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Raw Deal (1986)
Arnie in fine form in a good Sunday afternoon time waster
Raw Deal (no relation far as I can tell to the Anthony Mann film of the same name, the producers slapped on this title because it gets to the point, I guess) is something that I can see playing at MoMA any time soon (then again, once current events subside, stranger things have happened), but it scratches the itch for a need for slightly sleazy and (but not too excessive, like a sprinkling of parsley on a good chicken) and plenty bloody (naturally) thriller where Arrnie gets to slick back his hair, chomp on a cigar, say "Magic? Magnets!" before flipping a table, and has some convincing supporting work from Kathryn Harrold, Darren McGavin and Sam Wanamaker (and some scene chewing from Robert Davi and Ed Lauter). Matter of fact, Schwarzenegger said later he thought he became a better actor over the course of shooting, and I can see it... Up to a point. And that one scene at the cemetery is pretty terrific.
Last thing, LOL the music is by "Cinemascore"?! My how times change (the score is pretty generic too).
Il bidone (1955)
To Con or Not to Con in post-war Italy....
Almost by default a "minor" Fellini film due to being made between two of his classics (and not getting a release in the US for seven years after its Venice debut), Il Bidone is a satisfying and very good story told with a deft combination (intentional or no) of tough but not brutal (till near the end) Film-Noir, with criminal low-lifes trying to eek out a living scheming people, and Neo-Realism via Fellini's use of all those locations and the nature of the people, it still being post-War Rome and provincial Italian towns, where the working class and poor were susceptible to Crawford and Basehart's Wolves-in-Priests clothing schemes.
Indeed Basehart is ideally cast, a much different kind of "fool" than the one he had just played in La Strada, and Masina for, I think the one time with her husband, is just being a quote in quote "normal" person who stands in for much of the audience to say what her husband and father of her child is doing is wrong. What hampers it somewhat (aside from, not anyone's fault, that we can't hear Crawford's full performance as it's dubbed in Italian) is that it doesnt fully gain traction until the final thirty minutes (albeit a more typical/high-energy Fellini to come can be seen in a long party sequence that takes up the middle portion), and Augusto having the estranged daughter may have worked on paper but feels flat in execution.
But there are great scenes and passages throughout, notably the whole introduction to these men when theyre in their Papal garb doing the con wit the chest of "treasure" on the farm (including the charming but sleazy Fabrizi, who was also in I Vitelloni and in a way this feels like a cousin to that film, what decisions men make in life that will form who they'll become, on a moral level), and then much later when Augusto is doing it again but only this time now face to face with a young disabled girl who wants a connection and he, already on the edge of not being at ease doing this anymore, can't fake it and it all comes as the punch in the gut the film has been leading up to. Indeed what comes after may be a touch too melodramatic and tragic (without saying what happens to Crawford, I think it would have been more interesting if it wasn't so... Final).
Overall though, Il Bidone is more than just an obscure curio, and for most other directors it would be a feather in their cap. Oddly enough for this filmmaker, a story set pretty squarely without the dreams and surrealism with its distinguishing feature some poetic/lyrical touches is the one to fall somewhat through the cracks.
the Magical, Sad-Funny Fellini Tour
Sure, the Catholic Mega-Light show Pride Fashion Show may go on a couple of minutes long, and I'm shaking my head a little in bewilderment at the very ending (not the intent behind the shots, just why there are SO many motorcycles riding around. These are just minor quibbles keeping this from being an all-timer Fellini to being merely a sumptuous, sensual, dangerous, terrifying, beautifully ugly and despairingly rapturous, garish, funny and often exhilarating trip through not a city but a mind's eye of a city.
This is a "documentary" only in the way of Fellini creating one documentary of parts of his own brain, jumping from his childhood in the 30s to the 40s when one assumes he came to Rome and to the present day and then back again. The effect that he and his collaborators accomplish for the viewer - one has to give a mention to Rotunno's evocative cinematography, more than the specific colors than how he makes spaces like the underground subway tunnels feel gloomy and eerie, and Nino Rota's sprightly and even amusing score - is to feel like you're there in these settings. So when he shows his young sorta-self at a nighttime outdoor restaurant with nearly everyone excitable and loud and full of big personalities to match the big plates of great looking food, I feel like Im immersed with thoae people. Same deal with that at points awkward and always entertaining vaudeville presentation, where the audience is rowdy and unencumbered but know to stand up to pay attention to the fascist news of the day - one nearly is ready to tell the loud fools in the crowd to shut up and let the performers do their thing.
A sequence that stood out to me is when Fellini and his crew are filming Rome traffic. It's not quite a jam so he isn't aping Godard with Weekend (or himself with 8 1/2 for that matter, even if a couple of moments remind one of the latter), as the cars are all moving... Until there's an accident seen with dead cows and an overturned truck. But through all of this, one is aware that a camera crew has to be filming the camera crew that is shooting this, and yet it never comes off as ragged or too hand-held in its presentation. It feels of a piece with all the rest of the freewheeling dreamscape Fellini and company are realizing, including a lack of music and only the sounds of the road.
So, if that sounds cool and you've seen one or two Fellini films (I wouldn't jump to this as your first or even second if you are fresh to his work), dig in and you may be surprised how loving and at the same time critical he is of the denizens of this city; the subway sequence speaks to that and the tragic beat of the 2000 year old murals being faded into existence - how true that is to reality, I can't say, but he makes it *feel* deep and sad and that's what counts. Roma is like equal parts Amarcord and travelogue, funeral march and celebration - and I do wish (minor spoiler) Fellini ended on Anna Magnangi.
