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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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.

the-blob-1958-steve-mcqueen-girl-doctor
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) ***

Capsule Reviews (but mostly bullet points): Films Seen in 2014 #135-139


Have a batch of 1992 releases to catch up on, but for this post I’m rounding up my 2014 viewings and plopping them into one post. They get progressively more bullet point-heavy. I just got back from a trip and I’m moving soon so I’d like to haphazardly get these (and my next post) in so I can concentrate on the upcoming transition and finishing up 1992. When I get back from L.A next week, my next capsule review post will be those 1992 films (and bonus Mauvais Sang and Step Brothers). By the way, I’m closing out 1992 soon, a pretty big deal considering I began my exploration of the year all the way back in mid-May. I have two more films to revisit (Porco Rosso and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me) and three more first time viewings (Malcolm X, In the Soup and Life, and Nothing More)

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135. Snowpiercer (2014, Bong) 
Full Reviewhttps://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2014/07/15/review-snowpiercer-2014-bong/

Child's pose

#136. Child’s Pose (2014, Netzer)
The central conceit of Child’s Pose is a MacGuffin to show irrevocably disintegrating bond between an overbearing, to put it mildly, mother and a dismissive son. The death of an adolescent (who the son accidentally ran over, likely due to drunk driving) is propped up for a different kind of mourning. Netzer’s formal ‘verite’ aping proves both a distraction and a disservice. The most compelling scenes are the ones that go on longest because the camera calms itself, allowing the rhythms of the actors to take over. A scene between Cornelia (Luminița Gheorghiu) and Carmen (Ilinca Goia) is the standout.

Luminița Gheorghiu is the main reason to watch this. Starting from Cornelia’s perspective, we are gradually clued in to just how deluded and suffocating she is in regards to her son. She is armored with fur coats, obliviousness and an unerring penchant for morally bankrupt negotiations and takeovers. Gheorghiu plays her as at once ruthless and pitiable.

But it’s a dead end of a film, both in its inability to key into its story and because for all the acute observances of the breaking point between mother and son, its ending suggests that the son’s growth should matter to us when it no way does.

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#137. Stranger by the Lake (2014, Guiraudie)
“We can’t stop living”
(Major spoilers ahead)
It’s a place of routine, where parking creates the same makeshift shapes and bodies hang unabashed and inviting. But the saturated regularity of surface nakedness belies murderous secrets and hidden longings. This is an insular world where death does not deter the community. Stranger by the Lake pits the assumed initial set-up of the dangers of anonymous hookups against the removal of anonymity and the ambiguity of desire trumping and further instigating a discard of safety and logic.

Franck is a romantic. He wants love so badly and he’s looking in the opposite place for it. He wants to be kissed when he cums. He wants a relationship. This is a reversal on the Gothic-influenced romance thriller, where romance segues into life threatening discoveries. Here, the discovery comes first, the notion of romance after. The tension comes from Franck’s knowledge (and that Michel doesn’t know of it) and continued self-endangerment. There’s something very lonely about Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), and thus about Stranger by the Lake in general. Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), the heart of the film and a sideline commentator, is also lonely, but looking for something more abstract.

The film takes place 100% at the lake. There is no score. It feels almost like a sexually rampant purgatory of sorts. There are two characters often in frame, the camera shooting head-on, direct. There have been so many Hitchcock comparisons, but the only reminder I felt were the voyeuristic elements. The final moments are of the type that would normally irk me. As of the past few years, I’ve overdosed on the ambiguous ending trope of smaller films. But this works for two reasons. First, because of how hauntingly black the shot is, only shoulder blades visible. Second, that Franck is calling out Michel’s name. After all this, after the climactic blood-letting and pursuit to kill, Franck still ends the film, even though he’s also now the pursued in the worst of ways, as the pursuer.

It’s the Little Things:
– Love that long take of Michel (Christophe Paou) coming out of water, at first a killer, then he begins to put on his sneakers and puts himself back together as someone we, and Franck, recognize.
Also fond of the odd bits of humor.

