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Yawar Mallku (1969)
Foundational Third Cinema
A radical, marxist, revolutionary, foundational Third Cinema attack on Western values and U.S. cultural imperialism, Jorge Sanjinés' Blood of the Condor had a profound impact on Bolivian politics at the time of its release and still casts a shadow across Latin American polity to this day.
The film's accusations that U.S. Peace Corps volunteers sterilized indigenous women of the Quechua ethnic group inspired widespread protests during the late 1960's, stoked long-simmering anti-U.S. attitudes in Latin America, and led to the removal of the Peace Corps from Bolivia altogether.
The film is passionately told from the indigenous people's perspective and is driven by an anger that tilts it away from investigative exploration and towards propaganda. This is, of course, the very nature of Third Cinema, so I only mean to describe the thing itself, not level criticism. I use the term "propaganda" in its purest definition.
This movie willfully paints the situation as a parable of the noble indigenous against the cruel, alien, indifference of the Euro-Amercan matrix. And the fact is, U.S. cultural imperialism's hubris and ignorance did lead to a complete breakdown in Bolivian/American relations at the time.
Molly Geidel, author of, "Peace Corps Fantasies: How Development Shaped the Global Sixties" found documents decades later clearly showing that the Bolivia Peace Corps director and volunteers with the agency, inserted IUDs in indigenous Aymara women at the time, despite not always having medical credentials and not being able to communicate well with the women.
So, it would seem that it wasn't the large-scale premeditated sterilization of a people that this film would have you believe, but none-the-less, an incredibly problematic policy practiced by the U.S. Peace Corps. It's not a long walk from nonconsensual contraception to accusations of population control. But the true story gets more complicated.
Long after this movie was released, a 2002 report by Peruvian Health Minister Fernando Carbone suggested that the president of neighboring Peru, all around asshole Alberto Fujimor, was involved in the forced sterilizations of up to 300,000 Quechua and Aymara women between 1996 and 2000 as part of a population control program called "Voluntary Surgical Contraception".
The United Nations and other international aid agencies supported this campaign, and yes, USAID provided funding and training for it. Whether these Western NGO's and Orgs were told that it was a voluntary family planning program (as the title suggested) or they knew it was a crime against humanity, I can't say.
The point is, the conspiracy theories this film uses to push its political agenda are based on either an eventual truth, or an ongoing truth that we simply don't have the full reportage of. So the movie's anger is prophetic or timely, but regardless, righteous.
Such programs of sterilization and contraception have led to heightened popular suspicion of birth control in Bolivia, Peru, and other parts of Latin America, where people continue to associate it with imperialist colonization of the human body. (We would be remiss if we didn't add the Catholic church's vilification of birth control and reproductive family planning to this paragraph as well.)
But Sanjinés rage is really aimed at all of the U.S.A and Europe's collective sins committed on the South American mind and body in the name of economic and military control. So it's hard to blame him when he shows a complete disinterest in understanding the full complications of the cultural conflict in his moment of creative revolutionary filmmaking fervor.
An artist does not mobilize their side or empower their "ism" by making a film about the "inherent fallibility of the Western savior complex". No, they cast Americans as evil. Otherwise their argument will be too complex, not base enough, it will not make use of core emotions to activate the people, it will appeal only to their intellect. It will not truly be revolutionary cinema.
Taken solely as a movie, this is a pretty exciting living document. It vibrates with authenticity. Non-actor Quechua people represent their culture and their language. We see scenes filmed amongst the extraordinary vistas of the Bolivian mountain ranges. And we get a pointed and interesting Bicycle Thieves like social narrative aimed at a capitalistic healthcare system that seems to be just another weapon used to murder the indigenous. The movie's spirit is strong and concise, and much of its roughshod filmmaking is quite bold.
It employs a flashback structure. We learn about events after we've seen the outcomes of them, and I came across an interesting story about that.
After screening the film many viewers from lower income communities, with less exposure to cinema and less formal education, the very people Sanjinés was hoping to represent, voiced criticisms that they had difficulty following the flashback style narration. Sanjinés was greatly influenced by European art cinema when he was younger, hence his ambitious story structure for this film, but the criticism of the "peasants" woke in him a new realization.
Later he would say, "We cannot attack the ideology of imperialism by using its own formal tricks and dishonest techniques, whose raison d'être is to stupefy and deceive. Not only do such methods violate revolutionary morality; they also correspond structurally to the ideology and content of imperialism."
In response, Sanjinés moved away from the notion of Auteur cinema ("Revolutionary cinema, as it reaches maturity, can only be collective, just as the revolution itself is collective.") and ditched complex arthouse formalism in favor of a filmmaking style built for easy consumption so he could have the most political impact.