"This is a pattern that repeats itself throughout history"
First thought: ... Actors, man.
Next: Denis Villeneuve has shown through several of his films by now a succinct and total control over crrating intrigue and mystery in his work, and Enemy is an example of using the term "Lynchian" in a proper context (in particular David Lynch's films from the past 25 years, and notwithstanding Isabella Rossellini in a small but important role here): doubles, consistent eerie vibes and behavior, and what Id call a patience (some may call it teasing out or over teasing) to reveal the mysteries that may or may not have an explanation (oh, and a clue seen on a video). But at the same time, Villeneuve isn't Lynch, and he creates his own potent context for this foreboding tale of surrealism and what history has to teach us.
I think it isn't unimportant that one of the Jake Gyllenhaal's is a history teacher, and before he gives a lesson that feels a bit nail-on-the-head in regards to talking about history repeating itself and Marxian "first as tragedy then as farce" (which could explain the ending, and I won't even try to on a first viewing), he talks to his class about dictatorships and how that repression also repeats and goes on and on. I don't know if or how dictators fit in to this story, but I do think this is a tale about control over oneself and knowing (or precisely not knowing) who one is or one's place in the world. This by the way connects to other Villeneuve films like Blade Runner 2049, though here it is in 90 unnerving and often awkardly/darkly funny minutes.
Enemy is also about how these two characters relate (or absolutely don't) to the women in their lives. I wanted to know more about Melanie Laurent and her dissatisfaction with Adam, and it may be enough that she just likes sex (or maybe not) and that's the relationship, but it felt underwritten - at least knowing what she can do as an actress. Better is the one for Sarah Gadon, with the actor Anthony St Claire and pregnant and the first to be contacted by the double and discover him (and holy god that is one complex but visually effective scene where she sits down by him on that bench and then is on the phone with the other). She gets more to ponder and react to and it's a wonderfully restrained performance... How again it lays into that ending, Im still scratching my head (maybe Stephen King can explain it, but I digress).
And if there is a reason to watch this aside from seeing a modern master filmmaker likely having delight in creating this brooding atmosphere - from a script that knows just how to give the audience enough information to keep going, but is largely visually drawn and is all the more imaginative for it, including giving Villenueve a sort of fragmentary structure that makes the surrealism work - it's of course these *two* magnetic performances. It may also be a slightly obvious point, that one is a little more downtrodden and the other more brash and confident, but Gyllenhaal brings the truth out in everything he does - no matter how BIG it has to get dramatically (and a couple of times he has to go to a Jake LaMotta "did you f*** my wife" delivery)and this is no exception. He also I think finds a bit more humor (for the better) than Villeneuve may have intended, if only through those phone conversations. It's an essential film in his body of work, and amazing to think he could do this just around the same time as Nightcrawler.
So strap in, try to not be too distracted watching at home or wherever (currently available on Netflix), and watch out for spiders!
Bad Education (2019)
Magnificent tragicomedy; Hugh Jackman is something else here!
Bad Edcuation is one of the most incisive, sharp-as-a-new-knife and darkly funny films about politics since Election - and like that, it goes to show that focusing on the school system, from the corrupt to the innocent and everything in between, to get to the heart of all that. When it comes to power and control (and what journalism can do, always worth being reminded), this story is as potent an exploration as one could ask for right now, and it's all painfully relevant to right now.
This is just a brilliant, deft and intense script, it's an absolute career high point for Jackman (I now feel like Reitman let him even more down with that Gary Hart movie, given what a super saavy but way in over his head politician he's playing in the guise of a superintendent), not to mention Janney and Romano et al, and the direction, which is laser focused on driving the character moments and psychology of every single potential moment, is a major leap forward from the guy who brought us Thoroughbreds.
Secret MVP: Frank's black-death smoothie. Also, Viswanathan is a revelation in her unassuming way.
"Maybe if we cover the entire face with a flag..."
1) This is a joyful collection of jokes strung together by a rough mockumentary style that Woody tried just before with Take the Money and Run and would perfect with Zelig.
2) It's ambitious in some respects, in that im not sure if this was done to this length before (even if just for television) - not to mention it's politically sharp even as Allen in his memoir tried to say he didn't get political in his work, which is nonsense, and this is primarily engineered to get laughs over making a grander point about Nixon up to that time, though I think even he could tell what a bunch of crooks Agnew and Mitchell were, but I digress - and in other ways it's like something he mightve dashed off (scriptwise) in a weekend.
Louise Lasser also has a fun role being interviewed about her time being drafted into Korea, and Diane Keaton plays a cross-eyed Republican ex-wife of Harvey's who divorced him after finding out he cheated wirh a Democrat.
3) As silly as this was, it doesn't surprise me to learn that PBS yanked it before it aired. It's pretty scathing, and under PBS I get it wouldn't fly. Shame it took till YouTube for it to really see the light of day.
4) I wonder what Harvey Wallinger would make of the Trump administration?
The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)
A good movie that I wish was better
I really like what this movie was trying to do early on, in particular in the first half, where we have a father and son digging in (literally and figuratively, mostly literally) to a body to discover the eerie and uncanny things that were done to her, and I was even on board for some (if not all) of the horror movie Shock and Awe theatrics once it has to get to that midway through.
