Film diary, vol. 2

Film diary, vol. 2

The conclusion of Twin Peaks: The Return left a major aesthetic vacuum in my life.  I felt invigorated and ready to do some ambitious movie-watching.   I started the massive project of watching through the complete filmography of Jacques Rivette.  I’m about done with that and will post a piece about Rivette sometime soon.  I’m not including the Rivette movies in this diary.  I watched a ton of other stuff during the last couple months as well.  I mildly injured myself mountain biking twice this year and decided to lay off a little, and so during my free time I just took a run for exercise and then watched lots of movies.  There was also all the oppressive wildfire smoke that kept me inside for most of September.  I kept a fairly complete diary, though I’m sure I forgot to record a few things.  I watched many of these movies on Filmstruck and Amazon (which has been on point lately, both in the channels like Fandor it offers and in its prime streaming and rental opportunities, thanks to its affiliation with some awesome distribution companies like Arrow).  I also watched quite a few on Mubi, which is a great service.

Charulata (S. Ray)

I picked it because it seemed like it would provide a sharp contrast with Pather Panchali while staying in the first half of his career. This was an accurate assessment. It’s really great, and pretty much the polar opposite of Pather while still being recognizable as the work of the same artist. The Renoir influence is very clear, along with a healthy dose of Douglas Sirk. It seems like it may have been a stylistic influence for a lot of Bergman’s later work.

Vengeance is Mine (Imamura)

Portrait of a serial killer, light on the psychologizing, heavy on the dark humor.  Great performance from Ken Ogata.  Seems like Sono picked up some influence here for Cold Fish.  Not my favorite Imamura, but very worthwhile.

Rendez-vous (Téchiné)

This is the 1985 film, not to be confused with the unrelated 2015 film with the same title.  I know for certain that I have seen this before but I had no recollection of it at all.  This is definitely not the place to start with Téchiné.  That would be Wild Reeds and Thieves.  I would only recommend watching this if you dig his stuff.  It’s like Jules et Jim meets Last Tango in Paris.  This was Juliette Binoche’s breakthrough performance.  She’s very young, and the role asks a lot of her.  Wadek Stanczak’s character comes across in 2017 like one of the original Nice Guys of Okcupid.

The Crime of Monsieur Lange (Renoir)

30’s Renoir.  Heavy handed socialist themes.  The first half drags, the second half is very lively. Jules Berry’s performance as the capitalist villain is awesome.

Surreal Estate (de Gregorio)

De Gregorio collaborated with Rivette on some of his best movies.  The movies he directed himself are fairly obscure, but mubi played the two most important ones (and they are also available on the amazon mubi channel).  Starts out masquerading as a gothic mystery in the vein of Wilkie Collins (who is later explicitly mentioned), where a British writer is shopping for a French country home and is lured into a potentially haunted estate by three mysterious women.  The story proceeds through typical genre tropes, twists and red herrings, but instead of the state of affairs becoming clearer as the narrative progresses, it becomes increasingly obscure and surreal.

Short Memory (de Gregorio)

I didn’t like this very much.  It’s okay.  It starts out not unlike a typical Rivette movie, with a young woman setting out to investigate a conspiracy, but unlike in Rivette, she finds the answers she’s looking for (and they’re not terribly interesting).

Three Outlaw Samurai (Gosha)

Fuck. Yes.  Absolute top tier classic samurai shit.

The Insect Woman (Imamura)

My least favorite of the three bundled together by Criterion as the “Pigs, pimps, and prostitutes” set.   Typical Imamura themes: the resilience of women, degradation brought on by hardship.  Hasebe cowrote and his involvement is apparent.  The film touches on Violent Pink themes without getting too explicit.

Endless Desire (Imamura)

An early antecedent of Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks, this was a studio assignment for Imamura, but he directs it with verve and gusto.  It’s a very solid black comedy.

John Carpenter’s The Thing

I’ve seen this a zillion times and it never gets old.  Some of the best horror effects of all time.

My Winnipeg (Maddin)

I absolutely loved this when it came out but it diminished for me when I revisited it.  The stuff about Winnipeg is great but I wasn’t as keen on the navel gazing and nonstop psychoanalysis jokes.

Blood of a Poet (Cocteau)

Saw this available to stream and couldn’t resist.

Three Lives and Only One Death (Ruiz)

Excellent surrealist anthology film from the prolific Chilean filmmaker featuring Mastroianni’s penultimate performance (or is it several performances?).

Love Torn in a Dream (Ruiz)

Like an explosion at the Ruiz factory.  Nine interwoven stories featuring many of the director’s favorite themes and tropes.  Pirates, cannibalism, mysterious parentage, a magic mirror, a magic painting, theological debates, divination, etc. etc. etc.

They Live By Night (N. Ray)

Nicholas Ray’s first movie and an important entry in the “lovers on the run” genre.  Good Farley Granger performance.

Berbarian Sound Studio (Strickland)

Innovative postmodern horror movie.  Very interesting in its emphasis on the physicality of film and the nuts and bolts of sound effects production.  Full of very fun giallo references.

Female Prisoner Scorpion Series (four films)

I watched a lot of Japanese exploitation movies as palette cleansers between Rivette movies, because Japanese exploitation movies are the exact opposite of Jacques Rivette.  I do not recommend these!  Don’t blame me if you choose to watch them!  Definitely know what you are getting yourself into first with the Violent Pink genre.   This stuff is way more extreme than the 70’s “women in prison” exploitation movies from the US.  There is a lot of violence against women, to put it mildly (it gets avenged, though).  I wanted to see these because I absolutely love Meiko Kaji as Lady Snowblood and these movies revolve around her.  She is fucking great.  The third movie is my favorite, followed by one, then two, and the fourth movie is a distant last place.  Hasebe—a director I normally like—directed the fourth one and it just feels like a pale imitation of the first three (directed by Ito) with little to add.  Also, the fourth one focuses way too much on a male character being tortured by the police.  The first three are strongly centered on Kaji.

