The Weekly Roundup

I’ve been kind of lazy as a writer recently and I’ve been pouring a lot of the energy I can muster into developing some more feature-style pieces for this blog, so I got sort of behind on my Movie Madness Raid posts. So instead, I’m trying this style of movie-diary feature: a once-a-week roundup of what I’ve watched (whether from Movie Madness or not) and some brief thoughts on each. Because I started it last Monday, I’m aiming for making it a Monday night piece.

So without further ado, the first weekly roundup, covering October 23-30, 2017.

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
I’ve met some film dudes who are really into John Carpenter; I’ve never been one, but the more I see the more I get it. I can’t think of the last horror movie I saw that was this bizarrely cerebral, which is exactly what a Lovecraft homage should be. Sam Neil calling bullshit on his own story predates Scream‘s meta-horror,  inverted, but also in a way that very cleverly makes the audience a conscious part of the film itself. The conflation (and/or confusion) of reality with fiction also feels particularly resonant in the current culture–maybe more so than it did at the time, since it seems like this was largely panned on release. Also, who doesn’t love Jürgen Prochnow being sinister?

Baskin (2015)
I remember this surreal horror outing getting some buzz when it was released here in the States last year–apparently one of very few Turkish films to get a US release. It’s pretty beautiful; there’s a lot of excellent use of soft light and vivid color, which only contributes to the hellishness once the slow-burn plot finally kicks into high gear. And damn if Mehmet Cerrahoglu’s Baba isn’t the most unsettling movie villain I’ve seen in a while, even if it’s not clear exactly what he wants (or what he even is, for that matter). There are wisps of some lofty metaphor here–the film presents us with a key at its climax, practically daring the audience to solve the puzzle–but it’s creepy and different enough to be interesting even without untangling.

Personal Shopper (2016)
Movies like this are why I can’t organize my library by genre. It’s not not a thriller, but to call it one feels like missing the point. It’s a ghost story… sort of? It’s supernatural, certainly, but it’s sort of indefinite on ghosts. It is definitely a character drama–and man, Kristen Stewart continues to surprise; she carries this whole thing and does it well–but that label doesn’t capture the chilling feel of it. My instinct is to approach this as an auteurist work–it has a very similar tone to Clouds of Sils Maria, a kind of spacious naturalism–but those are, presently, the only two Assayas movies I’ve seen. I aim to correct that, and soon.

Carlos (2010)
…like right now. I have been somewhat intimidated by the 339 minute running time but the film moves along at a pretty brisk clip throughout–it’s exhausting but it’s not boring. It helps that it’s pretty dense with a lot of context to establish. Carlos himself is held up as an epitome of leftist revolutionary failure, his personality in the film and its demons reflected in the larger geopolitical milieu in which they play out, but once again this is ultimately a pretty intimate character study. This seems to be what this filmmaker does but he does it very well, at least recently. And Edgar Ramirez is excellent under such scrutiny, transforming before the camera both physically and in sympathy. This is also an amazing film to listen to, partially for the surprisingly expressive use of music throughout, but also because I can’t think of a film where I’ve heard a more diverse palate of spoken languages.

Zero Kelvin (1995)
Although based on a novel, this Norwegian thiller has a kind of stage-like feel to it, probably because of the small cast (a bitter, raging Stellan Skarsgård, his somewhat condescending nemesis Gard B Eidsvold, and the icy Bjørn Sundquist are pretty much it) and the claustrophobic setting of a Greenland fur-trapper’s hut, circa 1925. The complex dynamic that develops between the three of the characters–Edsvold’s Larsen and Skarsgård’s Randbæk in particular–is definitely allegorical about the nature of man. Their argument, which both men seem unable to let go on a fundamental level, verges on a philosophy debate about hope, love, and desire without being too stilted about it to create a real, occasionally nail-biting narrative tension.

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)
Alain Resnais’s arthouse classic is as fascinating and inscrutable as its considerable reputation suggests. It follows a kind of abstract, musical logic, full of repetition and divergence and with allusions to mathematics, art, and philosophy, all somehow wrapped around the story of an affair between a man (Georgio Albertazzi), a woman (Delphine Seyrig), and and the interventions of a second man who may be her husband (Sacha Pitoëff). But nothing about the film is easily pinned down, nothing can be taken for granted, which makes trying to interpret it feel a bit like chasing a will-o-the-wisp. People who enjoy that sort of thing (as I do, I confess) will find a lot to like here–a really resonant tonal control, a lot of enigmatic wit, some beautifully composed cinematography by Sacha Vierny, and a plot that constantly devours itself right as it starts to fit together–but anyone else will probably find this pretentious and/or extremely boring.

The Beyond (1981)
Got this on the reputation of gorehound director Lucio Fulci and, replete with popped eyeballs, face-eating spiders, and a lot of melted flesh, it did not disappoint in the squick factor. The story, concerning flighty young Liza (Catriona MacColl) inheriting a decrepit Louisiana hotel with a portal to hell in the basement, is more repulsive than actually scary. But the movie’s more obvious flaws–notably its oddly loping pace and stilted dialog that’s done no favors by post-synchronous sound–actually end up making the film even more surreal and bizarre than it already is. And it is; there’s something to this more than just so much viscera. It’s shot through with what MacColl calls “macabre Italian poetry” in the DVD intro.

