Top Ten By Year: 1978


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Autumn-Sonata_2696030b

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

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

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

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

drunken_master

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

eyes-l-mars-main

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

grease-1978-movie-still-1

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

Halloweenscreenshot-med-07

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

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

in6

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

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

Killer of Sheep
Killer of Sheep

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Babadook (2014, Kent)


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This review was posted on CriterionCast on November 6th, 2014:

It is altogether rare when a horror film works as equal parts psychological character excavation and a genuinely scary piece of cinema (to be fair, not all horror aspires to both). In Jennifer Kent’s debut film The Babadook, the two are bone-chillingly inextricable by making a grief-ridden mother-son relationship the nucleus from which a storybook monster’s infiltration is born. Statements like this are not usually in my deck of words, but after seeing this heartbreaking and deeply disquieting tale of woe, it is hard to deny that The Babadook is the best horror film of the decade so far.

Amelia (Essie Davis) is spent. Her husband died in a car accident while driving her to the delivery room. She is raising their child Samuel (Noah Wiseman), now six, on her own. He is, to put it mildly, a handful. He suffers from serious behavioral problems and has trouble connecting to peers. He is beholden to impulses and outbursts; usually some form of shrieking is involved. And he is fixated by the idea that there are monsters lurking about. He has built dangerous defense weapons he has and brings them to school, resulting in his expulsion.

A paragraph that started about Amelia instantly became about Samuel. That’s because as we witness her everyday routine in these opening scenes, it is clear she is a non-entity in her own life. Samuel’s name is shouted countless times; we hardly ever hear hers. She is depleted; her frayed blonde hair, bare face, and barely pink uniform make her look like a shabby peach. Hell, she can’t even masturbate in peace. She has exhausted the good will of her sister (who doesn’t like to come round to her house because it’s too ‘depressing’) and a potential romantic interest turns out to be a total non-starter. Samuel is all Amelia has, and vice versa.

One night, as per their nightly routine, Samuel picks out a bedtime story book from the shelf called Mister Babadook. Amelia has never seen the book before, but nevertheless begins to read it aloud. The grotesque pop-up illustrations, which channel Dave McKean, are simple and prophetic in their black-eyed directness. And so the Mister Babadook of the macabre tale begins to invade their already vulnerable domestic space.

The Babadook of the title is a specter, an invader, a possessor, and a curse of sorts. He looks like an upright Lon Chaney in London After Midnight; its mobility is contrasted with unnerving stillness. In another of several invocations of silent cinema (magic is another through line, with Georges Méliès bridging the two) it often faces Amelia, Samuel and us dead-on and from afar, a projection of fears and the unspoken. The equally utilized use of sound tracks the insect-like clickity-clacks of unseen movement, and of course that croaky scrawl of “Bab—ba–doook. Dook. Dooooook”.

The titular creature is all of these things, and disturbing in his own right, but he is first and foremost a metaphoric manifestation of Amelia’s grief, the lurking presence of unresolved loss. Horror is so often about the lingering, about spiritual entities that have yet to reconcile their own stories. And it can easily become an uninvolving cliché because its inherent function as expository resolution. Here, the lingering belongs to the living, the Babadook an outgrowth of the taboo feelings of resentment and futility Amelia has towards her son. She loves her son, yes, but she also kind of hates him too. This film is chockfull of uneasy emotions and depressions laid bare that films tend to sideswipe and/or simplify.

Writer/director Jennifer Kent uses the roots of domestic horror to amplify the increasingly isolated central dynamic. What is supposed to be a safe space becomes distorted, the nature of family turned upside down. Amelia and Samuel’s home looks dreary despite its otherwise lovely essence. The monochromatic color palette of remote blues and grays, colors that are warm and familiar in small doses, are cold and claustrophobic in their totality, like a more naturalistic (by comparison) Possession.

Ambiguity is upheld, but Kent does not stake a claim there. At the end of the day, the question of the Babadook’s existence doesn’t really matter. What matters is that either way, all the film’s terrors and evils are borne out of real emotional turbulence. Roles and control shift into upsettingly resonant formations.

How have I drifted this far without mentioning the film’s true anchor, Essie Davis? A marvel by any measurement, her Amelia is fragile, achingly lonely, and at a loss. And then a force of nature; looming, ferocious, and unhinged. She is fighting with herself, giving in and getting out with everything she has got. She hits every single beat with an all-too relatable humanity, especially as she struggles in more way than one to be a person again. We watch as she registers the unfamiliarity she has with herself.

It is a testament to the writing and performance by Noah Wiseman that Samuel, for all his grating qualities, remains sympathetic. This is crucial; for all its other qualities, the film would not work if we felt no empathy for him. Sure, there’s no way we would want to spend a day with him, placating and smoothing things over. But Kent is always clear on the fact that Samuel is troubled and not an insolent brat. At one point, he asks his mother “Why don’t people like me”, and it is heartbreaking. The character is a tricky high-wire act of acting, editing, and directing.

Jennifer Kent brings a classical eye to her compositions, assured and stoic. The hard-hitting frights play for keeps (in other words, simple jump scares not wanted). In-camera effects are heavily relied on and it makes a considerable difference. Never underestimate the power of tangible physicality. And rest assured horror aficionados, this one gets under the skin; ambiguous without hinging entirely the internal, terrifying without ever playing its scares as an exercise. An exacting nightmare portrait of single motherhood, grief, and the unspoken complexities that can come with child-rearing, led by the ferociously powerful performance by Essie Davis, try as you might; you can’t get rid of The Babadook.

Capsule Reviews: 1958 Watchlist Section Three – Horror


Approaching the halfway point of 1958 Watchlist and finding myself largely distanced from the content so far. My appreciation for individual films is defined by larger contexts i.e considering where cinema was at this point in time, tracking formal and narrative emergence, established modes and the increasingly outdated. I’ve a long way to go, but true immersion in the cinematic universe of 1958 is, as of right now, a rarity.

attack of the 50ft womanAttack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958, Juran) (US)
“HAARRRYYY!!!”
Starting off with a brief trip into sci-fi. Equivalent to an average albeit stretched out “Twilight Zone” episode (every one of its 60 some odd minutes are felt) with its hearty helpings of melodrama and noir. A peculiar little item that never becomes much of anything, but the effects transcend bad to become simultaneously riotous, nonsensical, and even haunting.

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The Blob
(1958, Yeaworth Jr.) (US)

Youth: the newly favored benefit-of-the-doubt perspective of 50’s American cinema. The Blob is a very early example of teens taking center stage in horror. Of course, we now recognize them as a predominant demographic for both onscreen slaughter and off-screen viewership. And try as I might, it’s difficult to think of earlier examples of growing pains and pleasures at the center of horror. Scientists, fully formed mad men, and unsuspecting women held the reins in decades previous. This fusion between sci-fi/horror and the new teen cinema of the 50’s sounds far more promising than it is. Essentially a feature length reminder of the communication gap and inherent distrust between adults and kids, The Blob is a ‘but you gotta believe me’ story of supposed troublemakers crying wolf and a bunch of adults and idiot cops that just won’t listen. Perhaps it would have been more engaging if the supposed troublemakers in question actually had a renegade streak running through their veins. Instead, age and bad situational timing are the sole markers of invalidation.

