Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #110-114


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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”

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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
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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #112-117


Though I’ve also seen Behind the Candelabra, The Boat That Rocked, Point Break and Blood but I’m going to shift those into this upcoming week’s entry.

The Easiest Way
#112. The Easiest Way (1931, Conway)

My quest to see pretty much every Pre-Code continues. This viewing was also inspired by a resurgence of love for Robert Montgomery. I found myself falling for him many years ago, back when I first started watching classic films. It subsided for years until I saw him in When Ladies Meet this year. It all came flowing back. The dapper obliviousness. The drunken cavorting. The boyish charm.

The Easiest Way disappointed me quite a bit, though an ambitiously mobile camera and a couple of outdoors scenes lend a little to grasp on from a formal point of view. The story didn’t bring the progressive aspects of women claiming their own desires, even under the guise of a compromised message film. Instead, we see Constance Bennett exhibiting inertia as subdued dignity. Her lack of character kills the film in its tracks. Many people love Bennett; stunner though she is, color me unimpressed with her acting abilities (at least here). Watching a non-entity of a character make poor choices and become a pity-case for Depression-era women about what not to do in the face of easy opportunity isn’t very fun. Furthermore, Robert Montgomery gets a pitiful fifteen minutes of screen time. Slightly making up for this is his perfect entrance.

Anita Page as Bennett’s sister, and Clark Gable in his first sizable role as her husband, are a parallel instructional couple of how to live life as a woman in the 30’s. Honestly and dutifully of course!

There are a few notables here. Though the final scene plays into my inherent issues with the film, it strikes an effectively complex and bittersweet cord. Marjorie Rambeau has a palpable desperate quality to her speeches which also mark the most astute and empowering material in the film.

Side Effects
#113. Side Effects (2013, Soderbergh)

Much more satisfying than the slim pickin’ offerings of Haywire, Side Effects is another yet another Steven Soderbergh genre exercise, this time working within a third generation Hitchockian springboard. It’s a meticulous Jenga tower of a pharmaceutical potboiler fronted by Scott Z. Burns’ precision and Soderbergh’s reliably yellow-hued stasis. It’s a satisfying old-fashioned romp that plays around with manipulation through perspective.

Its final act veers into somewhat uncomfortable territory. I’m not sure if we’re ready to have gleeful throwbacks to the archaic sexual politics of 80’s/early 90’s thrillers with no repercussions. Even more importantly, it simply doesn’t come off, landing between preposterous yet not preposterous enough to retain the necessary guffaw factor. Other unfortunate elements include Vinessa Shaw’s shrill one-note wife.

The trailers worked too hard to cover up its halfway point event, making the very thing they were trying to hide obvious. However, I appreciate that the marketing had the intended effect of not knowing where the film was going after the halfway point. Rooney Mara and Jude Law are both excellent, particularly Mara who paints a realistic picture of crippling depression with her doe-eyed fragility as well as her other layered nuances of character.

Soderbergh’s cinematography under pseudonym Peter Andrews presents some of the best, and at the very least some of my personal favorite, digital cinematography I’ve seen, utilizing shallow focus and deep sensual lighting amidst a clinical backdrop.

Night Must Fall

#114. Night Must Fall (1937, Thorpe)

I’m a big ball of giddiness when it comes to Night Must Fall. It features a career-best performance from Robert Montgomery, playing against type as an Irish homicidal maniac with equal parts charm, vulnerability and psychosis. Opposite him is Rosalind Russell as a repressed quiet niece torn between her fascination for morbid visceral excitement and recognizing her fright as a dangerous reality and that her inaction is paved with potential consequence. There’s an atypically interesting and rich dichotomy between the two characters; it almost feels like a plot line from “Dexter”; except actually good. No, great.

Night Must Fall is severely underrated and filled with character-driven tension. I basically spent the entire time lustily swooning over Montgomery, getting lost in his ‘baby-faced’ Irish lilt and trickster charm tactics. This is a memorable yarn based on an acclaimed play of the time and featuring Robert Montgomery’s only Academy Award nominated performance (and his own favorite performance as well). That introductory shot with the nonchalant swinging door is one of the best first character glimpses in film. I’d count this film among my many favorites.