Lastly, there's an extremely interesting chapter in the book, "Cinema and Social Change in Latin America: Conversations with Filmmakers" which describes the difficulty Jorge Sanjinés' had in gaining the trust of the Quechua people to participate in filming. It's interesting to see the revolutionary as an outsider. As the other, hoping to capture the image of a people for his own political ends. He wanted to give the people a voice, but it's hard not to think of the intellectual descending among the proletariat to rouse their ire.
All in all, this is a really great piece of historical cinema.
I saw this in the theater in 2018. Then I forgot entirely that I saw it. Then it popped up here and I vaguely remembered it but had to go watch the trailer to make sure I had seen it.
Deux hommes dans Manhattan (1959)
A Love Letter to New York City
Capturing the ethical and tonal air of noir and crafting a love letter to New York City takes precedence over filmic construction, casting (some of the acting is atrocious), and story structure. But the fast, loose, low-budget approach gives it a New Wave vibe that still feels fresh.
Hayer's cinematography, particularly the exterior shots of Manhattan, turns the film into a living work, an authentic document of an actual place in time. These exterior shots are done in wides, often held for too long, suggesting that Melville's gaze is reluctant to get back to artifice.
The music drops can be heavy handed and redundant, but there's some great jazz here, and the last reel uses the music incredibly effectively, helping tie together some sequences that are absolute cinematic gold.
As mentioned, the exceptionally beautiful women we encounter were not hired for their acting chops. The mystery doesn't amount to much, and, in our current climate, the idea of newspaper men burying a story about the infidelity of a public servant for "ethical" and patriotic reasons doesn't sit all that well, but everything else is wicked fun.
Det sjunde inseglet (1957)
Death cheats at chess. Life cheats at death.
Max von Sydow was twenty-seven years old when he starred in one of the greatest films ever made. He died this year. He was ninety. This is a movie about death.
My wife found out the lump on her throat was benign today and then I watched this movie for the first time in probably twenty years while waiting for her to come home from work and give her a kiss. This is a movie about life.
Death cheats at chess. Life cheats at death.
This Ain't It
It's strange when the biggest change you make in adapting a novel to the screen is to add lots of physical violence against the female characters (even a backstory of abuse that's not stated in the source material).
It's interesting that a female filmmaker has done so much to take the inherent dark power away from the female characters and decided instead to victimize them.
I absolutely love Jackson's dark comedic masterpiece which this is based on, so even though it's never really a good idea to see an adaptation of a book you adore, I watched this anyway.
And I admire some of it, I do. There's a couple of standout sequences from the novel that I thought they handled really well, but ultimately it takes what's subtle about the story and makes it obvious, and takes what's obvious about the story and buries it under uninspired dramatization.
There seems to be an active attempt here to flesh out the mysterious unearthly tone of the book, making it all appear mundane and boring. The now victimized Merricat is almost completely robbed of her personal agency.
The filmmakers labor a reason for the poisoning of the family in the past, explicitly inferring abuse by the father and suggesting it was all an act of self-defense by his daughter. But Jackson stood firm on the idea that her readership make its own inferences, and a lot of the evil joy of the novel is in the idea that perhaps the children are just... actually bad.
In fact, in the book, Merricat is often called wicked (sometimes jokingly, sometimes not so). But in the film it is the deceased father who is called wicked, who is maligned as an abusive elite who detests the lower classes. Jackson approached male and female power, as well as social class, with so much more depth and nuance than this movie can manage.
But the worst sin is that the film bleeds the story of almost all its humor. In the novel there is joy in the house before outsiders arrive for social tea or, in the case of Charles, to get at their hidden money.
I've always read Uncle Julien's obsession with the death of his own family as almost gleeful. And the text absolutely supports a good nature humor from the sisters towards their mad uncle's meanderings. It's all very funny and brings light into the house. It's the outsiders that come in and question the family's delight in their own tragedy. All of that is lost here.
In fact, Uncle Julian, an extremely funny character in the book, is played so morosely and quietly that it's not until his eruption at Cousin Charles that we get any life from the character at all (that sequence is quite good).
The ending is, of course, a heartbreaking departure that shows no fidelity to the spirit and theme of the novel, and worse, no real imagination.
At the very least, this movie needed a little more formal composition and a lot more wit to pull it off. I long for a Jane Campion or Yorgos Lanthimos to tackle this material.
Vitalina Varela (2019)
Build your house well... and remember to look to the day lit sky when the shadows grow too deep.
An expressionistic melancholy spell. Painstakingly composed and beautifully lit. The texture and hues of the images are remarkable.
The images do very little of the storytelling beyond place, space, and tone. The story itself is almost completely orally told. Even then, words emerge after long ambient soundscapes of unseen "slum life" always just happening beyond the image's frames or on the other side of walls.