Anguish (1987)
This feature by Spanish artist Bigas Luna was recommended to me and I went into it pretty blind. All I really knew is that I found it in the horror section, and it does follow a lot of the tropes of the genre, but to call it a horror movie doesn’t quite capture what it is. It begins as a movie about a killer (Michael Lerner), hypnotized and/or imbued with mystical power by his mother (Zelda Rubenstein), killing people and taking their eyes. Shortly, though, it opens out into a series of metacinematic reflections and becomes something altogether more abstract. What I really feel the urge to do is dive into possible interpretations–in a very term-paper-ish sort of way–so know that that’s the kind of movie this is. But also know I enjoyed watching it enough that I want to do so again so I can discuss it with someone. It’s also the perfect movie to end this post on, since it would make a fantastic double-feature with In the Mouth of Madness.

Suburbicon (2017)

I like George Clooney as an actor, but even more as a director; the previous films of his I’ve seen (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night and Good Luck, The Ides of March) have all had a kind of mannered, interesting stye in the same neighborhood as Soderbergh or the Coen brothers. So I was excited at the prospect of him tackling an old script by the latter, written in 1986 between the landmarks Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, curious what kind of spin he might put on their surreal, dark wit. The results are… decidedly mixed. Suburbicon is full of interesting ideas that never quite fully develop or properly gel, engaging in performance and style but ultimately shallower than its obvious ambitions.

The story, set ambiguously in the 1950s, is primarily centered on Nicky (Noah Jupe), preteen resident of the ideal planned community of Suburbicon. Nicky is roused one night by his father, Gardener Lodge (Matt Damon), during a home invasion by two men (Alex Hassell and Glenn Fleshler) that results in the death of the boy’s invalid mother Rose (Julianne Moore). Nicky knows something about that night is a bit hinky, especially after Rose’s identical twin sister Margaret (also Julianne Moore) moves in, and he’s not the only one; his uncle Mitch (Gary Basaraba) and insurance investigator Bud Cooper (Oscar Isaac) also suspect something’s up. Most of the town, however, is distracted by an increasingly violent protest of the Mayers (Leith M Burke, Karimah Westbrook, and Tony Espinoza), neighbors of the Lodge’s and the first black family in the neighborhood.

One gets the sense that this is a move that really wants to say something, but therein lies its primary weakness. It never really makes a concrete connection between the xenophobia and violence the Mayers are experiencing and the more home-grown variety of terror at the Lodges’, which makes the Mayer part of the story feel tacked on and underdeveloped. What’s left is a fairly predictable thriller that kind of feels like a “darkness hiding in perfect suburbia” story, which might have worked in 1986–David Lynch’s Blue Velvet from that year runs with the same idea–but by now has become cliche and insufficient. In short, it’s kind of hard to suss out the point, which makes the film feel hollow.

As an exercise in style it’s pretty fascinating, though. The tone is arch enough that it feels like it should be a comedy, but I’m not convinced it’s actually trying to be. It’s absurd, certainly, in that cartoonish way Coen films often are–Damon frantically pedaling away from a crime scene on an undersized Schwinn, Moore crying as she crushes lethal pills with a rolling pin, the pair of them caught in flagrante with a ping pong paddle–but absurd doesn’t necessarily mean funny. I couldn’t quite decide how to feel about it as I watched it, and honestly that’s what kept my interest as the plot hit all its marks. It’s an interesting use of Matt Damon, essentially a less-nuanced version of William H. Macy’s role in Fargo, but he pulls it off. Moore feels a bit on autopilot but her autopilot suits the film. Isaac’s serpentine investigator is, as usual, a highlight. But everyone seems committed to the stylized nature of the piece with the exception of Jute, Espinoza, Westbrook and, to the extent he can with no dialog that I can recall, Burke. Their performances seemed somehow (not ignorant but) more innocent of the falseness of the rest of it, the kind of touch that makes it hard for me to dismiss the movie completely.

I can see this film being the subject of a revisionist analysis sort of article in a few years (if I’m being honest, I’m already writing it in my head) but that’s not the same thing as saying it’s a good movie. Whatever interpretations or insights might be lying underneath the surface, they’re not forefront enough to really matter in the moment of impact. So for those interested in experiencing the work of the talent involved, it ends up a lesser outing that’s rife with potential but doesn’t quite land. For someone just in it for a good flick, go into this one with tempered expectations and there’s a lot to like, but don’t expect anything of real significance even if it feels like it wants you to.

 

 

MMR No. 4: Defending One’s Home

Strolling through the stacks this time I came out with two films that are, on the surface, very different: one a wild flight of fancy and one a gritty dramatization of real events. But the connection this time is a narrative one: both movies involve communities–whether a single family in the Japanese mountains or an entire southern American town–that are trying to take control of their home back from enemies, be they gang violence or some kind of death curse.

First up is a thriller/comedy/musical/demented fever dream from the prolific Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike. The Happiness of the Katakuris follows the eponymous family as they struggle to operate a bed-and-breakfast in a rural mountain town that, supposedly, will soon be getting a new throughway. The story is narrated by Yurie (Tamaki Miyazaki), the youngest member of the clan. Her mother Shizue (Naomi Nishida) is divorced and on the prowl, entangling herself with a supposed Navy man (Kiyoshiro Imawano) that comes through town. Yurie’s uncle and Shizue’s brother, Masayuki (Shinki Takeda) has a checkered criminal past and doesn’t fit in with his family. His and Shizue’s father, Masao (Kenji Sawada) has been laid off from his urban department store job and dragged them all out to the boonies, along with his wife Terue (Keiko Matsuzaka) and his elderly father Jinpei (Tesuro Tamba), to run his dream business with his family together under one roof. Then, naturally, the bodies start piling up.