The Blob is one of three films in this post that help introduce Technicolor to the horror world. Until this point its visual language was exclusively expressed in blacks, whites, grays; the unknowable shadows. Hammer Horror in the UK changed that, splattering untapped possibilities of color to the genre with 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein. The immediate impact in America can be seen with both this and The Fly (which takes things one step further, being shot in CinemaScope). The crimson red of blood is replaced with the crimson red of the blob itself, a gelatinous being with no rationale or character, only the patient drive for sustenance.

The Blob peaks early with its kooky title song and the first scene between Steve McQueen and his lady friend in a car with an entirely black background, dislodged from visible surroundings.

The Fly 1958The Fly (1958, Neumann) (US)
A standard 50’s don’t fuck with nature B-story, but not a B-movie, as illustrated by the atypical presentational pairing of lux Cinemascope. Also atypical is its structure, starting as a domestic murder mystery and segueing into a lengthy cautionary tale flashback. The Fly misuses its time in some pretty egregious ways (ten minutes are spent trying to catch a fly), but the moments of screechy pleas and kaleidoscopic perspectives break through the dryness in ways that elicit shivers.

No doubt about it, body horror is the most unnerving kind out there. While David Cronenberg’s far superior take details the vile minutiae of bodily transformation, the emphasis here, when it strives to be, is on change after the fact, particularly the sudden loss of will and the self. But since Andre (David Hedison) is and remains a remote presence (to us and the film) married to science, his wife’s (Patricia Owens) experience is foregrounded, the aforementioned will and self taking a back seat. The real tragedy is that Andre’s mistake doesn’t alter the household’s norm. He’s still always in the basement, still closed off to the world. By the end, Helene never seems quite appropriately saddened by the loss of her husband, because, well, Andre never contributed much to his family in the first place. His commitment to scientific breakthrough is so absolute that he doesn’t even have the time to be the protagonist of his own story. Once the flashback begins, that honor is, thankfully (in the sense that Hedison is a wet blanket), handed off to Patricia Owens by the irreplaceable Vincent Price as brother-in-law. Her marital commitment ensures that shock gives way to pragmatism, and she does what needs to be done. Once he transforms and loses himself, she sees him as being already gone, 100% Other. The loss of Andre’s identifiable features such as voice and face gradually overpower his ability to still communicate through knocks, typed letters, and increasingly scrawled chalkboard writing.

haunted stranglerThe Haunted Strangler (1958, Day) (UK)
A stuffy affair with Boris Karloff is its sole partially saving grace (even the unnerving face contortions are all his). Shows its hand halfway through when it repositions into a Jekyll and Hyde take that soon finds its own static mold. An intrusively shot hanging at the start contains a tangible dirty perversity that sadly isn’t approached again. This is the second 1958 film I’ve seen (the other being Cairo Station) that uses soaked breasts as a censor-pushing weapon. Unexpectedly contains perhaps the highest ratio of can-can dancing (due to the film’s short length) I’ve ever seen.

horror of draculaHorror of Dracula (1958, Fisher) (UK)
Since this is a go-to exemplary representative of Hammer Horror by many, I question if Hammer is for me. A transitional marker for horror, it arrives after a primary focus on atmospherics and the unseen, during censorship testing, but before transgressions that endure as transgressions on the screen today (this caused quite the stir in the UK upon release but doesn’t retain that sense). Hammer became a 50’s equivalent of the Gainsborough Melodramas of the 40’s in the UK, but not as salacious or intriguing, at least to my eyes.

Of the films in this post, Horror of Dracula makes the most effective use of color, favoring admittedly overlit compositions that nevertheless embellish and flaunt the aristocratic digs. Giallo would eventually run with the horror/color combo, but Terence Fisher lays the foundation for what would become the expressive status quo.

Most admirable are the audacious ways the source material is toyed with, shredded, and effectively pared down. Bram Stoker’s novel becomes enticing mincemeat in the clutches of screenwriter Jimmy Sangster. For example; when Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) meets Dracula (Christopher Lee) in the opening minutes, I was thinking about Harker’s unavoidable dopiness. For audiences, Dracula is synonymous with vampire, so we can’t help but unfairly resent him for not knowing the mythos he’s stepped into. Unfair, but true. Just as I think this, it is revealed that Harker already knows who Dracula is, and has willfully entered his headquarters in order to stealthily conquer him! Putting aside the largely dry investigative elements (helped greatly by the velvety dapper presence of Peter Cushing), there is a fixation on what people do in solitude. Harker writes in his journal, Lucy waits for Dracula to ravish her at night, Van Helsing stews in his own thoughts, etc. For a film this short, considerable time is spent showing characters in rooms by themselves.

Christopher Lee’s take on the titular character is widely accepted as iconic. There is a truly frightening use of close-ups starring bloody eye contacts posing as jump scares and the smart use of Lee as a silent-but-growling manifestation (all of his dialogue comes in the first act). But Lee has always come across as a strictly hackneyed presence. Miles above Bela Lugosi whose theatrical stiffness is much worse, he nevertheless lacks the charm, sexuality or danger that supposedly so appalled censors. For all that, one only has to look slightly stage right to Carol Marsh as Lucy, whose brief appearance of clear-eyed sexual menace wafts over everything. Fear bleeds into desire and her anticipatory bedroom stares tell us everything we need to know.

Other Recent Viewings:
The Zero Theorem (2014, Gilliam) ***
L’Intrus (2004, Denis) ***
God Help the Girl (2014, Murdoch) * ½
The Double (2014, Ayoade) ***
Neighbors (2014, Stoller) ** ½
Raze (2014, Waller) *
Gone Girl (2014, Fincher) **** ½
The Boxtrolls (2014, Annable, Stacchi) ****
White Bird in a Blizzard (2014, Araki) ****
Manhunter (1986, Mann) ****
Body Bags (1993, Carpenter/Hooper) ***

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.

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.

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.

raising cain

#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 #95-99


 

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#95. All Cheerleaders Die (2014, McKee/Siverton)

Lucky McKee and Chris Siverton’s remake of their 2001 low-budget film of the same name. A shredded mess, but that still puts it several notches above McKee’s previous film The Woman (will he ever again make something approaching the ballpark quality of May?). A concoction of everything in late 90’s high school-set genre tomfoolery, with a direct-to-video feel that reflects what a mid-tier theatrical release of the time might have looked like. To say there’s a lot going on plot-wise is a giant understatement. None of it’s particularly good, some of it is downright awful, yet all of it frustratingly contains potential. The film we see at the beginning transmutes into something different every half hour. I love a lot of what’s here…on paper that is; feminist-streaked witchcraft, ladies wreaking revenge, glowing crystals and even simultaneous orgasms! Is it a snark-fest comedy or an upbeat diatribe on violence against women or a lesbian love story or a horror film about literal solidarity between women?