Whether it's day or night, it's almost always pitch, with pinpoint spotlighting illuminating only parts of this desolate world and the striking faces that occupy it. Most of the image is in consummate shadow. Until the end, when, finally, emerging from out of our mourning, we begin to see daylight and sky. Most of this sky is in memory, but not all.
The pacing is so languid and the creative choices so deliberate that we have plenty of time to live inside the images and moments.
I felt there was some Bergman here: the disenchanted priest; the memory haunted spaces and characters; the faces floating in darkness, only their eyes revealing the depths of their emotional experiences.
You are forgiven for thinking that this film is boring or could be shorter. You are forgiven for thinking that it is perfect as it is, even somehow fragile; that it creates the exact effect on the viewer that is intended.
You are forgiven for thinking and feeling anything you've ever thought and felt, as long as you turn your face towards kindness from this moment forward... but you must do it quick, before the credits roll.
Chained for Life (2018)
Everyone is chained to something.
The uniqueness of normality. The beauty of authenticity. The illusiveness of abnormality. The uncomfortable act of being seen. The ugly act of being ignored. The horror of theatricality. The truth of fiction. The monstrous clarity of objectification. The innate naturalism of aberration.
The least democratic thing in our society is how attractive others find us.
This movie is a subtly unfolding, intentionally clumsily-forged, plasticine act of dreamlike kindnesses and social inhumanity.
The mostly unseen Herr Director of the movie-within-the-movie, Warner Herzog-esque in his rhetoric but Uwe Bollian in his craft, is a huge delight. And Jess Weixler does her best young Drew Barrymore at first, but arcs towards being herself as the film unclenches in its formalism.
I also like how this movie opens by highlighting one of the multitude of ridiculous Ayn Randian comments that hack Pauline Kael slung in the name of film criticism.
Qun long xi feng (1989)
Sammo Hung Forevah
Great stuff! Sammo beats, takes beatings, and falls in love while driving a rickshaw in 1930s Portuguese controlled Macau.
Sammo's got something to say about the plight of women under patriarchal management, be they bakers or prostitutes, and he mostly finds the right tone for it. Which is nice in a 1980's HK feature because it does sometimes feel like the inherent feminine warrior of 1970's wuxia fell away and the 80's kung-fu films became mostly a masculine ordeal (save of course for the GIRLS WITH GUNS subgenre and a few other, rare, examples).
The action is scorching. A fight between Chia-Liang Liu and Sammo in a gambling house is for real. Yet, strangely, this awesome character never gets a callback for the rest of the film. Why couldn't the Gambling House Boss return to knock heads for the super awesome final fight? Surely they could've cast one more white guy to get his butt handed to him. Oh well.
It is the want of many a Sammo film to have the action measured out, decorating the hood and trunk of the movie but letting the the bulky center sag under the weight of romantic comedy and tragedy. The same is true here. So be it. If you're a fan, you won't mind.
But why Macau in the '30's? No idea. It seems to add nothing to the film. Fortunately, it doesn't detract from it either.
Cinema as an empathy engine.
Fighting with your neighbors. Struggling to care for your aging parent. Plying your craft and trade in the compassionless barreling economy of scale, so different from, and destructive to, the natural economies of being human. It is the same here, there, and everywhere. When there is no social contract their is imbalance and suffering, when the natural order is defended, there is simplicity and sustainability. One of my favorites of the year. Cinema is many things, but at its most beautiful it is an empathy engine.
A pure, perpetual suspense machine.
It's the slimness of it. The clean open shots, mostly done in wides. The fact that it has so very few locations. It's the silent, completely blank, entity that is THE SHAPE. There are a mere five kills, modest by today's standards, and very little gore.
John Carpenter's "Halloween", which he co-wrote, co-produced, directed, musically scored (legendarily so), and co-edited, is a tight thriller built on the back of a Canadian thriller from four years prior called "Black Christmas", and it's the starting gun for the slasher genre.
You can't get from "Psycho" to "Friday the 13th" without passing through "Halloween".
It's the afore mentioned economy of narrative that maximizes its tone and amplifies its horror. The movie is incredibly suspenseful.
I mentioned how influential "Black Christmas" was on this film, and "Christmas" is a great movie, but even there, the increased scope and scale of "Black Christmas" demands more drama, it mutes the scares by not being singularly focused on them. Not so "Halloween". "Halloween" is a pure, perpetual suspense machine.
It has its flaws, of course. Some of the acting is rough (though never from Jamie Lee Curtis) and a lot of the dialog rings false. You'll probably feel the need to yell at the protagonist when she, TWICE, throws a knife away from her in disgust without making sure her attempted murderer is dead. You might find Donald Pleasance a bit of a scene muncher.
