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Santa Sangre (1989)
What an absolute corker
This is a movie that defies easy categorization. Between the overwhelming theatricality and sense of creative flair, in no small part it feels like an art film. This notion is bolstered by outstanding, detailed consideration of all slightest aspects - filming locations, set design and decoration, hair, makeup, costume design, lighting, effects, and more. Exposition taking us years prior, comprising a fair portion of the duration, somewhat suggests a "coming of age" story, and in other ways it at times comes across as a (relatively) straightforward drama generally. Yet given considerable blood and gore, especially in the latter half, and even before the finale rolls around, it can also readily be called a horror thriller. All this and more - 'Santa Sangre' is a joy.
The only specific weakness of the film that comes to mind is that connections between a few plot points are a bit specious, leading me to think "But why would..." with the entry at particular moments of certain characters. Yet that may just as easily be me nitpicking, or having been too exhausted in the moment to fully appreciate the beat, because overall 'Santa Sangre' is solid and exceptionally well made. That the twist at the climax recalls similar turns in other features is no great bother at all, as Alejandro Jodorowsky has crafted a picture otherwise so singular and unique that it stands mightily on its own merit.
'Santa Sangre' relies a great deal on strong, jarring visuals, and from one scene to the next we're treated to substantial, unforgettable imagery. Fine orchestration of scenes makes excellent use of every possible behind-the-scenes department, and the presentation is further bolstered by swell performances from pretty much the whole cast. That especially goes for Blanca Guerra as Concha, bearing a willful force of personality that defies the lesser prominence of the supporting role. Axel Jodorowsky is also noteworthy in his depiction of protagonist Fenix, depicting the troubled man with deft range and nuance. Even smaller parts, like Alma, Aladin, or the tattooed woman, are still adeptly realized by the likes of Sabrina Dennison and Faviola Elenka Tapia, Jesús Juárez, and Thelma Tixou.
Along with the visuals broadly, intense subject matter in the narrative includes substantial violence, drug use, sexual assault, and exploitation. This is a tale characterized by poverty, desperation, crime, and people on the fringes that society looks down upon. There's plenty here that especially sensitive viewers may reasonably find objectionable - yet the unseemliness is part and parcel to the captivating story being told.
It's not going to appeal to a wide general audience, but 'Santa Sangre' is eye-catching and entrancing from start to finish. While not altogether perfect, this is a fantastic film that capably plays with several genres, and it's well worth seeking out wherever one may find it.
Adequately fun, if less than riveting
I distinctly recall when this was first released. At the time it didn't seem like a movie that was quite up my alley, and it's taken me this long to ever find occasion to watch it. I admit I'm a little surprised - it's hardly an essential classic, but 'Monkeybone' is entertaining enough.
The sense of style in the art direction screams '90s, especially in the "real world," while every slightest aspect of Down Town pays homage to Tim Burton. I thoroughly enjoy the production design where that fantastical setting is concerned: set pieces, costume design and makeup, props, lighting, effects, and of course the stop motion animation are outstanding. This is the heart of the movie, to say nothing of the most rewarding part of it. Gratifyingly, it's where the most resources were poured, and everything looks great.
Other aspects of the movie are less consistent. The narrative is cohesive and whole, but is never fully convincing or engaging. The comedy is mild and sometimes juvenile, producing amusement - but barely any noteworthy laughs. There's a strong cast assembled, led by Brendan Fraser above all but also including Whoopi Goldberg, Giancarlo Esposito, Chris Kattan, Bridget Fonda, and more. I think everyone performs admirably in their roles, but between thin characterizations and light, weak comedic writing, none of the portrayals are especially notable. Well, almost none: Rose McGowan is an unexpected delight as Miss Kitty, leaning into the character's flavor and giving the catgirl more personality than almost anyone else present.
To be honest, I just don't think there's a lot more to be said. I did like 'Monkeybone,' having watched it for the first time all these years later, and I think it's enjoyable. But in no sense is this a movie that holds fast our attention, and no element - not even the visual wonder of Down Town - is sufficient to truly captivate us and activate our imaginations. This is a fair way to pass the time, a modest bit of fun, but one needn't even pay rapt heed to the goings-on to walk away feeling satisfied.
I do like it. You could do far worse in terms of picking a movie. But 'Monkeybone' gets by as being only perfunctorily fun, and while it's an okay view if you come across it, it's hard to muster real, meaningful enthusiasm. Watch with considerably tempered expectations.
Satisfying, enjoyable - but tries way too hard
'Kate' is emphatically slick and stylish - probably too much so for its own good. Infectious J-pop and J-rock dominates the soundtrack, with sparing traditional music including taiko adding further flavor at meticulously calculated moments. Every spray of blood is as lovingly considered as the electric color throughout the picture. Stuntwork and fight choreography is great, though the camerawork often bursts with flair that, again, feels too sleek and polished.
This is certainly enjoyable, but it has definite problems that hold it back.
I think the narrative core in Umair Aleem's screenplay is fine. However, I'd seen the point made a few weeks before I sat to watch that beyond being a tired trope of cinema, the yakuza as a Hollywood plot device reeks of othering, and misunderstanding of Japanese culture and history. Frankly, that comes across in the finished film, as 'Kate' is awash in so much detail to define its style as to feel self-indulgent. Beyond that, we've seen many action flicks with a broadly similar bent - a single hard-boiled (anti-)hero, desperate and out for revenge; tinges of character depth and sentimentality woven throughout; a twist in the plot that, details aside, is so familiar as to be predictable. Those antecedents don't mean this rendition can't be good, but it's a notable disadvantage. Then, too, there's worthy thematic content locked within that is given indelicate, incomplete consideration in the rush to film fashion.
The tawdry imbalance in the screenplay is echoed in director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan's realization of it. The location scouts are to be commended for their work, and Nicolas-Troyan takes full advantage of every set with outstanding attention to detail - lighting, wardrobe and costume design, props, makeup, sound, blood, effects - and exquisite orchestration of most every scene. Love it or hate it, everything here looks absolutely fantastic. At the same time, 'Kate' tries so hard with each passing moment to be cool and thrilling - everything is built specifically to that end - that in this effort, the result is diminished. If the movie tried to simply Be, without so much grandiosity laid thick over top, the final product would have found greater success - would have actually been more cool and thrilling - than what we get.
It's a rocky road, and I wanted to like 'Kate' more than I did. Still, there is one wholly consistent aspect here, and that's the acting. The whole cast is wonderful, even those in small supporting parts. I'm especially pleased to see Jun Kunimura as Kijima, portraying the crime boss with a steadiness and quiet regret that's entrancing. Woody Harrelson's supporting role as Varrick feels even less prominent, but he gives Kate's father figure an essential dangerous charisma in the way only he can. Above all, it's a fair guess that most people watching 'Kate' are here to see Mary Elizabeth Winstead - and she delivers. By now she's more than proven herself in a variety of roles, and she's solid as the protagonist, carrying will, determination, and force of personality that's invigorating. The lead role demands both range and hardness, and Winstead is perfect for the part, especially as Kate's condition deteriorates throughout the film.
Ultimately, this isn't a bad movie. But even as its distributor has a large platform - unless one is specifically a fan of Winstead, there's no especial reason to seek this one out over another woman-led action flick. And at that, once again: for all the substance within the narrative, it's unquestionably undercut by stylization that tries much too hard to impress us. The many flaws of the picture could have been easily avoided, and instead every worst impulse was indulged. Not least of all thanks to its star, 'Kate' is entertaining, and worth watching if you come across it - just don't go out of your way to check it out.