Planet of the Apes

#138. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014, Reeves)
Handsomely mounted by Matt Reeves with more care and tautness than I would ever expect, even after the relative surprise of Rise. It feels so redundant to talk about the effects work and performance capture, but it’s remarkable. Blue Eyes gives a little pause, but Caesar, Maurice, and especially Koba are so tangible that I’m still wrapping my head around the technical accomplishment.
– I cried. A lot. What can I say; I care about Caesar.
– The apes are our focal perspective point, the humans ushered in later like the intruders they are. A mainstream audience is forced to rely on simple gestures and visual storytelling for much of its first act; an uncommon request of a major summer release.
– But every story beat is painfully predictable and the mood is a representative of self-serious storytelling  overflowing with competence and entirely without surprises.
– It’s very much a middle film, really showing a necessary character transition and hard life lessons for Caesar.
– Battle scenes are a slog, carrying little momentum despite inspired moments like the 360 tank shot and long take of Jason Clarke on the run trying to evade apes
– Gary Oldman is forced into the story at every turn, a weak parallel for the Caesar/Koba conflict.
– Giving people backstories in post-apocalyptic settings have become the laziest because guess what? 100% chance their baggage is that they lost someone.
– Such strong production design all around. Loved looking at the scale of San Francisco microcosm. An antidote to
– Blunt and hits on things that are hot button right now.
– This would be a 5-star film if “Shock the Monkey” had played either during the end credits or instead of “The Weight” ”
– Jason Clarke an inspired casting choice. He has little to do but boy does he do even that well. Palpable sense of awe and I was invested in him for the humanity he projects as opposed to character specifics.
– Rote narrative that nevertheless grabbed me. But when the stakes came to matter as far as action goes, it became unengaging.
– Found other things to grab onto. Particularly the hope that a misunderstanding between Caesar and Clarke be dissipated, and that they have a mutual respect and understanding (so yes, I felt that heads touching shot like mad).

Jenko (TATUM) and Zook (WYATT RUSSELL) out on the field

#139. 22 Jump Street (2014, Lord & Miller) 
Just because you’re aware that your sequel is bloated, doesn’t mean you get ‘Cate Blanchett’, as Jenko would put it, to be bloated. Look, there’s a lot of hilarious stuff here; I laughed a lot. Lord and Miller, with their animation background, have a particular strength in swerving towards visual jokes. Hill and Tatum are still great together. Tatum’s Jenko is the character we thought we never needed but now can’t imagine life without. But a lot of 22 Jump Street runs in place. Not in a fashion where plot can be zanily discarded, but leaning on it without making narrative work in its favor.
– Wanted Jenko and Zuke to stay together.
– Feels like Jonah Hill was not edited down enough. He gets some of the film’s biggest laughs (Cyn-thi-a) but he’s playing less of a character here; it’s more a collection of scenes where Hill just runs with it. Which is fine as far as working methods go because it’s how Hill gets the job done (more than enough is better than not enough), but it’s only successful when post-production trims the material down to its essentials. The initial meetup with Tom Sizemore is a perfect example. It goes on forever.
– Hill and love interest; boo.
– Third act much improved over predecessor. In fact, the spring break section is my favorite, with that physical battle between Gillian Bell and Hill being the film’s highlight (I smell an MTV movie award!).
– There’s a difference between material strikes indifferently and actively unfunny material and unfortunately for every two genuinely funny moments, there’s something not funny soon afterwards. The entire Dave Franco/Rob Riggle scene did not sit well with me at all.
– Not as invested in Schmidt and Jenko as a pair this time.
– Amber Stevens major step down from Brie Larson
– Meet Cute. Bad trip. Schmidt’s Slam Poetry
– Major missed opportunity; Jenko in a Human Sexuality class. So much more could have been done with that.
– Meta jokes worked better as a whole than I expected even if they were relied upon far too heavily
– Probably the big detractor is that there are, much like Dawn, no surprises. With both I don’t talk about plot or some notion of twists or what have you. I talk about ways of approaching and executing the material. I love the way 21 plays with high school culture, its smart and disarming way of zigging when you think it’ll zag. But there’s none of this here.
– Wyatt Russell in more films please. Also saw him in this year’s Cold in July.