Three (To)

Three is a very strange hybrid of a medical thriller and a Triad movie.  The entire movie takes place inside a hospital, where a young female surgeon seeks to save a wounded gangster who is trying to bide his time until his crew can bust him out while a cop stands guard and seeks to interrogate him.  The finale is the awesomest thing ever.  It would be impossible to overstate how awesome it is.  Be warned that the movie is also very much a medical thriller, and there’s a ton of graphic surgery

Exiled (To)

Wanted to revisit some Johnnie To favorites after watching Three.  I had to resort to internet shenanigans to get an HD version of this.  Do not watch the shitty dubbed version on amazon!  This is probably my favorite To film.  Glorious action ballet, thematically centered on friendship and loyalty.

Sparrow (To)

Delightful Johnnie To passion project that he filmed sporadically in between other projects.  It’s a love letter to French cinema, with an emphasis on Bresson, Demy, and Melville.  Hong Kong pickpocket ballet, less violent than most of his stuff.  This is essential Johnnie To.

Mad Detective (To)

Excellent Johnnie To madness.   A mentally ill former detective can see peoples’ inner personalities and is brought in to help with an old case.  Love the Lady from Shanghai references.

Wonder Woman (Jenkins)

I hated it.  Hurray women, boo war, but hurray women warriors, because their war is against war!  Limp action scenes displaying zero flare or creativity.  I like seeing Gal Gadot do her thing, but she’s too good for this movie.

Vengeance: A Love Story (Martin)

Nicolas Cage barely acts.  He gives like one speech at the end but mostly his characterization just consists in the fact that he’s Nicolas Cage.  I do not recommend this movie, although I didn’t totally hate it.  It’s an exceptionally ugly rape-revenge story that really focuses long and hard on the protagonist’s PTSD.  The high point is probably Don Johnson as an uber-sleazy lawyer (the court scenes are among the most ridiculous I’ve ever seen

Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss (Hasebe)

Pretty tame next to the Female Prisoner Scorpion movies, and not enough Meiko Kaji in this installment.  I intend to watch the rest of the series (with the expectation that there’s a lot more Meiko Kaji in the other films).  I’m especially interested in the ones directed by Fujita.

Weekend (Godard)

Probably my favorite Godard film, I hadn’t seen it in a long time and was excited to see it show up on Filmstruck.  Definitely watch it.

Mother! (Aronofsky)

Meh.  It’s got both flaws and merits.  Definitely something to see.

Gerald’s Game (Flanagan)

Strange movie, I enjoyed it.  There is some world class body horror.

Intentions of Murder (Imamura)

This and Pigs and Battleships are my favorite Imamura so far (still need to watch quite a few things).  Like The Insect Woman, this was co-written by Hasebe.  It is considerably more disturbing than that film.  It combines the Violent Pink themes that characterize Hasebe’s work with Imamura’s technical mastery and expressive potency.

The Trial of Joan of Arc (Bresson)

Revisited this to prep for Rivette’s Jeanne la Pucelle.  Rivette thinks it’s equal to Dreyer’s film (which I know well enough that I didn’t feel a need to revisit it).  I’m not sure about that, but it is a fascinating, austere film that takes Bresson’s style to extremes.  I struggle to believe that Joan as she’s portrayed here was ever a warrior.  That’s the only issue I have with it.

Pumpinhead (Winston)

It’s a transcendent example of 80’s schlock horror, with some absolutely astonishing sequences.  The creature effects are out of this world.  Great Lance Henriksen performance.

Black Rain (Imamura)

Bleak and miserable look at the consequences of the US’s A-bomb attack on Hiroshima.  Not my favorite Imamura.

L’enfance Nue (Pialat)

Pialat’s first film, a raw and emotionally difficult look at a young boy stuck in the foster care system who acts out in disturbing ways.

Massacre Gun (Hasebe)

High quality 1967 Nikkatsu yakuza shit, directed by Hasebe.  The great Jô Shishido runs afoul of his crime family and leads a mutiny.

You Only Live Once (Lang)

Fritz Lang’s second American film (made in 1937), Henry Fonda wants to go straight but can’t catch a break.  Extremely solid.

Survival of the Dead (Romero)

Romero’s last Dead film.  Better than I gave it credit for when it was released.  It’s all about tribalism.

The Mummy (Kurtzman)

Middle aged Tom Cruise is so depressing.  I’m looking forward to elderly Tom Cruise (Tom Cruise as Dumbledore?).  The movie is terrible.  I watched most of it and then turned it off with a half hour left because I wanted to cut my losses.

Blade Runner 2049 (Villeneuve)

All about the atmosphere and production design, which are well done.  I thought it was very solid and it satisfied me as a fan of the original film.  JJ Abrams could take a lesson on how to redeploy Harrison Ford.

The Earrings of Madame De… (Ophüls)

I hadn’t seen this in a long time.  Wonderful from start to finish.  Not unlike Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73, which is centered on a rifle as it changes hands several times, this film follows a pair of earrings through an improbable series of events.

Demons 1+2 (Lamberto Bava)

Very fun splatter horror from the son of the great Mario Bava that gets into some interesting meta-fictional territory.

Black Society Trilogy (Miike)

Early trilogy from Miike deals with one of his central themes: cultural displacement.  The first film, Shinjuku Triad Society, is about Chinese gangs in Tokyo, the second film, Rainy Dog,  is about a Japanese gangster stuck in Taipei, and the third film, Ley Lines, is about three Chinese immigrants who move to the big city from rural japan, befriend a prostitute from Shanghai, and get involved in the drug trade.  The first film is fucking bonkers and definitely my favorite.  Lots of really jarring sexuality (and sexual violence), mostly between men, and anyone prone to be upset by such things should beware.  The second film is more subdued.  It’s pretty good but doesn’t stand out among Miike’s vast body of work.  The third film is the most technically accomplished and more subdued than the first film, but less subdued than the second.