But for a budget of about $300,000 John Carpenter changed genre cinema forever, and the genius of what he achieved here has never been matched, certainly not in a film that bears the name "Halloween".
Lacks the exciting simplicity of the original.
This is the eleventh "Halloween" film. It means well and is mostly fun. It features some strong kills, decent payoffs, and well photographed and put together set pieces. I think David Gordon Green (big fan of "Prince Avalanche") is an excellent director. It's wonderful to see an older woman leading a horror film, twice as wonderful that the woman is Jamie Lee Curtis. But the newest "Halloween", like all of the sequels, doesn't seem to understand that the spirit of the original is in its simplicity.
So this time around we see THE SHAPE kill far more people, we visit far more locations, we're introduced to more characters (although having three generations of Survivor Girls is cool), we get more backstories... but we lose the straight shot of suspense that defined the original.
The stalking, the hunting, the silence, all of that is gone in favor of ramped up violence, more random kills, and less tension building. The new film is less horror/suspense and more action/horror. I assume this is the case for two reasons:
1. Carpenter's simplicity is incredibly difficult. 2. Sequels always come with story baggage.
I think there was a much more interesting and subtle take on Laurie Strode PTSD that would have gotten us to the same ending, elicited the same emotion, and given this great actress a lot more range to work with.
However we do get some star making turns from Andi Matichak, Miles Robbins, and Jibrail Nantambu.
This is not "Halloween". It's "Halloween" fan fiction. It's not the worst of the sequels, but its still just "Halloween" in name only.
PS: And that cold open... just awful. That's what "working too hard" looks like.
An uncelebrated Japanese horror masterpiece.
"Take me back to the capitol city and bring me everything I desire...use your strength to please me."
Nobuhiko Obayashi 1977 "House" is the requisite Japanese horror film we talk about when we talk about the 70's. It rightfully deserves its place among the greatest, most influential, and certainly most memorable of the decade.
But now let's talk about, "Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees". I hadn't even heard of this movie until this weekend, but "Blossoming Cherry Trees", currently streaming on Filmstruck, is a visually stunning, quietly insane, masterpiece.
Careful to insert "quiet" in there, because it's not insane like "House". It's not over-the-top style dripping in excessive wave after wave of special effects. "Cherry Trees" is just a beautiful shot, bizarrely paced, horribly tempered, kind of insanity.
The director, Masahiro Shinoda, came out of Shochiku studious, oldest of the "big four" movie houses in Japan. There, in the early fifties, he learned his craft as an assistant to the great master, Yasujiro Ozu. Possibly my favorite filmmaker of all time (this changes as the wind blows).
Shinoda's first film as director in 1960, "One Way Ticket to Love", placed him firmly among the Japanese New Wave, though he doesn't seem to have quite caught on in the West like Shohei Imamura or Seijun Suzuki did.
"Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees" is a strange, gorgeously shot fable. In a land where walking under the blossoms of a cherry tree in bloom will drive a person mad, a base, violent, mountain bandit kidnaps a beautiful woman from the "capital" to be his wife. In love with her, he goes to ever more excessive lengths to please her whims, which themselves become more and more ungrounded from reality, turning towards the utterly macabre. Beauty and love, and what we do for them, is the horror on display here.
The movie stars Tomisaburo Wakayama from "Lone Wolf and Cub" as the barbarous mountain warrior, and Shinoda's wife, Shima Iwashita, as the mad city woman.
The movie is bookended with stunning, open, vistas of an entire valley filled with endless blooming cherry blossom trees, which composer Toru Takemitsu's score, atonal and traditional-flute haunted, somehow makes ominous even in the brightest of daylight, like giant, swaying ghosts. Drifts of cherry blossoms swoop on whirling winds across the images, and, as we near our climax, sometimes fill the ground, dense as snow pack.
But as the action moves from the mountains to the city, the style turns more theatrical, with sets designed like stages, allowing for a single camera point to gaze in at the choreographed action; large matte painted backgrounds in certain parts of the city to create a world ravaged by violence, weather, and immorality; opening narration, seemingly read by a child, stick it firmly into the mire of twisted storybooks; and the bold acting style, not uncommon for Japanese cinema of the era, recalls kabuki and noh styles.
This is a great, great film. If you have the penchant for 1970's Japanese cinema, I say seek it out.
The Legend of Hell House (1973)
Amazing filmmaking, but the script doesn't hold up.
"The Legend of Hell House" is an influential, extremely well-regarded, haunted house classic from 1973, penned by a master of modern horror, and it absolutely deserves to be seen.