The film is as difficult to describe as it is to easily interpret. For one, it meanders off into stylistic diversions on a whim–characters dive into fantastically choreographed and tonally-bizarre musical sequences, at one point the film becomes an actual karaoke video, it switches into stop-motion animation for its more audacious sequences (like the clifftop fight sequence or the volcano explosion, but not the zombie dance number; that’s done with makeup), etc. For another, the plot is equally meandering, inserting non-sequiturs, abandoning what seem like important threads, and throwing up fake-outs just when a major narrative point seems to emerge.

It’s telling that Miike put out a jaw-dropping seven other films, including the notorious Ichi the Killer and the equally brazen Visitor Q, in 2001 along with this one. This movie has the loose feeling of an artist confidently riding a creative stride, its confidence and energy what ultimately makes it compelling, even if it’s not always exactly coherent. Watching it becomes an exercise in disbelief, waiting for the movie to somehow top itself in bizarre antics–which it mostly continues to do, although it does run out of a bit of steam in its second half. What holds it together is a commitment to the cartoonish portrait of family togetherness; it’d be overstating to say the characters have a lot of emotional depth but they manage to resonate anyway, at least enough to justify the rest of the carnival.

Conversely, The Phenix City Story is shockingly frank, particularly by the standards of 1955. Although apparently absent in some cuts, the version I watched began with a newsreel-style piece featuring reporter Clete Roberts (who also appeared in what is oft considered the best episode of M*A*S*H* some years later, by the way) interviewing participants in the true-life events the film depicts. The town of Phenix City, on the Alabama side of the Georgia border, has for nearly a hundred years been run by a ring of corrupt mobsters. The current head of the organization, one Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews), is concerned that a local community leader, Albert Patterson (John McIntire), will be persuaded to join the latest attempts by concerned citizens to shut down the mob and their illegal casinos. At first neutral, Albert is swayed by the passions of his son John (Richard Kiley) who has recently returned from prosecuting war criminals in Germany, and is convinced to run for state attorney general. This begins a campaign of violence resulting in several murders, the bombing of a house, and Albert’s post-victory assassination, whereupon John takes up the post and the cause.

The movie has–by ’50s standards–a fervent, confrontational tone. Some of it is in the performances, notably Kiley’s eyeball-bulging turn as John, but a lot of it is just in what director Phil Karlson chooses to depict. The film’s opening segment reminds the audience that they can’t dismiss what follows as merely fantasy before driving the point home with images like the corpse of a little girl being heaved onto a lawn. The stakes of this violence are unabashedly political–ordinary American democracy standing up to a villain urging a kind of fascist conformity. It’s also left somewhat inconclusive; part of the thrust of the thing is that much is left to be done, so its easy to read as a kind of call to action.

Formally, the film carries through with the documentary aesthetic of its opening. A surprisingly large number of characters are juggled as the story moves as a pretty brisk pace (again, considering the era in which it was made) that establishes its individuals but is more concerned with the town overall. The frequent and bloody violence won’t shock anyone this side of the 1970s but is remarkably detached for a ’50s film, happening quickly and without overbearing melodrama (which is saved for more appropriate moments, like John’s fiery stump speech approaching the election). The film feels like a forbearer of Law & Order style ripped-from-the-headlines storytelling that blends verisimilitude with an in-the-moment intensity that make it still pretty watchable, even at a remove.

Next time I’m going to change this feature up because I’m having a bit of trouble keeping up with myself. It’ll be more of a roundup–shorter and hopefully more incisive reactions to a larger number of films, based on what I’ve watched recently.

 

 

The Snowman (2017)

Based on the ingredients, I wanted to like this movie. Jo Nesbø’s 2007 novel is an engaging potboiler, the seventh in a continuing series of novels starring troubled detective Harry Hole that have put their author at the top tier of Scandinavian crime fiction alongside Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell (both of whom have had their iconic works successfully adapted to the screen). Then there’s a cast full of people I like watching: Michael Fassbender seems a perfect choice for Harry, J.K. Simmons is almost always the best part of anything he’s in, Charlotte Gainsbourg has taken on a variety of interesting and challenging work, Val Kilmer continues to show up in unexpected places, even Chloë Sevigny gets to do a brief double role as twins. Behind the camera is the chilly Swedish style of Tomas Alfredson–known in this country for a pair of excellent films: Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy–and a set of screenwriters whose collective credits include Drive, Frank, The Men Who Stare at Goats, and the TV series The Killing, all of which I enjoyed. This project, on paper, should work.

But instead it’s disastrously muddled and ultimately feels somewhat pointless. The film seems to be going for an icy detachment, but instead comes off cynically disinterested in things like plot, character, or suspense–somewhat important elements for what is purportedly a psychological thriller. In a nutshell, there’s a serial killer abducting and occasionally decapitating women in Oslo who leaves snowmen as his calling card (for reasons that are never really explored, by the way). Harry, along with newbie detective Katarine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson), drunkenly stumbles into the case while trying to manage a relationship with Oleg (Michael Yates), the teenage son of his ex-girlfriend Rakel (Gainsbourg).

This basic premise proceeds absent the commitment to clever misdirection that made the novel work; subplots involving a former detective (Kilmer) and a rich industrialist (Simmons) sort of putter out without really going anywhere or tying in to the central mystery with any resonance. Worse, very little is done to disguise the identity of the killer–the movie goes out of its way to emphasize there’s something off about a character that keeps showing up without adding much to the plot–which takes the wind out of any kind of tension or mystery. In theory, this could be fine–the story could delve into its characters’ psychology instead, becoming more of a whydunnit than a whodunnit, but here too it stumbles. Harry comes off as Fassbender on autopilot, the embodiment of a trope (“trouble-making, alcoholic master detective” is as stock character as it gets) rather than a three-dimensional person with what’s actually a crucial backstory. Despite Ferguson’s best efforts Katarine, the most interesting character in the novel, is effectively robbed of her complexity completely and reduced to a password with daddy-issues and a (practically literal) plot device. And the stakes are never really established for the killer beyond a too-obvious prelude; a violent, self-loathing pathology reduced to “mommy didn’t love me enough,” if that (although at least nipples figure less prominently in the film than they did in the novel).

