Monday, October 19, 2020

Shocktober 2020 #1

 House of Dracula

Featuring some moments of intrigue, "House of Dracula" (1945) is most remembered for its ill-advised move to conflate the stories of Dracula, The Wolfman and Frankenstein into its very short 80 minute run time for a chiller that falls more flat than fleet. A piano scene in which the magnitude of Dracula's hypnotism comes out and the above use of shadows and terror are the best things about this film. For Universal monster movie purists only.


The Night Eats the World

How does one keep the zombie genre alive and kicking? It's become the most tackled subset of the horror genre for over 40 years now. Dominique Rocher's "The Night Eats the World" succeeds where few else have tried, emphasizing the mundane over the maniacal. With the exception of AMC's "The Walking Dead" (which can do such a thing because of  its expansive length), here's a zombie film that, yes features some rabid flesh-eating creatures, but more importantly focuses on the quizzical nature of daily survival and the impacts of deadly loneliness. As Sam, Anders Danielsen Lie is spectacular as one of the lone survivors of an apocalypse when he falls asleep and wakes up well after the world has gone up in bloody flames. Sheltering himself in the massive Paris apartment he finds himself in, Rocher's film is part comical (in the way he relates with an elderly zombie played by Denis Lavant) and part agonizing horror film as he's forced to stay alive with the bare essentials. "The Night Eats the World" nails both genres with strong direction and some gasp-worthy twists that position the film as one of the great modern zombie films.

The Creeping Flesh

"The Creeping Flesh" hits all the sweet spots. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. A moldy, foggy Victorian England setting. Escaped raving lunatics. Botched chemistry experiments. An especially oozy latex creature-feature. So much good in this and a perfect Halloween watch.

Threshold of the Void

A quick check of French filmmaker Jean-Francois Davy's ouevre shows a hardworking man of..... erotica. Or, to put it more bluntly, porn. "Threshold of the Void" shows none of those proclivities. Instead, his tale of a mysterious black room that inspire creativity but seep the literal life (and youth) out of poor young women is an eerie and assured peculiarity. Emotionally damaged and alone in Paris, painter Wanda (Dominique Erlanger) rents a room from a nice old woman, only to be told never go through the locked door adjacent to the room. Of course, she does, and strange things begin to happen. While "Threshold of the Void" barters more in trippy psychedelic menace than outright gore, it's a film that earns its unnerving title even if its Polanski-era theatrics seem to be its main inspiration. This one may be hard to find, but worth the effort.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

The Current Cinema (at home) 20.2

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Filmmaker Eliza Hittman seems especially attuned to the vagaries of adolescent torture.... as if this cesspool of emotions and stunted psychology doesn't get its fair share of examination. But with her latest film, "Never Rarely Sometimes Often", she scrapes away at the trauma of a teenager (Sidney Flanagan) not only dealing with a major life choice, but setting her afloat in the concrete jungle of New York with little compass or means besides her cousin (Talia Ryder) who tags along for support. Both young actresses give astounding performances, where confused glances and pursed lips say more about their pained understanding of the uncaring world than any dialogue ever could. Filmed in hectic, handheld bursts whose images seem fleeting but ultimately tell just the right amount of story, "Never Rarely Sometimes Always" tackles complicated themes without compromising its characters. Like she did for male anomie in her previous (and also wonderful) "Beach Rats", Hittman has fashioned a lean, acute oeuvre of young outsiders struggling and coping with some heavy stuff. That all her films come off as bracingly honest is the highest praise one can receive.


"Tommaso" is Abel Ferrera's most personal film since tearing the sheets from James Russo and Madonna in "Dangerous Game" (1993) and revealing the existential/psychological hell that is making a movie. And since one of his previous films explored the tortured landscape of legendary Italian filmmaker "Pasolini" (2014), this time around Ferrara simply re-calibrates the idea as his own tortured landscape. Starring Willem Dafoe, "Tommaso" portrays a burned-out filmmaker living in Europe with his wife and young daughter (Ferrara's own wife Cristina Chiriac and Anna Ferrara), filmed in Ferrara's own home, and refusing to follow any major narrative thoroughfare simply observing the man as he confronts the stasis and paranoia bubbling beneath the surface. There are moments of weakness and infidelities. There are unsubtle bouts of madness. And there's one especially magnificent scene as Dafoe confronts a screaming homeless man beneath his loft window- and it hardly goes where one expects, creating one of the most absorbing scenes of the year so far. "Tommaso" is ragged.... unruly.... unconventional.... and a brilliant progression of Ferrara's frenzied creative output that, hopefully, will continue to avoid the hypnotic stagnancy put forth in this autobiographical stunner.

