop Making Sense as my favorite film of the 1980’s). Receiving attention in its day, at least in the form of an Oscar nod, it has been largely forgotten in the years since, maintaining a small but fervent fan base. Recently, a Kickstarter by Bell and Mark for a follow-up on Erin titled Tiny Revisited exceeded its set goal, so hopefully the end product prompts a Streetwise resurgence, however small. It’s difficult to find in physical media and only exists on. But it is on youtube! So do yourself a favor and watch it! It’s the most confident recommendation I could think to give to anyone. Everyone should see it. It is essential viewing.

This is a difficult film for me to write about, so I hope these serve as rough introductory thoughts about it. Streetwise is, quite simply, journalistic portraiture at its finest.

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 clichés we’re used to seeing.

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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.

Top Ten By Year: 1992 – Ten Honorable Mentions Edition


Let me toss some numbers your way. 25, 40, 43, 52. These are the numbers considered for the previous years in my Top Ten By Year column entries for 1935, 1983, 1965 and 1943 respectively. 1992 is a bit different. Once we reach the 90’s, numbers jump. A lot. I’ve got 92 films in consideration. Yes, some of these include throwaways like Tom and Jerry: The Movie, or Medicine Man, or Honey, I Blew Up the Kid. But there’s a lot (especially with all the first-time viewings done for this) of quality material in the mix. Many I’ve long loved; others, new-found discoveries.

Up until now I’ve put a handful of honorable mentions in the main list post. This time they get their own (usually when there are this many films involved, like my end-of-the-year lists, I ditch Top 10 and go straight for Top 30). Now, I tweeted this yesterday, but it bears repeating; my Honorable Mentions list is such a traffic jam, not even Reservoir Dogs made the cut. Again; Reservoir Dogs did not even make my honorable mentions. Granted, I’m not as enamored by it to the degree many are (it’s my least favorite after Django Unchained but note a considerable chasm between the two) but I feel comfortable saying that I love it. As a whole it’s an unassailable statement of ‘make way because I’m here, damn it’. (Yet perhaps the biggest surprise for me was that I couldn’t even get Bob Roberts, which I loved, or Aladdin, on here)

With this ongoing project I always feel the need to scribble a bit about how my perspective on film has/is evolving from taking part in, however minor, the online film community (which, based on the environment, you’d think would prompt a different response). I refer not to taste but rapport; how relationships with films evolve. How some exhaust themselves of return value, so I put them in storage for a while. How some embed into my sense of self and become larger than life. The bittersweet and/or joyful nature of changing connections, up or down, shallow or profound. That it’s just as okay to feel ‘done’ with a film and move past it with no hard feelings, just as normal as it is to have a growing appreciation for something that didn’t quite sit the first or second time. That favorites don’t just mean ‘what do I like the most’ and that films aren’t a math equation. Whether it works or not, how enriching and engaging is it? How much is there to parse through? Which ones make me want to go back and stick my hands in like a hill of sinking sand? There are times when failings can be inherently more interesting than something with all the right stuff in all the right places. I’ve known or felt all of this on some level for a long time, but I’m seeing it shape so sayings like “it’s not perfect” or “it’s perfection”, or “it’s not without its flaws” don’t mean much of anything to me anymore.

Take A.I: Artificial Intelligence. I haven’t seen it in many years but think about it relatively often, considering. My basic assessment used to be “I love it so much but why oh why does the last section have to be there”. Now, I still ask “why oh why does the last section need to be there”. It’s a valid concern. And there are plenty, plenty, plenty of films with misguided aspects and choices that become irredeemable for the viewer. But there is so much to unpack with A.I. that it feels reductive to use the final section as dismissal of the rest. Or to use it, as Pee Wee puts it, a big ‘but’. Why do we need to parcel things out like that? This is a film where the good, the bad, the Kubrick, the whatever; it’s all uncommonly riveting material to wrestle with and contemplate (with oneself and others; nothing like a good movie convo). That, in this case, is worth more than “It’s so good up until…”.