Review: Snowpiercer (2014, Bong)


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Contains spoilers

Bong Joon-ho, and only Bong Joon-ho, would have a film that features its protagonist tripping on a fish, in slow-motion no less, during an axes-out action scene. Bong, and only Bong, would make a film that allows the wildly divergent performances of grim revolutionary Chris Evans and villain-out-of-a-Roald Dahl book Tilda Swinton to successfully play off each other in the same space. And how many filmmakers would make a blockbuster that has the audaciousness to suggest, especially since the film itself thrives off a directly parallel narrative structure of rigidity, that structural disbandment isn’t enough; that wiping the slate clean and starting from scratch may be the best solution to humanity’s suffering?

For those of you just getting on the Bong Joon-ho train; welcome. It’s a topsy-turvy world here, where this filmmaker’s greatest strength, constructing a tonal playground within genre films, would be anyone else’s weakness. His is a consistent inconsistency if you will. A strangely cock-eyed and playful sense of sick slapstick humor, a kind found in other Korean films but never to this degree or application. I always sit there marveling “how does this work?” Go back to the mourning scene in The Host or the chase sequences in Memories of Murder; the pitch black hilarity of bodies bumbling awkwardness presents itself in intensely serious or emotionally wrought moments. Despite there being much to love in Snowpiercer’s deployment of action, Bong relies too heavily on shaky-cam amidst broader conceptual inventiveness, trying to create chaos in the claustrophobic space rather than playing into his penchant for the Clumsy Body Ballet. It’s the only somewhat significant disappointment with the film I can claim, largely made up for by Bong’s outside-the-box approach to depicting decimation and physical conflicts.

The film’s structure and the train are uniquely one and the same. As we rise up the ranks the train design intricately details quarantined worlds of increasing color, imagination, and fanned out purpose. The gaps of the world gradually fill in for us and the characters. Narrative is literally pushed forward.

We’re in the middle of an endlessly downbeat trend of self-serious blockbuster fare. Post-apocalypse looks and sounds the same, house style reigns supreme (thanks Marvel). Studios are petrified of projecting anything other than gravity. ‘Humor’ is either absent, forcibly injected via side characters, or filtered through the unappealing character trait ‘arrogance’. By contrast, the world of Snowpiercer is like a vital antidote, inspired by the best bits of Terry Gilliam and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (pre-whimsy overdose days) among others. Worlds within worlds of immaculate and invigorating production design. These spaces are used for all kinds of mayhem, as building blocks for creative and varied action, even down to the way the train’s movement itself, not just individual car settings, contributes to form and story on at least two separate occasions (night goggles and going around the bend).

Snowpiercer is also self-aware, having its first act look, and feel, like current filmic dystopia. World building mostly comes through naturally in dialogue or constant corners. One gets the feeling that repeat viewings will yield many rewards, always picking up something new along the detail-oriented way.

Even on a first viewing, there are so many tangible details that work their way into story, bringing the characters experiences, both daily and uncommon, to life. The restricted perspective of the proles, Happy New Year!, the Candy Land classrooms and propaganda, the contrast and mystery we feel as the woman in yellow visits the stables, missing limbs, are bullets extinct?, protein bars, the telling and unexpected relative indifference portrayed in the sushi scene, the last cigarette on Earth, the creation and use of cautionary tales, train and time being inextricable, train babies. The list goes on and on and on.