Recent reviews at Dallas Film Now:

My Spy:  Uneven family comedy with a plot rehashed from a 90's Arnold Schwarzenegger pilot.

7500:  It's not long before the cockpit in this action thriller becomes exhausting. And not in a good way either.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Cinema Obscura: Seventeen Years

Released in 1999- during the explosive and now legendary year of new Hollywood classics produced by expressive individualistic talents- Zhang Yuan's "Seventeen Years" deserves its overdue status as a masterpiece in the midst of this towering cinematic year. Essentially an observational travelogue film about a recently furloughed prisoner and the prison guard who unselfishly escorts her to her holiday destination, it eventually becomes an overpowering examination of regret and forgiveness. I dare anyone to watch the final few minutes and not get emotionally floored in the way Yuan stages a reunion scene where eyes, guarded body language and the gentle unspoken curl of lips says more about the inner workings of this family's trenchant relationship than any screenplay could ever deliver.

But before that, Yuan establishes a cadre of characters in a family during 1980's China, stepping back in time seventeen years. Now on his second marriage, Yun (Liang Song) is barely able to keep his household together. His wife and her daughter Yu (Liu Lin) seem to provoke and taunt his daughter Tao (Li Jun) at every turn. When the issue of missing money comes up one morning, the two stepsisters (urged and inflamed by both parents) argue before leaving for school. On the way there, something happens that sends young Tao to prison for the aforementioned time span.

The tragedy of how Tao got there takes up only a fraction of the film's swift but effective run-time. "Seventeen Years" resumes those years later when Tao is released from prison for the duration of a Chinese New Year holiday. Also traveling from the prison is guard Chen (the wonderful Li Bingbing in an early role). Initially helping Tao find the right bus route and then realizing her indifference to actually getting anywhere at all, Chen decides to help her find her way home.

It's in this quiet relationship between Chen and Tao that "Seventeen Years" shines. Not much is said between them, but the moments they encounter together, such as Yuan's sly comment on China's destructive march of progress when Tao discovers her family's home has been demolished for years for urban renewal, echo the nostalgic sentiments proposed in so many of fellow countryman Jia Zhangke's films.

By also presenting two women as the protagonists in an era where Chinese films mainly treated them as simple matriarchs of a family through the passage of time or second wheels to the more dominant men in their lives, "Seventeen Years" stands out as something special for treating their problems....their worldview.... their sympathies for one another as equally haunting and monumental as that of male figures during the time. It's in the quiet, reserved performances of Jun and Bingbing that "Seventeen Years" really surges, however. The way they silently eat together or walk with hunched shoulders.... and especially the dignified reaction and slow turn Bingbing gives during the final scene when she realizes the magnitude of her unselfish mission with Tao... the two actresses seem to "existing" more than acting. It's a wonder to behold.

Though not an art house/household name, filmmaker Zuan (who did gain some acclaim a few years prior with his "East Palace West Palace") has carried on making films for the past two decades, but none with the exposure or impact of his 90's work. It's a shame. I desperately want to to see more of it. If the sensitivity and acute purpose of realizing the harsh truth of real forgiveness as exhibited in this film is present even remotely in his other work, than we have a talent who's sorely underappreciated. "Seventeen Years" reveals that time doesn't always heal all wounds, but the simple act of facing up to them can help dull the pain.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Waterways: Jean Renoir's "The River"

Late in Jean Renoir's first technicolor film "The River", a tragedy strikes the British family living in India's wonderland of colors, scents and smells. The incident happens off-screen, but in one of the few times Renoir allows his camera to move, he gently dollies over and across several members of the family in various states of relaxation and slumber, oblivious to the disaster that's about to sweep over them. It took me about ten minutes after this series of scenes to realize the pregnant importance of those seemingly arbitrary camera moves. Once I realized the subtle intelligent design behind the aesthetic choices, it only confirmed my belief that Renoir's film is striving for something more than a standard year-in-the-life observation of a family, but that he's searching for the inherent beauty (and sadness) in life itself, ebbing and flowing like the majestic body of water nearby.