Dead or Alive (Miike)

Batshit Miike yakuza movie, I hadn’t seen it in quite a while.  The beginning and end are off the charts.

Pierrot le Fou (Godard)

Very good, but doesn’t stand up well next to Weekend (which it resembles).  It drags a bit and is unfocused in a way that doesn’t entirely work.  It’s very worthwhile, though.

Tag (Sono)

Looney Sono mindbender.

The Driller Killer (Ferrara)

Experimental highbrow exploitation horror from Abel Ferrara.  Definitely one to see for all horror fans.

Retaliation (Hasebe)

Middling yakuza shit.  Raw, verite style was an inspiration for the Yakuza Papers series.

Pitfall (Teshigahara)

The first film from the director of Woman in the Dunes. I didn’t really care for it.  The social commentary is heavy handed and the supernatural element is under-realized.

La Marseillaise (Renoir)

Very entertaining historical drama from Renoir about the beginning of the French revolution, splitting  its focus between a large variety of subjects, ranging from Marie Antoinette to rural peasants.

Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Lang)

Rivette homework.  Lang was one of Rivette’s biggest influences, and this film is a keystone.  It’s a bit bloated but its high points are exquisite.  It seems like this must have been an inspiration for BOB in Twin Peaks.  

Hour of the Wolf (Bergman)

One of the only Bergman films after his early period that I hadn’t seen.  I saw the other two parts of the trilogy, Shame and The Passion of Anna, a very long time ago, but I decided to save this one and it got away from me for many years.  It’s great, combining elements of Persona with horror themes.

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Rossellini binge

Sometimes you’ve just gotta take a day or two off from life and settle in for a Rossellini marathon.   I woke up one morning feeling burned out and knowing that the only thing I wanted to do that day was watch Rossellini movies.  It ended up carrying into the next day.

Rome Open City

White hot fire, filmed in the smoking rubble of post-war Rome.

Paisan

The least immediate of the war trilogy.   Six vignettes set all around Italy focusing on interactions between Americans and anti-fascist Italians.  The exploration of communication barriers is interesting but the movie is uneven and doesn’t stand up well to comparison with the other two.

Germany Year Zero

One of the most miserable movies ever made.  After the pointedly negative portrayals of Germans in the first two installments of the war trilogy, he turns a more compassionate gaze on suffering poor people living in the rubble of Berlin after the war (including a Nazi solider who fought till the end), focusing on a 13 year old boy.  It’s powerful, painful, vital cinema.

The Flowers of St. Francis

Co-written with Fellini, who brings his sense of humor to the table.  A series of vignettes about St. Francis, alternating rapidly between slapstick comedy and solemn exploration of self-sacrifice and spiritual commitment.  Real monks as actors.  Delightful.

Europe ‘51

Combines elements of Germany Year Zero and The Flowers of St. Francis. Ingrid Bergman plays a wealthy woman who becomes a saint-like figure in response to a personal tragedy.  Very strange, surprising movie.

Stromboli

Probably my favorite Rossellini.  Ingrid Bergman plays a fancy Lithuanian woman who is caught up in internment during the war and marries an Italian peasant boy to escape her circumstances, only to be brought to live on a barren volcanic island where she is abjectly miserable.  Remarkably, the volcano erupted during filming, and Rossellini captured some astonishing footage, both of the volcano and of local fishing practices.  The ending is transcendent.

Journey to Italy

Proto-Antonioni.  A British couple visits Italy to sell an inherited villa and their marriage starts to fall apart.  Classic and essential.

The Taking of Power by Louis XIV

Probably my second favorite Rossellini.  Jean-Marie Patte’s performance as the Sun King is truly bizarre.  He’s easy to underestimate, which enables him to set unexpecting conspirators up for a crushing Michael Corleone-esque play to consolidate power.   Perhaps the greatest movie ever about fashion and one of the best renditions of the costume drama.

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Sansho the Bailiff (Mizoguchi)

Classic, essential Mizoguchi.  Exceedingly miserable, rapturously gorgeous.

Touki Bouki (Mambéty)

Senegalese Godardian romp.  It’s great, but content warning: several animals get their heads cut off onscreen.  Especially interesting on gender and sexuality.

Personal Shopper (Assayas)

Not my favorite Assayas, but very worthwhile.  I found it compelling as a portrait of the detachment that characterizes modern life (the protagonist doesn’t directly interact with the most significant people in her life), but flawed in several respects.  Way too much iPhone screen and typing sounds.  Mute those typing sounds and throw a score over it or something, I couldn’t handle it.  I do think it’s interesting to look at the suspense and preoccupation involved with communicating through text message, but I didn’t find the actual content of the text messages very interesting and the movie overplays its hand re: texting.  I also thought some revelations/resolutions are too abrupt and neat and it would have played better to retain more ambiguity.

The Golden Coach (Renoir)

Entertaining trifle.  I watched it as prep for Rivette’s last film, Around a Small Mountain

Pépé le Moko (Duvivier)

Cool as fuck 1937 French noir.  Pépé running around the Casbah eluding the law and seducing wealthy tourists.

Nocturama (Bonello)

2016 film, starts out in Rivette territory, there’s a brief Godard interlude, then we get George Romero does The Bling Ring.  I found the allegory to be heavy handed but there are some great moments and I appreciate that it stays fairly abstract.

The Whip and the Body (Bava)

Wonderful Bava technicolor S&M ghost story with a creaky mansion, hidden doors, a haunted dagger, and all kinds of other cool stuff.

Boudu Saved from Drowning (Renoir)

Excellent slapstick social satire.  The great Michael Simon plays a barbaric tramp who is rescued from drowning and invited to live with his bourgeois benefactors.

 

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The 10 Movies I Hate the Most

The 10 Movies I Hate the Most

I’ve been known to defend movies that are widely hated.  I’m a Michael Bay fan, for instance, and I was particularly fond of Transformers: Age of Extinction.  I admit that I do have generous taste.  My aim is to enjoy; I’m not looking for excuses to have a bad time watching movies.   And so, people often ask me, “well, then what do you hate?”  Here’s the answer.   These are the titles that I really and truly abhor.