Exquisitely entrancing, bone-dry dark comedy
From the very moment the film begins - well before the most grim elements come to bear - 'Man bites dog' is bewitching. We immediately see protagonist Ben kill someone, and before six minutes have passed we get a quick succession of scenes depicting several other murders. The film is extraordinarily direct - not to the point of entirely forsaking subtlety, but in that it is dazzlingly upfront about the story it's telling, and its tone.
This is a marvel.
Consider just the nature of the production: the first full-length feature of a group of film students, each of whom have a role behind and in front of the camera using their own names. Benoît Poelvoorde portrays the star murderer with an indelible, perverse jocularity - as warm and good-spirited as he is cold, amoral, and vicious. Rémy Belvaux and André Bonzel, meanwhile, appear as the chief filmmakers documenting the killer's exploits, losing themselves in the process. I find no fault in the secondary performances, but strictly speaking Poelvoorde is the star by all means: the protagonist is a man of intelligence, friends and family, learned and opinionated - if not also racist and sexist - and Poelvoorde ably captures every shifting mood and contradiction in his personality.
Between sparing lighthearted music to taste, the mostly jubilant attitude of subject Ben, and the convivial and ignorant (or indifferent) camaraderie of his fellows, 'Man bites dog' is a distinctly dark comedy built on the incongruities in what we see. It's never "laugh out loud" funny, but it's sharply entertaining by way of being dry and wryly sardonic - sensational to the point of equal disbelief, reprehension, and amusement. While the plot mostly just follows the documentary crew as they film the killer in his daily activities, there's a minor sense of real narrative that is most notable for giving the feature a concrete ending. All the while, content warnings abound for blood, gore, nudity, sexual assault, general violence, and more.
Just as much as the movie's forthrightness, grim sense of humor, and violence, it's worth mentioning the technical craft behind it. There's no mistaking that this is an unrefined feature from young, enterprising creators who were testing the waters in so many ways. Yet attention to sound is swell, and I think the blood effects and gore look great. Moreover, there's an air of authenticity that comes from the uncommon approach at hand: that the camera through which we watch the movie is the same camera through which the characters are making their documentary. I suppose one could say it's akin to the found footage genre in that regard, yet this is footage that's actively engaged with and part of the story, not just a witness. It's a distinguished flavor, and with it comes camerawork that is surprisingly well balanced between motion and control, "true to life" and cinematic. It often feels less like a student film, and more like a very indie thriller, and that's kind of impressive in and of itself.
I wouldn't say 'Man bites dog' is wholly perfect. The genuine plot - while not the focus by any means - doesn't get strong consideration until the last 15-20 minutes, and the last scene specifically, where its sudden emphasis is a little jarring. I think the screenplay is superb, and scenes are broadly arranged very well, but every now and again there are specific actions performed in a scene that just don't connect in a way that feels real. And overall - however vaguely and unhelpfully - for all its excellence, I simply don't think the picture reaches a level of utmost quality that would demand absolute reverence.
Still, these subjective flaws don't meaningfully detract from our enjoyment; I may well be nitpicking. What is intended is what we get: a clever, biting dark comedy filled with vivid scenes and unexpected ability of acting, storytelling, and film-making. It certainly isn't going to appeal to a wide general audience, but for anyone open to the style, 'Man bites dog' is a rather remarkable low-budget feature that's well worth seeking out.
Garishly, clumsily made, wasting minor potential
The root concept is fine. The execution is not. 'Khazana' is not a good movie. More than that, it's generally so rotten that I spent most of the runtime actively regretting that I'd begun watching.
Screenplay and direction alike are almost totally bereft of all subtlety. Most every scene and line of dialogue is inescapably blunt in its realization; I counted two instances of plot development that were unanticipated in any small way. Meanwhile: I tend to give actors the benefit of the doubt and assume they've been forced into a lacking performance by some element of the film-making. To be sure, I'm extremely skeptical of the capabilities of director Rahul Nath and producer and co-writer Noah Potter, both in terms of overall skill, and when it comes to providing material for or otherwise guiding their stars' portrayals. At the same time - while another point of comparison would be necessary to more completely ascertain the talents of all involved, 'Khazana' is such a mess that I'm not inclined to seek out other pictures of the cast or crew. Judging by this feature alone, the assembled players are an incredibly mixed bag at best.
Star Ulka Simone Mohanty, as protagonist Vaidehi, and Reem Kadem, as Neelima, are the only two actors to immediately impress as demonstrating a measure of range and nuance in their performances. On the other hand, Sonam Arvind Dhage turns in one of the least convincing performances I've ever seen as Sapna, and Laikh Tewari's acting as Dhaman is so unbelievably ham-fisted as to genuinely recall John Reynolds or possibly Tom Neyman in 'Manos: The hands of fate.' Everyone else before the camera is pointedly overacting, and it's up for debate whether all these depictions are an illustration of the limited extent of the actors' craft, or just a matter of leaning into the material and direction they're given.
Against all odds, 'Khazana' isn't entirely putrid through and through. Once more, I do like the concept; the abuse of every variety that Vaidehi suffers from all those around her is abhorrent, making her retribution gratifying. At that, despite the limitations of screenwriters, direction, and cast alike - and a jarring shift in tone - I think the climax is pretty well done... if a little too drawn out. And that's a key here: the movie is scarcely over an hour, and the narrative itself does mostly feel whole. Even so, adept writing, direction, and editing could have trimmed this full-length film into a short of perhaps 20 minutes without losing a significant amount of substance. Why, a shorter treatment of this same material may have actually made it more impactful: While the extra length pads out the story, making characters, their motivations, and the broad arc more complete, it feels like the greatest effect of making 'Khazana' as a feature film was to highlight the deficiencies and weaknesses of all involved.
There was promise in the basic premise. It's undercut by excruciatingly forthright and dubious acting, writing, and direction, while the movie tries unsuccessfully to varyingly embrace genres of sly thriller, domestic drama, and dark comedy. What minor value this movie possesses can be found elsewhere, unspoiled and in greater quantities. I feel bad being so critical, but it's painful to behold. I simply cannot recommend 'Khazana.'
But I'm a Cheerleader (1999)
Terrifically funny, entertaining, and heartfelt
I've never seen a satire so overt as to call into question if it can still be called a satire. We're treated to abundant pastels in art direction - wardrobe, set design and decoration; over the top performances from all involved, leaning into exaggerated characterizations; and outrageous dialogue and narrative. 'But I'm a cheerleader' feels like a very oddball movie. Yet in wholly making fun of nonsensical conservative talking points and beliefs while touting themes especially impressive for when it was released - and even still, hitting some key emotional beats - color me a fan: this is a delight!
Nearly every line of dialogue, character, and scene is filled with stereotypes that seem far too ridiculous to be real, but the great absurdity is that they mostly are. From far-fetched notions as to the "roots" or "symptoms" of homosexuality to the method suggested as a "cure"; from the emphatic enforcement, or reinforcement, of outdated stereotypical gender roles, to the very idea of "converting" gays - 'Cheerleader' is movie that would be an outright parody if it weren't so realistic. That authenticity is reflected in the characters: "ex-gay" counselors who are clearly not straight; parents ready to disown kids who fail the program; young people who, despite going through the motions with high marks, are obviously not being true to themselves.