First and foremost, "Hell House" is gorgeous to look at. A British film directed by John Hough - who had made one other, quite good, horror film for Hammer by this point, the 1971 "Twins of Evil" (and would later go on to direct the "Witch Mountain" movies for Disney) - "Hell House" had a very large impact on Sam Raimi and deeply inspired the tone and cinematic style of the first "Evil Dead" film. The great Alan Hume photographed "Hell House", and if you compare the way he shoots the extraordinary exteriors of the house with the way Raimi and his DP, Tim Philo, shot the cabin in "Evil Dead", particularly when you add the interplay of the music, you can see that the intention, use of light, and style is almost identical. The same can be said for Hume's radical camera work, such as placing actors up close and center to a wide angle lens (particularly as they laugh maniacally, teetering on the precipice of madness), in his use of Dutch angles, his rotating mounted camera work, and, again, in the use of light throughout the film.
"Evil Dead" also owes a debt to this film's soundtrack. The extraordinary music by Electrophon Ltd. makes everything drip with darkness, all while sounding very modern, and the way it interacts with the images is another example of how this movie was essentially just Sam Raimi's film school.
The set work of Robert Jones in this is fantastic. And for a film watcher like me, great set-design can often be enough.
Before I dig into the bad of this film, I also want to talk about the performance of Pamela Franklin as psychic medium Florence Tanner. Franklin is so watchable in this movie. Literally, the moment she's on screen, the movie becomes more alive. It's incredible. She sells every moment of it. Even her to-the-death wrestling match with a hilariously bad stuffed black cat prop is glorious (well, it would be glorious anyway, I live for that stuff). And the simple truth is, when Franklin's not on screen, the movie just isn't as interesting.
The script is by the legendary American genre author Richard Matheson, he of "Omega Man"/"I am Legend" fame, and is based on his novel, one of the most famous of the haunted house books. But honestly, this is where things get a little shaky. The set up of this film is amazing. So much style and dread. And the ideas are big. Who are you when you're in this house? Are any of the choices you make your own? Are you always just a little possessed by the house, never fully yourself when you're inside? Four people enter as themselves, but who will come out as them self, or even just survive for that matter? Great stuff.
But two of the characters, the physicist and his wife, are written with virtually no nuance and they play their one-note characters pretty straight. Roddy Mcdowell is super watchable and interesting, until the end, when he's given too much bad dialogue to scene munch through, then even he can't really pull it off.
And that's where "Hell House" derails, the end. It places great dramatic weight on some pretty weak payoffs, and you can suddenly see through all the gorgeous gothic style and modern synthesizer darkness to the rickety half-formed structure of the script beneath. Then the credits roll and you think, "Am I supposed to care about those last reveals?"
The King (2017)
THE KING is ambitious.
There is a moment in Eugene Jarecki's mostly successful cinema essay, THE KING, where something to this extent is voiced about the success of "race" music, or black music, in America, "America profited from the enslavement of black culture and then, after resisting giving freedom to that culture for as long as it possibly could, started profiting from the soulful cry that arose from their suffering."
THE KING is most interesting when it's wrestling with this problematic American history through the lens of Elvis Presley - a white performer who rose to mega global super-stardom in large part by mining the music of the African Americans who could never dream of achieving the same level of fame. But THE KING wants to do more than that. It wants to map the entirety of American history on to the life of Elvis. From the early concept of America as an "experiment in democracy" equating it to the early, idealistic, wide-eyed Elvis; to the current America, seemingly synonymous with runaway capitalism, paralleling the bloated, addicted, Vegas Elvis. Sometimes the metaphor works clearly, cleanly, and even profoundly, other times it feels forced. It's not helped by an almost constant quick-cut, manic editing style that never settles into much of a groove. There are two very powerful montages in the last act that drive home the thesis Jarecki is going for, and they are wonders of contextual editing and visual meta-meaning, but because they're dropped at the end of what is essentially a montage-movie, they're impact is muted. What should have been an apex moment in the visual storytelling comes off as just a slight uptick in the pace and rhythm of the film. Apparently there was close to 250 hours of footage shot for the doc, and you can see it in the editing. There's a lot that the filmmakers want you to see, but the pacing, tone, and thematic clarity suffer from a lack of breathing room. Some of the interviews are outstanding. Chuck D, as always, is a national treasure. Ethan Hawk is affable as hell. John Hiatt has one particular moment of emotional clarity that's pretty much worth the price of admission. And, in a surprise powerhouse showing, Mike Myers turns out to be an incredibly astute and impish observer of the American phenomenon. Sadly all of these interviews are really just reduced to sound bites in the frenetic race to get from moment to moment, beat to beat.
I have to also mention the musical performances, which are outstanding, but also, not given a whole lot of room to stretch.