10) Argo

I particularly hate it because it is such a waste of a good premise.   A group of American embassy employees have to impersonate a Canadian film production crew in order to escape Iran.  Put someone like David Mamet or Steven Soderbergh on this premise and you could have something great.  In the Affleck version, there are like two scenes that actually exploit the premise.  Rather than extrapolating its dramatic potentialities, Affleck opts to build suspense by having the Iranians improbably decode some fucking photos from earlier that blow the group’s cover at the exact moment when they are on their way to the airport, and so the finale just ends up being a clichéd race for the plane to take off.

9) To Kill a Mockingbird

Like the book it’s based on, this smug garbage would have us believe that the justice system in the Jim Crow south was characterized by a conflict between good white people and bad white people over whether to execute falsely accused black people.  This movie has been giving white audiences occasion to pat themselves on the back for generations.

8) Super Size Me

No shit you can’t eat supersized fast food for every meal you fucking idiot.  This whole genre of clickbait documentaries can burn in a dumpster fire.

7)  Bee Movie

First of all, fuck Jerry Seinfeld.  He sucks.  The only reason Seinfeld seemed good at the time was that we hadn’t seen Curb Your Enthusiasm yet.    But Seinfeld is Citizen Kane compared to the damn Bee Movie.  The most reactionary bullshit ever concocted, this is what happens in the Bee Movie: the bees realize that if no one was stealing their honey they wouldn’t have to work so hard and would have more free time to develop other areas of their lives.  But it turns out that without anyone exploiting them and stealing the value of their labor they have too much time on their hands and it leads to socio-cultural degradation.  Ultimately, they learn the value of working every day your whole life and not having anything to show for it.

6) L’Humanité

Two and a half hours later, why the fuck did I watch this?  I love long movies.  I love settling into the experience, knowing that it’s not going to end anytime soon.   I very rarely find movies boring.  But this was wretchedly ugly and bored me stiff.  Vapid and pretentious, it’s the worst parody of an “art film.”  I also hated Twentynine Palms (for similar reasons), and haven’t watched anything from Bruno Dumont since.

5) American Beauty

Oh yeah, that floating bag is really fucking profoundly beautiful…. Can we go back to Kevin Spacey jerking off in the shower?

4) Crash

The only movie ever to deal more insipidly with race relations than To Kill a Mockingbird.

3) Gone, Baby, Gone

I felt like I was in a Twilight Zone episode when I watched this.  I don’t think anyone expected Ben Affleck to be a good filmmaker, which is why it was so surprising when he made this and everyone was like “no, seriously, it’s good!  Ben Affleck is a good director!”  When I watched it, I felt like the whole word had staged an elaborate practical joke.  Surely everyone is fucking with me.  No one actually thinks this is good.

One thing I will say for the movie is that it is extremely thorough in its hideousness.  Right down the line, on one side you have middle-class, attractive, clean, morally upright, while on the other side you have poor, ugly, filthy, moral degenerate.  I mean, once you get to that part of town, is it really any surprise to find a bloody pair of children’s underwear in the sink?

2) Swiss Army Man

I hated Swiss Army Man with every fiber of my being.  The fact that it appears to be reasonably well-liked makes me feel desperately alienated from humanity.  I don’t think I should have to explain why I hated it so much.  It should be abundantly obvious to anyone who has watched two minutes of it.  Please don’t tell me that you liked this (lie to me if you have to), and certainly don’t try to explain its virtues to me.  If you do, I won’t ever be able to think of you again without associating you with the Farting Harry Potter Corpse movie.

1) Jackpot

I’ll never forget the day I watched Jackpot.  I was spending the afternoon with an ex-girlfriend who I hadn’t seen in a long time.  Back when we were together, I usually picked the movie.  This time she made a big deal of asserting that she was going to pick the movie.  I agreed.  She picked Jackpot, from the Polish brothers, which she had rented from Blockbuster.  I kinda sorta liked the Polish brothers’ debut, Twin Falls Idaho, and so I was content to go along with her choice.  In the end, when she asked me what I thought, I told her in full honesty, “it’s the worst movie I’ve ever seen.”  She thought I was just being a dick (and I certainly can see how it might have seemed that way), but more than 15 years later I still assert: this is the worst movie I’ve ever seen.

It’s about a traveling karaoke singer and his “manager.”  They’ve got big dreams.  The plan is to build a fanbase on the competitive karaoke scene.   It’s a particularly galling entry in the “look how quirky people in middle America are” genre.  The protagonist has abandoned his wife (a woefully misused Daryl Hannah) and baby daughter.  In lieu of child support, he sends her a single lottery ticket every week.   He has bad sex with lonely women he picks up after performing.  The second woman he goes home with catches him trying to fuck her underage daughter.   Nothing ends up happening; it just becomes clear that everyone’s dreams are doomed to fail.  That’s the movie.  It’s vile.  I watched one more movie from the Polish brothers a couple years later, Northfork, because a lot of people seemed to like it.  I fucking hated that one, too, and haven’t watched anything else from them since.

Streaming Recommendations, Vol. 2

Streaming Recommendations, Vol. 2

Recommendations from Josh are labeled with his initials, ‘JS’.

Netflix

Raw

Best horror movie of 2017 so far.  Julia Ducournau’s debut follows in the footsteps of Claire Denis’ magnificent Trouble Every Day, with its seething, sensual, feverish depiction of gnawing hunger and psychological dissolution.  This is some highbrow French cannibal shit.