What ends up messing things up is when the filmmakers feel the need to explain what Jane Doe's deal is - right down to a convenient Bible passage with the numbers laid out just so inside of her, more or less - and when one starts to poke holes in the logic of what ends up happening, be it why Jane Doe is controlling the other corpses (who, to be fair, at least they didn't go with a creepy dead kid or creepy old lady, but did they all have to have such conveniently gruesome touches to them, from gunblasted head to sewn eyes) or why (REDACTED) is even down there at that particular point in the plot.
In brief, Cox and Hirsch are terrific, Catherine got paid and does a lot with so very little, Lovibonf is underused, and it has its effective-creepy moments. But The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a prime example of filmmakers needing to be careful when it comes to sticking the landing on a story where maybe less said snd less explained the better. And last but not least... I'm kind of surprised that 17th century witches had such good merkins back in the day...
Kind of obscure for a reason, but not a total loss
I had this VHS tape in my possession for years (where I got it, how, I don't remember, probably a convention for a buck if that) and didn't think to watch it till now as as I clear some out. I put it on and... This is not what I typically watch - obscure/probably better-forgotten practically DTV made-off-foreign-tax-credit action junk that would later be "homage" for Expendables (but before that was justly parodied in Hot Shots Part Deux to a certain unintentional extent). What you need to know about this is that this is overloaded with would-be political commentary regarding who can or can't be a dictator or make martial law or who commits the assassinations for what cause etc etc...
But really, this is most concerned with Isaac Hayes getting to rhyme a lot of his dialog (I know I heard a "hill" rhyme with "kill" at one point), and that the stuntmen who keep falling off balconies - seriously theres like thirty of them in this frickin thing - can have a path to fall comfortably when they do. Oh, and Robert Foerster plays a Middle Eastern Dictator, which just made me conflicted because I know reasonably this shouldn't be and why didn't they just get an Arab actor or someone of that descent... Yet he's also Robert Forster and can't help but be competent and intense and interesting in what he does. This movie is Grade-A as to why Tarantino did Forster a true service giving his career a blood donation (Hayes too being in this is just bizarre, but it get it I guess, paycheck's what it is).
I suppose the main point I want to make with Counterforce is this isn't a particularly engrossing movie by any stretch, despite it being full of bodies hitting the proverbial floor, but the problem is largely of my own making: watching this friends could at least bring some ok some lively commentary, and that can't happen right now during a statewide shutdown. I can only make so many comments by myself before I overdo the Ian Malcolm thing of "And now Im talking to myself that-that's chaos theory."
If you truly are into seeking out all of the Competent but Largely Dull Except when theyre Occasionally Schlock Action Thrillers That Feature Some Day-For-Night footage Co-Starring Hugo Stiglitz (speaking again of QT), then I get it. Hell, I even had a couple laughs at, say, the dummy on tbe wheelchair in free-fall off a building.... Otherwise, find something else to do with your life, please.
Now, Voyager (1942)
On romance, mothers and daughters, and my mother
Quite possibly the only sensible film to watch in this time, since there's enough soap overloaded in this for ten Covid-19 swamped hospitals!
Seriously, Now, Voyager has been on my radar since I was a small kid, even if I had little interest in actually watching it - my mother had only a handful of VHS tapes of her own in our kitchen (ie The Crying Game, Jules & Jim for example) and this was one of them - and I know I had a pretty immature sense about what to watch or not to watch for too many years (as in, "pfft black and white soap opera romance/mother-daughter fluff, who needs that"). Im happy to say that I have a little less idiocy now about me, and have over the years seen many Bette Davis movies, from the notorious (Baby Jane) to lesser known works (Marked Woman). Coming to this was one of the major works to finally check off my list, if only so I can finally talk about it with my mother... As she did with her own mother, whenever it came on TV one would call the other and they'd light up and watch together even if living apart, but I digress.
Come to think of it, this is one of the heavy-duty mother-child tug of war stories (different POV of Mildred Pierce, less homicidal than Norman Bates, get my drift), and that is really what is at heart here in this story: how to break away from one's upbringing and get out on one's own. That there is romance in this isn't besides the point, far from it, as this is one of the most endearing and lovely and welcoming romantic Hollywood films of the time; it means to have escapism on its mind, as Charlotte goes off on a cruise ship and meets a dashing man with a good accent and keen ability with lighting two cigarettes at once (and the occasional deep thought to ponder over whilst overlooking Buenos Aires from a swanky villa at night, as one does), but it doesn't mean to be that in a shallow way in this part of the story but be about that. And when Charlotte has returned, life... Has to go on, including with her controlling, unflappable, other-words-I-care-not-to-say mother.
What impresses me the most is how the filmmakers show us Charlotte truly growing and changing from the start of the story to the end, and that while it's a character study in some part it doesn't put aside telling us a story of self-actualization couched with the joys, thrill and sadness that can come with love - or that is to say, the love that can't be (and as of on cue, Henreid and Rains went off days after the shoot on this ended to Casablanca, with the former playing the opposite of his role here). And what else is there to say about Bette Davis that hundreds of other critics haven't said over the decades? Why this became such a smash hit isn't a surprise since for the audience perhaps *the* draw is seeing her "become" how she was most likrd to be seen: confident, with a wink in her lips and a curve in her eyes, from big eyebrowed "ugly duckling" to smooth great hat wearing and cigarette smoking operator that she could be. But beneath all of that is a mess of complexity she brings to the emotional range of many scenes, in particular with the actor playing the mother.