But THE KING is good, you should absolutely see it. THE KING is ambitious. THE KING is even important. If the failures and successes of THE KING were the failures and successes of more modern American art and thought, maybe we wouldn't be in the mess we're in today. Check it out.
Treacly and pedestrian.
What starts as a nice, but somewhat soft, attempt at smashing the horror and romance genres together turns into a complete mess once the script makes its third act reveal.
As the protagonist stumbles onto the truth at the center of the love story the film abandons any attempts at authenticity and shows a disregard for the craft of writing characters and for finding the most cinematic expression in the narrative. Instead it opts for endless, uninteresting dialogue straight out of a twee CW supernatural TV show, or worse, a Twilight film.
The filmmakers are incapable of ramping up to anything cinematically horrible, beautiful, strange, or interesting. So instead of cinema, we get multiple, lengthy, awfully written expositions of the needlessly complicated preternatural occurrence at the center of the film, even though they've visually told us almost everything we need to know early on.
And the characterization is the worst part of all of this. We are supposed to believe that the love interest is 2000 years old, but she is the least believable timeless character ever put into a genre piece. 2000 years and still all of the communication skills, gravitas and air of a annoying, immature young adult prevail. My forty six year old wife has a deeper sense of the years she's lived in her general air, than this character has in even the simplest line of dialogue or delivery. We're supposed to believe that our young male protagonist is somehow interesting enough to hold her attention, even though he's a just some cookie-cutter nice guy. She's been in and out of human relationships, presumably with some extraordinary partners, for thousands of years across hundreds of cultures, but this guy somehow has the spark? It's all bereft of the most fundamental imagination.
The direction is super competent. The photography, while a little flat when it comes to light, is compositionally strong. For the first two-thirds, the film is able to lock down an interesting tone, despite a heavy reliance on some pretty lame images of insects that are supposed to enhance the creep factor and convey nature's strange permutations, or whatever. But I can't stress this enough, the script is really bad. The dialogue can be painful, and the fact that the filmmakers don't know when to shut up and just let their story be told visually, makes for an arduous viewing on the back half of things.
I was really excited about the The Endless. The trailer looks engaging. It's interest in that film which prompted me to try this one, but The Endless has the exact same writers, and that dampens my enthusiasm tremendously. Hopefully there's been some growth between the films.
Little Evil (2017)
Worth a Slack Night's Viewing.
The current rating seems a little unfair to me. Sure, there's a lot that's soft and undercooked in this flick, but it's not unfunny, and the premise alone, as well as how far it's willing to go with it, should win it some extra points. The flick has enough surprises, laughs, and strong, clear-eyed direction to make it worth a slack night's viewing.
Eli Craig's got a knack for making horror/comedy out of big ideas. "Tucker & Dale vs. Evil" is essentially a horror film about bigotry and false perceptions of the other, and here Craig's made a light-hearted, but still relatively rich, riff on the horrors of being a step-father who's trying to connect with an emotionally distant child. All of that is to be commended, and I intend to keep following Craig's output.
Still, I get it, the son is essentially a non-character, more like a prop, really; there's zero chemistry between Evangeline Lilly and Adam Scott; and for a movie about relationships, it's pretty lazy when it comes to actually depicting the way people in those relationships act toward's one another. It could have really gone for it, the way "This is the End" went for it, but it didn't, it chose mush over metal in its overall approach, so go in expecting pretty light fare.
But honestly, it's better than most of the made for Netflix movies.
(Okja is an outlier)
All the quality of a made for Netflix movie
Personally, I thought all the CGI buried Skarsgard's performance, I have no idea if he is interesting in this role or not. The film is rife with overplayed, standard horror imagery right out of the modern playbook (if I see the stutter cut monster run one more time...) and it's all very, very tired.
There is very little imagination in scares, they have no weight or meaning. The whole thing feels like a YA horror story made for Netflix.
Sophia Lillis and Jeremy Ray Taylor are breakout stars though, they're fun to watch, but in a standout year for horror, IT wasn't it.
Hopefully, you enjoy it more than I did. I certainly seem to be in the minority here.
Patti Cake$ (2017)
Macdonald is Utterly Believable and Amazing to Watch
When Sundance celebrates a film it's not a sign of innovation or creative courage or unique vision. It just means that a low budget film is as much a slave to clichés, poorly constructed tropes, and mechanical audience pleasing manipulation as a mainstream one. The only difference is that it's focused on underrepresented characters or subject matter. And that's good, that's important, of course. Yet, I most often use "Sundance Celebrated" as a derogatory term synonymous with a lack of creative courage. Films celebrated at Sundance seldom work for me.
PATTI CAKE$ is guilty of all those things.
And it completely worked for me. I dug this film immensely. Why? Mostly because I'm a sucker, I guess.