Perhaps the biggest problem, besides a tonal disconnect that moves forward, seemingly on a lark, is that none of the motivations of or connections between the girls harbor consistency. Take Maddy’s (Caitlin Stasey) initial undercover cheerleader revenge plan. It’s prompted by the loss of her friend Lex, who we only see in the first five minutes through video footage shot by Madd. Lex is shown as particularly annoying, and the montage fails to contextualize the friendship in any basic way. Since Maddy is behind the camera, the impetus for the story has no standing with the audience. That failure to establish connections where we’re meant to see them continues throughout. Adversary Terry (Tom Williamson) has a very throwaway episode-of-the-week baddie vibe to him.

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#96. Bob Roberts (1992, Robbins)

Political satire as horror film.  Certain satires, such as NetworkTo Die For or The Stepford Wives, are distinctly eerie in tone. And now that I’ve seen Bob Roberts, a skewering of Bush-era conservatives on the campaign trail, it can mosey on up and nuzzle itself in with that lot. Much of the said creepiness comes from Tim Robbins’s performance as the titular ‘rebel conservative’ character (although there really are no characters in Bob Roberts, just well-drawn ‘types’), an inverter and perverter of 1960’s counter-culture. He’s an empty enigma. The few times we are granted unfiltered covert access to him, what we see is curdled and rotten, Robbins with a glassy look in his eyes. Like a adult psychotic Kevin McAllister.

The ‘mockumentary’ format, usually used for broader comedy (especially up to 1992), makes up the other shuddersome airs. We are kept at a conspiratorial distance from Bob and his corrupt team (who includes Ray Wise and Alan Rickman), his folksy political persona seen from the public’s perspective. The deceitful vérité gradually shifts to doubt and investigative journalism. The cracks in the veneer start to show. There are fellow glassy eyed folk in the surrounding fanatical devotion (including Jack Black in an early role). The ‘is the camera off’ scene is alarming. A rare look into the belly of the corrupt beast, made impactful for how inaccessible said corruption is made to the audience, and thus the general public, up to that point.

Bob Roberts is largely about how the media is used and misused through politics and campaigning. Gore Vidal, playing Bob’s running opponent, basically plays himself, riffing on and mourning the general state of things (and though Vidal is engaging to watch, his running monologues directly oppose the more immediately catchy folk songs and persona of Roberts) within the loose context of the ‘documentary’. The last act, from the sketch show on, is a bit of a wash, at least compared to the rest. A mite over-prodded to its predictably hopeless conclusion. Sound is consistently used as a weapon of assault on the audience, with Robbins and the sound designers purposely blanket the film in overlapping aural layers of bullshit.

It’s the Little Things:
Shot of Giancarlo Esposito’s luckless crackpot journalist reflected in the TV, his voice and image never making it to air despite speaking the truth.

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#97. Deep Cover (1992, Duke)

Um, so I absolutely loved this. 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 questioning 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”. He’s fighting for power and money yes, but most importantly for respect amongst the criminal minded. A very moralistically preoccupied film about choices and compromise and where is the invisible line. I thought I had past my expiration date for undercover cop stories, but Deep Cover’s nixed that with its ability to balance heady and charged politics with two consistently engaging leads that transcend the walking cliches we’re used to seeing.

It’s the Little Things:
“We’ll have barbecue jumbo shrimp motherfuckerrrrrr!!!” – Guess who

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#98. Light Sleeper (1992, Schrader)

A introspective man isolated within his own cityscape environment, contending with change and battling his own sense of self and place within the mess of the world. We’re used to this kind of thing from Paul Schrader, but what completely caught me off-guard here is the noted lack of nihilism. Willem Dafoe isn’t serving typical on-the-brink brood. He may have an obsessive streak and a addictive past, but he’s pleasant, well-meaning, and even keen to listen to psychics! I don’t think, in fact I know, that I’ve never seen Willem Dafoe smile this much! There’s such a natural familiarity between him and longtime associate, employer, and friend Ann (Susan Sarandon). He is alternately haunted and comforted by the past in his daily interactions, and very nervous about the future. Will Ann really leave the business this time? Where does that leave him?

Dana Delaney’s character seems comfortably past her demons, then desperately trying to hold on to her hard-earned stability. Dafoe is earnest but selfish in his persistence with her. By casting Dafoe, Schrader brings in a certain set of expectations and then sets on defying every one of them. This is a hopeful character piece in the guise of a thriller. We mainly follow the ins-and-outs of a drug dealer surrounded by and aiding the lonely and desperate folks in their crummy abodes. That last scene is very reminiscent of another 1992 crime drama, The Crying Game, and is similarly optimistic, celebrating the power of deep connections between two people.

One False Move

#99. One False Move (1992, Franklin)
Another 1992 crime drama that focuses on racial tensions, this one not as initially explicit as Deep Cover. Where Deep Cover focuses on the War on Drugs, One False Move is about latent racial hierarchies, specifically in the South, and two interracial groups on opposite sides of the law, each dealing with their own dysfunctions as they gradually move towards a bloody collision. In L.A, a trio of criminals have just slaughtered six for money and drugs; conflicted and drugged out Fantasia (Lynda Williams), horseradish hick Ray (Billy Bob Thornton, who co-wrote the screenplay), and intelligent bespectacled sociopath Pluto (Michael Beach). Over in a small town in Arkansas the enforcers await the criminals eventual suspected arrival, which includes two L.A top brass (Earl Billings and Jim Metzler) and overcompensating gosh-darn-it rube Dale Dixon (Bill Paxton).

Starts with heavily felt and resonant murders (in an incredibly disturbing scene that manages to actually show little violence), carrying into a maintained constant tension over the threat of violence, and the when-and-how these two groups will meet (even when it becomes clear that they will spend most of the film merely in orbit of each other). Geographic markers make us aware of the increasingly narrow spatial relationships.

Once you think you’ve got a clear read on Bill Paxton’s huckster and his arc, a hidden connection recontextualizes how we see him, bringing the racial tensions to the forefront. Michael Beach is frighteningly centered, and Carl Franklin and James L. Carter frame him as such. The poignant ending, in the immediate aftermath of quick and sweeping violence marks the possible beginning of another long overdue interracial relationship, one that notably took a lot of unnecessary death to bring about.

Top Ten By Year: 1943


For those unaware of my Top Ten By Year column:
I pick years that are weak for me re: quantity of films seen. 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 and now 1943. Next I’ll be doing 1992.

I’m going to keep this intro short because my write-ups ended up being way longer than I’d anticipated. It’s been so insightful spending time with 1943. Hollywood during WWII is endlessly interesting, if not so much for the output as a whole (though there’s lots of great stuff as always), than for the extratextual and historical elements. I was able to learn a lot about the era; about the portrayal of war before and during, how nationalities, their various struggles and how our enemies were represented for better or worse, the relationship between the government and Hollywood, and the image, propaganda and narratives that were being sold to the general public during an uncertain time of crisis. I highly recommend reading Thomas Doherty’s “Projections of War” and this year’s “Five Came Back” by Mark Harris (surely the best book you’ll read from this year).