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#115. Pieta (2013, Kim)

“To put it bluntly, Pietà is a baseless experience posturing under the guise of arthouse profundity. I’m not quite sure what Michael Mann and fellow jury members were thinking when they awarded it the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival. I’m also not sure how so many people are being tricked into finding meaning in this faux infant terrible submission. It comes down on us like a sloppily blunt object but without the impact. Kim Ki-duk’s limply affected ‘realism’ is a creative cop-out as he shamelessly uses his name and reputation to wrongly excuse his barely present content. It’s a defense mechanism that only goes so far; you only have to remove his proclamation ’18th film’ statement to realize this entire film, from its unpracticed camera to its cheap shock tactics, is a pile of bull.”

Full Review: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/05/24/review-pieta-2013-kim/

Sightseers

#116. Sightseers (2013, Wheatley)

Rising out of the same kind of mundane death-related British humor from films like Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Trouble with Harry, Sightseers is sprinkled with moments of scathing clarity but is too often bogged down in one-note transparency. We get it. It’s funny because Tina and Chris treat murder like light-hearted shenanigans.

Alice Lowe and Steve Oram created these characters and wrote the film, which Ben Wheatley then directed. Tina and Chris are both pretty pitiful individuals with Chris lacking for creativity and swamped in resentful class issues and Tina a repressed dog psychology obsessive whose life has passed by taking care of her deeply unpleasant mother. Though it boasts two fantastic lead performances, my main problem with Sightseers is that they are seen as pathetic creatures. They are not depicted with an adoptive get-on-board-the-murder-train sympathetic glee, even if Wheatley and co do a good job of entrenching us into their mindsets. They are depicted with one-note pity, as sad adults in arrested development. You don’t root for them and I wanted to be rooting for them.

The trajectory of their road trip, and the film, is a lovingly crafted smaller sights of Northern England tour (the Pencil Museum!) There are shots, like the one above, that Wheatley employs that have either Oram or Lowe staring straight into the camera that are involving instigating moments. And that final scene is tops; truly tops and the kind of biting jab the rest of the film was trying to execute with intermittent success. Basically, Scott Tobias’ NPR review perfectly sums up how I felt about it. He articulated it way better than I ever could.

The Big House
#117. The Big House (1930, Hill)

Known as pretty much the first prison film, The Big House establishes a well-known prototype whilst stretching out the boundaries of its own blueprint. Basically, it tweaks its own formula while simultaneously establishing it. Writer Frances Marion became the first female to win a non-acting Oscar for her screenplay and a lot of prison visits and research went into her preparation. So the film is on one level a critique of the prison system, namely the indoctrination process and life within a microcosm society. Overcrowding, poor care, conformity, discipline and the authorial rot are all addressed.

We expect to sympathize with Robert Montgomery’s Kent, a Tobias Beecher-lite audience surrogate, with the touted up big-shots of Chester Morris and Wallace Beery as our troublemakers. In fact, Montgomery’s shifty snitch-fish out of water is seen as the enemy. Morris and Beery, united by loyalty and an inside-out pattern of established friendship are actually the ones with which we sympathize. Chester Morris, who had yet to impress me in a film, is fantastic here. And Beery, in a role that brought him back on top elicits the perfect dangerous but soft lovable aura, even as he talks about his murder rap and knocking dames teeth in. A rare gift that. The two have such memorable chemistry and you become very attached to their camaraderie.

George W. Hill gets around the stilted blocking of early talkies by mixing it up where he can. He creates a claustrophobic atmosphere of sweat and brawn, using boxed-in framing and dark strips and towering architectural structure which threatens to weigh down on the prisoners. There is also a lot of panning and effective use of close-up. Montgomery’s darting eyes are so well-captured in the second half. You are just waiting for him to explode with quaking fear. And finally, the climax of the film is a thrillingly-mounted event of smoky chaos and uncontrollable gunfire. In short, this ranks up among my favorite Pre-Code films.