This relates to these lists because it impacts how films are chosen and how they are valued. There’s one film in particular that, even more than the others, I’m angling to find a place for. Do I put it at #10 or in the honorable mentions? I don’t even know if the film works for me. I really don’t. But I love it. And I go into it like it’s a puzzle, magnifying glass in tow, thinking ‘this time I’ll find the missing piece. This time I’ll get a sense of who this person was’. Yet I know that won’t happen. ‘But maybe this time’ is the spell that it casts.

Okay; ever-evolving relationship with film rant over. This is meant to read as a sort of alternate top ten, in alphabetical order. There are nine in this post, and my top honorable mention will accompany the final list (mostly because my notes on the film are in my apartment in Providence, and I’m in CT right now). As I write this, I have the twenty films sorted and 90% are locked into place. A few though…a few have made their beds in both camps, remaining in a limbo land until I make some final decisions. Several of these, and I’ll point out which ones, are films I’ve known a very long time. Several I had not seen until I began research and several were re-watches. The final list will go up next week.

FTV = First Time Viewing
RW = Re-Watch
LTF = Long Time Favorite

Bad Lieutenant
Bad Lieutenant (Ferrara) (US)
(FTV)
The lower depths of humanity are plumbed (and then some) with beautifully considered slow-burn imagery, strung along by the traipsing sounds of unintelligible and unformed pleas. A man who has lost touch with himself as human is confronted with the possibility of being judged by a higher being; blank slate, wiped clean, lifted up and out. Harvey Keitel’s Lieutenant (in a purging of the soul performance) cannot comprehend the forgiveness of sin, and it builds to a protracted and somewhat deformed act of salvation akin to watching teeth pulled.

baraka
Baraka (Fricke) (US) (RW)
With its direct images, enveloping spiritualism, and earnest curiosity about globe-spanning rituals, a trek is made from hope in variety to despair in decimation, settling somewhere in the middle, like a peaceful reconciliation.

Dead Alive
Dead Alive (Jackson) (New Zealand) (RW)
Was positive this would be on the final ten, but alas… Underneath its bulgy-low-budget aesthetic discomfort and gleefully destructive blood-letting is a heart of graceless gold in Lionel and Paquita. Zany in the most complimentary sense of the word.

Death-Becomes-Her
Death Becomes Her (Zemeckis) (US) (LTF)
Basic bitches not wanted. Body horror in reverse and then forward drive played for laughs and unashamedly built around innovative special effects. Fueled by sing-song malevolence and Looney Tunes violence. Lampoons our peddling of youthful beauty within consumerism and Hollywood. Has grown into its cult status with ease and endless quotability. Bruce Willis has never been better shouting against type as a dweeb surgeon not worth anyone’s time, and just watch Meryl Streep wring out each syllable like she’s in a self-aware soap. Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Contact, and this give Zemeckis a lifetime pass.

A Heart in Winter
Un coeur en hiver
 (A Heart in Winter) (Sautet) (France) (FTV)
A very familiar illicit scenario but with an unusual player at its center, a man who cannot form personal connections, skewing all expected developments. First and foremost a character study about Stéphane (Daniel Auteuil) and his reliable inability to change. He is cruel in his anthropological curiosities, showing more intimacy with the inanimate violins he lovingly repairs. Emmanuelle Béart, in what has got to be the only time she ever has or will have to be on the other side of an unrequited love, is magnificent; understandably tormented and confused, always achingly human. A complex film that addresses the answerable qualities and inadequacies of ourselves.

league of their own
A League of Their Own (Marshall) (US) (LTF)
I can’t claim that this holds me the way it once did. It overuses montage, goes for some cheap laughs, has an often too-pointed score, and hints that later in his career Tom Hanks will (though very good here) prove distracting whenever he reaches outside his immediate strengths. But I’ve seen this so many times and the genuine female camaraderie and opportunities that rise out of wartime continues to be wholly earned (and fun) triumph. I laugh, I cry, and the final game always puts me on the edge of my seat.

noises off
Noises Off… (Bogdanovich) (US) (RW)
Endlessly watchable, pure hilarity, increasing discord; a film anyone would be proud to know inside and out. A farce that gradually becomes so overwhelming as to be incomprehensible. So what keeps this off the ten, besides the there’s-just-too-much reason? Transplanting this English play into an American film warps the dissolution of politeness and niceties, which is so carefully and centrally established, only to crumble to bits. Americanizing an English farce without adapting to said change ends up being dissonant and awkward. But my God, there is no other film from 1992 that brings more unheralded escalating buffoonery.