The ratio of films I’d not seen before research versus films I’d already seen is quite different from other years I’ve done so far. While 4 of my 5 honorable mentions are new-to-me films, 8 out of the 10 on this list I’d seen before, and I revisited all of them for this list. This is also the most ‘typical’ list of the ones I’ve created so far. Most of these are quite well-known, at least within film circles.

1943 saw debuts from major filmmakers such as Akira Kurosawa (Sanshiro Sugata), Robert Bresson (Angels of Sin), Vincente Minnelli (Cabin in the Sky), and Luchino Visconti (Ossessione). This was my most exhaustive year in terms of re-watching everything I’d already seen from 1943. In particular I was able to get a lot more out of I Walked with a Zombie this time around, a film that left me unenthused when I first saw it several years ago. For all the polished message films about virtue and American democratic values, there’s a lot of grit, fatalism, and darkness to be found. You just have to watch the Val Lewton-produced films from RKO to see that.Lewton used the freedom of low-budget quickies as a template for innovative atmosphere and despairing messages. A new kind of horror happening right under everyone’s nose.

Everyone is looking for a culprit. There’s a lot of finger-pointing in 1943. Just look at Day of Wrath, The Ox-Bow Incident, Le Corbeau, and to lesser degrees Hangmen Also Die! and The Leopard Man. There were other ways of dealing with wartime in film as well; by not dealing with it. Already by 1943 audiences would be starting to get weary of the corny rabbles of patriotism, looking for pure escapist fare. The prime example of this is The Man in Grey, setting Gainsborough trend for tailor made bodice-rippers targeting female audiences on the British homefront. Being a big animation fan, I also took the time to watch a ton of cartoon shorts spanning mostly from Looney Tunes to Tex Avery.

Now to pay tribute to five films that did not make my final cut, all of which I highly recommend seeking out if you haven’t seen them already:

Angels of Sin (or Angels of the Streets) (Bresson) (France): Renée Faure gives an engagingly stand-out classical performance of conviction in Robert Bresson’s debut (his pre-formalist days) which equates nunneries and prison as places of protection and possible reform.

The Constant Nymph (Goulding) (USA): Rarely seen for seventy years due to legal rights, this flagrantly romantic film features a twenty-four year old Joan Fontaine uniquely capturing the awkwardness of adolescence and giving a career-best performance as Tessa. In many ways a companion piece and warm-up to Letter of an Unknown Woman with Fontaine playing a teen, tragic overtones, musician male leads, and the connectivity of music bringing it all together.

The Man in Grey (Arliss) (UK): A deliciously nasty piece of work, setting the standard template for the Gainsborough melodrama, a subset of films wildly popular with British female audiences during WWII for their aggressively escapist lasciviousness. Made me realize fully that I like my melodrama gnarled and perverse. Margaret Lockwood does wicked better than anyone.

Meshes of the Afternoon (Daren/Hammid) (US): A landmark experimental short and a touchstone of feminist filmmaking. Cyclical and symbolic, it represents the psyche in such unsettling and inventive ways. Teiji Ito’s music, added with the approval of Deren in 1959, is integral; the perfect companion of aural unfamiliarity to Deren’s images.

This Land is Mine (Renoir) (US):
Narrative propaganda that works, rife with talky preachiness that manages to strike a chord by stressing the importance of words and ideas against Nazi occupation. Charles Laughton’s transformation from mama’s boy coward to proud martyr is important, but George Sanders’s supporting arc as an informer and collaborator is even more important and resonant.

Biggest Disappointments:
Air Force
Cabin in the Sky
Watch on the Rhine
Jane Eyre
So Proudly We Hail!
Sanshiro Sugata
The Human Comedy
Lady of Burlesque
La Main du Diable

Blind Spots: (not exhaustive):
Portrait of Maria, Hitler’s Madman, The Song of Bernadette, Sahara, The Fallen Sparrow, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Journey into Fear, Hitler’s Children, Munchhausen, My Learned Friend, Destination Tokyo, Le voyageur de la Toussaint

Complete List of 1943 Films Seen: (bold indicates first-time viewings during research, italics indicates re-watches during research)
Air Force, Angels of the Streets, Cabin in the Sky, The Constant Nymph, Day of Wrath, The Eternal Return, Le Corbeau, Five Graves to Cairo, Flesh and Fantasy, The Gang’s All Here, The Ghost Ship, Hangmen Also Die!, The Hard Way, Heaven Can Wait, The Human Comedy, I Walked with a Zombie, La Main du Diable, Lady of Burlesque, The Leopard Man, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Man in Grey, Meshes of the Afternoon, The More the Merrier, Old Acquaintance, The Ox-Bow Incident, The Seventh Victim, Shadow of a Doubt, So Proudly We Hail!, This Land is Mine, Watch on the Rhine, Jane Eyre, Lumiere d’ete, Ossessione, Sanshiro Sugata, Stormy Weather

Shorts:
“A Corny Concerto”, “Red Hot Riding Hood”, “Who Killed Who?”, “Tortoise Wins by a Hare”, “The Wise Quacking Duck”, “Der Fuehrer’s Face”, “Falling Hare”, “Dumb Hounded”, “The Aristo-Cat”, “Scrap Happy Daffy”, “Pigs in a Polka”, “Jack-Wabbit and the Beanstalk”, “Education for Death”, “Chicken Little”, “Reason and Emotion”, “Wackiki Wabbit”, “Porky Pig’s Feat”

bfi carl dreyer day of wrath dvd review 2950
10. Day of Wrath (Dreyer) (Denmark) 

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s first film after an eleven-year absence sees love regarded with corruption of the soul through religious persecution. This is material that in someone else’s hands might have read as rote or derivative. Its perspective is intimidating to parse through. My inability to get a grip on it guarantees its future value to me over the years. There’s an ambiguity to the proceedings as it suggests, through cross-cutting, that maybe Anne (Lisbeth Movin) does possess some kind of witchcraft (as in Ordet, higher forces or abilities are affirmed) as passed down by her mother. But it’s a separate issue; not placed in support of the religious persecution but seemingly vice versa, as if the power of suggestion initiates self-fulfilling prophecies. It complicates how we interpret the story, but not, critically, what happens within the story. In the end it doesn’t matter whether or not Anne has some unconscious power; the point is that that both possibilities would have led to the same place; Anne being targeted.

The pace is methodical and foreboding. Everyone moves with cautious intent. Anne is the odd one out (in many ways actually) intermittently trying to break out of the film’s rhythm with a hasty kind of half-prance. It’s a subtle and affecting way of showing how Anne has had the life sucked out of her before even having a chance to live, stripped down to devout duty. She comes to life as the film progresses, only to have it thrown back in her face. The softness of the birches contrasts the hardness of the austere interiors, with Lisbeth Movin’s face bridging the two by embodying both. As beautiful and alluring as the film is, it’s really Movin’s performance and general presence I connect with most in Day of Wrath. She has such a striking face, all archness and piercing eyes. Herlofs Marte (Anne Svierkier), a physical evocation of Anne’s mother, haunts the entire film after her fiery fate.