Above all, protagonist Megan is a veritable beacon of genuineness: a very typical high school student who is so isolated in a landscape of cisheteronormativity that she has no concept that the thoughts she has about women aren't "normal." It's such a common (though certainly not universal) theme in the LGBTQ community - folks who, by happenstance of how or where they were raised, had no point of reference to be able to stake their individuality, let alone engage in meaningful introspection of who they are. I absolutely recognize myself in Megan, and I'm not alone in that.
While the whole cast is great, Natasha Lyonne shines above all as hapless Megan. Lyonne perfectly embodies the cheerleader with all the naivete and innocent confusion she can muster, while also ensuring she has plenty of personality and a mind of her own. For all the outstanding writing built into the screenplay, and brought out in the direction and artistic touches on the sets, Lyonne carries much of the load herself with a performance at once jovial and invigorating, but also shouldering considerable nuance and range.
The supporting cast is just as outstanding, inhabiting their roles with every ounce of caricatured ridiculousness. Yet I'm also especially pleased to see Clea DuVall here as Graham, a young woman with no illusions about who she is or what she wants, but also put up against the fence in the face of domineering, traitorous parents. If Megan represents one broad region of the spectrum, an exemplar of self discovery, then Graham is an example of a very different person who is filled with confidence and self-awareness, but has doubt and shame shoved upon them by others. DuVall, no stranger personally to these types of stories, gives a marvelous portrayal of Graham, realizing the outspoken teen's poise and every conflicting emotion with all the skill we recognized in such an award-winning star. And of course, not least of all as two very different characters, Lyonne and DuVall are excellent scene partners. In and of themselves and together, Megan and Graham highlight the great heart that is poured into the film, and each scene they're in make the whole all the better.
Though readily apparent, it needs to be said - even as every passing moment is played up for laughs, content warnings abound for homophobia, transphobia, and the very backwards notion of "therapy" that underlies the feature. No doubt the subject matter broaches unwelcome familiar territory for many viewers, and the harm that "gay conversion" programs inflict cannot be overstated. Still, acknowledging the difficulty that the content may present - this movie is so much fun otherwise, pointedly mocking all manner of anti-queer prejudice and its manifestations, that the most unseemly elements are handily deflated in its wake.
Not to belabor the point, but it's also worth noting that 'But I'm a cheerleader' was released in 1999. However one wishes to view the current state of LGBTQ rights, the 90s were a very different time, with gay characters mostly appearing as token stereotypes in sitcoms, if at all. Representation in media simply wasn't discussed, "transgender" as a term had scarcely entered the cultural lexicon, and centering a queer character or relationship in a story was reserved for niche markets. True, this feature hardly got broad mainstream treatment. But considering the timeframe in which it was made, and all the social progress that had yet to be made, 'Cheerleader' isn't just wonderfully entertaining, it's low-key defiant.
Scenes are as wonderfully orchestrated before the camera as they are written. Parts are depicted with fantastic performances that match the vivid characterizations. The narrative as a whole is sharp, clever, and solid, telling a great, surprisingly impactful story even as it's geared for comedy. In every capacity, this is such a joy to watch. I anticipated a good time going in, but I wasn't prepared for just how much the cast, crew, and filmmakers would go all-out to make it the most fulfilling, rewarding, outlandish farce it could be. 'But I'm a cheerleader' has garnered more high regard in the years since it first "came out," and I can only hope that deserved reputation continues to grow: This is a fabulous movie, well worth seeking out, that I highly recommend to all comers!
Atypical, understated, and worth one's time
'Our love story' feels refreshing. True, I think the onset of the relationship between the main characters seems inorganic and unconvincing - but then, I suppose there's something to be said for how messy such interactions can be in real life, too. And that's really the key: the narrative comes across very much as a down-to-earth, quiet portrait of the connection between two people. Film-maker Lee Hyun-ju doesn't employ the sort of tropes we commonly expect in films centering lesbian characters - there are no overtly romantic flourishes overlaid to embellish the feature. This is much more about the simple trajectory of a relationship, with all its ups and downs, and the personal difficulties that flow from and contribute to such turmoil.
Stars Lee Sang-hee and Ryu Sun-young are both fine actresses who capably realize Yoon-ju, Ji-soo, and all their complexities. They are great scene partners, and whether individually or together make every moment of love or angst very believable. From the beginning the characters appear very dissimilar, but as the film rolls on and they both struggle through varied, conflicting emotions, we see how very alike they actually are. This includes not least of all the hardship that comes from the pressure to be discreet - homophobia presents subtly, with the same air of disapproval as though of any disfavored relationship. But it's nonetheless unmistakable as a partner to dominant cultural heteronormativity that's projected throughout, a theme that looms like a pale specter over the story.
The technical craft is superb, and I quite enjoy the soft, sparing music that dots the soundtrack. If not the most captivating screenplay in the world, Hyun-ju has written a solid, complete tale, actualized as a lovely, low-key picture. It's unfortunate to read after the fact of the filmmaker's tawdry history - it rather puts a blemish on such a broadly satisfying feature, a strong debut that indicated great potential. Even so, the title stands on its own merit: 'Our love story' is a testament to swell writing, directing, and acting - a breath of fresh air in a genre where one feature commonly echoes another. Any viewer seeking a purely robust, invigorating lesbian romance may be put out, but an audience receptive to more subdued, thoughtful experiences will be right at home. This is a very well made movie that's worth checking out.
Loving Annabelle (2006)
Surprisingly solid, more plainspoken, imperfect update to a classic
The premise immediately recalls the 1931 classic 'Mädchen in uniform,' while the updated, modern setting readily portends a certain amount of low-grade cheese, as so often happens in such cases. Slick, crisp production values, a contemporary soundtrack, and the writing of the chief characters and their interactions all point to an unrepentant, campy lesbian romance. Gratifyingly, all these things are more or less true, and 'Loving Annabelle' is pretty entertaining overall.
It goes without saying that the queer subtext in films of many decades past - 1931, or even 1958 - was so heavily minimized as to be downplayed into nonexistence. Here, filmmaker Katherine Brooks totally dispenses with all pretense. While she lets the romance develop slowly and (relatively) organically, the intent is clear from the outset, and emphasized with every concrete line of dialogue or slight touch, nevermind the eventual realization. To their credit, stars Erin Kelly and Diane Gaidry have great on-screen chemistry, and ably give life to their characters' emotions and conflicts. This is hardly to speak ill of the rest of the cast, either, who I think are just fine.
Brooks surprisingly follows, very loosely, the narrative thrust of 'Annabelle's' source of inspiration. With the actualization of a relationship that's only scarcely suggested in that earlier story, the consequences upon its discovery are also far greater. After all - anyone watching this is here for the lesbian representation, but there's no ignoring the dire impropriety of the central relationship between adult teacher and teenage student. And I'm surprised again that Brooks chooses to end her film on a down note. On the one hand it's refreshing, given how many movies at large rush to resolve the plot and see the audience to the door with an often ham-handed happy ending. But on the other hand, it's depressing, and still more so for the lack of especially well-made features where an LGBTQ romance is allowed to exist, at the conclusion, sans drama.
The technical craft is swell. With especial care of course written into Annabelle and Simone, characters are as mostly complete and well-rounded as they need to be, while still allowing the cast some small room to embody the roles as they will. The narrative absolutely makes use of genre tropes, but like I said - from the very start, any half-aware viewer should already be anticipating a measure of kitsch. The end result is a film that, if imperfect, is an unexpectedly solid update of an old classic. There are things I'd liked to have played out different, but 'Loving Annabelle' is suitably enjoyable, and worth a look if you come across it.