Orlando2
Orlando
(Potter) (UK) (FTV)

An elaborate mirage on gender identity and stigma, where past and present are just an edit away and where there is little fixture in space even within specific time periods. Sally Potter approaches this Virginia Woolf adaptation (a novel I loved in concept but felt removed from in reading) with witty presentational candor and Tilda Swinton sells it with softness and a hearty wink. Singular, amusing, and honest.

savage nights
Savage Nights (Les Nuits Fauves) (Collard) (France) (FTV)
Cyril Collard smartly addresses AIDS by not addressing it. Jean’s (Collard) resolute inability to process his condition haunts the entire film and his actions (or rather inaction). It is made the backdrop for a story about toxic relationships, where Jean’s condition indirectly informs all interpersonal drama. Blue, red, yellow, the primary colors, predominate the film. The building blocks of living; separate, not in tandem.

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #125-129


sleeping_lottie_enchanted_april
#125. Enchanted April (1992, Newell)

Bitter Moon was the final film in the ‘Relationships’ section of my 1992 watchlist with Enchanted April segueing into ‘Women!’. Four women, in varying degrees of desperation, seek rejuvenation away from their husbands and the rainy cobbledom of 1920’s London in an idyllic Italian castle for one month (guess which). Contemplative solitude and reflection against the tabula rasa pastoral gardens provides a backdrop for magical realism. Set-up conflicts, all involving marital strife, fade away in favor of reconciliation. I wanted to feel the hope and power of sojourn spirituality at work in Enchanted April…but it proves impossible.

Based on a novel of the same name written by Elizabeth von Arnim in 1922, its approach to marriage certainly reflects the era of the story’s inception. It dares to present marriage as this broken down union lacking in communication, respect, and understanding, only to gloss over everything for an unearned whole; a much less forgiving resolution for a film made in 1992. Sure, the magical realism suggests the potential for reset reality once everyone returns to London, but “that’s another story”. Give me that then, not this. This is like A Midsummer Night’s Dream with unhappy spouses instead of young love. No thanks.

These marriages seem to be dead ends all-around, so there’s nothing to root for besides the women finding inner peace with themselves for themselves. At first that’s the focus, and then one by one the men come clomping, or humming, back in. The women’s aim for identity, agency, and hell, even just mutually respected companionship is invalidated, and all in the name of putting all your eggs in the escape-to-the-countryside basket.

A paragraph of questions:
So what, Frederick (Jim Broadbent) now loves Rose because she throws herself at him? It was her prudishness that needed to change? Not Frederick’s philandering or inattentiveness or endless humming? Rose is just so bowled over by Frederick’s arrival that all her feelings and doubts are reconciled? Even though he didn’t even go there for her in the first place? And George (Michael Kitchen) was taken in by Rose (Miranda Richardson) and not Lady Caroline (Polly Walker), all because he’s got shitty eyesight? Even though he comments not once, but twice, on how much Rose looks like the the Madonna? Give me a break. Give me lots of breaks. In fact, just give me all the breaks.

The blossoming connection between Rose (Miranda Richardson) and George is sapped in an instant by the film and Rose, as if it had been nothing of consequence. Our clairvoyant guide into these blissful surroundings is the skittishly exhausting and intrusive Lotte (Josie Lawrence). Enchanted April feels as if it were made by Lotte, like it takes place in her deluded head or something. We wait for the other shoe to drop in her desperation but it never does. Because it turns out that for her there will be no rude awakening. Everything she says about her fellow tenants and the power of the castle turn out to be correct. It doesn’t matter that she’s inconsiderate and oversteps her bounds by trying to solve everyone’s problems.

I’ll admit that part of my dislike of Enchanted April comes from a rare break on my ‘expectations’ rule. Basically, and I say this with an asterisk to risk generalizing, it’s a big pet peeve of mine to mark against a film by saying ‘it’s not what I expected’. That puts all its supposed value onto the individual’s preconceived notions, either from marketing, reputation, or picked up assumptions. The weight of preconceived notions on a film’s value gives the advantage to said preconceived notions, not the actual content. I take issue with that. These are natural feelings to have of course; however, there are constructive ways to frame them, meaning engaging with what the content is opposed to what the content isn’t.