The Seventh Victim
9. The Seventh Victim (Robson) (US)
This was a film I liked enough the first time I saw it but it didn’t live up to what I was hoping it’d be. I felt it was marred down by extraneous characters, a flat romance, underdeveloped relationships/knowledge of past relationships, and a group of elderly Satanists that don’t feel threatening at all. This time, while some of those issues haven’t gone away, the message of the piece and what it turns out to be is downright audacious, casting only the kind of spell that Val Lewton’s RKO cycle can lay claim to. Mark Robson’s debut shows he can hold his own with Jacques Tourneur, having learned the ropes well from his editing work with him and Orson Welles.

The Seventh Victim plunges into the depths of melancholia, the inescapable pull of death. It’s a sort of horror film noir packaged in a detective story. Its philosophy, which Lewton admitted flat-out, is to embrace death. It’s a shocking statement, one that RKO only gets away with because the film wasn’t top brass enough for anyone to take notice. The Satanists are not the enemy. They are an empty placeholder, an unsuccessful attempt by Jacqueline (Jean Brooks) to find meaning within the darkness. They are similarly desperate, a mundane and hypocritically confused group. Jean Brooks, in an iconic role, dons a fur coat and jet black hair severely framing her face; protective shields against the world.

Kim Hunter, in her film debut, travels from the safe confines of echoing Latin and stained glass to the New York jungle. Her sisterly connection with Jacqueline is spoken of, never felt. Jacqueline is too far gone to the other side, their experiences too dissonant. There’s a real hopelessness to how little exists between them once they’re finally brought together, purposeful or not.

There’s a point midway where the story is plagued by unanswered questions and you think ‘what in the fresh hell is going on?!’. Like something out of the mind of David Lynch. On the surface it’s guided by Hunter’s search, but she and the film are actually guided by Lewton and Robson’s symbolic imagery; hanging nooses, locked rooms, and staircases. There’s even a pre-Psycho shower scene, but instead of murder, vital information is passed between women through curtains, shadows, and nakedness, lending to the lesbian undertones.

Jacqueline’s perspective takes over for the final twenty minutes, and it’s the film’s big takeaway. We realize Kim Hunter, the poet, and the husband have been a means to an end. Her famous walk through the streets, fleeing from her pursuer, is a walk of the mind. She resists but it’s futile. Her search for a light at the end of the tunnel is conveyed through the lighting, the unwanted bacchanal celebrations of a theater troupe her only undesirable out. And then there’s that profound exchange with Mimi (Elizabeth Russell), a dying specter who makes herself known at the very end. The scene stops me dead in my tracks. Mimi runs towards a last burst of life. Jacqueline limps resignedly towards death. They meet in the middle. The Seventh Victim may look like it’s about missing sisters and Satanists, but it’s not. To Die, Or Not To Die. That is the question.

The Hard Way 8
8
The Hard Way (Sherman) (US)
One of the best rags-to-riches showbiz claw-my-way-to-the-top yarns with older sis making sure little sis’s dreams of performing on the stage are realized. They rise up from an unhappy marriage, grey dowdy graduation dresses, and endless soot to contracts, furs and success.

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

And the two male counterparts, played by Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson, are just as engaging! Not something a lot of female-led films of 1943 can lay claim to. Paul (Morgan) sees through Helen and the two have a great dynamic as she tries to suppress feelings for someone who loathes yet admires her. Al (Carson) is an earnest and naive schlub whose pride and blinders prove too much. What I loved most about The Hard Way is the careful and complicated evolution between all four characters, with attention paid to who they are within themselves and in relation to each other through time as paths cross and double-cross. There’s a development in Act 2 that completely took me off guard. The direction and staging enhance our understandings of the character dynamics and includes visually stimulating and slightly surreal montage sequences.

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7. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Powell/Pressburger) (UK)
Are you starting to get a sense of how packed this list is?

It takes some time, at least I find, to get on the wavelength of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. It’s a treaty on what it means to be British, more specifically in wartime. Between that and its microscopic deconstruction of societal rituals it can be hard to engage with it at first. Then it gradually becomes more attachable, and long after it’s over it feels like a warm blanket (especially when Deborah Kerr is onscreen) that drapes itself over you, that effervescent Powell/Pressburger touch. It’s not entirely a comedy, a drama, or a war film. It’s all three with dashes of fantasy and dreamlike flourishes, most notably Kerr’s three character performance as the evolving youthful woman through the ages, going in and out of the lives of Clive and Theo through the decades. Re-watching this and Heaven Can Wait for this list, it’s interesting that, despite their similarities, the former spans seventy years of life removed from history, and the latter spans forty years of history through people. It’s less concerned with how others are during war, instead asking how the collective British ‘we’ functions as a people during conflict. It’s patriotic, but not blind, swerving in more ways than one from what British cinema tends to be. It’s lavish and heightened, and also dares to feature a sympathetic German as a central character during WWII.

Speaking of Anton Walbrook, he’s such a favorite; one of the sexiest and most arresting actors to watch. Will someone just have an Anton Walbrook marathon with me where we watch all of the films? His speech, which serves as the film’s nucleus, is one of the most encompassing speeches I’ve ever seen. All in one take, almost two decades of personal history summed up in the afterglow of loss. He slowly summons the attention of everyone in the room, and of us. Powell films the speech all in one take, with an invisibly slow push-in. By the end, we’ve lost time from falling into Walbrook’s eyes and words.

Powell is brilliant at staging scenes; blocking and shot choices contain voluminous treasures. The beer hall scene is a perfect example of his precision. Everything, from the use of Technicolor to the film’s intricate structure, courtesy of Pressburger, is precise and dignified without being stuffy. The way time passes, with the big game hunting montage and the browsing of an intimate photo album, are by turns witty and weepy.

Traditional British values are mourned and tribute is paid to the importance of ritual by putting them front and center. Notice how we go through all the preparation for the duel only not to see it. But it’s not a simplistic ‘Remember the way things used to be’ story. We learn and see what Clive can’t; that right is not might. Unlike Clive, the film acknowledges the necessity of change for better or worse. Clive is always one step behind himself, realizing his love for Edith too late. You can clearly see the moment he realizes. It’s heartbreaking, especially because Edith has also been torn, looking for a sign from him. The scenes with Clive, Edith and Theo in the hospital are my favorites. A growing camaraderie and kinship emerges between the three, a bond that comes to exist again but in a much different form, and never fully regained.

Leopard_Man
6. The Leopard Man (Tourneur) (US)

It’s the structure of The Leopard Man that leaps out at you, so ahead of its time, postmodern to the point where even today it’s still somewhat jarring to see a film led entirely by fate. Clo-Clo (Margo), oblivious harbinger of doom, brushes past the lives of eventual victims (thereby controlling the narrative) who we proceed to follow. The film has uncommon empathy for its victims, so much so that it dictates structure and content. These women are made human before death, given context and individual meaning.