Script issues aside, there’s nothing particularly wrong with the film formally. Its style is pretty much exactly what you’d expect–lots of shots of the snowy Norwegian landscape, sleek and modern production design, an appropriately brooding soundtrack, and so on. But unlike a movie like, say, David Lynch’s Dune–which also does a terrible job of communicating the basic plot of its source material–there’s nothing stylistically audacious enough to make it stand out and distract from the narrative problems, wildly uneven pace, and stilted dialog. So instead of actually communicating something about human nature, we’re left with what feels like a five-years-too-late cash grab on the success of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It’s a shame.

The reason I went to this movie at all is because I’m at heart a contrarian and, in case it wasn’t obvious, a fan of Nesbø’s writing, so I want to find something redeemable in this mess. But I’m having trouble because its missing what attracted me to the novel in the first place: a propulsive energy and sense of mystery. I went out and bought the book after my roommate returned it to the library, just because I needed to finish it; imagining seeing half the movie, I don’t really feel like I’d care if I finished it or not. So, I guess, if you want a better adaptation of a Nesbø novel, rent the underrated Headhunters instead. If you want a good Michael Fassbender movie, revisit his more challenging work with Steve McQueen. If you want an engrossing criminal thriller, pretty much anything David Fincher does will be more satisfying. Don’t waste your time.

 

The Foreigner (2017)

Walking into The Foreigner, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Most Jackie Chan movies I’ve seen–and thanks to my mother’s fondness for Chinese pop culture, there’ve been a few–rely on combining inventive stunt sequences with a cheerful, mostly innocent sort of comedy, a formula that’s carried over into his American work like Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon. But The Foreigner is not a comedy. Instead, it’s been described as more of a revenge film, which has certain generic connotations. So perhaps the most I can say is that I expected to see Chan leaping and flipping his way through scores of bad guys, making his way closer to some devilish and powerful figure. For better or worse, the film is not quite that either.

Calling it a revenge film is at least somewhat accurate. Chan plays a naturalized British citizen, Quan Ngoc Mihn, whose teenage daughter and sole surviving family member Fan (Katie Leung) becomes collateral damage in a terrorist bombing in the film’s opening moments. Trained by US Special Forces when he left China during the Vietnam War, a desperate Quan turns his skill set to finding those responsible. He sets his sights squarely on Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan), an Irish deputy minister in Belfast with ties to Sinn Féin and the IRA, a rogue cell of which has claimed responsibility for the attack. Hennessy, once a fiery activist, has become an aging and philandering politician put into an impossible position where his various conflicting loyalties are squeezed ever more tightly against one another by Quan’s intensifying pressure.

The film’s biggest problem is that it seems a little confused about its focus. Chan gets top billing as the protagonist but David Marconi’s script is clearly more interested in Hennessy and his conflicts. As such, Quan comes off a little stock and one-note, and is absent from the screen for long periods of time while the film probes–very broadly and without a great deal of new insight–into the legacy of violence in Northern Ireland and the effects of the peace process enacted in the late ’90s. The primary tension in the film comes from how much Hennessy actually knows about the bombing and how he reconciles his desire for peace with the ideals of his home and community. The change of title from Stephen Leather’s 1992 novel The Chinaman is telling in this regard–it’s more politically correct, sure, but it also becomes more ambiguous about whom it refers to: Hennessy is something of a foreigner to both the Irish nationalists who see him as a turncoat sucking up to the British for his own political gain and to his counterparts in London who’ll never forget the rebel he once was. This would be a fine basis for a political thriller if there weren’t an action movie about someone else trying to happen at the same time. But by trying to make room for both, neither is really developed as well as it should be.

This isn’t the fault of the actors, though. What depth Quan does have is almost entirely a product of Chan’s unusually reserved performance. The film is, of course, not without brazen stuntwork–the 63-year-old actor leaps off roofs, flings thugs around like rag dolls, and takes more than his share of lumps in the process–but its in the more staid moments where Quan’s weariness and emotional turbulence break through his icy exterior that both Chan and the film shine. Brosnan is also at what might be a career best, bubbling with tempered frustration over a situation where he can’t find any control; Olivier he’s not, but he’s more vulnerable and watchable than I’ve ever seen him.

For his part, director Martin Campbell–helmer of a couple of the better (but not the best) recent Bond films–turns in a fairly by-the-numbers style for a modern thriller, all chilly, washed-out greys with a serious, droning soundtrack. There’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but it feels like a missed opportunity–a less neutral style might’ve elevated the uneven screenplay.  As it stands, the detachment makes the film a little hard to read. There’s the suggestion of a thematic connection between Quan’s surprisingly restrained quest for justice (“bad guys”–to the extent that term applies–are incapacitated with often clever brutality but not actually killed) and the violence of the IRA, which might’ve tied the film more together, but it never really goes there narratively or cinematically.

So perhaps it’s best to approach The Foreigner with tempered expectations. It succeeds as a late-career experiment for Chan who’s increasingly expanding his dramatic range in recent years. It’s also an atypical entry in an oft overwrought genre, mostly eschewing straightforward action for a more cloak-and-dagger style approach. But it doesn’t really synthesize its various elements into complete coherence and ends up a little more forgettable than its ambitions. It’s not bad, but it’s not great either.