Mädchen in Uniform (1958)
A fine remake with varied relative results
As a remake of the 1931 film, 'Mädchen in uniform' largely echoes its antecedent - the same broad story beats and dialogue, a similarly austere interior setting. There are also distinct differences though, presumably bolstered by a larger budget. The narrative and characters are slightly more developed, and some aspects are altered to make this 1958 rendition the film-makers' own. We get exterior scenes, and a wardrobe - while still pointedly drab - that seems more carefully considered. The mere fact of being a color film, with more advanced equipment, means the image is more sharp and clear, revealing greater detail, and the technical craft that was somewhat inconsistent before is realized with no small clarity here.
The same themes present in this tightly regimented boarding school, but perhaps with a marginally different slant. Where dialogue in the 1931 film spoke of "ennoblement" through the cruelty of school policies, in this version, the headmistress hypocritically emphasizes dissolution of her charges' agency. "I'm not a believer in a child's right to be an individual," she says, amidst additional dialogue asserting that the girls' only purpose is to become good wives of husbands and mothers of soldiers. Still, this is more for flavor - the feature is focused less on thematic content and more on narrative progression.
While the cast of 1931's 'Mädchen in uniform' was quite fine, the greatest character writing was devoted to those few most prominent figures, and only the most prominent actors were able to demonstrate their skill. The 1958 screenplay lends greater personality to more supporting characters, and great personality to the primary roles, too. Lilli Palmer carries noteworthy matronly poise as Fräulein Elisabeth von Bernburg, perhaps more evenhanded than Dorothea Wieck in the 1931 version. Romy Schneider, as Manuela, matches the nuance and emotive range of Hertha Thiele, if anything leaning even further into the most bombastic aspects of the protagonist.
The end result is a picture that largely reflects its established forebear, yet is sufficiently different from its predecessor, and still of a high quality, to merit consideration even with that familiarity. There are elements that are stronger in 1958 than they were in 1931, and other elements that are perhaps weaker. I don't think one film is wholly better than the other, and it all comes down to personal preference. Either way, just as the earlier film was enjoyable, 1958's 'Mädchen in uniform' is a fine, entertaining feature, worth checking out if you come across it.
Fucking Åmål (1998)
Gravely uneven, though mildly enjoyable
What's most immediately and consistently noteworthy about 'Show me love' is how distinctly unrefined, inelegant, and rough the whole movie is. Sound, picture, music, editing in every regard, camerawork, and the orchestration of scenes are pointedly ham-fisted and indiscreetly rendered, and performances are generally much the same. For all the recognition that this movie has gotten, I'm frankly shocked by how much it resembles, in appearance, a mixture of a very, very indie flick treatment of a soap opera, and a no-budget B-movie production submitted to MTV by fans of 'My so-called life.' It feels like an utmost amateur "first student film" by a film-maker, cast, and crew with no experience whatsoever.
Beyond the patchy construction of specific scenes and dubious character writing, the narrative in general feels a bit questionable. It all seems very loose, more a collection of nigh-intangibly connected disparate moments than a cohesive whole, with very little meaningful progression or simple eventfulness. Much of the film it seems mostly directionless, and story beats that should be impactful float by without making much of an impression at all. Most characters are written as very dimensional, and even the primary roles of Elin and Agnes are so lacking in dynamics or development that the resolution of the climax - however cheaply satisfying - almost seems a non sequitur. I feel like we do get glimpses of the acting capabilities of stars Alexandra Dahlström and Rebecka Liljeberg, but they are severely limited by the coarse writing and direction.
None of this is to say 'Show me love' is outright bad. No doubt my words come across as harsh. Suffice to say that this does not meet the expectations one typically has for a feature accordingly held in such high regard. Moreover - though not the fault of the film-makers - it's worth noting that any 1-3 line premise I've seen describing the movie seems far off the mark, and I had a very different notion in mind of what I was sitting to watch. With all this having been said, if you can look past all the peculiarities and inadequacies, this is a (very) modestly enjoyable film.
It's important to note that while this is an LGBTQ film, it only just barely meets the nominal qualifications to be called such. This is more than anything a movie about bullying, pressures of high school, teenage drama and personal difficulties, and to a slight extent, coming of age. Content warnings must be noted not just for bullying but for self-harm. Still, I've seen the point made - and I feel it holds water - that 'Show me love' is a plainspoken realist portrait of life at such an age. That may actually be the saving grace of the movie, because in considering the hodgepodge mess this whole production represents - isn't life itself so direly messy? Especially given the tumult that Elin and Agnes are individually going through, is that not a reflection of difficulties we have all had in life at one time or another? I cannot give the technical craft a free pass on this basis, but viewing the feature in this light, the writing at least seems more sensible - including, yes, the climax.
I've found myself surprised and somewhat disappointed. No matter how enamored one may be of this picture, there's no getting around the fact that the production is on all levels very rugged and low-budget. It has merit, but in my mind it takes a generous and open-minded viewer to peel back the barbed layers and find fruitful value. That said, clearly many others have found it to be much more worthy than I have, and I am glad for them. Would that I could join in that revelry. As it is: I do think 'Show me love' is quietly entertaining, and meekly worthwhile - just temper your expectations.
Mädchen in Uniform (1931)
Solid narrative and performances outweigh uneven craft
The setting is keenly familiar, as many stories for a very long time have concerned young children or teens constrained and abused by the rigidity of strict authority, whether under state or private auspices. The discipline, order, and conformity demanded at the boarding school comprise a veneer masking cruelty in the name of "ennoblement." Even with that note of commonality, though, 'Mädchen in uniform' sufficiently differs from other narratives in that space to hold our attention.
There are noteworthy disparities here. Director Leontine Sagan arranges some fine shots and scenes, yet on the other hand, she seems to guide her cast into performances that are rather direct and forthright, and less than natural. Dialogue wavers between clever, suitable, and distinctly straightforward. Editing - chiefly, transitions between shots and scenes - is notably indelicate. Characters and scenes as they are written struggle with a particular lack of subtlety.
For all these peculiarities, however if not the strongest in the world, the narrative is reasonably solid, and keeps us engaged. Crucially, the climax is particularly well done, as well as the thematic content. And despite deficiencies in the film's craft, the cast is actually pretty swell. Even as the writing is at times dubious, and the actors are directed toward unconvincing moments, each actress before our eyes demonstrates range and nuance of expression that defies the periodically tawdry presentation. The youths portraying the children, specifically, inject believable personality into their parts, and I'm especially pleased with the performances of Charlotte Witthauer, Annemarie von Rochhausen, and Ilse Winter - all giving Ilse, Edelgard, and Marga, respectively, a definite forcefulness. Even more so - stars Hertha Thiele and Dorothea Wieck are super as Manuela and Fräulein von Bernburg, making these chief characters very relatable and sympathetic. Thiele and Wieck above all demonstrate emotive range and broad acting skill that well exceeds less consistent construction of the picture. Furthermore, Wieck carries herself with admirable posture as Fräulein von Bernburg that marks her as an anchor for the film.
Beyond even all the other flaws present, it doesn't entirely feel like all the varied parts of 'Mädchen in uniform' fit together as neatly as they're supposed to. Even given good performances and a well executed climax, nothing here truly captures the imagination in the way that a great movie should. But that's just it, I suppose - this simply isn't a great film. It's entertaining, and worth watching, but not necessarily going out of one's way to find. There are definitely worse ways to spend your time, though.
