Friday, November 09, 2018

The Current Cinema 18.7


I loved everything about Luca Guadagnino's re-imagining of Argento's late 70's horror staple, from its sculptured excess to the ruminations about the past and how both worlds (human and sorceress) reconcile their grief and guilt. Hewing somewhat close to the margins of the original's narrative (this time its Dakota Johnson as the fresh faced American making waves in a haute dance company run by witches), this latest version careens all over the board however, meshing the life of an elderly psychotherapist (played in a dual role by Tilda Swinton) with the dance company as the grubby and violent exterior of late 70's Berlin towers in the background. How it all comes together is quite shocking, which is impressive since Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich supply the original film's big secret pretty early on, allowing for the specter of World War II, terrorism and a key plot twist to fill in the (sometimes shocking) bloody gaps. This is a film that will certainly divide audiences, complicating the desire for straight up horror fans with art-house sensibilities and creating something sinister and bold in the process.

A Star Is Born

Competently made by first time director Bradley Cooper, the real coup here is that Lady Gaga inhabits her role with sensitivity and grace. It's one of my favorite performances of the year. Even as the film builds to its obvious conclusion and Cooper does all he can to wring the tortured artist out of his crumbling character, its Lady Gaga who holds the most passion on-screen.

Reviews posted now at Dallas Film Now:

Burning-  Too diffuse to be called a thriller and too vacant of a character study to be compelling, it left me disappointed because Chang-Dong's previous films avoided those pratfalls so beautifully.

Wildlife- Another actor makes his directorial debut.

Trouble- If nothing else its good to see Anjelica Huston on screen again.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Shoctober Round #2

As Above, So Below

From the Dowdle brothers,  "As Above, So Below" is a pleasantly diverting piece of archeological horror whose impending atmosphere and attention to peripheral thrills far outweighs the nonsense of its average acting and bland found footage aesthetic. Films that deal with portals to hell either go too far or not enough (think "We Are the Flesh" for the former) and while this film does mingle slowly into some heavy aversions about a trip to that fiery furnace, it also pulls back when I thought it may go-for-broke. Still, this one far exceeded my expectations and deserves a look-see on Netflix.


I have to give Dutch filmmaker Dick Maas credit for severing his genre films with some pretty left field choices. In "The Lift", his modus operandi is following the travails of a haunted elevator in a high rise building. In "Amsterdamned", his serial killer is a scuba diving madman who lurks slowly out of the water and around it, picking off his victims in savage fashion. The better of the two films is "Amsterdamned" for the way it plays with the police procedural film. Its lead detective (Huub Stapel) doesn't do much to catch the killer. Various false leads result in nicely staged car chases, but the case is cracked by someone ancillary to Det. Visser. And the death scenes feel more brutal than the overall tone of the film. Regardless of all this, "Amsterdamned" looks terrific in its Amsterdam 80's-ness and it fairs much better than a haunted elevator.

Night Warning 

The VHS-rip I watched William Asher's film on incongruously features the title "Night Warning",dropping the far superior one of "Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker". That's not the only mistake of this film. Supremely boring and offensive for its vilification of homosexuals, the film features shock violence and Susan Tyrell as an overprotective/sexually repressed aunt who just can't deal with her adopted nephew fleeing the coop. If that sells it for you, this is for you. I could barely get through it. 

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Shoctober, Round #1


Reading about the history of the 1992 BBC mockumentary is almost as fun as watching the trailblazing film known as "Ghostwatch". Set up as a real life exploration of a haunted house, the film earned the trust of its audience as something very true by the involvement of BBC personalities. A bit dated in its terms nowadays, the film is still an effective and enjoyable watch as the cameras catch flickers of things in the corners and hiding behind curtains. Then there's this split-second door opening that made me rewind and slow for about 3 minutes until I could make out the mustached man hiding behind it. For all its loopy British charm, "Ghostwatch" is the perfect atmospheric little horror film to start off the month with.

Before I Wake

The modern master of PG-13 horror (see also "Ouija" for some generic but well timed scares), Mike Flanagan's "Before I Wake" has lingered on Netflix for some time now and its well worth the time. Not only does it feature a couple of marvelously rendered moments of terror, but it features a denouement that not only makes everything that's come before it utterly believable. but crystallizes what most child horror films fail to recognize.... which is that memory and innocent brain synapses often propagate the real nightmares in our world.

Zombi 3 

Lucio Fulci never met a  fog machine he didn't like. For "Zombi 3", it's in every scene and, really who cares. The idea here- about a biohazard experiment called Death One that is loosed from a research facility onto the population of a nearby town- is just as crazy as it sounds. Floating heads out of freezers. Zombie hands borne from the womb of a woman. Some zombies move slow while others move lightning quick and fight like ninjas. Consistency isn't the film's strong point. But what we do have is a gorefest that's wild, unbelievable and wholly entertaining in the way only Fulci could make.