 

MMR No. 3: Dysfunctional Families

Again somewhat without realizing it, I chose two films for this raid that have a certain thematic commonality–each of these two films, forty years apart, deals with families falling apart, although for very different reasons and to very different ends.

The Bigamist was released in 1953 and concerns one Harry Graham (Edmond O’Brien), a traveling salesman based in San Francisco. As the film opens, he is seeking to adopt a child with his wife Eve (Joan Fontaine), a process that requires him to submit to a background investigation conducted by the diligent Mr Jordan (Edmund Gwenn). In the course of his investigation, Jordan discovers that Harry has been leading a double life–he has a second wife in Los Angeles named Phyllis (Ida Lupino) who already has a newborn baby. Confounded, Jordan sits down with Harry to learn what kind of circumstances could drive a man to betray both women and flout the laws of society in such a way.

In addition to starring as the aloof-but-vulnerable Phyllis, Ida Lupino also directed The Bigamist. It was her seventh film as a director, beginning with an uncredited turn on 1949’s Not Wanted, making her one of the first female actor/directors in Hollywood. Interestingly, it was written (and co-produced) by Collier Young–perhaps most famous as the creator of the TV series Ironside, and at the time both Lupino’s ex-husband and currently married to Fontaine.

Maybe the real-life relationships involved go a way toward explaining the gentle and emotionally complex tone of the film. Although firmly within the genre of 1950s melodrama, the story isn’t as interested in moral hand-wringing or sordid gossip as one might expect based on the time and premise. Instead we get a difficult portrait of the way three personalities intersect. At the center, Harry is genuinely well-meaning but insecure, unable or unwilling to engage with his own needs until they become obstacles. Eve is smart enough to recognize something’s off but has a foundational faith in the life she’s worked hard to help build. Phyllis is blinded the mask she wears on her pain; she rejects the idea of being too needy or interrogating, making her more susceptible to Harry’s white-knight complexes.

It’s hard not to watch a film like this at a certain remove–melodramatic conventions and shifting acting styles aside, social mores and behaviors have changed pretty dramatically (in ways both fundamental and superficial) over the course of 64 years. The ending reads as ambiguous–Harry is neither excused nor damned, exactly, by either of his wives or society as a whole (represented by a pontificating criminal judge [John Maxwell])–but is that ambiguity more progressive or regressive? I’m honestly not sure, but either way it feels like an unusual film and its tone is impressively sensitive and warm for something so potentially lurid.

The Bed You Sleep In, however, is not what I would call a warm film. Released in 1993, it’s a middle-era work from independent filmmaker Jon Jost, an artist with whom I am not very familiar, but in whom I am now very interested.

The film follows a somewhat indeterminate period in the life of a man named Ray (Tom Blair), operator of a struggling lumber mill in a rural Oregon coastal town. For the first half, we are given a slowly unfolding sense of Ray’s complex relationship with the environment around him; his livelihood depends on the destruction of the very thing that sustains him spiritually. Then comes a turn. Ray’s wife Jean (Ellen McLaughlin) receives a letter from the couple’s daughter, off attending college in Seattle, accusing her father of inappropriate behavior. The second half of the film follows through on the impact of this accusation.

In case that plot description didn’t tip you off, although fundamentally a narrative film, The Bed You Sleep In works better from a more abstract perspective. Which, to be clear, is not to fault the story; the writing and acting are both sometimes painfully raw (with all the multiple connotations of that word), but they’re nerve-shreddingly engaging in part because they feel so unpolished. But between that rawness and the withering intensity of the slow pace, it can be an exhausting film to watch. Long stretches of machinery footage and/or industrial noise punctuate the film throughout. It takes a long time for any narrative momentum to occur, and even when it does it lingers for uncomfortable lengths on the repressed, often inarticulate people it follows. And it ends without really resolving any of its major questions.

But at the same time, that exhaustion and frustration is key to understanding the world the film presents us with, a suffocating small town where conflicting realities are increasingly unable to coexist. And it is the wider world the film is interested in as much as Ray’s inner one, reveling in the natural and social rhythms that surround him. Nowhere is this more apparent than in an extended tracking shot in the center of the film that slowly wheels around a busy cafe at lunch. It goes on for several minutes and adds nothing to the plot, yet nonetheless feels essential; its the only real reference we’re given to the sense of community that so informs the characters mindsets and the gutting sadness that permeates the work.

Granted, it takes a certain kind of patience meet a film like this on its own flawed and individualistic terms. And even if one has the patience, its not exactly an entertaining or pleasant experience, so I don’t know that I can really recommend it, exactly. But it hangs together well enough that I found it to have a pretty visceral impact and I’m intrigued about exploring more of the director’s work.

Next time, though, a pioneering(ly violent) film-noir docudrama and a Takashi Miike movie I really should’ve seen by now.

 

 

MMR No. 2: Two Italian Thrillers from 1970

It happened quite by accident. I’ve been making a mental list of movies to look for for this feature and without really thinking about it, I plucked off that list two films from the same country and year, even roughly (though not exactly) the same genre.

On the one hand, we have The Spider’s Stratagemmade by Bernardo Bertolucci immediately following The Conformist, his first certified international classic and also an exploration of the effects of fascism on consciousness. At face value this film, adapted from a Borges short story, is a politically charged murder mystery. A young man named Athos Magnani (Giulio Brogi) arrives in the small town of Tara to investigate the murder of his father, 30 years prior. His father–also named Athos Magnani, establishing the first of the film’s many ambiguities–was an anti-fascist activist who died a hero to the town, but of course nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

The film dislodges its characters in time and space–the same actors are used in the present as in flashbacks, characters enter the frame from impossible angles, conversations continue smoothly over jumps in action. As the son probes deeper into the conditions that led to his father’s death, the boundary between the two of them becomes more and more insubstantial until eventually he is consumed by the enduring legend, trapped in Tara, waiting for a train that will only ever continue to be late. And he’s not the only one in such a state–the town itself seems to have been arrested in the past; early on Athos observes that there are no young people around, only old people who act young, occupying the same roles and positions in the insular community that they would have thirty years ago.