The scenes of moonlit pursuit produce some of Jacques Tourneur’s strongest work. The most chilling moments? My vote goes to those immediately proceeding death when the pursuit stops and everything is still. The banging of the door and subsequent blood seeping underneath, the weight on the branch, the mirror closing and Clo-Clo’s desperate screams. Then there are Clo-Clo’s clickety-clacks, which we eventually recognize as the sound of death. The film neatly fits in with Tourneur’s fatalism. The fountain with its floating ball, guided and held up by something bigger than itself; not a higher being, but inescapable circumstance.

The killer’s identity is clear pretty early on, but it’s notably only when the first death occurs, the one committed by the frightened and threatened leopard, that Galbraith opens himself up to opportunity and urge. That “kink in the brain” addresses the makeup of a killer with animal instinct (as predator, not killer for sustenance or out of fear), connecting leopard and man thematically as opposed to the forced RKO title of ‘The Leopard Man’. The events may cause the central couple we repeatedly return to to ‘go soft’  but they cause Galbraith to go hard, giving in and letting go.

The Ox-Bow Incident

5. The Ox-Bow Incident (Wellman) (US)
It’s never a mystery whether the three men in the hands of a vengeful posse actually killed Larry Kinkaid. It’s clear they didn’t. The point is casting a judging eye at vigilantism, revenge for revenge sake, and the unapologetic out-for-blood mentality of an angry mob that swiftly ignores law. Relatively speaking, it’s an easy point to make. Just like the mobs themselves, films like this are never subtle. But The Ox-Bow Incident is a sort of marvel all the same. It’s pure emotive power is raw and kind of overwhelming by the end. The cumulative impact of injustice creeps up on you. The senselessness of it. And that Kinkaid isn’t even dead? Forget about it. It’s an unforgiving film; enraged and resentful.

It’s surely one of the most efficient films ever made. Clocking in at seventy-five minutes, screenwriters and filmmakers could still stand to learn a lot about storytelling from The Ox-Bow Incident. It manages to introduce and juggle about a dozen characters, all of them distinct, even those operating within caricature. They are one body broken apart into individual participants by the script. Gil and Art (Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan) are our entry point. They start out with their own hang-ups and are gradually drawn into the scenario that unfolds before them. Fonda’s Gil is a despondent man, his character coming through strongly despite this not being his story. Anthony Quinn’s presence injects some commentary on racism; Juan is entirely unsurprised by the events. He knows enough about people, and the way he’s likely been treated in life, to know they won’t get out of this one. And Dana Andrews. Poor terrified Dana Andrews, openly scared of dying and of leaving his wife and kids. The camera crunches him in more than anyone.

William Wellman had to fight a long time for this to get made, the compromise being that Darryl Zanuck threw it into the cheap pile. The resulting artificial sets mandate Wellman’s direction. He shifts focus away from the flat landscape and onto people and their faces. Ugly, hankering faces. People are constantly crammed on multiple planes within compositions. It’s so claustrophobic, the camera creating boundaries for people who have none. The mob puts the men on ‘trial’ while the camera in turn puts the mob on trial.

gangsallhere4
4. The Gang’s All Here
 (Berkeley) (US)

Busby Berkeley, taking on Technicolor, pushes the visionary of geometric extravaganzas as far as he, or anyone in the studio era, was apt to go. Color is used for grand elegiac expression, such as the “Paducah” under an encompassing lavender swirl that predates what An American in Paris would do with dancing and color eight years later. The camera, and the effects work, is periodically used to disorient, heightening our sense of movement and curiosity to a drug-inducing degree. Eugene Pallete’s disembodied head croaking out a song. A camera that arches and lilts over women holding sexualized bananas. The mere fact that a number called “The Polka Dot Polka” serves as a finale with women in purple outfits that look like futuristic workout gear holding neon-pink lit hula hoops.

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

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

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

Le Corbeau

3. Le Corbeau (Clouzot) (France)
A particularly unsparing look at humanity and our ability to turn on each other, Le Corbeau has been dirtied by history from the day it exited the womb. Made by the German funded Continental Films, Henri-Georges Clouzot was banned from making films until 1947 (lifted from its initial lifelong stamp). It was seen as Anti-French at the time it was made, it is now seen in a more Anti-Nazi light and more broadly an Anti-People light. The misanthropy is locked and loaded even though room is made for people to find each other and for the guilty to go punished.

Le Corbeau addresses the power, cowardice and impact of omnipresent anonymity in a small town that collapses like a house of cards as secrets are exposed within the community. Someone is watching. Everyone is being watched by one of their own. Dark humor is found in the recesses and hypocrisies of a town thrown unto upheaval. The power of the letters is constantly given weight by Clouzot. During a funeral procession, a letter is seen in the road by everyone who passes. Nobody will pick it up; they avoid it like the plague, acknowledging its hold on them through nervous neglect. There’s even a letter point-of-view shot as everyone steps around it, a child eventually picking it up. Then there’s the shot of the letter floating down from the rafters of the church. It’s a perfect, almost pitiful evocation of how beholden the townspeople are to their own secrets. The world Clouzot depicts feels so insular and gradually uncontrollable in its futility, most notably during a sequence in which the accused Marie flees from the crowd. Shots become exaggerated and canted, sound becomes chaotic and inescapable. It’s the film’s most blatant callback to German Expressionism.

Poison pen letters would suggest based on immediate assumptions, a female culprit. But it’s not, not really, and the women of Le Corbeau are an atypical group who flip-flop expectations at every turn. I love that Denise, presented as a supporting suspicious sexpot, is ultimately presented as good, even inheriting the role of romantic lead. Her physical ailment leaves her clamoring for sexual affirmation, a need to assert herself while simultaneously listless and feigning additional illness. The nurturing Laura, a woman who seems destined for better things, is at once duplicitous and a victim. The vengeful mother, executor of justice, takes matters into her own hands, and is the one to restore the natural order. How are we meant to feel about that final act? It’s up to us. The final shot sees her as a floating faceless figure, slowly disappearing down the narrow alleyway without a trace, leaving the crime scene in our dirty hands.

Shadow of a Doubt pic 3
2.
 Shadow of a Doubt (Hitchcock) (US)
Easily the film I’m most familiar with on this list, having seen it many times. More misanthropy! This time with Joseph Cotten’s Uncle Charlie. “Did you know the world is a foul sty?” Listening to him, he’s a kind of murderous Eeyore. The idealized duality, which Hitchcock emphasizes in many ways including how the two are introduced, that Charlie imagines between her and her uncle is completely shattered. It’s about two sides of the same coin, the innocuous (not just with Charlie’s small-town boredom but with how Joseph and his friend lightly but minutely discuss murder; it’s abstract and distant for them, a part of other people’s stories) going head-to-head with its opposite.

Shadow of a Doubt is also importantly about the nature of family, and what happens when the veil is lifted on someone you thought you knew; someone who you are bonded with by blood. Not only all that, but someone you put all your hopes and dreams into. This is where Hitchcock gets all the suspense; by understanding that the central tug-of-war is the discrepancy between who Charlie and the family think Uncle Charlie is and who he actually is. Visual and aural cues like the emerald ring, the waltz, and the newspaper are so the audience, we at the top of the information hierarchy, can brim with tension from start to finish.