Is it a little shy of being All Time Great? On a first viewing, yeah a bit; there's a portion midway through involving a bumbling foreign cab driver that means to add some comic relief, a small touch of suspense and miscommunication, but feels awkward and dated today; except for one part after a significant turning point, be narration is unnecessary; and as much as I love Max Steiner's score it is here in so much of the film that a few scenes could have used no music and been more dramatically impactful (I know that's not a strong critique on a first viewing, like saying the lush gravy is slathered a bit too much on the gourmet mashed potatoes for dinner).
This is just me picking the nits of what is an exceptionally crafted and executed take on Cinderella for a modern sensibility, a classic of the kind of movie it wants and aims to be, and the last act is surprisingly poignant in how mother-daughter roles take on another context. And to say it closes a chapter in my life finally seeing it is an understatement.
CW: Bulimia, extreme violence, Vincent Gallo in drag
First of all, I didn't look fully at the cast credits for this before I started watching, so about two thirds of the way in I'm pretty sure I said loud enough for my downstairs neighbors to hear (or on the whole block for that matter) "Holy s*** is that Vincent Gallo! That is Vincent Gallo and what is he DOING?! Am I amused? Yes! Ok!" And then I went on with my viewing.
Bright eschews much of the smuggling and social commentary/wicked satire of the first Freeway for more of a straight take-no-prisoners exploitation flick that in some ways (like it's soundtrack) puts it pretty smack dab in the late 90s as far as what-they-could-afford rock songs, and Little Red Riding Hood is traded off for Hansel and Gretel (only if, hey, we have escaped lady convicts who are half totally crazy and half totally not but capable of self defense, with the occasional lesbianism).
Not that that is a bad thing at all, it's just that it revels far more in the sleaze and murder and drug-fuelled mayhem (I haven't seen so much huffed by characters in one movie in a while), though the first twenty minutes in the prison is Bright especially digging his feet squarely into a Women in Prison movie that is kind of half baked; I get why he is after the exploitative imagery of seeing a row of convict women all puking their guts out, but it's taking something that...
I know how it sounds to pick on this point in a movie where people get killed/sexually assaulted/rampant drug use/prostitution/besting the hell out of creepy goddamn men and so forth, at the same time those are staples of such a grimy and trashy piece. The eating disorder part feels a lot cheaper, like it's there for the shock value (with some binge eating for Natasha Lyonne's "White Girl" once she escapes) without grappling with it being a deeper-rooted problem for so many. I can't criticize it more coherently at this time.
Another issue: I don't think Maria Celedonio a Cyclone is wholly convincing, or at least for what she needs to get to, especially when she has to act dramatic in many scenes. As a badass with attitude, that is something she has nailed down like a pro. When she's up against Natasha Lyonne though, who is doing a whole lot to bring both raw power and attitude and a more psychological approach that, dare I say it for something that goes for the BIG moments and swings at all this material, has subtlety throughout and consistently too.
All this said though, it is fun for much of the runtime, and aptly unsettling in its horror in the final act, and I like that Bright is swinging for such mad ideas and chances... Like what Vincent Gallo is doing here and made me happy despite how unseemly it is. And maybe there is something that Bright is trying to get at with a Mexico underbelly that would allow a Wicked Witch character luring the young with her food that connects to modern day terror in the country... Or maybe not! I recommend it, just that it can't help but look lessor compared to the first one.
Ma vie de Courgette (2016)
Turns out, the filmmaker behind Portrait of a Lady on Fire once up on a time wrote the script for a totally delightful, unsentimental but truly heartwarming and at its core tough family animated movie that starts with a little boy accidentally killing his drunk louse of a mom and being sent to an orphanage... Where the message is, basically, if you can connect with others around you - even the presumptive bully (I mean he has red hair, after all) - you'll be alright in life.
Adorably and impeccably crafted, warm, deeply felt, basically like finding a great kid's book that doesn't talk down for a second to kids (the mentions about sex seem just about right and work for amusing wonders for a French import, but notice how it treats abuse of different kids, it says enough without needing to say it all for what some of the kids have gone through), and the more I think about it the more good it makes me feel.
I only wish I'd seen this sooner; I'd put it right there in what Truffaut and Malle did with child characters in their best films, and it may reach a wider audience if parents are smart enough to turn their kids on to it (or adults watch it themselves regardless).
Color Out of Space (2019)
Richard Stanley's glorious return to feature films is a visionary delight
In an anxiety-riddled time as we're in right now, one needs the catharsis of certain cinematic comforts - and as it turns out, Nicolas Cage freaking out over rotten fruit (among other spectacular Cage-Time scenes, both subtle and wild and what the hell is that accent he's got sometimes but not all the time) in a pleasurable hallucinatory science fiction horror film is just what the doctor ordered as far as catharsis.
Color Out of Space, which chronicles what happens when a meteor hits a farmhouse and a family has to try and keep the unfathomable insanity at bay (you know, that old tale that inspired like everything like it after, Jody Verill in Creepshow included), may not necessarily be all that deep or that is to say past its plethora of visual and probably aural metaphors if it has much to say, past "hey, people can break apart *extremely* easy and to space-infused extremes.
But in this case, that's okay! Stanley as a visionary (and he is) is out to be creepy while also indulging in creature fx that is mostly impressive and only disappointing when it involves some of the CGI monsters (the praying mantis alien is a stand out though) - and the plethora of purple lines), and I enjoyed seeing his enthusiasm for Lovecraft and letting his cinematographer and lighting team go manic here. He's going for shocks more than dread het there's some of that too - and sometimes it's funny, too (who let Chong in? Hey why not)
Did I mention this is Cage going Full Cage? It doesn't seem that way at first, even with the Alpalca milking... And then halfway through it seemed to click as he reached into his reservoir for freak outs, slow moving panic bouts, and shotgun blasts. I'm not even sure if it's entirely a *good* performance, and his character's motivations are all over the map, and at the same time Im just happy he's having fun with it all. It's a performance that has the context for it to go off the rails, and as a contrast to the relatively normal work of the younger performances.