Three

Probably not the best place to start with Johnnie To, but not the worst.  To marries the Hong Kong action aesthetic with the French New Wave and maybe a little Coen Brothers and Wes Anderson (and something else that is distinctly his own).   I would suggest Election, Election 2 (also known as Triad Election), Exiled and Sparrow as the best places to begin with To, though most of these are hard (but not impossible) to see in the US at this point.  Do not watch the shitty dubbed version of Exiled on Amazon!  Do not watch any of these movies dubbed!  Three is a very strange hybrid of a medical thriller and a Triad movie.  The entire movie takes place inside a hospital, where a young female surgeon seeks to save a wounded gangster who is trying to bide his time until his crew can bust him out while a cop stands guard and seeks to interrogate him.  The finale is the awesomest thing ever.  It would be impossible to overstate how awesome it is.  Be warned that the movie is also very much a medical thriller, and there’s a ton of graphic surgery.

TAG

Not for everyone!  If you like Sono then go for it. Mind-bending narrative.  Expect to see a lot of schoolgirls getting cut in half. Berserk movie.

Together

This is the light, nostalgic side of Lukas Moodysson.  Stellar drama about a 70’s hippie commune.

Deep Blue Sea

A beloved cult favorite (in my house, at least).  Intelligent sharks.  These sharks can bring down a helicopter.  LL Cool J subverts the usual “disposable token black guy” genre convention.

Che

I waited years to see this.  I got way more into Soderbergh after Side Effects (a De Palma-esque thriller that I totally loved) and finally gave it a shot.  You know what?  It’s really fucking good and not at all what I expected.  Not romanticized.

The Assassin

My sense is that a lot of people saw this, but if you didn’t, consider checking it out.  It’s a wuxia from Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien.  Very elusive, extraordinarily gorgeous.  There’s a reasonably clear narrative for the first half but by the end who the fuck knows what’s happening.  If you like wuxia and aren’t afraid of experimental narratives, then go for it.

The Salvation

Trigger warning!   Harrowing Danish revenge western starring Mads Mikkelson.  Lean and mean.  Arguably the best western of the last few years.

The Treasure

Oddly riveting deadpan comedy from Romanian New Wave director Corneliu Porumboiu.  Endearing and mesmerizing, with a doozy of an ending.   (JS)

Mother

There are several movies with this title, and this one (by Bong Joon-ho) is probably the best, followed by the Albert Brooks film.  This is Bong in a similar police procedural mode to his masterpiece Memories of Murder, but with the mother character filling the central detective role.  (JS)

Amazon

Dead or Alive

Excellent Miike yakuza shit.  This is a good entry point into Miike.  It helps if you already have some familiarity with the yakuza genre. Possibly the wildest first ten minutes of any movie ever.

Gozu

Not for everyone!  If you like Miike, then by all means go for it.  If you’re not familiar with Miike, ask yourself if you’d like to see an absurdist comedic yakuza horror film with an episodic structure loosely modeled after a classical epic.  If there’s any doubt at all, this is not the movie for you.  Copious breastmilk.

Duelle

I’m in the middle of a complete Jacques Rivette watch-through (which is a large undertaking that I will write about when I finish), and I’ve been dismayed by how few of his movies are readily available in the US.  It was a delightful surprise to find the beautiful new HD transfers of Duelle, Noroît, and Merry-Go-Round from the Arrow blu-ray set on Amazon Prime.  He originally intended a tetralogy of genre-bending films centered around a fantastical feminist cosmic mythology, but had a nervous breakdown during the third film (a musical) and abandoned the project, ultimately making Merry-Go-Round in lieu of the final two films he had planned.  Rivette is most definitely not for everyone, but Duelle is one of the more accessible, entertaining films from the first half of his career.  It starts out as an elusive mostly-female noir where two women (played by two of the finest actresses of the era, Bulle Ogier and Juliet Berto) are engaged in some sort of mysterious conflict.  I don’t want to give anything else away, but the movie is totally mind-blowing.   If you absolutely love it, proceed to the other two, which are less accessible.  His concept for the series was “to invent a new approach to film acting, where speech, pared down to essential phrases, precise formulas, would play the role of poetic punctuation.”  If that turns you off, avoid Noroît, which enacts this concept pretty aggressively.   It’s a mostly female pirate revenge movie full of dance-like choreography.

The Lost City of Z

James Gray tackles epic adventure filmmaking while retaining his distinctive voice.  The movie is a class act through and through, dealing sensitively with issues of colonialism while delivering a gorgeously filmed adventure story.  (JS)

The Witch

If you slept on the best horror movie of 2016, now is as good a time as any.  Legit terrifying.

The Assignment

Hear me out on this one.  It’s a blessing that Walter Hill is still making movies.  This got shat on before it was even filmed because it uses a gender transition as a sensationalist plot point.  It does indeed do this.  Michelle Rodriguez plays a male hitman who is involuntarily given a sex change operation as revenge.  The first act where she plays a man is definitely super weird and awkward, but then her performance becomes sort of brilliant.  She ends up as a male character trapped in a female body, and it ends up working as a vivid inverted depiction of gender dysphoria.  I found it to be actually quite intelligent and progressive in its B movie way.  Typical Walter Hill badassery along the way.

An American Werewolf in London (also on hulu)

A classic, you’ve probably seen it.  But if you haven’t: I recommend!

Spider Baby

Rob Zombie frequently references this 1967 Jack Hill classic.  It’s really strange and awesome.  Starring Lon Chaney Jr.!

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (also on hulu)

This is the only Texas Chainsaw movie after the original that Tobe Hooper made himself.  It’s absolutely wonderful.  Very silly and campy, with a hilarious Dennis Hopper performance.  It sustains its Tobe Hooper fever pitch finale longer than any of his other movies, to grand effect.

Inferno                   

Second part of Argento’s Mother of Tears trilogy (along with Suspiria and Mother of Tears).  Not the place to start with Argento, but if you like any of his other movies, it’s worth a spin.  Great score and atmosphere.  (JS)  [note: the Argento movies we recommend most strongly after Suspiria are Opera and Phenomena, both of which are available to stream, but not included in Prime.]