Joseph Cotten is menacing as Uncle Charlie, seething with disgust all around. Cotten also lends a depressive edge to his performance, hinting at something unquenchable. There’s also a bit of sexual tension between the Charlies. Hitchcock and screenwriters Thornton Wilder (!), Sally Benson, and Alma Reville inject such salty eccentricity from top-to-bottom. This may be a thriller, but there’s so much trademark humor to be found (mostly character based) from Hume Cronyn offering Henry Travers hypothetically poisoned mushrooms, to the precocious Ann. Small-town life is gently poked at with a loving touch. The rug isn’t pulled out from under Charlie to throw her so-called woes in her face, but to make her appreciate the family she has right in front of her.

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1. The More the Merrier (Stevens) (US)
I’m just head over heels in love with this movie, which takes the then-serious housing shortage in Washington D.C during the war and makes a screwball comedy out of it! The More the Merrier marks George Stevens’s last foray into comedic territory. He left immediately after the film’s completion to join the U.S Army Signal Corps, and his experiences during the war would dramatically shift the kinds of films he’d be making thereafter. This is one of the sexiest romantic comedies of the studio era. In fact it’s damn near erotic. It hilariously scrutinizes how our trio in close quarters shares space from the sitcom-esque sequence with the hectic schedule, the crowded closeness of the premise, and Jean Arthur’s increasing loss of control in her own home.

Stevens often shoots from outside the apartment looking in, using the windows as frames within frames, closing the characters in with each other and using the same techniques to bring them harmoniously together whether they like it or not. This brings the audience into the equation, involving us in the intimacy between Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea. The three leads are magnificent, career-best work from all. Jean Arthur is smoldering through her character’s button-cute type-A way. Joel McCrea is impossibly sexy, the opposite of Arthur in his quiet flirtatiousness and at times childishness. Charles Coburn, in an Oscar-winning role, could have been a sentimental eccentric old coot, but the writing and performance make it so much more. The dynamics between the three are so organic and joyous to watch unfold, especially the way factions within emerge such as the antagonistic boys club versus their target Arthur.

And that eroticism I mentioned earlier between Arthur and McCrea? Oh, it’s there. Just look at the scene when he gives her the suitcase, his face close to hers, showing her all the compartments. Or the long take starring Body Language with the two strolling down the street. It doesn’t get sexier than this sequence folks. Like, I think I stopped breathing during it. It’s a dance between the two. He’s outright pawing at her, she’s being coy. What are they talking about? Is anyone even listening? I don’t even know how this all got past the censors, because once they sit on the steps he starting feeling her up, his hand obsessing over her face, neck, and shoulder. Mein Gott. Or that bedroom scene, with the camera bringing the two bedrooms together as they longingly lust after one another in their separate beds. The two actors have a special onscreen connection. In an early scene, the two dance in separate spaces with themselves, the camera linking them in their adorable awkwardness. Then in a later scene, the two sit across from each other at dinner with Coburn and Arthur’s fiancee. Sharing a private moment unbeknownst to the other two, they stare at each other moving their shoulders and body ever-so-slightly to the music. The sly cuteness of it all is too much.

But what about that ending? I’d love to hear what others think of it because it leaves me with a sad and peculiar taste. It uses the WWII movie trope of the quickie marriage and then settles the couple into a tired marriage with lots of Arthur wailing. That this is my favorite film of 1943, despite going off-center in its finish, goes a long way in conveying just how much I’m in love with this film.

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #74-84


Will be introducing a new add-on to my capsule reviews called It’s the Little Things. It’ll just be random standout moments/quotes/design elements/etc. that don’t fit into the fabric of the capsule, but that I find notable and worth remembering.

The Man in Grey

#74. The Man in Grey (1943, Arliss) (UK)
A deliciously nasty piece of work, setting the standard template for the Gainsborough melodrama, a subset of films wildly popular with British female audiences during WWII for their aggressively escapist lasciviousness. Trussed up trash if you will, a thing of glorious sinful abandon. Critically mauled and seen as cheap at the time of release, today the Gainsborough melodramas read as audaciousness in their censorship dodging escapades and wildly entertaining with their decorative cruelty. Let me be clear; a lot of the material here is far more than a Hollywood studio production could think of getting away with in 1943.

The Man in Grey made me realize something that I never fully articulated to myself, which is that I like my melodrama gnarled and perverse, and am generally less attracted to the strictly romantic kind where mostly decent people succumb to love and unlucky circumstance.

Period garb and the facade of distinction reveal an openly tawdry story of Clarissa (Phyllis Calvert) and Hesther (Margaret Lockwood) nestled comfortably in the Madonna/Whore binary, locked in destiny.  The past and the present are linked by a framing device of second chances and seemingly meaningless trinkets. Good and bad and fate intertwined. It’s a special kind of joy seeing James Mason and Margaret Lockwood get their devilish on. The film put Mason on the map as the titular man in grey who nails the roguish and despondent aristocrat. Margaret Lockwood is in her element as Hesther, the soiled bad girl from the bottom of the social ladder. What’s striking about Hesther is her evil deeds coming from an apparent acceptance as schemer. She knows who she is, and it’s a self-honesty she twists into kismet, additionally manifesting in moments she tries to protect others from herself, hence her warnings to Clarissa. Hesther’s intentions are clear to everyone but Clarissa, and just as Hesther’s conniving does her in, Clarissa’s unyielding trust and inherent goodness do her in. The Man in Grey is an intermingling of good/bad and shared destinies.

The film was cut down to 93 minutes for US censors, and it’s easy to see why. It’s sexually open, with lust permeating everything. Clarissa’s nobility is no match for Hesther and Lord Rohan’s transgressions; their lifestyle drives the tone. The final reel features a couple of shocking demises (in fashion and action, not in their happening), by turns cruel and brutal, yet opposite in their mode of swiftness.

**Be warned, a major character, a child named Toby, is played in blackface. Even for the time’s standards of racism it stands out as particularly excruciating.

It’s the Little Things: 
Stewart Granger’s introduction, as supposed road bandit, whose forthcoming nature ends in a kiss, is sexy times.

#75. “The Wise Quacking Duck” (1943, Clampett): ***/*****
#76. “The Aristo-Cat” (1943, Jones): ***1/2/*****
#77. “Jack-Wabbit and the Beanstalk” (1943, Freleng): */*****
#78. “Red Hot Riding Hood” (1943, Avery): ***1/2/*****
#79. “Who Killed Who?” (1943, Avery): ***1/2/*****
#80. “Pigs in a Polka” (1943, Freleng): ***1/2/*****

Cabin in the Sky

#81. Cabin in the Sky (1943, Minnelli) (USA)
Vincente Minnelli’s directorial debut reveals his theater background, and is unable to fully break free from the material’s stilted trappings, further inhibited by the musical’s focus on singing over dancing (but oh how quickly he would shake this). A moralistic religious fable, so naturally there’s only so much for me to takeaway. It’s no coincidence that the two 1943 productions with African American casts puts everyone in the then-more-accessible context of musical performer. Some of the character portrayals can be seen as reductive today, but the fact that much of the cast is treated as actual people (gasp!) with inner lives and struggles of their own is leaps and bounds over the uniformly grotesque stereotypes of the time (see above).