This rant is to say that, yes, in this case, for some reason I thought Enchanted April was going to be about female bonding surrounded by lots of pretty flowers, and not about reconciliation with husbands, so that certainly didn’t soften the blow. Nevertheless, I’m all for buying into romanticized fairy-tale hope (as in A Tale of Winter), as long as the material earns it. And Enchanted April does not earn it.

The relaxed pace interspersed with low-key moments of characters soaking in their new temporary milieu with hard-earned basking is appropriately sweeping. My favorite moment comes when a small lizard makes its way up Miranda Richardson’s hair, and so despondent in this moment she allows it. Speaking of Richardson, she is able to use her naturally cold demeanor for exacting enigmatic ends and unexpected subtle reactive strokes of comic timing.

ARE1952002W00003-10
#126. Marlene (1984, Schell)

Maximilian Schell makes a mistake trying to engage with Marlene Dietrich near end of her life, and knowing each other going back to Judgement at Nuremberg twenty years earlier doesn’t help smooth things over. In fact, nothing does. Schell works under very strict stipulations, the most obvious being her refusal to be seen on camera at age 83. So we hear her barbs with director, interviewer and friend as archival footage plays in the background, usually undermining in some way what she is saying. Dietrich is aggressively staunch, constantly dismissive of her own legend and work, or downright confrontational. Everything is ‘kitsch’ or ‘rubbish’.

We hear someone seemingly uninterested in their own legend, yet defiantly unwilling to risk tarnishing it by showing herself. Although I can’t fault one’s understandable vulnerability about being seen at age 83. But still, she attempts to preserve in her own way. She also inadvertently tries to support her legend by insisting on their being ZERO craft in her work. As she puts it, she just did as she was told. Nothing is really revealed about her if you solely hear her words. Marlene is about the discrepancy between public legend and self-representation; between sad shielding and what’s beneath. How they create a tear within a person. Dietrich wants nothing to do with this documentary, yet she takes part. Is it just because Schell is her friend? She repeatedly references her autobiography. This is someone who wants to (understandably if misguidedly) control her own narrative after the fact, even as she wants to disassociate from it.

Early on, she claims not to have seen any of her work. It’s a transparent statement from the start, and later she is proven wrong (though not thankfully called out on it). When being shown a copy of The Scarlet Empress she claims it must be a different version because the edits are wrong. She dismisses sentiment, only to be moved to tears by a sentimental song at the end.

That’s all there is to Marlene. Yes, it ends up being an anomaly of a project, in some enticing ways, but overall its few revelations build up to a wholly frustrating experience that not even Schell’s sly undercutting of words with images can erase.

It’s the Little Things: 
– According to Dietrich, women’s lib was all about “penis envy”.

weownthenight-brothers
#127. We Own the Night (2007, Gray)

It’s become clear to me at this point (with only Two Lovers left to watch), that James Gray gives Joaquin Phoenix grand character arcs that run record long distances in a short period of time. In The Yards he’s fun-loving and supportive, then cowardly and jealous to all kinds of too-far-gone mixed up. In The Immigrant he’s a charlatan to a possibly dangerous stray dog in love to sacrificial raw meat. And then there’s We Own the Night, which could also lovingly be called The Joaquin Phoenix Show. Full of dismissive defense mechanisms towards his family (getting high and feigning boredom) and underground success and love but by the end, it’s a 180; something lost and something gained. What is lost is Eva Mendes and the self-chosen club environment and (dependent) success he naturally drifted towards. What he’s gained is a position society can be proud of, and the love of his family, most importantly his brother. One love traded for another very different kind of love. It’s an incredibly bittersweet trade-off, and not just because the bridge between the two is the loss and subsequent vengeful recompense of their father.

Phoenix spends most of the film, even when he’s sticking his neck out for them, an outsider looking in on his own family, a tolerated third wheel.