Bottom line, this is grisly, weird, and charged with terror. If only quarantining was like this! Oh, and did you notice the Brando cameo?
Portrait of a Filmmaker with Something to Say (I mean that as a compliment!)
Well, that was.... incredibly satisfying (you thought I'd say lit, didn't you?)
I don't know how long I could expound about how Portrait of a Lady on Fire completely took me in and made me awed by how writer/director Céline Sciamma slowly (and it may be too slow for some, certainly not for the majority of critics) develops this relationship between an artist and the figure of her focus, what it means for anyone with creative aspirations to open oneself and find what *you* see, with a laser focus, on how faces and eyes and bodies and just these two amazing women look at each other on screen - Merlant and Haenel have some of the most electric chemistry of any performers I've experienced in a film, it's that damn good - or how she has the bravery to bring in moments that may confound a little (that feast where all the women start singing a hymn or some type of song out of nowhere, leading to a practically literal representation of the title) and disturb (what happens with Sophie about two thirds of the way through somehow made me shocked by how simply Sciamma shows what happens to her), while her camera is so focused on getting us to see HOW art and that process needs time to develop when it comes down to the soul, but.... What I'll try to bottle up in this is to say this:
You know the term "Male Gaze" when it comes to certain (a lot, too many) filmmakers? Sciamma showed me what the "Female Gaze" is like in all of its uncompromising hues. More importantly, this is just an artist with a vivid, sometimes surreal and harrowingly romantic point of view - not to mention, these two women are just staggering in what they're able to achieve here.
It made me feel like I've seen the rebirth of the French New Wave - the New-New, more precisely. Ok, I'll stop now.
The Invisible Man (2020)
one of the rare remakes that bests the original
This is a vigorous, rigorous and actually fresh take on a concept that goes back to the beginning of sound in film. I'm sure there are certain things to pick apart logically or a convenience or two to note in where things like surveillance cameras are (or aren't) at points, but these are things that would only get my goad if the main story and purpose wasn't strong.
Right out the gate and to that last impactful shot, Leigh Whannel follows up the promise of his surprisingly fun Upgrade in writing and directing this such with an intricate, efficient and exacting eye for the negative space - whether Cecilia sees Adrian or not - but this also ratchets up the tension and suspense. It's long, methodical takes, yet they are always in service of the psychology of the scenes.
He takes his time as a writer to set up beat by beat how much this monster is screwing with her, and while 'Gaslighting' is never uttered we know what the score is. Moss sells every second of this, but the writing needed to be there for it to work as far as making clear what kind of constricting world of psychopathy is going on (both with Adrian and as we find out and this isn't a spoiler to say leaving out details but his brother too), and why it would be believable that no one believes what she's saying. But what makes The Invisible Man such a thrill is seeing the potential being realized in the premise - moreover, the filmmaking follows this villain in all of his violent degrees.
For me, this bests the original 1933 Invisible Man by a mile (frankly the only thing I remember about that standing out wad Claude Rains's performance, though it's been a while), not to mention something like Hollow Man. More to the point, this is the kind of remarkable genre cinema that attempts to stand head to head with one kind of sequence - a gruesome, murderous spree in a mental hospital - that we all think/thought topped out with the escape sequence in Terminator 2, and for moment-to-moment intensity, by the tracking of the camera and the brutality that unfolds, it is that good.
Throw in some impressive visual effects, twists that actually make an impact and a central character who aside from investing in out of pure empathy is a proverbial Good character because she doesn't do the dumb horror movie things, and you got a crackling, hard edged, sincere blast of modern cinema. Thanks, Blum! I can start forgiving you for Fantasy Island (am I all the way there yet? Lets see how The Hunt pans out...
The Hills Have Eyes Part II (1984)
as weird as it is (or isn't), the placement in Craven's career is most bizarre
When someone starts to look into the evolution of a director's career, and the ups and downs, and one is a massive cineaste (or always trying to be), coming to the point when, say, Wes Craven followed up Nightmare on Elm Street - the movie that solidified his career with an iconic modern movie monster - with a... sequel to another of his films, The Hills Have Eyes, which is most notable for its blind (!!) heroine who seems to blind for no good reason except DIFFERENT = MAYBE INTERESTING and a flashback from the dog's pov, makes it all worth it.
Anyway, this is populated by nearly all lame/idiot characters doing dumb crap (and Craven makes the black guy the dumbest) when most reasonably normal people would be aptly terrified, and that aforementioned blind heroine gives one of the most uncanny/smiling performances in a supposed slasher I've ever seen. It does have some grit to it at points - though that may really be because it was made so cheaply (reportedly the producers screwed with an already unhappy Craven and cut his budget down and made gin stop filming before he was done - but it's just not scary or does anything different past it having more characters kind of stumbling around till the hour mark and things amp up; there is one clever set piece involving a guy finding a booby trap and thinking he's out of the woods, but then he very much isn't in a laughable way, and maybe the most terrifying thing is a ... Spooky fridge.
But should you watch it unless you're deep enough into Craven's oeuvre that it's time to watch them all, or a slasher fanatic that doesn't mind things like that the score sounds more like Friday the 13th knockoff? Nah, you're good, sir or ma'am - although this gets a half star bump for the length to which the finale is Stupid-Fun Mousetrap.