But what are we to make of this? Is the plot woven by Athos the elder, inspired by the tragedies of Shakespeare (Julius Caesar, MacBeth, and Othello all get specific shout-outs), the stratagem referred to by the title? In other words, has he trapped them all in an artificial bubble by abandoning a difficult truth in the name of political theater? That’s a possible interpretation, but then what’s the connection between his mistress Draifa (Alida Valli) and the lion escaped from the German circus that runs/ran wild through the town? Is she friend or foe, also trapped or the spider herself? Or both? What is the significance of Athos’s mother, conspicuously absent from the action? One gets the sense there is an underlying logic to Bertolucci’s symbolism, but he doesn’t seem completely interested in clarifying it.

But rather than detract from the thrust of the work, the lack of clarity works in its favor, intellectually, anyway. The movie is a vividly coloured (apparent even on the low-quality VHS copy I saw) puzzle box, something to be chewed on and mulled over. It rejects easy conclusions and pat narratives, suggesting that truth is always more complicated than the stories we tell ourselves (and each other). Which means it’s the sort of movie that, experientially, requires a certain amount of patience with European new wave experimentalism, in a way that a more fully realized work (like The Conformist) would transcend.

On the other hand, Dario Argento’s debut feature as a director, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, is a pretty rollicking bit of entertainment. Its mystery is a bit less obscure–an American writer living in Rome named Sam (Tony Musante) witnesses a woman (Eva Renzi) being stabbed in an art gallery one night, perhaps part of an ongoing series of murders in the city. Enabled by a very easygoing police inspector (Enrico Maria Salerno), Sam becomes obsessed with the case, convinced that something he saw doesn’t add up. Danger and intrigue follow, naturally.

The story has a kind of lurid, B-movie charm, elevated by an undeniably cool–and also vividly-coloured–visual style. But what struck me most about it was watching it in a particular context. For the past couple of years, every October I’ve been making my way through one of the classic slasher series–this year it’s the Halloween franchise–and its really fascinating to see so many of the elements of that genre already in place in a movie like this: spooky phone calls, sexually underpinned violence, absurd psychology, just the overall tone of stalking menace.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise–it’s no secret John Carpenter is an Argento fan and drew influence from the Italian giallo in general and his work specifically. It’s one of a number of foreign influences that worked into the mix of the American slasher; Grand Guignol’s graphic violence was French, Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock were British, etc. This quickly spitballed into reapproaching the film from a nationalist perspective.

It’s strange that the protagonist of an Italian-produced film is an American foreigner; Sam’s girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall) points out, at least once, in response to his obsession that he’s “not even Italian!,” so the film acknowledges this. The eponymous animal–which makes a noise in the background of a recording, leading our heroes toward the killer–is a bird from Siberia, in other words Russia. The film was made right when the Years of Lead were kicking up so these national associations probably carried at least some weight in the public consciousness. One could potentially do an analysis from this perspective as easily as one could with Bertolucci’s more overtly political work.

Doing so would be both more involved and far drier than I really want to get with this writing. Perhaps it’s better to focus on the fact that The Bird With the Crystal Plumage is also a damn good thriller in a more straightforward sense. It made me realize how much, Suspiria aside, Argento’s work is a lacuna in my knowledge; he will likely show up in this feature again soon.

Next time though it’ll be a pair of… dysfunctional family dramas: Ida Lupino’s The Bigamist and Jon Jost’s The Bed You Sleep In.

American Made (2017)

In a way, American Made feels like a Martin Scorsese impression. A number of his films, like Goodfellas, Raging Bull, and The Wolf of Wall Street are based on true-life events that don’t really end well, but are propelled toward tragedy of varying scale by a kind of cavalier, masculine energy and aggressive style–the road to hell is fun and fast paced, with rapid-fire editing, whimsical narrative asides, and a great soundtrack. The filmmakers here are not Scorsese and this movie doesn’t quite stick the thematic landing, but the sweet-and-sour taste it leaves in your mouth is not without its appeal.

In a nutshell, this is the tale of Barry Seal (Tom Cruise at his most shaggy-dog charming, his natural smarm serving the picture rather than working against it), a hotshot TWA pilot who becomes a central player in what would eventually become the Iran-Contra scandal. Recruited by the CIA to run spy missions to South and Central America, Barry catches the attention of Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda), a partner in Pablo Escobar’s (Mauricio Mejía) drug cartel and soon is moving cocaine one way, guns another, and making more money than he and wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) can find suitcases to bury it in. Bullied into escalating terrible choices by the cartel on one end and the smiling Mr. “Schafer” (Domhnall Gleeson, predictably the film’s standout performance) on the other, Barry’s life is pulled apart as he allows himself to be exploited by forces of historical and international gravitas.

Whatever the real Barry Seal may have been (and lord knows, based on this), Cruise’s Barry isn’t exactly stupid but he is naive. As he narrates his life into a camcorder, squirreled away in a hotel room, he expresses little regret–“maybe I should’ve asked a few more questions” is as reflective as he gets. He isn’s forced to reflect; his bad behavior has been repeatedly excused because it serves larger agendas about which he doesn’t seem particularly concerned. Even in the face of his own destruction, he regards his despicable-but-significant accomplishments, either unable or unwilling to be cognizant, guilty, or angry about what they represent.