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #86-90


Phantom Tollbooth

#86. The Phantom Tollbooth (1970, Jones)

That The Phantom Tollbooth should conceivably work as an animated feature is a no-brainer. Norton Juster’s turn-of-phrase festivities make ‘Tollbooth’ one of my favorite books, a justifiable classic that enchants children and adults alike, accompanied by Jules Feiffer’s crude scrawled majesty. Chuck Jones, master of the slam-bang formula cartoons plus slapstick equals hilarity gold, directed one feature film, and this was it. I worship the man and his accomplishments, but Juster’s let’s-appreciate-the-play-of-exercising-your-mind through wit doesn’t jive with Jones’ strengths. Jones innovated by boiling down his basic formula to its essentials and then running wild by playing to his audience with direct visual humor and pushing into a realm of abstractness through repetition and punctuation. The reason his other Norton Juster adaptation, The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics, works so well is because it’s a visual piece, a concept that adheres to what a cartoonist with immense imagination can do.

The Phantom Tollbooth is, and forgive me for oversimplifying, a book-long play-on-words, so what is there really for Chuck Jones to do? He isn’t able to bring it to life, despite the fact that Milo does visit potentially rich conceptual lands. I sadly don’t have anything good to say about the film. The animation lacks character and to liven it up, lots and lots of snooze songs are added. The only one that left any residue was “Milo’s Song” for its dated harmonious pondering. Tock’s character design and voice were genuinely off the mark. It looked like a human face on a dog and his voice had a straightforward stateliness that may have worked if they had gone farther in that direction. A mismatch of source material and director from the start; a book and artist I admire without end separately, but put them together and you have a watery bowl of stale word soup.

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#87. Antiviral (2013, Cronenberg)

Full Review: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/04/22/review-antiviral-2013-cronenberg/

Top of the Lake

88. Top of the Lake (2013, Campion & Davis)

Prolific Jane Campion’s feminist noir deals with the festering effects of resurfaced trauma set ablaze in a haunting New Zealand landscape of scumbag misogyny. Its blunt weapons come alive through its exploration of the unquestioned normalcy of such imbalances and it’s all disguised as a whodunnit procedural. Some of the most potent thematic and characterization work in recent memory, as its emotionally turbulent townies exonerate themselves by merely being less morally corrupt than your neighbor. The passed down rituals of the alpha male surround a patriarchal world where staking territorial claim and asserting control gives way to power and status no matter the barbaric context.

But it’s not even about the overt horrific ways in which men post a threat to women. It also looks at the other end of the threat spectrum. Top of the Lake captures in ways I haven’t seen the inherent daily threats women can feel amongst men, whether purposeful on their part or not. It captures the instinctual act of tensing up, keeping your guard up whether intentionally provoked or not. It’s rare to see that evoked and examined in any storytelling so bravo to Campion and co-creator Gareth Lee for that.

The last hour is somewhat shaky as prioritized thematic and character concerns move over for some weak conclusive plotting where ‘twists’ are seen acres away. A small complaint in an otherwise exactingly bleak and contemplative look at latent atrocity adapted as normalcy. Special mentions to Elisabeth Moss and one of my favorite actors, Peter Mullan for some of the most rigorous and spectacular acting you’ll see. Matt Mitcham will stay with me for some time.

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#89. Topaz (1969, Hitchcock)

Between the fallout of the Tippi Hedren fiasco and the rushed and unwanted star-ridden production of Torn Curtain, Hitchcock was essentially pushed into making Topaz by Alma and Universal Studios, who he was then contracted to. But with major script issues and a boatload of varied location shooting, Topaz was being rewritten by Samuel Taylor on the fly, an unfortunate circumstance for both director and writer that went against every single method of meticulous planning used by Hitchcock throughout the decades. The predicament was essentially his own directorial nightmare and the result can be seen. The shot above is the only truly noteworthy moment (and clearly because the only thing that could get his attention was of course a woman being strangled) in a film filled with elliptical plot mechanics, complicated espionage, a bevy of stolid characters and an international cast that failed to ignite emotion. And that’s what Hitch was all about; suspense, images and pulling out emotive responses from his audience. This overlong, overworked project doesn’t give him an opportunity to do that outside of a well-done opening sequence.