Curtis (Chris Evans) as the ‘hero’ is deconstructed and turned on its head in a way that recalls this year’s The LEGO Movie (in that case the ‘chosen one’). Curtis is kept a very narrow character; all these folks in the lower cars are defined by their plan and their goals. When we finally learn more about him, it cripples the rendering of this ‘reluctant hero’. His backstory (so horrifying it crosses over to being, again, weirdly funny) suggests a possible double feature with Gremlins for their out-of-nowhere Whoa, Shit Just Went Dark monologues. This is also the moment when A. focus and motivation shifts towards Song Kang-ho’s former prisoner Namgoong Minsu and B. Curtis becomes tempted by Wilford (Ed Harris). Was it worth losing so many people just to get to the front of the train? Is revolution more costly than productive? Is the logic of the system just the bitter truth of their circumstances, a necessary order amidst otherwise chaos? Or is Namgoong Minsu’s idea of obliteration, and beginning again, the way to go? Snowpiercer seems to takes up with the latter although it’s, again, more shaded than that, allowing Curtis his final act of personal redemption and an open-ended ending that can be seen as optimistic or pessimistic depending on how you look at it (Bong seems to feel optimistic, me a bit of both).

Snowpiercer’s messy absurdities coincide with the tightness of the world and structure, putting Bong’s commitment front and center. It’s a ludicrous premise that he wholly commits to, a commitment that makes acceptability of messy overtness. His offbeat and unpredictable extravaganzas can yield falters, but it’s the small trade-off for the twisted exuberance Bong spins off at us any given moment. Indeed, for all this praise, I’d possibly place Snowpiercer at the bottom of his work so far, which should say something about just how enamored of this man I am.  If you lift up its unsubtle outer shell, it’s a story with surprisingly dense ideas, and perhaps within is more unsubtlety, and within that…. well you get what I mean.

It’s the Little Things:
– I’ve said it before, but I’d be hard-pressed to find a filmmaker working today that I admire or revere more. I’m a Bong completest (not hard with only 5 films) and have read the only book written on his work. His films, without fail, make me feel invigorated and uncommonly (even for me) engaged with cinema (and within that, genre film) as a medium. I spent most of Snowpiercer either beaming at the screen, laughing at the screen, or in awe of the screen.
– I don’t think Gilliam (John Hurt) was in cahoots with Wilford. Just my take.
– The only time, that I can see, the camera move from right to left is when Curtis makes a big move toward Mason.
– So Wilford is basically kind of like a variation of Cristoff from The Truman Show. Except making eggs in a bathrobe casual.
– Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung starring in a badass father-daughter franchise. Someone make this happen.
Snowpiercer is so quotable, the idea of quotable films are sort of a rarity today. Mean Girls. What the fuck else is there? “I learned babies taste best”, “Be a shoe”, etc.
– I haven’t even talked about the performances. Song Kang-ho (who has more star presence than everyone and their families) forever and ever and ever and ever; obviously. He and Joaquin Phoenix are my two favorite living actors. And now I just want Tilda Swinton and Bong to collaborate again because the two are so in sync re: their twisted sensibilities that it’s a match made in heaven.
– So I don’t know exactly what Weinstein’s cuts were going to be, but I have a feeling it would have been a lot of the humor beats. Which is so sad because I feel like the culture at large is so allergic to risks in tone and having multiple planes of atmosphere. I realize there’s a lot of current pop culture bashing in this review, but I honestly think Snowpiercer is indicative of something that is lacking in big budget fare today.

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #115-119


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#115. Universal Soldier (1992, Emmerich) (US)

Any film with opening credits that superimpose the names of its two action stars over said action stars being zipped up in body bags has got my vote. There may have been a more streamlined way of saying that, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure it out.

Diverting in its liveliness and earnestly serious absurdities. Having Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren play machines effectively lifts the acting duties off their strapping shoulders, allowing the conceit to play into their limitations. But Van Damme has, make no mistake, seriously intuitive comic timing. He’s like a sad and unassuming lost child here, and it is peachy keen delightful to witness. I can honestly say that Van Damme is the only one from the streak of hyper-muscular action stars to come out of the late 80’s to early 90’s that I find myself crushing on. Dude’s hot.