Renoir does something similar with movement in his 1945 film, "The Southerner", panning across a series of pictures and a calendar on the mantle of the Tucker family towards the end of that film. Serving as more of an exhale of exuberant relief as the migrant-farm working family have accepted and passed through many turmoils and disasters over their humble homestead, Renoir's humanist beauty calls attention to itself only in afterthought. Nothing is forced, but its proof that he's a master collaborator of mood, style and subject.

But back to "The River". Often praised for its Technicolor sharpness (and no doubt it looks incredible), but the real hook of the film is it's gentle spirit of the intimate. Focusing mainly on three young women- teenage daughter Harriet (Patricia Walters), friend Valerie (Adrienne Corri) and adopted Indian daughter Melanie (Radha)- the family lives in a sprightly existence. Prone to poetry and introspection, Harriet serves as the film's narrator, trying her best to objectify the subjectivity that happens along the way. And what happens along the way is the appearance of Captain John (Thomas Breen), a wounded war veteran who comes to live with the family, setting off fireworks between all three females on the property.

But far from a glib tale of unrequited love or possession, "The River" (based on a novel by Rumer Godden) is much too smart for such a thing. Each woman steadies a distinct relationship with Capt. John and the film carefully measures out the mood of each. With Valerie, the relationship is seductive and adult. With Melanie, it's tenuous since they both come from staggeringly different backgrounds. Their relationship feels like the one that would overtake the rest of a much more slight effort. And with Harriet, "The River" finds its true footing, which is an examination of a young woman trying to make sense of both her flowering adulthood and the cruel world around her. None of the three relationships drown the other out, and each compliments the film as something attuned to the gentle rhythms of growing up.

Made smack in the middle of Renoir's second life in cinema, rooted in Hollywood after fleeing Europe during World War II, I'm repentant it's taken me this long to see this film (as if the case with so many late career Remoirs). Washing over one like a golden memory, "The River" introduces itself like an easy memorization  of languid colonialism, and soon transforms itself into an interior examination of what it means to actually remember those metamorphic moments that make us the people we are today.

Sunday, March 08, 2020

On "The Traitor"

One might mistake the first third of Marco Bellocchio's latest film "The Traitor" as something produced from the Bruckheimer factory of splatter ammunition and human carnage. Taking place in Italy during the late 70's and early 80's, the film initially charts the reckoning of a mafioso war as the ravages from both sides ratchets up... complete with scrolling counter that appears on the edge of the screen, ending on a certain number as the bodies on-screen lay in their final violent resting place in each episode. It's not only a sobering gambit that factually recalls the terror of its time, but a visual keynote that instills certifiable dread in the viewer as it tumbles towards gargantuan numbers. However, Bellocchio isn't interested solely in shock value. What this opening third of the film does for the rest of its 150 minute epic length is caste a pallor over its real intention, which is to subtly define the growth of one Tommaso Buscetti (embodied perfectly by Pierfrancesco Favino) from mafioso snitch to plagued nobody left in the gleaming wilderness of neon Miami with a small arsenal and bleary-eyed regrets for the sins of his criminal past. It's not quite "The Irishman" level of haunted blackness, but it's awfully close.

After this explosive first half, "The Traitor" settles into an almost philosophical treatise on the twisted morals of a man turning his back on the 'family' who raised him. Taking up a remainder of the film, Bellocchio stays within the congested confines of the Maxi Trials and their unbelievably absurd surroundings. Hundreds of men in glass cages, shouting, hurling insults and genuinely disrupting a panel of judges trying to interrogate Tommaso, a man among them whose turned informant after the deaths of most of his family by the hands of the opposing Corleone family. Filmed in long stretches as the battle of wills becomes a battle of he-said-he-said (and really, in a snake pit how can anyone trust another?), "The Traitor"'s real sense of purpose comes into blinding focus. For a filmmaker whose been idiosyncratically searching for the complex relationships between family, political icons and warring ideals since the early 60's, this film may be the closest he's ever come to mining out the truth in the matter. Done because he feels everyone else is the real traitor for turning their backs on the age-old traditions of the mafia, Tommaso embodies a conflicted on-screen presence that begs us not to identify with him, but simply understand the collision of ideals he's fighting against.