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#90. Frenzy (1972, Hitchcock)

Later Hitchcock films, starting with Vertigo I’d say, carry an unhinged, deeply personal and highly cathartic (but never absolved) expression of repressed sadistic and sexual violence. The master dealt with his sadistic desires and fascinations through his lifelong dedication to the macabre. As it’s been said, he treated his murder scenes like love scenes and vice versa. Many books have been written about, or address this, and it is clear that with Frenzy he reached a disturbing apex of depicting the act of murder. This is an ugly, nihilistic piece of work, where a pervading boundary-pushing glee coats all, nowhere more than that first murder scene.

Total wincing immersion into the struggle, attainment and release comes with our killer’s rape and murder. It’s the most graphic and revealing, in more ways than one, scene of its kind that he ever shot. It’s undeniably effective and technically masterful in its focus of building momentum, perspective and perfecting the permanence of the dead stare, now complete with tongue leakage.

His obsession with scenes of this kind (especially later in life when he became unnaturally fixated on including rape in Marnie, this and the unmade The Short Night) and shared intent with the serial killer character makes you feel uncommonly involved in the scene. It goes beyond being a complicit observer and enters a participatory dominion. But he makes us complicit in his own readily apparent fascinations, fears, and desires, which his genius made universally communicable through the language of film. Though he’s at his most troubling and directly misogynistic here, it’s an effective and engaging work, and a return to form after the useless Torn Curtain and Topaz. This despite a frustratingly remote and sullied lead whose only purpose seems to be to represent everyday commonalities between the actual serial killer, and the potential within man to slip into said role. His first British production in decades, his country of origin, and his relationship with it, informs the film on many levels. Food is used to link sex and death throughout, never more apparent than an obsidian-drenched comic sequence involving a corpse hidden in a sack full of potatoes.

Review: Stoker (2013, Park)


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For a good hearty while, I had been identifying the then upcoming and now ongoing 2013 in film as the year that would see the Western debuts of three major Korean filmmakers. Right off the bat we got Kim Ji-woon’s The Last Stand, a comeback vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger that opened to modest reviews and little monetary reward. Later in the year we should be getting Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, which may be my most anticipated film in 2013. And right up there with it was Stoker helmed by the operatic Park Chan-wook. It is bittersweet to see these directors leave their native country, flocking to the potential promise of the West, but one cannot help but be eager to see if they are further elevated, sustained or knocked down a peg by the endeavor. Stoker not only shows Park sustaining his masterful directorial credibility, but thriving and visually indulging in his trademarks to the max, bringing this twisted familial Gothic coming-of-age madhouse of a story to life.

Stoker is mainly a directorial showcase with Park taking the inherent elements within this lurid tale and heightening everything, reveling in the subjective details, the significance of objects, obsessive and self-consciously beautiful framing (thanks in no small part to regular cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon) and intricately multi-purposeful sound design. India can hear and see what other people do not, not in the supernatural sense, but in the sense that all outsiders looking in do.

Stoker is, from a directorial perspective, about the art of silent observation, testing how to best capture that subjectivity on film. It ever-so-slightly recalls Kieslowski and what he does in The Double Life of Veronique, only in the single-minded prioritized task of capturing feeling and transferring a character’s experience to the audience. Using overt symbolism, stretching out moments right up to their expiration date and having an intuition for the beauty of the detail, Park and screenwriter Wentworth Miller make the art of silent observation the central focus from which all other aspects of execution stem. Park has operated with this trademarked operatic formalism for many a year; no compromises and no apologies.