Instead, director Doug Liman (probably best known for his work on the original Bourne trilogy) and screenwriter Gary Spinelli try to pull a reaction to Barry’s circumstance out from the structure of the film itself.  It’s quiet, but rears its head between the jokes about raking money off the lawn and the zero-G sex scenes. Look at the bumper sticker about “pussies” with “cold feet” on the wall of “Schafer’s” cubicle as he repeatedly misreads the situation in Nicaragua, Panama, and Columbia. Look at the ironic use of real footage of Ronald Reagan (who “made his way up from that monkey movie to the White House, so he must know what he’s doin'”). Look at the last, patriotic words Barry speaks into the camera before being cut off by the tape going to sharp static. Reading these as cues that are trying to make a political statement gives direction to the movie’s flash and energy. It elevates what would otherwise be a passable but by now run-of-the-mill crime comedy/drama into a stab at more meaningful satire.

The film’s flaw, then, is that it doesn’t hit these notes quite hard enough, in part because this is not a movie interested in psychological depth. Despite Cruise’s best attempts, Barry comes off as a guy just sort of along for the adventure, without the nuance to be really sympathetic, to feel worth mythologizing. The stylistic excesses of the best films working in this mode feel like natural outgrowths of their larger-than-life characters, so without a better understanding of what makes Barry tick, it’s a little hard to justify the film being as fun as it is.

But it is fun–brightly colored and well paced, full of panache and pithy dialog. If the statement it’s trying to make about… what? American arrogance in foreign policy? Our culture of materialist exploitation? The extent to which macho thrill-seeking behavior informs real-world, large-scale decisions? The inevitability of basic human greed? If that statement gets lost a bit, it’s still has fun to fall back on which goes a long way toward making it watchable. And its a necessary counterbalance to an ending that feels cynical precisely because it registers as a little confused, letting whoever it is that are the real villains here (even if it’s Barry himself) off lighter than they should be allowed.

I left the theater feeling as though I should feel angry, which is why I can’t totally write this film off. There’s something here, some examination of real historical and cultural forces at play, some deeper fascination in this kind of easy, breezy amorality that’s not entirely without wit or direction. With a little bit more meat on its bones, it could’ve been one of the year’s best films. It doesn’t get there, and so doesn’t go anywhere we haven’t seen, but it hangs together enough to be worth watching.

 

Movie Madness Raid No. 1

I’ve been posting movie reviews at the rate of about one a week lately in an effort to stretch some long atrophied critical (writing in general, if I’m being honest) muscles. This is a format (and for now, pace) that I intend to keep up, but I feel ready to introduce a new feature. Short form pieces–not reviews, but reactions–on older or more obscure films plundered from the shelves of Movie Madness, a local and impressively-comprehensive independent video store here in Portland. This serves the triple purpose of 1) getting me to seek out movies I’ve been meaning to investigate instead of finding something to watch that’s more easily available–encouraging more a more active viewing habit, if you will; 2)  supporting a local business in whose raison d’être I firmly believe; and 3) further stretching the aforementioned muscles by approaching writing about film in a slightly different way.

For the inaugural foray, I chose two films that have been on my watch list for a while: one in the spirit of the season and one by way of a challenge.

Viy (or, Spirit of Evil) is not, even by the standards of 1967, particularly scary, despite being called the first horror movie to be produced under the Soviet state. There is a kind of existential dread about it, but it’s DNA is that of a folk tale–one written down, without much editing if the author is to be believed, by Nikolai Gogol in 1835. The film follows Khoma Brutus (Leonid Kuravlyov), a nogoodnik seminarian who runs afoul of a witch (Natalya Varley) and ends up having to preside over her corpse for three nights, defended against her demonic entourage only by his faith.

It’s the depiction of this entourage on which the movie’s reputation lies and that’s the main reason I sought it out. I was not disappointed. Despite a generally low production value, the expressive sets and inventive practical effects transcend the film’s limitations, slowly building into a weird, psychedelic fantasy nightmare. My understanding is these are largely the touches of one Aleksandr Ptushko, credited here as art director and co-screenwriter but a substantial director and effects wizard in his own right.

It’s hard not to want to read into the dual nature of the church in the story–the seminarians are barely better than criminals, but the power of religious ritual seems to rise beyond them, failing the hero only when he abandons it–but this didn’t strike me as a film overly concerned with a social message. Instead, it’s more experiential. And its a strange and worthwhile experience.

On the other hand, O Thiasos (The Traveling Players) is very much a social message film. It’s also stupidly hard to find in America. A couple unsubtitled versions are on Youtube but there is not, to my knowledge, a region 1 DVD release and even VHS releases are few and far between, so this was a kind of my challenge to see how comprehensive the selection at this place is. It turns out they did have an out of print 2-tape copy, but I had to put down a $150 deposit to rent it (something I was assured wouldn’t have been necessary after a certain number of rentals).

Considered the masterwork of Greek political filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos, the 1975 film traces Greek history between 1939 and 1952, from German occupation through civil war and socialist uprising to the election of Papagos. This larger, national drama is interwoven into an allegorical family drama among the members of the eponymous theater troupe who are constantly interrupted in their performances of a romantic period piece, Golfo the Shepherdess (not only a real play, but the basis of the first Greek feature film in 1914, a fact not lost on Angelopoulos I’m sure). The players have mythical names–Agamemnon, Electra, Clytemnestra, Orestes, etc–and the betrayal and revenge among them mirrors the greater struggle of Greece itself through the period.