As the 80 year old director's 27th feature length film, "The Traitor" is his most accessible in years, brimming still with aesthetic vibrancy and audible intelligence. But perhaps the most striking thing of all- despite all the unsettling bursts of violence- is Favino's portrayal of a man who my have turned his back on the organization known as the mafia, but who can't quite outrun the nightmares of his sordid life. To the film's credit, it ends with a heartbreaking whimper rather than a loud bang.... and it resonates all the more strongly for it.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

The Current Cinema 20.1

Gretel and Hansel

Compact and atmospheric, Osgood Perkins' "Gretel and Hansel" is remarkable for the way it chokes subdued themes out of the classic fairy tale. Instead of a cautionary beware-of-strangers theme that the original story so fluently embedded in wide-eyed children, Perkins throws in unsettling motifs about budding femininity and personal sacrifice. A Gretel, Sophia Lillis is exceptional.... and make no mistake, as the inverted title belies, this is her tale as she struggles to make sense of the moody world collapsing around her as she and her brother find solace in the cabin of a spooky old woman and her never ending feasts. It's not so much how the story evolves as how Perkins plays with our expectations, inching along in streaks of eerie pathos rather than outright scares. It may not be for every horror affectionado, but it's just the right amount of calculated dread for my tastes.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Magnificent acting and a natural approach to every relationship developed in this tender French drama, "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" deserves the accolades its been garnering since premiering at Cannes last May. Working through a spare narrative- an artist (Noemie Merlant) is hired to surreptitiously paint the portrait of a to-be engaged young woman (Adele Haenel) on a windswept coastline- Celine Sciamma's film becomes a masterpiece of self discovery as the women form a delicate relationship. Although furtive glances and pregnant silences are the de rigueur images for this type of dramatic unrequited love tale, "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" deploys them to breathtaking efficiency where the act of seeing and being seen cuts straight into your heart. 

Monday, February 10, 2020

Immigrant Reform: Anthony Mann's "Border Incident"

Like many of his contemporaries, director Anthony Mann's filmography swept across the decades of Hollywood's evolution from the dramas of the 30's, the bleak film noir of the 40's and finally ascending to the heights of big budget spectacles of the late 50's and early 60's. Just looking at the titles that dot his resume (from hard-nosed classics like "T-Men" and "Winchester '73" to the pomp and circumstance of "El Cid"), Mann undulated with the times like the best of them.

Unfortunately, I feel woefully inept at accurately responding to the breadth of his films as I've seen so few. I'm pretty damn sure I've seen "Raw Deal", "T-Men" and his western forays with Jimmy Stewart, "Winchester '73" and "The Naked Spur" on TCM or Bravo TV showings back in the day, although I don't have firm documentation in the likes of Netflix markings or Letterboxd notes... which seems to suggest that, nowadays, if this technology isn't checked, the past might not even exist.

All of this is to say I've set out to right this wrong, and if my first jab at Mann's content is any indication, I'm in for a vibrant viewing experience. Released in 1949 and starring Ricardo Montalban and George Murphy, "Border Incident" posits a spy thriller framework over the liberal minded expose of exploitative immigrant culture and the deep-seated (and deep pocketed) conspiracy that aims to use and dispose of them when the work is finished. As two police officers on opposite sides of the border seeking to end the cycle of violence, Montalban and Murphy go undercover- Montalban as a migrant worker desperate to cross the US border and find work and Murphy as one of the middlemen stealing documents to cover the tracks of those in charge.

Full of deep focus rack shots and sinewy midnight lighting- urgent because most of the film takes place in the wee hours of the night where malice and discretion are apt bedfellows- "Border Incident" parlays both the best of film noir and subterfuge thrillers in the way it establishes strong tension around believable characters stuck in-between the (at one point literal) grinding wheels of evil. In fact, although Montalban is the real star, lengthy portions of the film dart away from both he and Murphy, giving weight to the parasitic nature of the shadowy organizations in gritty detail. The forces of evil are embedded in the canyon border landscape so deeply that when one character thinks he's gotten away to safety, he runs straight into the warm den of a woman who promptly calls her husband.... and he arrives with shotgun in hand to clean up the mess for his superiors. No one said cleaning up the border would be easy.

Made right before his run of noirs would be over and he'd embark on a series of westerns throughout the 50's, Mann's "Border Incident" feels especially dark, full of heroic compromise and real-world nihilism that cancel each other out. It's also quite the prescient film. If not for a somewhat tacked-on voice over that closes the film with a hint of optimism, "Border Incident" could be released today and we'd all nod and agree that the problem is as divisive and violent as ever.