Keeping in mind that the quality rises and falls from one aspect to the next, one moment to the next - 'Mädchen in uniform' is modestly enjoyable, and gets a firm if fractured recommendation.
As engrossing and phenomenal as it is infuriating and depressing
Wardrobe and costume design is immediately alluring, as is the work put into hair and makeup. Filming locations and set decoration is fetching, with attention to color and lighting that's gratifying. Likewise, we see right away that stars Sarah Kazemy and Nikohl Boosheri inject great personality into their roles as Shireen and Atafeh, and they have wonderful chemistry as scene partners. From the very beginning 'Circumstance' is pleasingly entrancing, and keeps us engaged through to the end - even as it turns distinctly darker.
Maryam Keshavarz has an outstanding eye as director with which she arranges some fantastic, inescapably arresting scenes, and she captures many especially marvelous specific shots. She's just as adept as a writer, concocting a screenplay that's riveting, and far more deep and sophisticated than one may generally expect of films that explore LGBTQ narratives. The narrative is strong and absorbing, rich with compelling characters and dire turns that holds fast our attention. Prominent themes present of love, nonconformity, defiance, idealism, and dreams, and dominate the plot with natural ease.
Moreover, 'Circumstance' concretely delves into topics of queerness, social change, and justice; patriarchy, misogyny, and sexual assault; surveillance, religion, and authoritarianism, and the horrible weapons wielded by these looming powers to exercise control; self-discovery and self-affirmation, and the transformation for good or ill that can come with them. And it examines all these ideas and issues through a wide lens of life in Iran, yet Keshavarz threads every bit of it so organically into the story and characters that the movie never feels heavy-handed. In fact, in a seeming echo of the inherent duplicity and hypocrisy of such a repressed society, many of these notions are touched upon with great subtlety - allowing viewers to pick up ourselves on the import behind some scenes, instead of purposefully spelling it out for us.
Meanwhile, the characters Keshavarz has written are all superb - complex and varied, and full of depth, nuance, and complicated motivations. This goes for the highly sympathetic characters, the furiously unlikable figures, and even those supporting characters that don't initially make much of an impression. And everyone in the cast is truly exceptional as they embody their roles completely and unremittingly: Reza Sixo Safai, as troubled and fanatical Mehran; Soheil Parsa as Firouz, tired and struggling; Sina Amedson, portraying Hossein with believable hope and naivete. Most of all, though, I again must highlight Kazemy and Boosheri: the stars' casting was clearly no mistake, for they inhabit the primary roles with grace and poise. Shireen and Atafeh are very much alike (to a point), and the leads very capably realize every sundry aspect of their characters - every strength, weakness, feeling. Immediately I want to find more of Kazemy and Boosheri's pictures to watch.
It needs to be said that content warnings abound for 'Circumstance'; just look at all the themes and concepts I've noted above. This is without question a very difficult film to watch, bringing out vivid, turbulent emotions as it broaches sensitive, unsettling subject matter. Yet in that unflinching scope - anchored with excellent storytelling, film-making, and acting - this readily strikes me as a stupendous, rewarding feature. I only just recently learned about this movie in the first place, but I'm so very glad that I did, because I found it to be a deeply satisfying experience. Keeping in mind that it certainly won't be for everyone - and recognizing that the merit it carries for viewers is matched by its projected distress - 'Circumstance' is a splendid work of cinema that I strongly recommend.
Fine film anchored with strong performances and thematic writing
It cannot be overstated how direly uncomfortable this is from start to finish. Interpersonal drama and conflict is central to the narrative, woven into every scene with the crucial clash of cultures and ideas that's written into every character. This so completely runs with that slant that every secondary character who in any way expresses disapproval becomes instantly, pointedly unlikable. From the premise alone I expected plenty of awkward drama, and 'Disobedience' delivers it in spades - along with marvelous performances and character moments. This is as excellent as it is cringe-worthy.
Ponderous themes quickly and plainly present themselves, actualizing the immense strain between battling ideologies with all due gravity. Feminism versus patriarchy; love versus duty; individuality versus "normalcy"; freedom and independence versus responsibility and stability. Stagnant, archaic social norms, contrasted against progressive, modern values; inflexibly rigid family and community structure, in opposition to robust, elastic, more freely flowing social bonds. As heavily as these concepts all weigh on the narrative, they are never deliberated upon inorganically, instead being threaded through every story beat. Much credit to director Sebastián Lelio and co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz, whose adapted screenplay gracefully balances plot progression with the great heft underlying it all. However unquestionably discomforting, no matter how profoundly somber, every passing moment feels wholly natural.
Of course none of this would be possible without a strong cast to carry the burden, but everyone in front of the camera is very much up to the task. This goes most of all for the primary actors. I'm unfamiliar with Alessandro Nivola, but he portrays Dovid with a commanding steadiness and force of personality that's outright impressive. Rachel Weisz is far more recognizable, and she embodies protagonist Ronit with admirable poise and stubbornness, complemented with deep, tired hurt. Most fetching of all here, in my mind, is Rachel McAdams. We're broadly accustomed to seeing McAdams in parts that are more comedic, or sweetly romantic. But in inhabiting Esti, she above all shoulders a pronounced, exhaustive fusion of all the conflict and turmoil represented in the film. It's a role demanding absolute dramatic acting, range, and emotive capacity - and McAdams performs wonderfully. It's a real joy to see her here, and one can hardly go without remarking on the swell chemistry McAdams and Weisz share as scene partners.
At its core 'Disobedience' is a revisiting of the classic notion of rebelliously swimming upstream against stalwart tradition. Yet this particular version is rendered with such purposeful, intense thematic material, and hearty performances, that the familiarity is almost an afterthought. There's something to be said for how all the most critical, chiding supporting characters are generally painted with a single wide brushstroke, but as these are all essentially background for the real meat of the film, the oversight seems minor. The result is a picture that, though not wholly perfect, delves into a reflection on LGBTQ relationships in light of staunchly opposed cultural dogma, and does so without relying on common tropes of the genre. Bearing in mind an obvious content warning for homophobia and all possible related topical matter, 'Disobedience' is an excellent feature I'd confidently recommend to just about anyone.
Zorro: The Gay Blade (1981)
Fantastic, silly, fun classic
I wasn't entirely sure what to expect when I began watching, but consider me a fan: Forty years later, 'Zorro, the gay blade' holds up, and is a wonderfully good time.
The swashbuckling adventure to be expected from the Zorro mythos is rendered somewhat secondary to the comedy in the film. But at that, scenes are definitely very well arranged, and action sequences most of all are well choreographed. Peter Medak's work as director is for the most part as gratifyingly rewarding as the phenomenal screenplay on hand, filled with over the top, brash bravado, wit, and repartee in dialogue. The humor largely follows from that clever script, and is otherwise situational. Yet as simple and plain-faced as everything is, it's executed with great showmanship and dexterity by all on hand.
That goes most of all for the cast. Star George Hamilton is especially ham-handed, but his dual roles are also written as such, so it works. And to that point - he's a marvel, giving wild performances full of comedic and dramatic flair that truly sells the film all by himself. Even so, he's matched in that exuberance by Ron Liebman, putting on an exquisitely exaggerated display as antagonist Esteban. But again, it absolutely works, making the villain a swell foil to the hero as Liebman goes all in on character he's been given. This is hardly to discount anyone else, though, as Laurie Hutton, Brenda Vaccaro, and everyone else in the supporting cast is just super. Special commendations to Donovan Scott for the quietly mesmerizing, clownlike gaiety he brings to the movie as Zorro's mute sidekick, Paco.