Once again with James Gray; Choices, Family, New York. Gray and the cinematographers he works with have an uncommon ability to constantly and observantly capture actors; nothing seems preordained in these performances. The writer/director works with familiar stories and genre conventions while having a knack for spending all that narrative time oh-so-carefully mapping out characters and their multi-faceted relations. In this case it’s all about Bobby (Phoenix), so much so that pretty much everyone else ends up being a bit underwritten as a result. Where Bobby stands with those in his life is constantly charted. Everything flip-flops for him. What would normally be a fraught and traumatic, but ultimately uphill, battle ends up being an complex aforementioned trade-off. Conventions come through characters and their choices, as opposed to characters and their choices coming through conventions.

Well, it’s certainly safe to say that the man knows how to end a film. There is something indefinably powerful about that final image. What is it? The simplicity of it? The words being spoken out and not towards? That slight zoom or how head-on it is?

It’s the Little Things:
A black-and-white montage of New York police photos transitioning to Joaquin Phoenix in red walking towards reclining Mendes while “Heart of Glass” plays; sexiest thing in a film I’ve seen since re-watching The More the Merrier

vampire-academy-zoey-deutch-lucy-fry-sarah-hyland-600x400
#128. Vampire Academy (2014, Waters)

Every so often you run into a film that you recognize as being a scattershot botch job, seemingly beyond repair, but you still like it, a lot, despite everything. Vampire Academy is one of those films. Now that suggests all the pieces are somehow lacking, which isn’t the case. There’s a lot that works about Vampire Academy, and despite its box-office flop status and universal pans, I believe the film will slowly but surely find some kind of audience.

The main detractor is that it suffers from the kind of Adaptation Inflammation that tends to plague adaptations of world-building heavy YA films. This one even has the nerve to throw terminology as onscreen text, like a trippy test review session. The harder the  world-building efforts (also taking into account its low budget), the more everything feels inconsequential as opposed to realized. So there’s an unfortunate dwarfing effect from the get-go. As if the exposition weren’t enough, Vampire Academy makes the mistake of acting like the start of a movie franchise so are endless extraneous elements and characters that have no bearing on the story at hand, and are there to assuredly set up  future installments that will only exist in the books. So there is no shortage of dead, and undead, weight.

World-building skeletons with a side helping of complicated etymology exists in all self-serious YA franchises. But Vampire Academy blends (to inconsistent results) that skeleton with the playfully bitchy high school lampoon act its makers (Mark Waters of Mean Girls and Daniel Waters of Heathers) are known for. But instead of the latter subverting the former, they end up feeding off each other til there’s not much left.

But on second thought, I’d say there’s quite a bit left. Yes it’s a mess, but damn if it isn’t an entertaining and sardonic mess. Zoey Deutch alone is a real find, heavily recalling both Ellen Page and a young Lauren Graham, with constantly varying and left-field comic sensibility. She can be annoying and a bit much, but I found her Rose Hathaway badass and lovable, an antidote to the furrowed brows and self-sacrificing heroines of dystopian and supernatural worlds. It would be a travesty, yes a travesty, if we don’t see a lot more of her in the future. Lucy Fry as Lissa is quite memorable too, regal and fluttery; good enough to make us forgive weak screenwriting that flat-out says NO to the transition and logic of character motivation.

For all the bland-boy romance (and let’s be honest, so many female-led films suffer from Bland Boy Syndrome), the friendship between Rose and Lissa (Fry) comes first. It is never lost for a second that they have the most important bond, in sync and connected forever. They are soulmates. Lissa even gives a speech at the end where she’s all ‘I wish you all could have your own Rose Hathaway, I’m the luckiest gal in town’. And Lissa, and the film, even make room for welcome and timely commentary on slut-shaming.

All in all, I wanted to stay in this world. I even want to pick up the second book and give it a try. Mark Waters and Daniel Waters drown a bit in the fold of YA, but with the help of Zoey Deutch they are able to come up for air quite often. The results allow teenage girls to have all kinds of non-judgmental sexual yearnings in a PG-13 world, with snarky growing pains winning out over the arduous and usually meaningless weight others of the same cloth so often bore us to tears with.

passion fish
#129. Passion Fish (1992, Sayles)

Literary and laid back in ways May-Alice (Mary McDonnell) and Chantelle (Alfre Woodard) can only strive towards. John Sayles (this is admittedly the first film I’ve seen of his) attains the restfulness and ease both seek. The characters catch up to the film. They are restricted to backwoods Louisiana for different but not dissimilar reasons. Rennie (David Straitharn) and Sugar LeDoux (Vondie Curtis-Hall) recur as potential male companions, but everyone else visits once and only once. People pass through while the two remain stationary.