Friday, October 05, 2018

The Current Cinema 18.6

The Nun

Part of what makes James Wan's "The Conjuring" universe so nerve-wrecking is the seemingly endless fray of demonic entities and supernatural beings that waft in and out of people's dreams (or altered realities) with such ferocious mystery, that we become terrified of the sheer depth of terror swirling at the fringes of our consciousness. What doesn't always work is the filmmaker's attempt to affix an explanation of said entity. Corin Hardy's "The Nun" takes on the challenge of explaining (and explaining more) the character that jangled people's senses in a previous film with disastrous results. If less is more, than "The Nun" fails simply because it turns an atmospheric presence into a straight-forward hell raiser with a hammer sensibility of terror and jump scares timed to such obvious precision that the life is sucked right out of the film from the very beginning because it so desperately wants the absolute 'most'. It's also such a dimly lit affair (from DP Maxime Alexandre) that its visual scheme adds nothing but confusion to a horror film poised to wallow in disappointing mediocrity.

White Boy Rick

Told with all the handheld grittiness filmmaker Yann Demange promoted in his good debut film "'71", his first American funded effort is just as equally trenchant but far less resonant. This time, the bombed out center of violence isn't the U.K. but downtown Detroit in the early 80's as teenager Rick (Richie Merritt) and his father Rick (Matthew McConaughey) find inventive ways to sustain a living. For the older Rick, it's arms dealing (albeit with a license) and for young Rick, it parlaying his father's fringe interests into a high flying career of drug dealing and double crossing when the FBI come knocking. This type of story has been told dozens of times before with the only difference being its main character is a teenager, and Demange and screenwriters try their best to infuse "White Boy Rick" with a streak of originality including hearing the voice of the real-life Rick at the end, but the whole effort becomes mired in a been-there-done-that syndrome in which it never fully recovers.

Assassination Nation

Like a lurid pop-dream, Sam Levinson's "Assassination Nation" is a visually bold and simmering assault on everything from gender equality to the sometimes toxic nature of social media. Appropriating ages old literature from the likes of Nathanial Hawthorne and our nation's own descent into supernatural madness with the Salem witch trials (a town which our new film aptly mimics), writer and director Levinson has crafted a jaw-dropping tale that takes place in the very current when four teenage girls (played to perfection by Odessa Turner, Suki Waterhouse, Hari Nef and Abra) become targets- and subsequently are forced to become justice swinging vigilantes- after a computer hacker exposes the town's deep, dark personal secrets. Aided by some of the year's finest cinematography courtesy of Hungarian Marcell Rev and a thumping score by Ian Hutlquist, "Assassination Nation" ascends to wondrous heights in commentary and visual pastiche, masterfully stealing the whimpers that similarly themed films like the egregious "Purge" series aspire towards. Hopefully, this film will catch onto some sort of zeitgeist on home video as it came and went in theaters faster than most. I loved every second of it.

Free Solo

A National Geographic Films production whose story overcomes the company's very obvious template of narrative. Full thoughts on Dallas Film Now


Friday, September 14, 2018

70's Bonanza: Ryan's Daughter

There's a harsh juxtaposition of technique towards the end of David Lean's maligned 200 minute 1970 drama "Ryan's Daughter" that, for me, aligned all my lingering thoughts of greatness into sharp contrast. After falling in love with a tortured soldier (Christopher Jones), young wife Rosy (Sarah Miles) runs out before daybreak to catch a fleeting embrace with him on the hill overlooking their house. The music swells to a lush ovation before cutting back to silence (suddenly) as older husband Charles (Robert Mitchum) watches them morosely from the window. Add to the fact that Lean (and screenwriter Robert Bolt) refuse to create violent physical tension between the two men that would usually provide the undertone for such a film dealing with turn of the century love triangles, and "Ryan's Daughter" is an immense achievement in understated filmmaking crossed with the overstated aesthetic of Lean's usual compositions. It may be sanctimonious to declare this film my very favorite of Lean's over the more prestigious "The Bridge on the River Kwai" or "Lawrence of Arabia", but there it is.

Released fairly late in Lean's career (in which its chilly critical reception would see the filmmaker not craft another film until 1984, effectively missing out on an entire decide of great revisionist 70's filmmaking), Ryan's Daughter" is about so much more than the damning relationship that flares up between the trio. As Rosy, Sarah Miles virtually throws herself at older schoolteacher Mitchum in the beginning of the film because she feels her youth will be wasted in her cloistered, hermetic coastal Irish village. When the handsome (and dare I say pre-goth) and injured soldier Major Doryan shows up to command the small military derricks on the outskirts of town, its almost as if fate is tempting Rosy and telling her she made the matrimonial leap just a bit early. Transcribe this narrative to the forlorn heartlands of Kansas or the snow swept plains of Montana in a Howard Hawks film, and "Ryan's Daughter" is essentially a universal paean to passionate choices and fluctuating feelings that have bridled humanity since the beginning of time.