Almodovar knows how to make em - truly provocative, weird and sexy
Rarely have modern movies felt this dangerous and horny and unusual, from its premise of a guilt-ridden (one might say pathologically Catholic) wannabe bullfighter who claims to have killed four people after committing to a sexual assault and the murder mystery that unfolds as the detective and his lawyer try to find out what really happened, to the Bullfighter Maestro (seriously, this and that one episode of Seinfeld are the only times it's ok to call someone that title) who finds a sort of kinky connection to the lawyer woman over a fascination with death, to the bullfighter's mother who seems like a Soap Opera character on steroids who practically wishes her son eternal damnation. It shouldn't all work, and it gets a bit unwieldy story-wise near the end, but it's kind of a Trash classic that all fits.
Even a seemingly simple scene where two characters happen upon a movie theater playing the 1946 Selznick production Duel in the Sun (as you do in Spain in the mid 1980s) and stand transfixed for a few minutes at the ending feels raw and charged somehow. This goes without saying the sex and murder scenes are explicit AF - and the opening of the film, where a character masturbates furiously to some of those terribly gory images that would give your grandmother a stroke, shows Almodovar knows hoe to set the tone just so - and even close-ups of male bulges feel unique.
But what makes this still so special and delightfully unhinged is what this filmmaker puts into it: vibrant often red color (for the bulls, duh), violence, rabidly intense sexual desire, repression, mania, and one of the only times (if only) I can think of in cinema where a rape scene becomes almost amusing in how pathetic it shows its would-be assaulter in the act (even the sudden rain midway through mocks him). And yet he is still working in the framework of a genre piece, a Whodunnit. Remarkable stuff that more or less holds up, which includes terrific Banderas and compelling Serna performances, and Martinez as uh Spanish Jeremy Irons(?)
Daniel Isn't Real (2019)
What's real is that it's Ok
So... First impression: kind of a slightly better version of Joker, only instead of being made by a hack it's made by guys who have inhaled a lot of Lynch (especially Twin Peaks and Inland Empire) and to an extent Fight Club. This guy Egyptian isn't without his talent as a director, and casting the sons of Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Luke/Daniel is for their actual talents as actors - or at least what they can give to these somewhat two dimensional characters - and they have a plethora of charisma and pain and madness to burn (Id like to see Robbins play a villain again at some point).
But he also is heavy-handed with the allegory of an actual Lovecraftian Demon (albeit done up with cool vfx that appears practical) being what is more like a "traveler" than a legit mental illness... Or, no, let me rephrase that: I get the idea of this, that the "traveler" is what consumes so many who are afflicted with schizophrenia (or what movies and/or hip novels tell us schizophrenia is about), but once it completely gives in to it being edgy grim-dark nightmare horror stuff, it loses what for me was more fascinating when it was about the characters and how people around a legitimate threat act. So... It's okay, I guess(?) It's the kind of effort I want to applaud more, but by the last act - and a literal bloody sword fight between the afflicted and dementor - I was just hoping for it to end and knew it could only go one way (and lo I was right). If anything, the braver approach for a story of someone like this would have been to strip away the OMG LOOK AT THIS CRAZY S*** OMG stylistic thing and make it just... Real, and not like a Schizo Vision of HELL!
Still like Sasha Lane though, and it's a pleasure seeing Mary Stuart Masterson in a movie again (as Luke's Mom), and she's the best performance in the film.
an engrossing sleeper on teenage alienation
First of all, Foxes is one of those times where my opinion on it shifted, if ever so slightly, over the course of just two minutes - hell, just one edit - in the last five to ten minutes. At first, what happens with Cherie Currie's character Annie ultimately was disappointing for me inasmuch that the film was not following a path that was expected (or really much of a direct path at all, to the writer and Adrien Lyne's credit they make this intentionally shapeless when it comes to structure so it's squarely about these girls, their parents, their sometimes lovers and the difficulties they face living on some kind of edge), and her fate felt a bit Afterschool-Special-like. But then when it's revealed that there's a time jump and a place where I thought the girls were at is something else, my opinion changed again to just "BRILLIANT!" Is it a calculated choice with what the story jumps to for its denouemont? Maybe, but it worked for me.
Secondly, this is a very particular kind of story of high school aged drama, where it almost all takes place outside of that. Foxes doesn't judge these girls or their parents (well, that cop father is certainly scum, pardon my French), and I gather this without him getting much dialog at all), and that's a major credit to how much the filmmakers trust the audience to get it. Of course it's also of this time, when hitching a ride was the norm and "On the Radio" by Donna Summer could be used for the Main Theme of the movie (used a little too much mayhap but I got used to it), and when frankly it was before parents became very protective of their teenage children. This has an odor of late 1970's Los Angeles Free-Wheeling fun and horror, and if it has aged as far as technology or the cars or music, it hasn't when it comes to this basic thing: sometimes teenagers go... wild.
And lastly, this could have been a bit less enjoyable and the aimlessness distracting if it weren't for the performances across the board; Foster grounds this as Jeanie, and what I love about her here is that she makes her seem like she *should* be too mature or educated to hang with some of this crowd, but she also imbues her with the spirit of 'hey, I want to hang out with my friends and I really CARE for them, Annie most of all (who is, ahem, not okay... sorry I couldn't resist). Currie is also magnetic in her natural way, literally a runaway for most of it, and she is surrounded by people like Sally Kellerman as Jeanie's mom (some of the best scenes are between mother and daughter, which feel sloppy and hard like the most realistic and horribly charged arguments), Randy Quaid as the much-too-old boyfriend for 16 year old Madge (yikes), and even Laura Dern pops up for a couple of minutes which was a nice surprise.