Cat-and-mouse pattern; Lundgren catches up to Van Damme, and a small business gets obliterated in the ensuing mayhem leaving the country folk perplexed, but not without a zinger or two. Rinse, repeat; it gets tiresome. Universal Soldier outstays its welcome with that formula, but restores itself to badassery with a rousing rain-soaked finale full of methodically precise and concentrated bludgeons.

This was Roland Emmerich’s first major project, replacing director Andrew Davis. He uses the widescreen aspect ratio like he’s known it his whole life. The icy blues of the controlled laboratory are contrasted with the real world reds and yellows of the desert environment. Ally Walker’s wired yet casual chain-smoking reporter is exhausting. She throws herself into the role as best she can, but that admirable commitment only makes Veronica more difficult to bear.

What better way to end a capsule review than to plug the fact that there’s a healthy helping of Van Damme’s derriere? You can thank me later.

It’s the Little Things:
-Soooo, based on the buzz, it looks like I should see Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, huh?

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#116. The Yards (2000, Gray)
(US)
So I liked this so much more than Little Odessa. A return to the dual resurgence of the familial and the criminal, and within that the return of a son to those he left behind. It’s about loyalties, the past informing the present; you know the drill. The kind of intimate and heavy mid-tier crime drama that would be in fashion for 70’s American cinema but in 2000 grabbed nobody’s attention. And it’s a shame, because what a piece of work.

Everything carries a palpable weight to it, the precision of story and performance locking it all into place, making everything matter. Everyone speaks in hushed tones, the interpersonal and criminal given the same importance, one and the same. The first act, a welcome home party for the recently paroled Leo (Mark Wahlberg) should be taught in screenwriting classes. Everything is brilliantly set up with all the major characters, outside of the absent but integral Frank (James Caan), accounted for.

My favorite performances from Mark Wahlberg (Boogie Nights, I Heart Huckabees, and now The Yards) showcase his brand of underutilized vulnerability. His Leo is observant and hesitant, one foot always in or out the door. Joaquin Phoenix makes the potentially unsympathetic Willie not only sympathetic, but kind of heartbreaking. His arc is felt every step the downhill way. Phoenix makes us feel it all slip away from him, with the inevitability of his foibles in tow, as if in slow-motion.

Can we talk about the late great Harris Savides for a second? Because this is exquisitely photographed, shot in golden musk. The scenario at hand is literally made to weigh down on these people in shadows. A sequence that sticks out for its divergence from the rest of the film is the big picture tussle between Leo and Willie midway through. Inspired by Rocco and his Brothers, we step back, as if a neighbor watching it all unfold from across the street. We’re normally so close to these characters, but in this moment we’re allowed to take in the physicality of this fight, messy and whole. All-in masculine energy.

It’s the Little Things:
This is the most attracted I’ve ever been to Charlize Theron. And that’s saying something.

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#117. Cold in July (2014, Mickle) (US)

Set up as a ‘meek’ (read: average) man-out-of-his-depth period slice of Americana crime horror. Sprints through a feature length of story in 30 minutes, daring us to ask ‘where do we go from here?’ The first 30 feels very much like a Cape Fear kind of story. Stalking, lurking revenge, and the ever-threatened home. And then suddenly it seems like Cold in July is gearing up for its finale. So again; where is all this going? Well, somewhere quite different from the beginning.

We first see Michael C. Hall’s (who I’m so so so glad to see in something not called “Dexter”) Richard sweatily defending his home from a burglar, and with an itchy trigger finger to boot. By the end he’s walking into a building with intent to kill, turned vigilante. I don’t want to say anything more, because one of the joys of Cold in July is moseying along with its directional shifts. Suffice it to say, Richard ends up in the literal back seat of what was at one point his story, hijacked by the more prominent and potent concerns of Sam Shepard’s Russel.