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Take a look at those credits. Right off the bat, he grabs us; it’s a snapshot portrait of a sequence. Moments in the life of a sullen dusky-haired loner. Nature pervades, trees are climbed, an affluent but hollow living environment firmly established. This girl hovers between carefree childhood and impending adulthood. She seems to exist out of time even as she passes said time. Her wardrobe and choice of activity make her both easy and hard to place. She is both transparent and a mystery. Each shot is beautiful and special, calling attention to its purposeful composition. Clint Mansell’s music reeks of florid romanticism, like wandering through a garden, periodically interrupted by off-key determination of the piano, but quickly quelled. The score and visuals speaks to the ripe lushness of the film to follow, and introduces the bubbling repression that will steadily erupt throughout.  You’ll know from this short sequence if Stoker is for you.

We might not know the specifics of what will motion the story forward, but the general direction is always clear. If filmed modestly, this would be an intriguing but forgettable chamber thriller. Shot by Park, it’s a lingering erotic enfoldment where sex never actually occurs, yet pervades in every single scene. India’s sexual awakening and Charlie as a sexual being are topics of particular focus and fascination. And though, conventionally speaking, there is no sex in the film, it could be easily argued that India’s imagined piano duet with Charlie more than qualifies as a sex scene. It’s treated like one, a perfect fantasy of peaks and valleys, simultaneous cohesion, release and intimate connection. Minute attention is paid to body placement, India’s mounting pleasure via the increased clenching of her crossed feet, and the passionate finger-playing of the pair’s hands. The ever-shifting Phillip Glass piece at the center mirrors all facets of this expression; sex and music are inextricably linked. It’s the most sensuous scene I’ve seen in ages, expertly constructed, focusing entirely on female pleasure, making Charlie an object of desire.

Mia Wasikowska in Park Chan-wook's Stoker

To continue with this thread, Park explores the linkage between pleasure, sex, violence and family and all combinations herein. Most emphatically explored is the link between pleasure and violence,  how it emerges in our young female protagonist and how she decides to handle this troubling realization.  The staging and use of parallel editing, the latter assumedly in the script, is used to depict key moments, keeping this linkage consistent in addition to all the other formal elements aforementioned. Just as sex isn’t featured, most of the violence is implied, an atypical tameness for Park, but it turns out the director has a flare for making us think we’re seeing more than we do.

All three major players exchange lasting looks of lust, hate, longing, sadism and suppression, fueling Stoker with the language of eyes. Pauses take on the significance of dialogue and vice versa.

Mia Wasikowska gets to shine again after falling through the cracks in both Albert Nobbs and Lawless. Her beady doe-eyes and mostly calm composure are forces to be reckoned with. Apparently the role of Uncle Charlie was written for Matthew Goode and be brings a sinister edge to his sexuality, but more importantly, he gets across Charlie’s stunted growth when it matters. He aptly balances his character’s true intentions and acts as a projection of the way India sees him. Nicole Kidman gets more mileage out of Evelyn than most would and she nails her central speech which is featured in the trailers. Still, I wish she had a little more to do and that the script put her at the level of India and Charlie. The three-tiered emphasis would have and could have been done, adding more to the central dynamics. Though “Summer Wine” certainly speaks to what drives her within the film’s timeframe.

Stoker is a stylish sensory-riddled piece of sustained atmosphere, the kind of film I gravitate towards like a moth to a flame. Was there ever any doubt I would love this? Park puts his spin on this demented tale, a vigorous aphrodisiac, deeply rapturous and steeped in luxuriant emotion.

Reintroductions #21-23. Knife in the Water, The Earrings of Madame De… & Marnie


This year I’m devoting more time to revisiting films I’ve seen only once, a practice I’ve shamefully neglected. My Reintroduction posts are a place for me to jot down some thoughts and observations after revisiting and reading up on each film.