Pumpkinhead (also Hulu)

It’s a transcendent example of 80’s schlock horror, with some absolutely astonishing sequences.  The creature effects are out of this world.  Great Lance Henriksen performance.  (JS)

Knock Knock

Overlooked nasty little gem from Eli Roth.  The great Keanu Reeves plays against type in a gender inverted home invasion thriller.  It reaches a hell of a frenzy by the end.  (JS)

 

Hulu

Mad Detective

Awesome Johnnie To movie (see Three above).  A mentally ill detective who can see people’s inner personalities is enlisted to help solve a cold case.  Probably not the best place to start with To, but also not the worst (especially if you have some familiarity with Hong Kong action movies and are fond of them).  Extremely inventive and weird.  Very entertaining.

Fright Night

Fun 80’s vampire movie, not scary.   Would be fun for a pre-Halloween movie night with friends.

Kiss of the Damned

Sexy as hell retro vampire movie in the tradition of 70’s gothic vampire erotica like Daughters of Darkness (with Delphine Seyrig) and Jesus Franco’s Female Vampire.

Berbarian Sound Studio

Innovative horror movie about a British sound effects guy who travels to Italy to work on a horror movie.  Lots of really fun giallo referencesVery interesting focus on the physicality of film and the nuts and bolts of sound effects production.

Splinter

Excellent independent horror movie.  Trapped in a gas station, monstrous parasites.  Stands apart from most recent horror movies due to its spectacular practical effects.

Hatchet

Delightful retro slasher fare.  The sequels are great as well.

The Loved Ones

Australian first time filmmaker Sean Byrne successfully mixes John Hughes with torture porn.  It’s legit horror, surprising and twisted.  (JS)

Survival of the Dead

Underrated final installment of the Dead series anticipated today’s political tribalism.  Buckets of badass zombie gore, though unfortunately it has more CG effects than the previous installments. (JS)

Cecil B. Demented

John Waters’ “fuck you” to Hollywood and love letter to transgressive, renegade filmmaking.   (JS)

Byzantium

Excellent Neil Jordan vampire movie.  Saoirse Ronan is memorable.

 

Mother! (spoilers)

Mother! (spoilers)

I thought Mother! was alright.  It’s by no means a great film, but I found that it fails in a fun way.

I do not like Darren Aronofsky, though I like some of his films.  I haven’t even seen Requiem for a Dream.  My brother is pretty good at anticipating my taste, and back when it came out he told me that he was 100% positive I would hate it and that I would consider it a waste of time.  I will probably go back and see it sooner or later but part of the reason I never did is that it is often lumped in with the general constellation of Fincher/Nolan cinebro excrement.  I also really can’t stand watching Jared Leto onscreen.  I shrugged at Pi and disliked The Wrestler, which is saying something, because it’s pretty hard to make a Mickey Rourke movie that I don’t like.  I kinda sorta admired The Fountains wonkiness but I wouldn’t say I liked the movie.  I definitely enjoyed Black Swan. It’s hilarious and Vincent Cassel is amazing.  I’m not sure Aronofsky intended it as a comedy and I would rather not know, but if he meant it seriously that probably would make it even funnier.  I also thoroughly enjoyed Noah, which is a very fun great big campy bizarro blockbuster that antagonizes Christian audiences in an entertaining way.

I was initially disinterested in Mother!.  I read that Anthony Bourdain was touting it as a masterpiece, which made me even less interested.  What caught my attention was the F it received from CinemaScore.  This is a good sign.  Only 19 movies have achieved this rating and most of them are pretty interesting.  William Friedkin’s Bug and Richard Kelly’s The Box are great films.  Wolf Creek and In the Cut are damn good.  Several others are decent.  Mother! is in good company.  After writing a recent piece suggesting that movies that are met with hatred are more likely to be interesting than movies met with bland widespread approval, several people pushed me to see it and I finally got the chance today.

I read a couple reviews before writing this.  I found the New Yorker review—like pretty much all film criticism in the New Yorker—to be obnoxiously written and devoid of worthwhile insight.  Straightforward feminist critique is a pretty dense reaction to a movie that features a group of people kicking and beating a woman while yelling misogynist expletives.  The issue with Mother! is not that it has an unreflective gender problemit’s that its feminism is so trite and heavy handed.  I learned from the New Yorker review that Aronofsky claims the movie is about mother nature.  That’s really fucking stupid and I wish I never heard it.

Here’s what I liked about the movie: it pairs a grimy 70’s grindhouse aesthetic with an ultra-abrasive take on the familiar trope of people continuing to show up well past the point of absurdity (the most famous instance in film is probably the Marx Brothers’ Night at the Opera).  It borrows from Bunuel’s Viridiana in an interesting way.  I didn’t realize that Michelle Pfeiffer was in the movie and I was delighted when she showed up.  She’s fantastic, easily the high point of the whole thing.  I enjoyed the Adam/Eve/Cain/Abel interlude.  The nonstop closeup tracking shots are disorienting and often detract from the film’s legibility, but I actually enjoyed the overall effect when paired with the generally overwhelming abrasiveness.  I was amused by the transgressive shock tactics at the end, though as pregnancy horror it doesn’t even begin to compete with Bustillo and Maury’s 2007 horror masterpiece Inside/À l’intérieur, which is light-years better than Mother! and considerably more disturbing.

Here’s what I didn’t like about the movie: it’s thematically trite and relentlessly heavy-handed.  I was hoping it was going to back away from the theme of the artist’s craving for adoration (as a metaphor for God’s desire to be worshipped, apparently) and just lean into the absurdist horror, but no.  The visual metaphor of the crystallized heart is cringe-worthy and the feminist critique of muse-fetishism has been done a hell of a lot better…  Albert Brooks’ The Muse, anyone?  The domesticity as self-sacrifice stuff is also pretty damn worn out.

And so in conclusion: Mother!  is nowhere near as good as some of the other movies that achieved the F benchmark from CinemaScore, but unlike most of the crap at the multiplex, it’s at least something that will get your attention.  It’s committed.  I don’t recommend it, nor do I recommend against it.