An engrossing if flawed sleeper, best seen on an old VHS.
I can't explain why I didn't see this till now, but sweet Jesus this is harrowing and overwhelming and an exceptional testament to a devastating day. The filmmakers transform a day of chaos - multiple perspectives, overlapping descriptions, doubling back to those shot and others moving this way and that - into a work of art that gives voice to the dozens of people who included regular/everyday citizens (a pregnant woman, a boy on a bicycle), authorities, press, and more.
Tower shows what human nature is almost all about in the framing and presentation of an animated film, which brings its own level of truth via certain abductions that a straight documentary can't quite bring (like when the pregnant woman Claire, who is the closest to a person who we come back to the most as an emotionally flashpoint, talks about and then we see being shot by a raygun from outer space, or there's even a mention of a Jefferson Davis statue that is like one of those seemingly small details that makes a great difference). And as basic storytelling it gets the tension ratcheted up all the way" especially because the escalating details of who is going where and why it's so hard to get to this tower to stop these shootings.
I don't know if art can redeem a tragedy so shocking, but what Tower does is take the power away from a nut (sick but still a but) like Charles Whitman and makes those who were on the ground matter. Usually the MSM in this country focuses on the killer(s) when such a thing happens; Keith Maitland's focus is on empathy and what brings out people when put to the test - a lot of the best (taking care of one another), and... Well, panic (ie details like the civilians going into an adjacent building to the tower to try to shoot back, as one woman remarks "lots of testosterone" in the building).
I imagine watching this back to back with another Austin-set rotoscoped multi-character trip, Linklater's Waking Life, would be one of the most jarring (but most artistically satisfying) double features ever. Lastly, kudos to all of the animators, the sound editors (this has a soundscape that is incredible), and Violent Beane's performance as Claire.
In the "it's alright" trenches
Sam Mendes in 1917 gives us his variation on the old adage, "if you think you're going through hell, keep going," and for all of the given technical prowess - and a 70 year old Roger Deakins showing with a big grin that he's still got one of the most massive cinematography you-know-whats in the industry - I didn't feel much while watching this, except the occasional "oof" or "ugh" (usually when seeing some of the first dead bodies and rats). It's a conceptual piece that means to be a major statement on the horrors of war, and it only reminds me that the films about war that have stayed with me more than any are the ones that provide visceral and complicated characters FIRST, craft wizardry SECOND (or at least concurrently).
I thought at some point I might compare it to how a war-like video game works (I dont have a lot of experience playing these sorts of first-person shooters, Im just going by assumption), and to Mendes's credit he tries to slow things down here and there so it isnt all thrill-a-minute action and spectacle. But it does carry that sense of the mission these two are on and the sort of "stuff" that happens is more interesting than getting to know them (and when we briefly do, it's unremarkable, maybe a sign of why Mendes doesn't usually write his own films).
It's a somewhat precarious position to be in as one in the audience, since objectively I know what everyone on the crew did to make this come off, from the art direction to the props to how goddamn realistically-based the camera is (or I should say like 80% of the time), yet by the end it means to lay an emotional punch to the gullet, and I just didn't connect.
Maybe some will, or maybe some will be even more bothered by what is clearly, as far as elevator pitches go, an attempt to one-up Kubrick with Paths of Glory (I van almost hear Mendes in his head as he shoots this going, "hah, take that and your trench tracking shots!") via the near-one take approach of Rope. But, again, those films had scripts that were engaging completely on the scale of what horrors human beings do to one another on an individual scale, with the system as a cudgel, not to mention enormously moving performances (same with another film that did this far better, Birdnlman, for its theatricality). This is kind of a... Forced-Poetic idea of a tragic story, impeccably made but hollow at its heart.
For all the impressive filmmaking brio on display, I unfortunately have a sinking feeling this may win best director and best picture at the Oscars not for exactly being a "best" but for being the "most" film (or trying to be). And as for it being an anxiety-filled experience... Folks, c'mon, Uncut Gems is in a theater right next door to this one at your local cineplex .
East of Eden (1955)
overflowing with tragedy and sorrow for what a family means
Maybe an unpopular opinion, I didn't get what all the fuss was about with James Dean in Rebel without a Cause. I found the seeming profundity of Dean's skulking to not be as deep as it maybe was in 1955; subsequently, I just didn't bother to see this for a while. Now that I've laid eyes and ears and my heart on East of Eden, I get it, and I'm sorry (to who I don't know, myself I guess) that I waited so long - at least in some part.
It's simply a more complex, fully emotionally well-rounded and tragic tale of a family becoming unglued as an entire town does circa WW1 (as the Americans are finally called upon to enter and the one German in town is given the 'f-you' treatment). Kazan has a good grasp on the larger-picture-of-things, but it's even more heartbreaking when it comes to this young guy, his brother, his father and mother, and how twisted everything becomes. When everything falls apart, it's ugly and shocking because of the layers of the spirit stripped bare.
Even the tilted camera angles at the dinner table (and later) where Caleb and his dad talk mean so much for the psychological effect - and then later at the funhouse mirrors in the fair it's more obvious and yet its a briefly happier moment in time. Dean plays his inner turmoil for all he's got, and the story has the foundation for his method approach to strike. And Jo Ann Helms earned the hell out of that Oscar for her couple of scenes - when he comes to her for the money, my god - plus Raymond Masey in his big money scene, too.