Knife in the Water

#21. Knife in the Water (1962, Polanski)
First Seen in: 2008

I’ve got an alphabetical list of the films I want to revisit. I have a system for picking films at random. I keep going until I land on one I have access to and am in the mood for. So I’m happy to have stumbled on Knife in the Water not so long after revisiting Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion. Polanski forgoes dealing with WWII, unlike fellow Polish filmmakers of the time, instead enclosing a trio of characters in an open space of endless pale grays.

People call this a thriller, but I don’t really see it like that. I see it more as a claustrophobic chamber drama of underhanded class competition and male pomposity. I don’t feel a lot of suspense or tension, but more of the feeling of entrapment which I’d say is different than suspense. Petty competition rules the day. The audience is always aware of the body both as a physical form and a sexual one. Pretty much all of the sexual tension here comes from framing and cutting, very rarely from anything actually happening in this regard.

Polanski allows his framing, dialogue, characterization, blocking, movements and changing weather conditions to contribute equally to the overall effect. For a chamber drama, there’s not a lot of talking and there’s no plot. But you get the intended effect when you take everything in especially in the visual sense (this is FILM ya know!). The claustrophobic aspect really comes into play when you consider how difficult it was to film Knife in the Water.

I’m in love with Polanski’s framing; he stretches out and plays with all his possibilities in some really memorable ways. He favors high contrasting the distance between characters in the frame. He’ll often have one character really close in the foreground, hogging a good portion of what we see, with another character(s) comparatively miniscule, visually trumped. It closes us in more, makes us feel the palpable presence of their close proximity through great distance. There are other shots, like the one above that display a single character, often against the dark gray sea and light gray sky (or in this case, the yacht) which emphasizes the body through silhouette. Finally, there are the shots that put all three characters on the same wavelength, like the jackstraws scene.

Polanski’s debut introduces a lot of elements that will pop up again and again in his films. The outsider, non-conformity, chamber pieces, psychological claustrophobia and characters who can be manipulative, cruel and underhanded. It’s a nice touch at the end to realize that either way Andrzej loses. It’s up to us to decide which he’d rather believe.

Earrings of Madame De

#22. The Earrings of Madame De… (1953, Ophuls)
First Seen in: 2010

The Earrings of Madame De… is an example of a film that I admire and glean from as a piece of immaculate filmmaking over anything else. While I enjoyed it more the second time around, the story simply doesn’t grab or engage me the way I want it to. Just one of those things. But as always with the opulent Ophuls, there’s much to focus on even if I merely like it.

Set in that favorite period of the director’s, late 19th century Vienna, rococo decadence is a prison where a world of debts, money and materialism allow no room for actual emotion or depth. All of our characters are caught up in this world even as it is the thing that eventually destroys them.

With Ophuls, it’s always about elaborately naturalistic camera movement (which must have always been supremely difficult but it appears effortless onscreen). The camera is ruled by where the characters move, tracking where they look and where they go, always making sure to keep enough distance in order to capture the over-decorated surroundings. The mere feat of his tracking shots wow to this day. The camera also makes sure that Louise and Donato are intertwined, crossing paths by meeting at the middle. His repeated theme of what becomes of us when love and desire take hold is certainly present here. Suffering for love becomes its own art form.

The earrings of the title at first carry a lot of symbolic importance but little meaning to Louise. By the end, they carry multiple strands of symbolic importance and mean everything to Louise. A symbol first of her marriage, then of her love for Donato. For Andre they represent control and a way to damage and inflict pain if used at the right moment. In fact, the earrings are over-symbolized by these characters. It’s as if they don’t know how to let emotions exist as they are. They must infuse meaning into a shiny material inanimate object.

Danielle Darrieux is nuanced elegance. Charles Boyer is underrated in this as a general whose occupation has trained him to never show his hand and to plan his moves strategically. Vittorio De Sica is the one I attach myself to most. He is gentle and easily lovable, bursting with humanity even while caught up in a somewhat trifling triangle.