The costume design, and set design and decoration, are truly outstanding, greeting our eyes with the most vivid and extravagant of colors and arrangements. In a similar vein, the use of intertitles to establish scenes is an anachronism that's both curious and greatly appreciated. Zorro, as a character - and 'The gay blade,' as a specific rendition - is very much about style in presentation, and the overall art direction here is a treat.
It's a valid concern to wonder if a feature dating to the early 80s would stand to be a bit too tawdry in its approach toward social norms to be enjoyable. There's no denying that there are gay jokes that are a little tired and a bit much, relying on outdated (and never acceptable) stereotypes. So it is, too, with a few fat jokes that I could do without. However, it's also worth mentioning that to whatever extent the screenplay pokes fun at the titular character's sexuality, he's also The Hero, and is written as extraordinarily capable and charismatic - and it's the villain alone who engages in pointed mockery. Much like far more recent screenwriting exemplar 'The Venture Bros.,' the queer character is depicted very much as an accomplished, competent individual, and their orientation and personality isn't a sole defining characteristic - only a distinguishing trait. My impression is not that the slant here is toward derision - but most emphatically, that this film appears to be a welcome if marginally uneven example of treating a gay character as a complete person, and not just a trope.
Plot development, and the delivery of lines, at times seems inelegant, rushed, or perhaps even haphazard. Yet to whatever extent this is a definite flaw, it's also in keeping with the tone of the film and the characterizations as they are written. There's an unwavering madcap energy about the whole picture, from the story to the comedy to the performances, and if at the beginning the approach feels off-putting, all concern is allayed as the feature progresses.
The end result is a movie that's greatly entertaining, with strong attention to detail in many areas. I'm not going to sit here and say it's perfect, yet what faults it possesses are far outweighed by the overall great quality and amusement. I entered with a measure of uncertainty, but have been exceptionally pleased with what I've uncovered: 'Zorro, the gay blade' is a delightful, funny adventure flick that has aged remarkably well, and is as worth checking out in 2021 as it was upon first release.
The Baby of Mâcon (1993)
Vivid, eye-catching, curious - exceptional
I'm not entirely sure what to say. The costume design and set design is phenomenal, and even extravagant. The very concept is simply grand - a play within a film, ostensibly performed in mid-17th century France. From that premise follows strong attention to detail of stagecraft, with set pieces, stage hands, and practical effects completing the illusion. The very screenplay much more echoes the penmanship of a playwright than a film-maker. Even before truly taking into account the content, 'The baby of Macon' is a marvel.
Hand in hand with substantial nudity, blood, and general violence walks content warnings for infanticide, gore, and far more so for sexual assault. Profound overarching themes present of corruption - of society, of the church, of the human soul; of exploitation and manipulation; of deserved ruination, on any and all levels, as a consequence of ill deeds of any severity; of mercy, cruelty, greed, and of superstition correlating with belief in religion and miracles. It's not wholly wrong to call 'The baby of Macon' a nihilistic picture. Yet all the ideas it broaches are all realized with exquisite work from all departments, including effects, props, makeup, and hair. Peter Greenaway's orchestration of scenes is as outstanding as his writing, and also arranges some fine shots with his camerawork. Lighting is also used in many ways to only further enhance the spectacle before us.
And this is all to say nothing of the cast, who are all gratifyingly excellent. From the smallest supporting parts to the main roles, everyone involved readily inhabits their characters, bringing them to life with all due poise, range, and dynamism. I've never seen Ralph Fiennes quite like this, no matter what other roles one may bring to compare, nor Philip Stone. This goes most of all for Julia Ormond, turning in a fierce, riveting performance - her feature film debut! - as "the daughter," to the point that I'm frankly shocked that there wasn't so much as a single award nomination to come from her portrayal. Ormond above all, but again, I think everyone on hand - cast, and crew - exceeded all possible expectations.
The film pointedly blurs the boundaries between player and spectator, theater and "reality," from the very beginning through to the very end. This defiance of "the fourth wall" makes the picture a bit difficult to latch onto at first, yet it becomes increasingly engrossing. And that same disregard for convention also makes pivotal scenes all the more entrancing and impactful - to the point that further renders the feature's most singularly shocking sequence with it an added measure of ghastly disbelief on par with the opening scene of Sion Sono's 'Suicide Club.' Although, what one considers most jolting will be tested, as 'The baby of Macon' offers more than one contender.
The magnificent visual display, the thematic material, the writing, the performances, the technical craft - in every possible aspect, this is utterly captivating, and low-key mesmerizing, no matter how grisly it may get. I began watching with no particular expectations, and have been confounded in the most welcome of manners by what I've seen. For the unquestionable gruesomeness and weight of the content, this is hardly a picture to recommend to all comers. But I find it to be as fascinating and bewitching, and I'm thrilled to have come across this movie, however belatedly. 'The baby of Macon' is a disturbing, dreary, and often devastatingly extreme tableau, yet so awe-inspiring in its macabre pageantry as to be dazzling and transfixing. Wherever one may find it, this is well worth seeking out.
Idi i smotri (1985)
I don't think it's so cut and dry.
I don't think there's a single other movie I've ever watched that is marked by so great a discrepancy between popular opinion and my own. The premise immediately drew me in, as well as the clear high regard in which it's held. 'Come and see' is, far and wide, considered a masterpiece, possibly the greatest war film ever made. My thoughts are more complicated than "yea" or "nay," but what it comes down to is that I have come, and I have seen, but I do not abjectly agree.
My perspective is not so bare as to be able to simply give a singular pronouncement of quality. Because this is, I feel, a movie in three parts. There is a glaring distinction between them all, to the point that each could plausibly be shown as three totally individual films - standalone experiences - and each varies significantly in their worth. What we get is horror, followed with brilliance - substantially undercut by initial tedium.
In the first element, as the minutes ticked by I kept waiting for something great and terrible to manifest with all due visceral repugnance, anything to make me sit upright. While punctuated with sparing instances of disquiet, the entire first hour transpired without making any great impression at all. Early camerawork is heralded for its emphasis on close-ups, showing us the faces of actors with all the heightened terrible anguish they can muster. I can at least understand and appreciate the view that the approach to the film-making actualizes the terror and confusion of war. But what really came across in these eyes was how disjointed and tawdry it seemed, making it difficult to engage with. The screenplay echoes this unwelcome, unremarkable, and underwhelming slant, and for sixty minutes I wondered if I was watching the same movie I had read of that had been showered with effusive praise. Much is made of the involvement of star Aleksei Kravchenko, and the unfiltered realistic responses in his performance. Yet with each passing moment I saw not an undiscovered talent showcasing unexpected skill, but a young boy who had never acted before, and was proving it. My attention and my favor waned ponderously, and I feared for what I was going to end up writing in review. I find it such a mess that I altogether disagree that the first part of the movie is anywhere near as impactful as it should be.