Slight liabilities, I'm not sure if I saw much spark between Dean and Julie Harris (who is quite good), and Davaros is a bit two dimensional compared to everyone else.
Sweet Charity (1969)
Nights of Fosse
This is loaded to the brim with that dancing and just general idiosyncratic "cool" feeling that made Fosse who he was as a creator. "Big Spender" and "If My Friends Could See Me Now" are all-timer Musical numbers in film history. And yeah, a couple of the numbers have certainly dated (hearing Sammy Davis tell a bunch of Broadway Hippies to "Sock it to me" in the "Rhythm of Life" number is worth a major eye-roll), plus Fosse's attempts to do uh La Jetee type still image montages at a couple of points. However, Shirley MacLaine is often so moving in a role that others might have played a little less intensely felt (what sold me was the job interview scene, which is just about perfect, but her comic timing is impecable). She's adorable but also very serious as a person, which is hard to pull off.
It's big and flashy and a little bit silly (I like to call Ricardo Montalban Casanova Khan in this), and the director jumps off from Fellini and Neil Simon (in a Peter Stone script) for as much audacious advantage as he can. Not all of it works, but it's far from a "disaster" like Pauline Kael called it. 7.5/10
A Hidden Life (2019)
An imperfect masterpiece of free will and a spiritual existence
As it turns out, if Terrence Malick is working from at least some semblance of a script or firm story, he can do some pretty good things!
A Hidden Life is an intimate, spiritual epic that can mostly stand alongside Scorsese's Silence as far as films from this decade that are somewhat punishing but immensely rewarding for the (dont laugh) fulfillment they do for one's soul and sense of what our place is in a world that has beliefs and allegiances. This is as mesmerizing as anything Malick has ever directed, and when the poetry of it all clicks it's him firing on all of his cylinders, and in this case it is about a person's moral position and (see if this sounds is familiar) not pledging allegiance to tyranny and oppression, while at the same time connecting it to how one's mind connects to memory and to the natural world.
The one downside, at least on a first viewing, is that it runs too long, and there needed to be an editor or two with more gumption to say that just five or ten minutes could be lost (like, we get it after the first ten minutes of prison suffering, do we need ten more?) All this said, it packs a wallop on equal intellectual and emotional ground, and while I may criticize the length I can't overlook how stunning many of the transitions and match cuts do their work to create connections and bonds between this man and wife and with the mountains and water and sea. More often than not this touches one as a lyrical and as a dark existential fable, with a commanding performance from August Diehl at its center.
Frankly, I think this film should be made more available than Disney - nay Fox Searcglight - has been doing, whether by their lack of support or lack of "bankable" talent. Id even go as far as to say if it was there in more rural parts of the U.S., where some young or even older person might wander in and be affected by the themes of standing up to the worst in humanity (even if, especially if, it may cost all).
Uncut Gems (2019)
"You're the most annoying person I've ever known"
They should hand out high-grade blood pressure meds to people going to see this after it ends. The major strength and in a way the slight weakness of Uncut Gems is how laser-focused the Safdies are in conveying total anxiety, stress and mania through this extreme act of full cinema SOUND (levels of acting and over-lapping dialog, that Vangelis-Blade-Runner-on-Steroids/Crystal Meth score, some of the cinematography and the tracking of the camera).
I do wish there was a little more than just flourishes of relief, though I'd be lying if I said Sandler was anything but exceptional and riveting playing degenerate crumbling right before our eyes. While Eric Bogosian, Lakeith Stanfield and Kevin Garnett and many others here are natural solid, it's Sandler's show, and it's soulful and tense and harrowing and ultimately (as terrible as Howard can be) tragic. The filmmakers's greatest achievement from the looks of this and Good Time is finding star-actors who aren't known for their wide range and getting career-triumph work from them. If the movie isn't all that complex, I do think Howard is and that helps make this pretty special as a depiction of addiction, more than anything else. It's got grit and style to burn, which is mostly fine by me.
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
A merry little-big charmer of a musical
I think recently viewing the 1994 Little Women and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, 2019 Cats the other day made today just the right time for Meet Me in St Louis. This is a "women's" story, but that need not neglect men enjoying and finding empathy for what Esther and Rose and little Tootie for through over the months this is set in. Like Little Women, it celebrates individuality (to an extent, not to the level Alcott's story of course) while depicting in lush color and emotions what women had to look forward to at the time as far as relationships and a kiss before (or after) engagement.
Unlike Cats, to say the least, it's beautifully mounted when it comes to direction and its look and every precise camera movement, exquisite and romantic and genuinely wise, and cheerful and when it briefly moves into darkness (Tootie in that Halloween-time misadventure involving what amounted to a wild prank for the time) it feels earned, and the songs are a treasure.
Every moment with Garland is sublime, and she gets to show the human experience with drama, humor, tragedy, anger and rage, frustration and tenderness. I get why even as this only has about 35-40 minutes set around Christmas it works so... Rightly as a Christmas movie - it celebrates a family that is of its time in certain cultural and technological respects (that phone call, for example), yet endures because of their sincerity.
Maybe not perfect, and it wraps things up so tidily near the end that it almost feels like the textbook "Hollywood Ending" and overall is at times a touch too corny (and other times just the corn we need), but sometimes I need corn (and that also connects with Chridtmas, too). MGM sure could and did make em sometimes