The first hour plays around with the living and spiritual realms sharing the same space. It’s pretty tedious stuff (but isn’t Edith Waters just the most comforting presence?), with dull songs and zero momentum keeping everything on an evenly low keel. But lo and behold, the sinful jubilee of the last half hour picks up proceedings considerably with dance and merriment, Edith Waters slinking it up and generally just being awesome, and Lena Horne stunning the pants of everybody.

It’s the Little Things:
The early shot in which the camera follows gossip and song as they simultaneously move backwards through the pews

Lumiere d'ete

#82. Lumière d’été  (1943, Grémillon) (France)
We begin in a glass covered hotel, make our way to an outmoded castle, and end down in the mines with those who inhabit them. My knowledge of French cinema during the Occupation is limited, but Lumière d’eté demonstrates the common practice of secluded or rural settings in films from Vichy France. What wasn’t common practice, and what assumedly got the film banned, is its biting and considerably direct class critique. The romantic entanglements are all predicated on the loaded past or disappointment. The aristocratic characters are almost delusional and stuck in a toxic pattern. Michèle (Madeleine Robinson), the object of everyone’s affection, is a pleasant bore, someone who has ideals and desires projected onto her. That lack of interest in the central figure from which everything pivots is somewhat crucial, but the clinging broken souls, mature lyricism, and trajectory of descent are what make Lumière d’été

It’s the Little Things:
– The drunken car trek through mountainous winding roads is one of the most effective of its kind; uncommonly ominous and doomed. Like a hearse unaware.
– That early mistaken kiss between Michèle and Julien.

Eternal Return

#83. L’Éternel retour (The Eternal Return) (1943, Delannoy)
Directed by Jean Delannoy, but every inch the Cocteau (he wrote it). A romantic fantasy set largely in a secluded castle, a cavernous place where privacy is elusive thanks to meddlesome moocher relatives and their sadistic dwarf son. Starts out strong but once the love potion makes its entrance, the consequences never fully form. Despite a few nice moments, the couple (played by Jean Marais and Madeleine Sologne) feels more individualized before they drink. Afterwards there’s a fuzzy vagueness that never justifies us caring for a love borne out of a bottle. But perhaps that’s the point; that they almost become one entity and don’t need to justify themselves to each other or us. They just sort of are. It’s a beautiful film, dreamlike and hazy, taking on mythic everything-that-has-happened-before-will-happen-again tragedy. Everything feels slightly outlandish or out of reach. The third act love triangle doesn’t stand up with what came before, and the separation of Nathalie and Patrice isn’t impactful enough to get that pull from the viewer.

It’s the Little Things:
The Aryan quality of Marais and Sologne has been noted, and it’s impossible to shake once it’s been pointed out.
That adorable dog MouLou!
The moment/shot when Nathalie follows behind Patrice as he is carried out of the bar (screenshot above). 

LaMainDuDiable7

#84. La Main du Diable (aka Carnival of Sinners) (1943, Tourneur)
Papa Maurice tells a Faustian story framed by yet another isolated setting (a hotel with many nosy patrons this time) in a Vichy France film. Our protagonist painter gets fame, respect, talent and Irène (Josseline Gaël). Irène, with her below-the-belt put-downs, is crassly caricatured. I liked the way the past is tied into the present by the hand and its owner. A linear barrage of stories and misfortunes passed down through the ages. History repeating itself. But before those last act goodies, this is a standard be-careful-what-you-wish for-story, too unformed on the whole to convey the irreparable price paid for selling one’s soul. 

Review: Grand Piano (2014, Mira)


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Originally posted on CriterionCast March 14th, 2014

Pressure cooker thrillers with a dash of high concept are often an exercise in narrative self-constraint which can ideally and conversely push the filmmaker(s) to think outside the box. Grand Piano falls into that category, carrying its preposterousness out with commitment and confidence while astutely making music the center of all things. Literalizing the pressures of a concert pianist to play perfectly and an untouchable tautness at seventy-five minutes keeps the film going even as it gradually deflates before our very eyes.

A grand piano once owned by the deceased mentor of genius pianist Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) ushers us into the story as it is hauled to the venue Tom will be performing at that night. After very publicly failing to complete a notoriously difficult piece of music five years before, Tom is reluctantly set to take the stage for the first time since. Racked with stage fright and generally irritable at the prospect of performing (the comeback was his starlet wife’s idea, not his), he nevertheless takes the stage only to be presented with something far worse than the prospect of artistic failure.

At the concert’s start, Tom sees that his sheet music is noted with threats in red marker which state he and his wife’s life are in danger if he plays a single wrong note during the concert. Tom eventually acquires an earpiece and talks to the sniper assailant (John Cusack) while being forced to flawlessly perform.

The strong first act set-up combines self-aware exposition dumping and the palpable anxiety radiating from Tom by making him, and us, feel like we are playing catch-up; like everything is happening a beat too fast. That sprinting quickness comes through as his transportation plans change last minute and he hurriedly gets changed in the limo while dealing with an aggressive phone interview. That first-act professional anxiety is amped up that much more once Tom realizes the kind of trouble he’s in.

The sweeping camera amplifies the distance between Tom and his audience (and assailant) by bridging the two. An exhilarating pace structured around music and a darting and fidgety Elijah Wood keeps Grand Piano eminently watchable. The template stimulates some inventiveness in sustaining real-time tension and is bolstered by elongated framing and shout-outs to giallo in its use of red and green. A welcome supporting turn by Alex Winter adds the bulgy-eyed lurking menace that John Cusack’s gravelly voice (I actually forgot it was him until two thirds of the way in) can only aurally represent.

Then the generic contrivances through the B-movie guise start to show themselves, and not even the film’s rushed swiftness can cover them up. In order to fill out the runtime and keep the conversation between Tom and his assailant going, the sniper attempts to psychologically attack the pianist using his professional failure, his marriage and his wife’s success. But they are empty attempts with no clout, and nonsensical in the notion that the antagonist needs Tom to be focused on his playing. Speaking of Emma’s (Karry Bishe) success, she ends up sitting in a theater box the whole film, her starlet status set up and left to fizzle. Two supporting characters are awkwardly established as future fodder. Even the mostly lovely camerawork is at times distracting in its digital artificiality, and a De Palma split screen homage feels played out on sight. All of this leads to a mano-a-mano showdown we’ve seen countless times before.

Grand Piano blends the lonely arduousness artists of the musical persuasion may feel and the isolated-in-an-unsuspecting-crowd constriction experienced by protagonists in high pressure films such as this. Screenwriter Damian Chazelle has a knack for depicting, and in this case, heightening, a musician’s strife, which looks to continue with his upcoming Sundance hit Whiplash. Its conventions and inability to rewardingly fill itself out knock it down considerably, but director Eugenio Mira established a real taut flair that always remains entertaining, even at its weakest.