Fade-to-blacks are usually used as prelude to a passage of time, but Sayles consistently and overtly uses them to emphasize a lack of movement or change. That progress is at a standstill for May-Alice because of her self-absorbed obstinance. Stasis, and the gradual movement away from it, and the acceptance that erases it, is at the center of Passion Fish. From May-Alice’s attitude towards her paralysis to Chantelle’s inner demons and dependency on her job as caretaker. When Rennie takes the two out for a late-film boat sojourn it critically signals movement within stasis, an openness to their surroundings and to each other.

Mary McDonnell and Alfre Woodard give two beautifully realized performances as equally willful women with a push-pull dependency built on hesitance. The former spouts and drinks, swears and lashes out. The latter desperately bottles everything to keep control of herself, her guardedness hiding immense vulnerability. Chantelle is at once sheepish and direct. Their friendship, though both would hesitate to call it that for most of the runtime, is constantly shifting and developing, the two actresses always able to pinpoint where their characters are (even if the audience isn’t made privy) at any given moment. May-Alice comes to realize she needs Chantelle (both for support and as someone willing to stand up to her) long before Chantelle admits this, or accepts this as mutually beneficial beyond survival.

Sayles does right by the Louisiana milieu outside of some random bouts of broadness (Precious anyone?), recognizing that there was a reason May-Alice left Louisiana as soon as she was old enough, without dipping into pandering. Passion Fish could so easily smack of a been-there-done-that TV movie (or shitty movie) territory or worse, of a black character entering the scene to help stabilize a white character. And though Chantelle is introduced into May-Alice’s story, it very quickly becomes a co-lead film, where each are paid equal mind, mutually dependent, not one an appendage of the other. In fact, as great as McDonnell is, Woodard as Chantelle emerges as the character and performance that resonates more deeply. Have I mentioned how amazing she is in this? Because I’d say from all my 1992 watches and re-watches so far, it’s this lead female performance that has knocked my socks off. Interracial friendships and bonding depiction in film can also easily end up being a catalyst allowing white people to feel good about themselves (for a most egregious example, see; The Help), placement and purpose renders them props no matter how well-written or performed the individual character(s) is(are). Passion Fish sidesteps all this for a deft and carefully observed study of two fully realized women whose fates are intertwined for better and worse.

 

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #120-124


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

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

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

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

bittermoon
#121. Bitter Moon (1992, Polanski)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Missing Picture

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

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

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#124. Mystery Train (1989, Jarmusch)

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

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

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

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

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #110-114


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#110. Lessons of Darkness (1992, Herzog) 
Scours the oil-soaked rubble and landscapes of post-Gulf War Kuwait. Werner Herzog purposely avoids giving any context, only droplets of human tragedy in the traumatic aftermath of war. By removing context, the film feels eerie and otherwordly. Is this really our world? Yes, it is.

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#111. Doctor Mordrid (1992, Band)
After having seen this (and a few others in years past) I kind of just want to have a Full Moon Features marathon. Their output is indicative of the VHS era and the sudden surplus of low-budget direct-to-video genre films that emerged out of an analog market. With Doctor Mordrid, the main draw for was actor-I’ll-watch-in-anything Jeffrey Combs, and an accompanying recommendation from ever-reliable friend Alex Kittle. Combs has a dry and overenunciated style of acting, as if inadvertently seducing the person (or air; you know, whatever’s there) in front of him. Surprisingly fun and silly beyond belief (so, pretty much, what you’d expect), with Combs in a blue jumpsuit, stop-motion dinosaurs, adroit set design, and music that sounds like it came out of an episode of “Wishbone”! Originally supposed to be a Doctor Strange film (and hey, look, one is in the works now) but the option expired before production could begin. It’s a misleading concoction, mostly feigning ‘PG’ levels of tame and then throwing in random nudity and swearing in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it intervals.