But this is certainly not Montana or Kansas. "Ryan's Daughter" situates itself in 1916 smack in the breast of IRA territory, often scurrying into side-plots that will eventually draw Doryan into the fray and divide Rosy against the very loyal townsfolk. While some deride the film for its length- and mostly the asides for the Oscar winning performance of the town fool played by veteran actor John Mills who just happens to be in every important place at once throughout the film- plus the extra subtext with IRA conspirators, a brash town priest (Trevor Howard) and Rosy's own cowardly barkeep father (Leo McKern) who harbors his own impetuous and damning actions, all of this establishes an atmosphere and world that feels like its widening into something sinister. In fact, the IRA and "The Troubles" would blossom a few years later. Ireland's coast would change dramatically over the coming years. England's reach would continue to strangle the countryside. In that regard, "Ryan's Daughter" and its love triangle could be read as metaphorical innocence morphing into a turbulent rupture of family, home and state.

Or maybe I'm translating way too much into it. I fell in love with this film from the outset. Not only does it exude a master's touch- just watch the early scene where Rosy awaits Charles in his schoolhouse and the camera pans across walls and doors from her point of view as Charles enters the other room and his lumbering physique is heard coming closer, which feels like an imprinted visual touch adapted later by everyone from David Fincher to P.T. Anderson- but it's an old fashioned romance that rarely saw the light of day as the 70's rolled in. And that was the general complaint against Lean's film, that he was regurgitating previous themes and motifs from earlier efforts and that, at best, "Ryan's Daughter" was second-tier copy. My reply? If this is second tier, then I wish more filmmakers would attempt it.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Current Cinema 18.5

The Little Stranger

A diffuse haunted house story, Lenny Abrahamson's "The Little Stranger" works because of the creaky, atmospheric world-building it establishes in the first half before turning towards supernatural eeriness in the second. It won't satisfy everyone, though. Very mannered and stiff-upper-lip-British to an extreme, the film is actually more of a psychological early twentieth century love story than a horror film. As the local doctor (Domhnall Gleeson) is a muted and internal figure slowly obsessed by a large manor he once visited as a child. His profession finally gives him the chance to explore the house properly when he's called upon to treat the afflicted ex-World War I son (Roderick Ayers) of the house years later and falls in love with his older sister (Ruth Wilson, poised to have a breakout fall season). Strange things have been going on in the house, such as bells that ring in every room for the maid service and a strikingly realized dog attack during a party. Abrahamson (based on a novel Sarah Waters) doesn't strain to terrify...... that comes later in the month with "The Nun". "The Little Stranger" instead chooses to portray generational haunting and old-house theatrics with a calm that sinks into one's bones like the constant damp that permeates the exterior of the expansive manor. See this one before its yanked unceremoniously from theaters.

Lots of new reviews at Dallas Film Now including:

Support the Girls
We the Animals
Madeline's Madeline

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The Female Gaze: Christian Petzold's "Pilotinnen" aka Drifters

Filmmaker Christian Petzold's cinema has always been a female-centric one. Portraying strong women in various modes of genre, his muse, actress Nina Hoss, has embodied women in various stages of distress with fierce resolution- revenge in "Something To Remind Me" or corporate 'chameleonism' in "Yella" or especially meal-ticket survival of the fittest-cum-emotional-smackdown in "Phoenix". Whatever the parameters, Petzold's films may not fit perfectly into the MeToo movement of total acceptance (precisely because, after all, he is still a male director parlaying these feminine narratives), but at least he tries to assuage something other than the usual point of view in a cinematic world where most male characters weigh heavily.

This predilection is obvious from the opening scene of his debut TV movie, "Pilotinnen", also known in English as "Drifters". Two sets of hands embrace each other in close-up against the wood-grain top of a restaurant table as voices (obviously lovers) make their plans to meet in a hotel in the very near future outside of Germany. Petzold then cuts to Karin (Eleonore Weisgerber) and then follows her outside, never even showing the male character whom she's established a rendezvous with. We soon learn, obliquely as Petzold loves to drip information about his characters slowly, that Karin is a traveling saleslady for a cosmetic company, virtually homeless except for the bonuses she earns on hotel rooms through her company's weekly overnight stays. She's not presented as a desperate person. On the contrary, Karin is drawn as a succinct and no-nonsense woman who understands the frivolity of her ways and has accepted things.

Her life isn't made any easier, however, when her boss (Udo Schenk) finds her sleeping in her car and decides to make her career difficult by assigning her a partner, who happens to be a much younger and attractive blonde (Nadeshda Brennicke). And she's having an affair with said boss. From there,"Drifters" establishes a very "Thelma and Louise" vibe as Karin and Sophie bond over their repressive state in both the corporate and emotional world, deciding to take matters into their own hands.

Being a TV movie, the sex and violence is especially pared down, but Petzold's flair for the subversive remains intact. Karin, endlessly smoking and prone to penetrating glances that would weaken the knees of both men and women, is the classic archetype for all of Petzold's later incarnations. She seems to be a woman who understands and knows what she wants, even if young and seemingly flighty Sophie gets the big, sweeping gesture of personal sacrifice that navigates the final act of "Drifters" into something surprising and fatalistic.

From this effort, Petzold was given the opportunity to make other TV movies- "The Sex Thief", "Cuba Libra" and the best being "Something To Remind Me". As a first feature, it's rough in certain parts and maintains the restrictive boxy format, but in ideas and larger themes taking shape in a rising auteur, it's a wonderful glimpse into the formative process of a burgeoning talent.