I love the way these three men (the other being swaggering Don Johnson) are cobbled together in an unlikely, weirdly lovable partnership, and a difficult situation. Even though the vigilantism supports Hall’s new-found manly energy, sustained by feeding off the presence of Shepard and Johnson, as solution to all (something that needed to be fixed apparently), in a supposition too old hat to hit.

The oversimplified dialogue in its climactic scene, and the way it plays, is genuinely moving, pushing against the destination of processed violence (though Jim Mickle always finds creative ways to keep the final act creative and edgy, even in its more overly drawn-out moments). Any sluggishness or dead end syndrome is offset by Mickle’s bravura behind the camera, and the varied trifecta of lead performances, most impressively Sam Shepard and his perpetually cocked head.

It’s the Little Things:
– I’ll sign a petition if it means Vinessa Shaw gets to stop playing thankless roles. As per usual, the wife is just sort of there. And then not.

A Heart in Winter
#118. A Heart in Winter (Un coeur en hiver)
(1992, Sautet) (France)
Both 1992 French films with ‘Winter’ in the title (the other being Rohmer’s A Tale of Winter which I’ll cover in my next post) depict love triangles with a twist. Effectively deployed one-time-only voiceover narration (something that tends not to work) at the start informs us that Stéphane (Daniel Auteuil) defines himself by his boss Maxime’s (André Dussollier) daily grind. It’s factual and routine. Maxime considers Stéphane a close friend, but the definition isn’t mutual. It’s not anything Maxime has done. Stéphane just doesn’t consider anyone his friend. He cannot, or will not, form self-defined personal connections with others even though he clearly has a rapport of some kind with several. Is he denying himself investment as a protective shield, or is he just missing warmth and the ability to truly connect?

Whichever it is, it has lent Stéphane a permanent air of superiority, above such trivialities as human connection or even having opinions in philosophical or political conversation. He goes about intellectually seducing Maxime’s new girlfriend, violinist Camille (Emmanuelle Béart), just because, or maybe because he’s unwilling to admit he’s drawn to her. So you have a very familiar illicit scenario but with an unusual player at its center, skewing all expected developments. This is first and foremost a character study about Stéphane and his reliable inability to change. He’s cruel in how far he takes his anthropological curiosities. He shows more of an intimacy with the inanimate violins he lovingly repairs.

Music is at the center, Ravel’s specifically, and several scenes of Camille playing show her intimacy with the violin (which is the shared bridge between the two) as she carries out its lyrical potential, a potential only possible because Stéphane has fixed the instrument for her. Béart, in what has got to be the only time she ever has or will have to be on the other side of an unrequited love, is magnificent, understandably tormented and confused, always achingly human. A complex film that goes into the answerable qualities and inadequacies of ourselves.

Peter's Friends
#119. Peter’s Friends (1992, Branagh) (UK)

Enjoyable even though it’s aggressively uneven and rote. Stephen Fry is always such an unbridled joy to watch. But we all knew this already. His Peter wears his heart on his sleeve as a distraction for his motivated guardedness. He watches as a happy reunion turns ends up holding critical moments for each former college buddy. Some are able to turn the curve, some, well, TBA. Very hopeful, in ways largely unearned (although I really liked the Hugh Laurie/Imelda Staunton story who sell an unrealistic marital shift wholesale). Carol (co-writer Rita Rudner) and Brian (Tony Slattery), significant others of Andrew (Branagh) and Sarah (Alphonsia Emmanuel), stretch broadness to the limits. Though Carol is allowed a nice scene with Maggie (Emma Thompson), the film can’t wait to dispatch of them, leaving us with the core group of six. Most of Peter’s Friends falls somewhere between a sitcom and bittersweet dramedy, not particularly succeeding in either. Branagh is too go-to on the long takes; sometimes it works, other times it’s lazy.

Emma Thompson’s character disappointingly undergoes the Ally Sheedy Treatment, in that she ceases to be a character once she’s had her makeover.

Review: Under the Skin (2014, Glazer)


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I’m going to say this right now; I know it’s early in the year and I’ve hardly seen anything, but if I see another 2014 I love more than this it’ll be a great year. The covert and beguiling Under the Skin rattled me to my core.