In the second element, the protagonist's journey becomes far more horrific. The film-makers have pointedly related that the incidents depicted on film were all too real events that took place in Belarus under German occupation. The unflinching monstrosity of the barbaric cruelty laid before us realizes the abject heinousness of martial conflict. Here, truly, director Elem Klimov portrays the horror of war, in all its inhumanity. The sheer, indifferent brutality of the crimes being depicted makes this segment difficult to watch, especially with the knowledge that not only did this really happen - many times - but it continues to happen, all over the world, wherever battle comes and occupation follows. The aspects of film-making and storytelling that gained my disfavor in the first hour make a turnaround that's remarkable for the difference in quality. The camerawork, effects, arrangement of scenes - even Kravchenko's acting is distinguishably improved. Perhaps more energy was poured into this part of 'Come and see,' or perhaps the accordingly chronological sequence of production meant that everyone had honed their skills by the time these scenes were being filmed; either way, the outcome - though laborious as a viewer - is admirable. This segment of the movie is a bit uneven and inconsistent, and not completely perfect; slowly rolling along at first, it finds its feet as it goes along. Most concretely, I'm not sure that the representation of the Nazi soldiers in this element aptly conveys the enormity of their unbridled villainy. Apart from that subjective laxity, though, and a lack of refinement - with the second stretch of the picture, the promise in its premise is kept, and upheld through to the end: this isn't an easy ride. But at this point, it's pretty well done.
That brings us to the third element of the feature, and it must be stated that the greatest value, the utmost reason to watch 'Come and see,' is the last twenty minutes of its length. The final scene exhibits wholly superlative film-making and screenwriting, with no detail before the camera, or aspect of technical craft, too small to be elevated to its zenith. Much more to the point: The last 8-9 minutes of the feature are possibly among the greatest 8-9 minutes that all of cinema has to offer. Sharp editing and sound mixing, and careful selection of music, join with a meticulously orchestrated few moments that are exquisitely jolting and impactful, inducing such acute reaction as to be gut-wrenching. It's a nearly unrivaled mastery of film-making, and I dare not describe it less I dampen the effect. At the same time, star Kravchenko holds in his countenance such profound fury and turmoil that it's impossible to believe he could have been merely 16 years old, and only making his very first film as an actor with no experience or training - for at last we witness a performance for which no accolade is undeserved. I'm left speechless.
Yet these are not three separate pictures. They are one and the same, with a coherent, cohesive narrative, and all filmed across the landscapes of Belarus. I know I hold the minority view, but how could a feature with such a solid midsection, and that ends so powerfully, be borne from a long first hour that's so dull and unexceptional? 'Come and see' is ultimately a good movie, but the entire first sixty minutes diminishes the remainder - it could have been, should have been, and would have been a truly great film, from start to finish. In my opinion the end result is deeply marred, and I'm frustrated and disappointed by the disparities.
Maybe another viewing would ingratiate me more to the entirety of what director Klimov has created. But however grand and arguably unparalleled the film becomes as it approaches its conclusion, I also can't ignore how bereft it is in its unbalance to have given me such a lasting, dour first impression. To me, offering this as a recommendation comes with not a footnote, but an appendix. What it comes down to, I suppose, is that certainly for the last 20 minutes - why, the last 8-9 minutes alone - 'Come and see' is not just worth watching, an absolutely essential experience. The rest, unfortunately, I think is up for debate.
Noriko no shokutaku (2005)
Absorbing and weirdly endearing
Love it or hate it, 'Noriko's dinner table' is oddly fascinating. Technically both a prequel and sequel to Sion Sono's much more grisly 'Suicide Club,' there are definite connections, and 'Noriko' works to fill in some gaps in the narrative writing of the 2001 film. At the same time, this readily seems like a strong standalone feature, with greater weight and meaning beyond visceral shock and loose threads - this is much less a thriller than it is a psychological drama. I'm not entirely sure what to make of it, but it has a feel all its own, and is peculiarly grabbing.
Far be it from me to employ a tawdry metaphor, but the story in 'Noriko's dinner table' makes me think of a sandwich. What initially impresses as the superficial plotline is reaffirmed more concretely in the end, and between these bookends is considerable substance that truly makes this film what it is. The tale begins as teenager Noriko, feeling uneasy and out of place with her life and family, runs away from home to meet an otherwise unknown acquaintance from an Internet bulletin board, and to seek her own way. It's a simple beginning, but where the narrative goes from there is distinctly captivating. Scenes play out with the actors also narrating the course of events and providing characters' inner thoughts, only further ingratiating the picture to us with its particular style.
With each fiber that comprises the narrative, there's a measure of subtlety to the active plot, while themes of 'Noriko' are much more plainspoken. The movie explores the idea of the lies we live, and what that does to us; the lies we choose, that we find meaningful; disconnection from family, from society, or from our own persons; and in the midst of it all, finding ourselves - or, alternatively, losing ourselves. It's filled with ideas of empathy, and what we can be for other people. More underhandedly, 'Noriko' also touches on notions of everyone and everything having a purpose - how discovering and fulfilling that purpose can bring true happiness, and be gainful in a very existential and philosophical sense. That all these concepts are tied into the darker, more foreboding aspects of the story makes us question ever more deeply what they mean for us.
This is also where it's especially worth mentioning 'Suicide Club,' because 'Noriko' is intended in part to round out some details of its predecessor. In the themes of this feature, and to a smaller extent in elements of the narrative, it does provide us a more complete image of what Sono was doing with 'Suicide Club.' Even so, when more predominantly considering the latter, adding 'Noriko's' contributions into the very mixed bag that the bloodier flick represents also serves to further confuse its plot. Its an unfortunate cycle - the facets of this movie that would bolster its antecedent, failing to fit neatly, then also consequently dampen the narrative here with their inclusion. In whatever ways one ties into the other, that 'Noriko's dinner table' broadly stands so well on its own somewhat magnifies the weaknesses and lesser coherence of 'Suicide Club,' and the kickback with their link is not advantageous.
There are definite deficiencies with this picture, also including camerawork that I don't necessarily find impressive. Yet the broad narrative writing is solid, and fantastic. So it is with the characters, too, and while a little hit or miss, the assembled cast is overall pretty swell as they inhabit their roles. Kazue Fukiishi is a solid lead as chief protagonist Noriko, capably realizing the girl's dissatisfaction, confusion, and shifting sense of identity. Yuriko Yoshitaka, portraying Noriko's younger sister Yuka, demonstrates able skill in a character arc that somewhat mirrors the protagonist's. I'm personally most taken with Tsugumi, who as Kumiko embodies a part requiring notable range, poise, and force of personality, and she deftly maneuvers the nuance. To emphasize these three is hardly to discredit anyone else involved though, and it's also worth mentioning the contributions behind the scenes of hair, makeup, costume design, and set decoration. Everything in this movie looks pretty great to these eyes.
Having watched Sono's 'Suicide Club' and found it enjoyable but wanting, and being vaguely aware of the association with 'Noriko's dinner table,' I wasn't sure what to expect. But I'm genuinely, pleasantly surprised. It's a little bit uneven, and not altogether perfect, but much more so than not it's admirably well-written. While the execution sometimes falters, most scenes are wonderfully orchestrated. The end result is a film that's engaging, entrancing, and not just satisfying, but rewarding. The story and characters are rich and enticing, focal points of a movie I'm happy to say I confidently recommend. If marginally imprecise, 'Noriko's dinner table' is a fun, warped, and pleasing feature, well worth seeking out.
Our Hospitality (1923)
Swell entertainment that has aged gracefully
It's noteworthy that from the very beginning the movie is defined by a concrete dramatic narrative, a fictionalized take on the legendary feud between the Hatfields and McCoys. It's a fair fifteen minutes of exposition before comedy slowly begins to enter into 'Our hospitality.' All the while - and throughout the entirety of the film - there's strong, commendable attention to detail in the set design and decoration, costume design, and set pieces. I'm given to understand that Buster Keaton worked hard to make this title period appropriate (hearkening back to 1830, as indicated by intertitles), and one has to admire the labor: rudimentary train engines and rail lines, precursors to bicycles, and more. Even the selected filming locations were clearly chosen carefully.