I'm a sucker for movies about people making music. I'm a sucker for movies about working class people trying to get by. I'm a sucker for movies about creativity and dreams and struggle. I'm a sucker for movies with energy and a sense of fantasy mixed with the hardships of the real world. But all of that can go horribly wrong. It's easy to earn an eye roll when two characters hold hands for the first time and the music swells. It's easy to lose patience when the mechanics of the script become so incredibly predictable that you can chart the struggles and victories in the first ten minutes.
Patti Cake$ is partly saved by director Geremy Jasper's amazing synergy of music and imagery. The film is an absolute blast to watch if you love movies about music. But what really sells it is actress Danielle Macdonald as Killer P, A.K.A Patti Cake$.
Macdonald is sick in this. Utterly amazing. I fully believed she was a New Jersey girl with strong flow who the director found in some parking lot and decided to build a film around. I was ecstatic to find she's an Australian actress who, before taking this role, had never heard a New Jersey accent and didn't know how to rap.
It's through her authenticity that I bought into the fantasy culmination of the perfectly orchestrated underdog struggle. Through her that I bought into the love and the joy and the hope.
And I walked out of the film happy and charged, finally content just to be an audience member pleased.
Watching Sally Hawkins Act Can Make Your Heart Grow Ten Times Larger
The film MAUDIE doesn't always hold the line between pathos & schmaltz. It hits most of its notes in clear, concise, but in unambitious ways. It sometimes redundantly says things that have been clearly and more powerfully shown. It's a bit of a hand holder and not all that courageous creatively.
However, it beautifully photographs Nova Scotia, the mise en scène and costumes are fantastic, and Ethan Hawk does a damn fine job holding his own...
But the real takeaway is this: watching Sally Hawkins act can make your heart grow ten times larger. She is transcendent. The film stayed in my mind solely because of the work she put on that screen.
PS: Showing documentary footage of the actual Maud and Everett Lewis at the end of the film rammed home just what a beautified, Hollywood-esque, version of this story MAUDIE is and made me long for something more authentic and true to the reality I saw in those final shots.
O Ornitólogo (2016)
Imagine if Robert Bresson and Walerian Borowczyk were a single person, a synthesis filmmaker. Now imagine that person is gay. Now imagine that person had a fever dream. That dream would be "The Ornithologist". (If you understood that sentence we're soulmates).
If you're in the market for a psycho-sexual erotic biblical parable that flirts with bondage, urination fetish, bestiality, and just good old fashion beautiful men rolling around naked on a beach, but, you know, all done in an artistically austere, under- emphasized way and then hazed into a hallucinatory mist of a story, then this is your jam right here.
What did I think of it?
I thought it was AWESOME!
It Comes at Night (2017)
There is the inside and there is the outside.
Inside the mind it is dark. You imagine it is safe. You take refuge there. Outside of the mind is the world. The world is sick, dangerous.
You have a door between the two. You keep it locked. You have a protocol for the door to keep what is out, out. The people you trust, that you let inside, you expect them to keep to the protocol as well.
But at night something comes the door can't defend against. At night the dreams come, because the dreams live inside, with you. Dreams of doubt and fear. It's at night when the door is most necessary... and most likely to be compromised.
"It Comes at Night" shrugs off traditional horror beats and embraces the extended discourse of a nightmare, the inky blacks lit only by a hand-held lantern, the invisible contagions that we can't keep out no matter how hard we try, the way a fire we must light attracts things that might do us harm.
It's "Night of the Living Dead" without zombies. It's "The Thing" without a monster. It's the distrust we have of everything outside, even the outsiders that are inside. It's the long narrow dark hallway to a door that's supposed to be locked, must be locked, but isn't.
And it's one of the very best horror films of the year so far. A year that has already been a landmark one for progressive, humanist, and existential horror.
And yes, it is a horror film, no matter what others may tell you.
Wonder Woman (2017)
I didn't like it, but that's not what's important
Wonder Woman is a sincere film. Its heart is in the right place. It's thematically bang on. It's important. I'm very glad it exists. I'm glad it's being universally praised. It has some fantastic costume work in it and some strong production design. It is, indeed, better than recent previous attempts at bringing DC characters to the big screen (but then the bar has been set pretty low). I see little girls dressing as the protagonist and it makes my heart sing. I see comic book stores hosting Wonder Woman Day, I see the world falling in love with a character that I've always adored. These are all wonderful things.
I was very excited for this flick. When the reviews were coming in strong, I let my hopes get high. I admit that I actively ignored my Rotten Tomatoes rule of thumb (any movie with more than 90% RT rating has a huge probability of sucking).
But the film is, subjectively, pretty bad.