Random Observations/Things I Want to Remember:
– The dance montage stands out. Communication can only exist in this world while engaging in public ritual. Even then it takes time to peel away the layers of artifice as we see the barriers drop between the two.
– Louise throwing out the ripped paper

Marnie 2

#23. Marnie (1964, Hitchcock)
First Seen in: 2008

Marnie plays out like Hitchcock’s wet dream, even perhaps over Vertigo, both of which fixate on identity and obsession. His visual arsenal is in peak working condition, creating a brazenly filmic representation of Marnie’s psyche. All the clues to Marnie’s repressed trauma are explicitly depicted, but that’s what’s so voluptuously addictive about it; there’s nothing like Hitch indulging in his artificial but incomparable ‘pure cinema’.

For all the love I have towards Marnie, Hitch bit off more than he could chew in certain regards. He slaps some stirringly dauntless ideas up onscreen without doing anything with them. What I mean of course is the character of Mark, the virile fetishist who gets off on the fact that Marnie is a compulsive thief. Marnie correctly calls him out, accusing him of trapping her like something he’s caught. Sure, he wants to help, but Mark has flaws that Hitchcock thinks his audience will overlook simply because he’s got Sean Connery in the role. This is Marnie’s film to be sure, and the focus needs to be on her, but the master’s need to shine everything through a grotesquely romantic prism goes further to ignore the psychosexual realm that he explores so minutely in Vertigo. Instead, you’ve got a character that rapes Tippi Hedren without us ever dealing with the implications of the assault. And since Mark really does want to help her in his own misguided way, all of his actions by the end feel absolved. Because of his interference, Marnie can start to heal. It dismisses his actions instead of exploring Mark’s delve-worthy characteristics. Hitchcock sets up all the pieces for an equally layered character, only for the layers to lie limp in the aftermath of Mark’s sexual assault.

Tippi Hedren is awe-inspiring in what was only her second film. Marnie is brittle and stunted, covering her frigidity with ‘decent’ manners, a woman who has no identity for herself.  She goes to some exhausting places for this role and the sympathy she arouses makes us desperate for her to have a breakthrough as we inch towards the conclusion. Louise Latham is walking rigidity as Bernice, embodying self-inflicted mental confinement. It’s a theatrical performance, Latham was much younger than Bessie, but since Marnie is in its nature manifest, she fits in like a haunted washed-out glove.

Even with its shortcomings (dropping Diane Baker’s character like a hot pancake and a climax that mostly works despite its touch of falsity are others) Marnie remains one of Hitchcock’s most hypnotic works. He drowns us in signifiers, the color red being the flashiest. But there’s some graceful character work that is easy to miss amidst the flamboyance. So much of Marnie works not just because we care so deeply for her, but because beneath the sheen of formalism, there’s a considerate and layered character study of a woman without an identity to call her own save a love of horses.

Random Observations:
-Bruce Dern as the sailor!
-“Well, I just swan”
– The pivotal sequence with Forio is impossibly expert
– Edith Head’s costumes, particularly for Diane Baker, are great. Always high necklines for Tippi. Always.
– That crane shot at the party that mirrors Notorious
– The only two conventionally suspenseful scenarios Hitchcock has in Marnie is the robbery at Rutland’s and Strutt’s appearance at the party.
– Screenwriter Jay Presson Allen (she was hired after Evan Hunter felt too uncomfortable with the rape scene) says that she doesn’t consider the scene a rape. Just some marital trials. So basically, Jay Presson Allen is fucking out of her mind. Noted.
– Now that I’ve revisited Marnie, I’m finally ready to embark on Hitchcock’s final four films, none of which I’ve ever seen before. How exciting!
– Bernard Herrmann’s score reminds me so much of Leonard Rosenman’s work for Rebel without a Cause that I can’t think of anything else.
– Funnily enough, I placed Marnie and Mark on my list of  Top Ten Heterosexual Couples that Scorched the Screen. I admit I find nothing really romantic between the two. So why did I put them on my list? Click the link to find out!
Top Ten Heterosexual Couples that Scorched the Screen: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2011/07/08/list-10-cinematic-heterosexual-chemistries-that-scorched-the-screen/