Image-centric storytelling, with roots in experimental cinema, that distances itself from mankind. Birth to death, human as alien, alien as human. Firmly divided into two parts, routine and the failing quest for basic human pleasures, with the key transitional scene being Laura’s (nobody has any names, including Laura, but she’s billed as such so it’s just easier for me to follow suit) (Scarlett Johansson) encounter with a man with neurofibromatosis. Before that, she goes about her business, luring and leading men into an abstract and oily black digestive space. There’s no connection between her and her body, her victims, or feelings. But gradually the loneliness starts to sink in, and with it the isolation that humans may experience. She begins to seek out basic human pleasures like eating, sex, and companionship, inquisitive and nervous like a child. She knows she needs something, but is unsure how to go about it.

When Under the Skin ended, I felt like I’d been scooped out from the inside. It’s one of the saddest and loneliest films I’ve ever seen. Scarlett Johansson is mainly a presence for the first half, removed and captivating. And then in the second half she is heartbreaking; confused, yearning and unfulfilled. The final minutes, in which she is pursued by a man in the musky never-ending forest, is so palpable; you can feel her fear. Predator to prey. The second she desires the human instinct she loses so much agency. She becomes vulnerable and susceptible, her lair further and further away, unable to reconcile that yearning. We sense the irreparable loss of that center, her time dwindling. My boyfriend found something peaceful about the one-with-the-snow ending, but I didn’t. I just can’t; it’s not in my nature.

The formalism contributes to a new withdrawn perspective of ourselves, as something Other and incomprehensible. The thick Scottish accents further that distance, as does Mica Levy’s slinky and exotic high-pitched string score, and the sound design where much is compressed and blanketed over. Take for instance, as an example of said withdrawn perspective, the way Glazer shoots the scene on the beach, in which attempted rescue causes a chain reaction of familial death, a wailing abandoned baby as sole survivor. Laura, and thus we, take all of it in at once and for what it is (death) with unfeeling coldness. The discrepancy between what is happening, and how we see it, is very disturbing. And then Laura murders a man with a rock, and it’s the opposite of how murder is usually depicted in film. There is no close-up, no sound effect, and no clear view because Laura is crouching with her back to us. The impact of the scene is that there is no impact, and that lack of impact in turn translates to its own unique impact for the audience.

The film does not pass judgment on Laura. As she observes us, we observe her, and ourselves through her. Another layer to this is gradually added when Laura begins to observe herself, in a successive set of mirror scenes as she considers her new form. This observation becomes out-of-body in the end. No mirror is needed in her last moments. There’s certainly an angle on femininity, female sexual power, what it means to be a woman, and examining the male gaze, but I can’t parse through what I take from that with one viewing.

Generally, I think more filmmakers and producers need to put their trust in the communicative power of the image (and in viewers), especially since it’s what the medium inherently is to begin with. Under the Skin hypnotically uses impressionistic imagery and Scarlett Johannson’s face as narrative (there is very little dialogue overall) for a final product about existential isolation and irreconcilable cognizance that I still haven’t been able to shake two weeks later.

It’s the Little Things:
– Speaking of the power of the image, I couldn’t help but think of “Hannibal” which is putting more stock in abstract strokes of impressionism in its cinematography, editing, and score than most films I see.
– The section of Levi’s score used during the attempted sex scene is astonishing stuff. Astonishing.
– The final scene in the forest. I don’t even know what to say about it except that I cried but in a way that evoked rare kinds of feeling in me (not in the volume of tears as there weren’t many, but in the profundity and sadness of it).
– The shot where Laura scoots back to the wall in the forest’s rest area hut
– The digestion scene disturbed the hell out of me and made me jump a bit. Ever wonder what a Suck-O-Matic for people would look like?
– So I was well aware of the hidden camera methods of working that make up a lot of Johansson’s van-cruising interactions. And I kind of wish I hadn’t as it’s impossible not to be distracted by it once you know it. The unnatural naturalness of them are given a context I wish I didn’t have.