Fair warning: this is a long and slow movie–it runs nearly four hours and its average shot length is an insane 2:53 (for reference, 0:15 is on the long end of an average Hollywood film)–but Angelopoulos is clearly comfortable taking his time. I was a little concerned this would be a socio-realist political lecture of a film, easier to respect intellectually than to actually enjoy, but it’s rarely dull and surprisingly warm, dreamlike, and emotive. The camera weaves through time and space in unexpected ways and fills even still, empty moments with drama; important events sometimes take place offscreen before the action drifts back into the frame and years can pass (backwards or forwards) within a single tracking movement.

The push and pull between art and life is also an element in the film’s fascinating mixture. The play itself exists as a fragment out of time–performed in a variety of contexts and rarely finished onscreen, functioning as a kind of history inhabited by different generations, interrupted and rewritten in a kind of palimpsestic way. Even more interesting is the use of music. Much of the film is told through song, but grounded in the diegesis of the film, not at all on the heightened register of the musical. Instead, propaganda songs and folk tunes come to embody different ideas and are used almost like weapons by the characters; a memorable scene involves a kind of musical battle for control of a dance hall between socialist rebels and royalist forces.

The most striking moments, and the emotional anchor points of the film, come in three lengthy monologues, where three of the main characters each describe to the camera their personal experience of a moment of historical violence. The staging of these scenes is simple–Agamemnon (Stratos Pahis) sits on a train car with his family in the background, Electra (Eva Kotamanidou) stands on a rocky beach after being attacked by a group of men, Orestes (Petros Zarkadis) smokes nervously in a doorway–but the stories and their quietly intense deliveries are absolutely gripping and nail down the inseparability of the personal and the political that lies at the heart of the work.

On the next round of Movie Madness Raids, I’ll have reactions to Dario Argento’s The Bird With the Crystal Plumage and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Spider’s Stratagem. Also look for a review of either American Made or Kingsman: The Golden Circle (I haven’t decided yet) in the next few days.

 

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Let’s cut to the chase and tackle the item of most immediate concern: for a 35-years-later sequel to an entrenched classic, Blade Runner 2049 does a remarkable job of not pissing on the legacy of the original. So much so, in fact, that one is willing to overlook the film’s occasional missteps because it so coherently expands on and honors the original work aesthetically and, more significantly, thematically. It’s a little disheartening that that comes as something of a surprise; I want to be optimistic about the current cultural fondness for nostalgia (since I enjoy a lot of the product thereof) but it’s still hard to escape the law of diminishing returns. Like Mad Max: Fury Road before it, this film does–and does so with a greater burden of continuity. So cheers to Denis Villeneuve and screenwriters Hampton Fancher & Michael Green for that.

It helps that the two films are very different, although not at first glance. The Los Angeles of 2049 is still a barren wasteland, no longer belching fire but radiating out from dead-insectile towers like a massive necropolis. The violent overlap of languages and cultures is still there, more intense than ever; the advertisements are no longer confined to animated billboards, becoming hallucinatory holographic giants dancing in the street. But where the first film was hot, sweaty, and claustrophobic, shuttered away in noir shadow from brilliant light just outside, the sequel is cold and expansive, suffused with haze that implies vast, empty spaces between the interlinked cells of civilization.

The story and world similarly opens out, as both films use the premise–manufactured human-like beings called “replicants” exist, but how human are they really?–to comment on the anxiety of their times. The original film was a question mark; it slowly pulled the rug out from under the audience’s basic assumptions until it was unclear whether Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford, reprising the role in this film), a “blade runner” tasked with hunting down rogue replicants, was himself artificial. Or, for that matter, what the implications would be either way for the larger powers that drive the chess game of a plot. But such ideas are passé now. Modern, technologically and socially jaded audiences start from a place of unstable identity and distrust of narrative. So in response, Blade Runner 2049 is an exclamation point. We know our current blade runner, nicknamed K from the first digit of his serial number (and an excellent use of Ryan Gosling’s penchant for looking full of suppressed turmoil; see also: Drive) is a replicant. This plot is less interested in undermining the human (read: normalized) perspective than in following the perspective of the marginalized as they build an identity and a capacity for empathy that resists the exploitation that surrounds them. I want to delve my teeth more into that, to try and unpack some of the film’s images and ideas more thoroughly, but to say more would be doing a disservice to a story that takes its time to unfold. So perhaps the less said the better, for now.

I mentioned missteps and there are some, the time spent unfolding being one. At 163 minutes, it’s nearly an hour longer than the (longest version of the) original film and lacks some of the tightness that is belied by that film’s often deliberate pace (which, in fairness, does vary a bit from cut to cut). Some scenes linger on a little long, there is a hackneyed moment here or there, it’s a little hard to hear Jared Leto talk through the scenery in his mouth, but honestly none of it ends up mattering that much. The experience is immersive and compelling in a way that seems like it mostly respects its audience and the moments that are uncomfortable seem to work toward the greater goal. Throw in some interesting international casting, beautiful camerawork by the always reliable Roger Deakins, and a score from Hans Zimmer & Benjamin Wallfisch that updates Vangelis’s operatic synths and you have a pretty attractive package.

I’m leery of bestowing classic status on new things. But in even saying so I’ve tipped my hand, haven’t I? In any case, it’s hard to picture this being a film that’s easily forgotten, left in the wake of the disposable-culture machine. Because it’s not a cynical plundering of a beloved memory as much as a contemporary and thoughtful response; that’s what the film is about, narratively and per se. Admittedly, I’m not as rabid a fan of the original as some–Roger Ebert, in reviewing Blade Runner: The Final Cut in 2007, said that he for a long time admired it “at arms length,” which echoes my feelings–but from that vantage, I can’t really imagine a better sequel to it than this one.