The Unknown Girl

The Unknown Girl

This is the first movie from the Dardenne brothers that I’ve outright hated.  I was starting to feel weary of them before seeing it.  Okay, I get it: no music, handheld photography, people riding around on mopeds, moral and/or spiritual parables.  I would say Rosetta is very good, The Son is tremendous, and The Kid with a Bike is decent (finally some variation in their style), while L’Enfant is overwrought and their other stuff is forgettable.  The clearest antecedent of The Unknown Girl in their body of work is La Promesse, which is also a wankfest of white guilt.  In La Promesse, the son of a man who exploits migrants insists on keeping a promise he made to one of his father’s victims on the brink of death to protect the man’s family.  In The Unknown Girl, a white doctor refuses to open the door for a black woman seeking help in the middle of the night, and that woman–later revealed to be an undocumented immigrant– is killed the same night.  The doctor becomes hellbent on discovering the woman’s identity and the truth of what happened to her.  The film tediously follows her around town as she reveals herself to be an astonishingly good detective who immediately encounters all the key players through pure happenstance and gradually guilts them into revealing what they know.  Surprise: everyone has failed the dead woman.  The final revelations are convoluted yet predictable and in no way justify the amount of buildup that precedes them.

The Unknown Girl is overflowing with smug moral narcissism.  It imagines that it’s a moral achievement to seek closure for oneself as a complicit middle class white person through extensive wallowing and empty symbolic gestures.  Situate this film in the contemporary political context and it just becomes unbearably cloying.  The title of the New York Times review of the film is “The Hard Road of Decency in The Unknown Girl.”   I don’t think this is intended as sarcasm (the review is positive), but taken as sarcasm it hits the nail on the head: this film finds moral triumph in ineffectual self-flagellation as a response to atrocity.  It’s like Haneke’s Cache without teeth.

It

It

When I was growing up, I was obsessed with the horror section in my video store.  I would walk up and down the aisle and look at all of the grotesque cover art that promised something beyond my imagination. These movies were forbidden and mysterious. My friends and I rented every single movie in that aisle—the more ridiculous and nasty, the better. Shoddy B-movies became beloved favorites that we quoted constantly. Every once and a while we’d stumble into a great film. I still remember how the original Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre cut through the noise when I first saw them. They stunned and captivated me.

I miss real horror movies. Most modern horror films lack originality and commitment. They aren’t exciting or dangerous. If it’s not the bland franchise movies at the multiplex then it’s the over-serious art house releases that critics say “reinvent the horror genre” but are actually meant for people who don’t even like horror (I’m looking at you, It Comes at Night). The only standouts last year were The Witch, Don’t Breathe and 31. Everything else I could live without. I was not at all interested in the new It movie when I first heard about it. I assumed it would be yet another entry in the endless stream of PG-13 horror reboots, remakes and sequels.

The Lititz Borough Police Department in Pennsylvania posted a Facebook message after finding red balloons tied to sewer grates around town. The playful message made national news and freaked out the teen girls who executed the prank. When I saw this story on the news, I got really excited that a little red balloon tied to a grate got everyone so worked up. It felt like an urban legend come to life but it came about organically, not as a marketing ploy. Once I got the sense that this movie was already permeating the national psyche I really hoped it might turn out to fit into the great American Nightmare tradition in horror – horror that taps into something deep and dark in our cultural subconscious. I looked a little deeper and saw that the cinematography was done by Chung-hoon Chung, who shot nearly all of Chan-wook Park’s films, including Oldboy and last year’s masterpiece The Handmaiden. SOLD.

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Early in the film I was reminded of the Netflix series Stranger Things, which pays homage to Stephen King and is steeped in 80’s nostalgia. I liked Stranger Things but thought that the nostalgia was too front-and-center. What’s surprising about It is the way that it subverts its nostalgia. It shows the ugly side of 80’s childhood. It’s not sanitized. It examines cruelty and bullying in a painful way that cuts right through the cuddly version of the 80’s that mainstream film and television trade in. The casual homophobic slurs, racial violence and communal slut shaming that occur in the film are jarring and disturbing. This aspect of the time period is rarely depicted in genre film, and it’s very effective here. The stark portrayal of cruelty isn’t one-dimensional: it also serves to bond the characters in a poignant way and helps the audience feel for the crew of misfits at the center of the story.

What about the clown, you ask? Tim Curry’s performance as Pennywise is the one truly excellent thing about the original It miniseries. Curry’s Pennywise scared the shit out of me and my siblings as children and we would frequently play games where we had to battle It (whom we imagined was hiding under our beds or in the closet). He stood with Freddy Kruger and Candyman as one of the most terrifying boogeymen in my young mind. Bill Skarsgård does an admirable job of updating this character for the 21st century. Curry played Pennywise as an angry and hostile clown who loved to play tricks and generally be a dick. Skarsgård’s Pennywise is a sinister creature playing innocent and that fake innocence makes him scary. He’s a salivating wolf in sheep’s clothing just waiting to bust out and eat some kids. He plays Pennywise as more unpredictable and unstable in a way that connects the character with distinctively modern anxieties. The only thing I’d complain about is the use of digital effects to show his ferocious movement. These effects are distracting and don’t add anything—I almost always favor practical effects in horror.

It did not disappoint me. It was bold, inspired, and had teeth. So many sequences were full of dark imagination. Chung’s images are refined, clean and deeply creepy, and they stand out in comparison with the recycled and worn out aesthetics that are typical of most recent horror films. This is top shelf stuff. It is terrifying and fearsome when it wants to be, but also funny and melancholy in an endearing way. This is pop filmmaking at its best.

 

 

Filmstruck diary, vol. 1

Filmstruck diary, vol. 1

I am loving Filmstruck (the streaming collaboration from Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Collection).  It’s not complete by any means (Hulu had a larger selection of Criterion titles) but I don’t mind that.  A little bit of narrowing down and curation steers me to titles I otherwise might not watch and thereby expands my horizons, whereas if they had everything under the sun available I would ironically be more likely to stick with my narrower preconceived agenda.  Filmstruck has definitely helped me spend my film-viewing time more productively: more world classics, fewer forgettable new releases.   I decided to keep a little diary of the titles I watch.   It’s hard to go wrong with such excellent curation so most everything has been great.