Vyette Nadir is far more relatable, capable, and likable than she needs to be. I have a special fondness and familiarity with her from the Full House episode “Happy New Year”.  And even though she and Combs have zero chemistry, I adore both so much that I was somehow still invested in them. Like, this movie is oddly cute. And as if all of this weren’t enough, there’s a Satanist that looks exactly like a greasy Andrew Garfield!

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#112. Tom at the Farm (2014, Dolan) 
http://criterioncast.com/reviews/theatrical/catherine-reviews-xavier-dolans-tom-at-the-farm-ct-lgbt-film-festival-2014/

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#113. Oculus (2014, Flanagan)
The evil mirror in Oculus (can we have more evil mirror movies please?) is a narrative carte blanche. The object spreads out influence and can get inside your head, fiddling with everything you thought you knew. That Oculus is somehow able to keep the debilitating effects of childhood trauma relevant despite (though it doesn’t change the existence of trauma), the affirmation of the supernatural, is not only unexpected, but damn impressive. It plays out in two parallel storylines, the past and present, and there is increasing fluidity between the two. Director and co-writer Mike Flanagan plays with our knowledge of how the past thread turns out in order to impact the present. The past plays out like a homier version of The Shining that sees itself through. Instead of the Overlook Hotel, it’s the coal black antique above.

There is a ton of exposition, but it goes over smoothly because it is used to simultaneously highlight Kaylie’s (Karen Gillian in a marvelous turn) obsessiveness and unhinged leanings. Having to deal with family tragedy on her own has made this moment, not the processing and therapeutic recovery Tim (Brenton Thwaites) has undergone, what everything in her life has led up to. What makes Oculus scary is that anything seems possible, and the characters (and therefore us) become unable to trust their own eyes, experiences, or surroundings. Though it relies too heavily towards the end on spooky glowy-eyed specters, there’s a weight to how Kaylie and Tim’s childhood have shaped their separate paths that makes everything matter.  This isn’t ‘we may be through with the past but the past ain’t through with us’, it’s ‘we’re not through with the past and guess what, the past ain’t through with us anyways’.

It’s the Little Things:
– The light bulb scene and the band-aid scene. Shivers.
– I love that first shot of Gillian, the camera behind her as her red ponytail sways back and forth.
– The girl who played younger Kaylie (Annalise Basso) is so good. The boy, eh.
– Katee Sackhoff everybody. Just a reminder she should be in everything.

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#114. Raising Cain (1992, De Palma)
Wacky as fuck and clownishly bonkers in its lopsided Hitchcock homage. The lifts from the master of suspense are even more overt than normal for De Palma, basically parodic. But then, pretty much everything about Raising Cain feels parodic, like a page out of Raimi, and not necessarily in the best way. Gets to it immediately, switching gears every twenty minutes or so. John Lithgow, in five different roles, camps it up for every one of them (does he mean to?). As forceful as De Palma’s self-awareness is, everything ends up feeling like an outlandish construct in which to hold Lithgow’s scenery-chewing, even though we know it is in fact the other way around. And that really hurts the film. Watching Lithgow have at it might be entertaining for some, but eh, I’ve never gotten that thrill from watching him.

Far more engaging is Lolita Davidovich’s tale of spousal resilience and rekindling love with the adorable Steven Bauer. Apparently De Palma originally intended Davodovich’s Jenny to control the narrative at the start. One day I’ll catch that alternate cut. There are some truly inspired ‘De Palma!’ moments, like the multi-level multi-object finale, and a long scene of Psycho-esque usually-stationary exposition transformed into a long take that spans stairs, turns, elevators, and Gregg Henry repeatedly putting the speaking-and-veering Frances Sternhagen on course correction (in some ways, the film is like Sternhagen in this scene). There’s also a recurring focus on surveillance. Raising Cain may be a DOA narrative loop-de-loop, even within its own world, but at least there’s an unhinged screw-it-I’m-just-going-for-it commitment. You’re never going to hear me complain too much about De Palma going up his own ass.

 It’s the Little Things:
– Have I mentioned Steven Bauer and how adorable he is in this?
– The story of Bauer and Davidovich is hilarious because they are both good-hearted people, yet they kiss in front of his dying wife’s hospital bed!

 

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #105-109


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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#107. Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992, Rappaport)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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