Review: Her (2013, Jonze)


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(Some spoilers ahead)
Her comes at you with open arms and an open heart. It is ready and eager to engage your mind and soul. That openness, an inclusive openness, is a lot of what I loved Her. It allows the story to interact with the audience on an uncommon level. We see our own relationship with technology up onscreen, amplified by an idealistic near future with its colorful and endlessly soothing aesthetic and its recognizable tweaks to everyday life. But we, even more importantly, see our relationships with people up on the screen, and the familiar but always earth-shattering patterns in which people grow in and out of each other.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) embarks on uncharted territory by getting involved with his operating system. That newness of the unknown is used on a broader level to get at what a seminal new relationship can feel like. That so-we’re-really-going-to-do-this kind of excitement. On the other side of the hill, when Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) drops a bomb on Theodore, it’s of a bewildering extreme, also representing that is-this-really-happening disbelief when everything crumbles.

It’s so important, perhaps more important than anything to me regarding Her, that Samantha is her own being. At times it comes close to getting into tired man-jilted-by-woman territory, but the film and Samantha catch certain moments when Theodore is too entrenched in his own feelings to see hers. We see it, she sees it. That he gets called out on it is critical. In one way, even if this wasn’t intentional, it’s sort of about a man realizing that women exist outside of their own orbit (shocking I know!). As sad as the film can be and as attached we get to the central relationship, I was also so pleased to see Samantha venture into the unknown, to test her own limits and find her own purpose.

As remarkable as Joaquin Phoenix is here (which it should go without saying at this point) with Theodore’s permanent halfway-out-of-his-shell demeanor, it’s Scarlett Johansson I was most struck by. Her breakneck growth, enthusiasm, inquisitive nature; trying to grasp at human emotion and where she fits within and outside of that spectrum. Her feisty shrug-like manner and cautious tip-toeing inquiries. She even makes us feel a sense of the intangible space she occupies. It’s kind of insane.

I also fell in love with the friendship between Theodore and Amy (Amy Adams). They have the comfort, ease and support that long-term friendships carry. They console, they advise, they don’t judge. Amy isn’t just put in the film so Theodore can have someone to talk about his struggles. He’s there so she can talk about hers. So at the end when it all seems pretty hopeless what with the realities of change and failed sustainable connections, Theodore goes to Amy for comfort. And it’s beautiful because there’s a faith in peoples ability to be there for each other. To have that shoulder to lean on. Again, critically, it’s mutual. She has lost someone too. They comfort each other. Human connection remains intact without dismissing the positive sides of unseeable kinds of connection. Regardless of the fallout, nothing about Theodore and Samantha is depicted with anything approaching skepticism.

Her reminds me a lot of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (but far more optimistic), not just because of the lo-fi sci-fi element but for the encompassing way it tackles the experience of loving and living and losing that at times approaches profundity. The acknowledgment that bad comes with good and it’s often all worth it even if it can seem like it’s not. There is something of the hopeless romantic in Her; that love-on-a-pedestal way of looking at life, where emotional vulnerability is both risky and worthy.

I always pick up on a melancholy air in Spike Jonze’s work. Yes there’s that optimism, but it’s more of a tone I speak of. I cannot for the life of me intellectualize it but it’s there, to the point where I haven’t worked up the nerve to revisit Where the Wild Things Are since theaters. And I’m someone who tends to run towards melancholic things, not away from them!

Jonze’s first screenplay is a wonderful achievement, exploring the intricacies of love but also taking slightly surreal side trips into the kinds of bizarre scenarios the future may hold, which often involve middlemen and ways we become further isolated from each other. If I have one complaint, it’s that it periodically feels like the film indulges Theodore too much, in a way that can make him seem kind of childlike.

Nevertheless, Her is a lovingly crafted, deeply intimate piece of work that has struck a nerve with many, myself included, and rightly so.