 

L’Argent 

I had actually never seen this before.  I try to save one or two films by great directors so I have something to look forward to.  I was saving this and finally decided to pull the trigger.  I quickly realized that this is where the Dardenne brothers bit their whole style from.  I was thoroughly awestruck by the film.  The money-begets-evil premise, borrowed from the first half of a Tolstoy novella, might have been unbearably trite in the hands of a lesser filmmaker.  Bresson takes it to an unexpectedly feverish and dark place.  Of course the execution is immaculate.

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (Bresson)

Early Bresson, it’s a minor work.  The Cocteau dialogue is a great pleasure, and you can see Bresson’s style developing.

Mouchette (Bresson)

Staggering masterpiece.  A companion piece to Au hasard Balthazar.  I realized that the ending of Fat Girl directly quotes a central scene here (trying to be vague to avoid giving plot points away to people who haven’t seen either or both).

Lone Wolf and Cub series (6 films, multiple directors)

The shogun’s executioner–an invincible swordsman– is betrayed and becomes a rogue assassin along with his young son.  I had only seen the dubbed American recut of the first two movies, Shogun Assassin, which is garbage compared to the Japanese versions.  I enjoyed these movies so much!  I wish there were 20 of them.  Tarantino quotes this series extensively (unsurprisingly).   Each of the six movies has a distinct quality, ranging from eerie spirituality to raunchy exploitation, and they are all fantastic.  I love that any time someone questions whether this is an appropriate situation for a child, Ogami’s explanation is simply, “My son and I walk the demon way in hell together.”

Pigs and Battleships (Imamura)

Hadn’t seen this.  Fucking loved it.  Wow, did I love it.   It made it clear to me how much Sion Sono (who I am a big fan of) gets from Imamura.  It’s about the relationship between the occupying American military and the locals (particularly the yakuza) in postwar Japan.  This movie is at a fever pitch from start to finish, but there’s a definite crescendo.  Spinning overhead shots, pigs everywhere.  I was particularly struck by the way the American Navy is portrayed—like cartoonish barbarians in sailor suits.

Death Race 2000 (Bartel)

An utter delight as always.  A high point of the 70’s cult aesthetic.

Sisters (De Palma)

I’m a De Palma superfan so of course I love this.  Lurid, hyper-stylized Hitchcock pastiche.  It’s an immature work, but not in a bad way.  It feels like he’s overflowing with ideas and has no restraint.

Le Samouraï (Melville)

One of my favorite movies ever.  I see it as a keystone of the great tradition of movies about a man (or woman) who lives by a code.  Since the last time I saw it I’ve thought a lot about the ways that Jarmusch paid homage to it in The Limits of Control and Ghost Dog, and it was interesting to revisit it in that light.

Mystery Train (Jarmusch)

Hadn’t seen this in ages.  It’s fun, but a minor work.   It’s a quirky, Elvis-centric anthology film.  Joe Strummer is great.

Andrei Rublev (Tarkovsky)

I’ve seen this four times now.  It’s not a movie to approach lightly.  I made a huge leap this time in my understanding of the film.  I previously thought most of the segments were only loosely connected, but now I realize that they trace a very particular theme: Rublev’s initial inability to represent suffering or dark themes and the development of his ability to do so.  He first awakens to darkness through the events surrounding the Tatar raids (particularly the fall of the holy fool), and then his will to create is rekindled by the bell-making experience.

Pather Panchali (S. Ray)

Beautiful and devastating.  Lyrical portrait of life and death in poverty.  I haven’t gone any deeper than this into S. Ray but I intend to.  Big blind spot for me.

Party Girl (N. Ray)

I dig Nicholas Ray but hadn’t seen this.  His CinemaScope compositions are incredible but I don’t think this is one of his better films.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Demy)

Someone somewhere compared La La Land to this and it grossed me out and made me want to sit down with the real deal.   Don’t watch La La Land, watch this.

Beauty and the Beast (Cocteau)

Pure joy revisiting this.  I recommend it to every living person without reservation.

Spirit of the Beehive (Erice)

Hadn’t seen this.   Haunting movie about a young girl in Franco’s Spain who sees Frankenstein and starts to retreat into fantasy.   Guillermo del Toro clearly borrows heavily from this film.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Yates)

It kind of pained me to see Robert Mitchum as a rat but this is top shelf 70’s hard boiled crime cinema.  I hadn’t seen it.  Was very surprised to learn that Yates also directed Krull, which I’ve always had a soft spot for.

Certified Copy (Kiarostami)

I love this movie.  I think the mistake a lot of people make is focusing too much on the theorizing about authenticity that takes place in the first half of the film.   I take the importance of the theorizing to be not its content per se, but rather the characterization it achieves and also the way it relates to the film’s overall structure.  This is not a didactic movie, though it could easily be mistaken for one.  I was particularly struck this time by how incredibly abrasive a lot of the acting is (purposefully so) and by the persistent visual focus on reflections.

Secrets and Lies (Leigh)

Hadn’t seen this since back when it came out .  It was probably the second Mike Leigh film I saw, after Naked.  It’s about a successful black woman who seeks out her birth mother and (much to both their surprise) finds a working class white woman.  I love Leigh’s work and this is no exception.  Brenda Blethyn is much shriller than I remember, which is hard to take but effective.  It’s a viscerally intense movie.

Viridiana (Bunuel)

Hadn’t seen this in a very long time.  Idealism crushed by depravity and vice.   This is essential Bunuel for sure.  It’s on the less flashy side for him but it’s thematically central.

Diabolique (Clouzot)

Hard to beat France in the 50’s for suspense movies.   This is one of the best.  It crosses into horror territory and was clearly very influential for Hitchcock.

Vampyr (Dreyer)

For me this rather than Nosferatu is the greatest early vampire movie.  It’s strikingly avant-garde.