It is overwrought. It is written as if by algorithm, meaning that it is simply an amalgamation of standard scenes you've seen before in other movies, just reskinned for this world and this character, everyone acts out every scene in extremely predictable ways. Its third act fight scene is extremely problematic and boring. It is inconsistent, Wonder Woman's presence and powers fluctuate so wildly that she can fight and kill a god, but not a handful of German's with WW I era rifles on a beach?
The CGI is criminally bad, the physics in the special effects shots are so off that it seems like I'm watching a last gen video game.
Its dialogue has exactly three modes: exposition, clumsy attempts at humor, and stating out loud the thematic intent of the scene.
Its fight scenes are more often excuses to pose the character than acts of complex, readable staging, particularly the awful final fight. The use of slow motion in the fight scenes is so reliable and consistent that it seems like a parody of Zach Snyder's already completely unengaged video game fight choreography.
The villains mean nothing. They are uninspired, dreary, and underutilized. Apart from seeing the very well visualized Themyscira, and the handful of times we get to see Wonder Woman in action, there is very little fun to be had in this movie. There is almost nothing that feels inventive and most of the film is colored in that same drab, dreary way that all of the recent DC films are colored.
The movie is looooong, with a running time that used to be reserved for movies like The Piano, The Godfather, and Apocalypse Now, films with sprawling cinematic, thematic, and emotive ambitions that this does not even begin to have.
Lastly, I can't tell if Gadot is incapable of acting or if the script gave her so little of substance to work with that she did an amazing job just keeping it all together.
I have to ask why? Why does the DC universe so actively avoid fun, immersive, well crafted, and inventive storytelling? Why do they double down on this faux-epic, dismal pap? Why are they so afraid of color? Of bold comic-book like choices?
Personally, I wish I had watched a little bit of Wonder Woman on cable and then turned it off like I have every other recent DC movie, but maybe voting with my dollar at least helped change the backward ass notion that women can't open big budget movies.
Oh, well. As I said, the most important thing is that this movie exists, that people like it and that the character is back in the spotlight. That's all that matters. My opinion certainly doesn't. This wasn't a soulless or intellectually bankrupt film like the other DC movies have been, it was just bad, but maybe bad is good enough.
The Life, Times, & Assault of a Narcissist
Paul Verhoeven is as thematically ambitious, ethically challenging, impishly excessive, and darkly funny as ever in this, his best film since returning to European cinema.
Isabelle Huppert is amazing as a destructive narcissist who may have inherited sociopathic tendencies and impaired empathy from her father and who creates video games riddled with overtly sexualized misogynist content, even after becoming a sexual assault victim herself.
The assault sequences are not easy to watch, and I'm still wrestling with the ethical soul of the film, but Verhoeven takes, what on paper, should be terribly offensive and manages to humanize it, as well as give it an almost Hitchcockian air at times.
There's a lot here about the sexual and social needs of men and women and the consequences of those needs on one another. Open to debate is whether or not the work justifies its existence, or that we need a man to tell this story, but taking all that into account, Verhoeven navigates the tricky material extremely well.
The fact that it runs head on towards some pretty touchy subject matter means viewer mileage may vary, but personally, I've been thinking about it for days.
Just Sink Into Farhadi's Rhythms & Sense of Place
While not the masterpiece of "A Separation" or "Firework's Wednesday", it's none-the-less always wonderful to have a new film by Asghar Farhadi in the theaters here in the States. His humanism and naturalism place him on equal footing with the Dardenne brothers and the fact that he's doing his social character cinema in Iran makes him even more important to a Western viewer.
This film quietly unfolds, taking its time. Not having any notion of the plot going in allowed me to sink into Farhadi's rhythms and sense of place and allowed his turns of story to take me by surprise. Eventually, the current reaches an incredibly charged, tense, and emotional last act that never once falls into traditional narrative traps. The final few shots are masterfully simple and perfectly contextualized, supporting a whole film's worth of meaning in and of themselves.
My adoration for Farhadi remains.
La La Land (2016)
A Dissenting Opinion
A fantastically fun opening number and a pathos fueled final montage just can't save a staid script, mostly uninspired musical numbers, and good acting but thin "performing" from the leads. I was far more bored than charmed.
All and all it's nicely photographed, but over-colored in some desperate need to be dreamy, artificial and plastic. Too many super hot reds gobble up visual information instead of actually lighting the leads and the sets.
To its credit, it's ambitious as hell, well-intentioned, and a bit of a production triumph. I appreciate many of the hand-built sets. But as an experience, it mostly fell flat for me. I know I'm in the minority here, which is totally fine it's just a movie, (from the disgusting display of opinion bashing in the comments section you'd think this was politics or something) but personally, I would've rather rewatched "Singing in the Rain".