When humor does come into play, it's characterized by a great deal of slapstick and situational comedy. At no point is 'Our hospitality' "laugh out loud" funny, but it's consistently entertaining all the way through, and the farce certainly builds as the story progresses. It helps that Keaton is an outstanding comedic actor, bearing all measured range of facial expression and exaggerated body language to sustain the joviality. His scene partners are no slouches, though, and everyone - chiefly the actors portraying the oppositional "Canfield" family - deftly complements the star's delivery. Natalie Talmadge is more straight-laced as Virginia Canfield, yet still embodies her supporting part with poise and personality that's laudable.
Fine stunt work in the final stretch of the film lends a sense of suspenseful adventure, even as the mixture of comedy and drama remains central. This aspect also bolsters the movie generally, making it feel more well-rounded and complete where it may have seemed marginally lacking before. And with that said, 'Our hospitality' may never reach the pinnacle of thrills, hilarity, or profundity that the utmost exemplars of its composite genres would portend - but nor was that the intention. This is nothing if not broadly fun, and solid in its writing, acting, and direction. It's fully enjoyable from start to finish, and thoroughly satisfying, especially in its climax and finale.
It may not be the most essential feature you'll ever watch, yet it's steady and engaging, and an all-around delight. Nearly 100 years later, 'Our hospitality' holds up as a wonderful, wholesome good time, and remains well worth checking out.
As phenomenal and riveting as it is artful and dense
Charlie Kaufman, as both screenwriter and director, has an uncanny ability to create features that feel unmistakably recognizable as his, even though each of his films are entirely unique from one another. Understated and dialogue-heavy, filled with quiet disparate scenes - from the very beginning there's a sense of surrealism in the disconnect between spoken word and visual display. And it only gets weirder and more wonderful as it goes on: 'I'm thinking of ending things' is an oddity, a marvel, a labor, and a joy.
It is, in turn, captivating, jarring, awkward, tense, bizarre, disquieting - but always fantastical. Dialogue and voiceovers are variably existential, acerbic, despondent, sweet, ruminating, passive, philosophical - but always entrancing. Even having seen and adored Kaufman's other films, I'm not sure that I've ever seen a movie quiet like this. This is in no small part thanks to the extraordinary range, nuance, and brilliant, singular idiosyncrasy of each performance. David Thewlis and especially Toni Collette realize fancifully dynamic characters with outstanding vigor and spirit, parts wholly distinct from their past credits. Jesse Plemons is relatively steady and even in his portrayal of Jake, but there's nonetheless a subtlety to his acting, and at other times a daring breadth of emotional capacity far exceeding other roles we've seen him in. I'm less familiar with Jessie Buckley, but like Plemons, she bears a strong force of personality in depicting a character that from one scene to the next - or from one moment to the next within a single scene - may notably shift in mood or tone, in relation to others, or in the overall thrust of the characterization. Even the large supporting cast, actors with few lines and little time on screen, very capably play their parts.
Art direction, production design - every single element of the film is meticulously, painstakingly considered and arranged. The makeup department's great contribution was especially crucial here, but this is hardly to count out hair, costume design, or props. Set design and decoration are primo, to say nothing of filming locations, and noteworthy work with editing and visual effects further the wonder and spectacle. As with other Kaufman features, there's a strong element of theatricality that further bends the reality before us. The choreography is marvelous, and kudos to the dancers for their astounding gracefulness. It's also a particular joy to see Plemons sing - again, far removed from other well-known roles, and he has definite skill. And it all but goes without saying that as director, Kaufman orchestrates some fantastic scenes, and arranges some especially eye-catching shots.
Still, for all the excellence generally of 'I'm thinking of ending things' - the narrative, adapted with Kaufman's expert hand from the novel of the same name, is where lies the greatest challenge and reward as a viewer. The nearest point of complexity in Kaufman's list of credits is what I would argue to be his greatest achievement, 'Synecdoche, New York,' as his best known films are more straightforward by comparison. That said, 'I'm thinking of ending things' inhabits a space of at once being both more plainspoken in its convoluted artistry, and more obtuse. For even the most keen, observant viewer, multiple watches may be required to peel back the layers and discern the entirety of the true core of the plot; alternatively, an in-depth outside analysis may serve the same purpose. Yet as though the magnificent splendor of everything we see and hear weren't enough - once we do plumb the hidden depths of the story, only then do we truly see all the mesmerizing beauty of the movie for what it is. The grandeur of 'I'm thinking of ending things' is made more impressive still by how dexterous and fluid the complete presentation is: on every level, this matches or exceeds the storytelling and film-making expertise Kaufman and his collaborators demonstrated with his 2008 directorial debut. And that's saying a lot.
By no means is this a movie that's easy to digest, or that a broad general audience may appreciate. The superficially disjointed, disordered, complicated plot and sequencing is no doubt a turn-off for many, as is the very need to dig deep to reach the heart of the film. That's perfectly okay - art is subjective, and everyone has their own preferences. All the same, this is a feature that can be enjoyed by anyone; before I very belatedly got around to watching, I was caught off guard by the person who most immediately recommended it to me, someone who ordinarily wouldn't go for something this heavy. That only illustrates the wide appeal of Kaufman's works, though, and how any viewer can potentially relate - from the beginning of his career, his screenplays have captured, as one character here calls it, the "universality in the specific."
If all these words are too much, however, allow me to state it more plainly: 'I'm thinking of ending things' is a masterpiece, a beacon of resplendent, stunning skill of performance, screenwriting, and film-making, that everyone needs to see at least once. It's rich, absorbing, and not just rewarding but fulfilling - a profoundly gratifying cinema experience and fruitful use of time for anyone that enjoys the medium. I can't possibly recommend this any more highly.
From the very beginning 'It' carries a mood of light-hearted jocularity and pep that is magnetic. The dialogue presented in the intertitles is full of delightful personality, and the entire cast echoes that enchanting mesmerism in their performances. This is such a joy!
Makeup and wardrobe is as fetching as set design and filming locations are eye-catching. As a viewer in 2021, there's a definite air of retrospective nostalgia in the fictional department store, Waltham's, that figures in the narrative - a former linchpin of culture that has been in decline for decades. And it's all wrapped up in an uncomplicated romantic comedy that, without any need for sound, precedes and bests many of its spiritual successors in the 94 years since.
'It's' excellence is in no small part thanks to the wonderful cast, every one of whom is a pleasure to watch. They all deftly maneuver the exaggerated facial expressions and body language that the era of silent films demanded, ably realizing every emotion and nuance in their characters. This especially goes for star Clara Bow, wholly embodying both the brash, convivially conniving forthrightness and the great allure of seeming protagonist Betty Lou Spence. William Austin, as supporting character Monty, carries a spark of liveliness that reminds of Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster (to say nothing of a certain physical resemblance). Antonio Moreno is more straight-laced as Betty's love interest Cyrus, and other actors before the camera are decidedly less prominent, yet all involved are just as superb, giving marvelous, laudable performances.
Apart from witty dialogue, comedy mostly comes in the form of sight gags and a comedy of errors - misunderstandings, mild trickery. Additional humor comes with hindsight and the witnessing of antiquated social standards and practices - seedy newspapermen, workers lining up to be handed their paychecks, olden expectations of gender roles. There's a measure of drama on hand, too, to provide counterbalance, yet never so much as to entirely overshadow the broad sense of gaiety. In every regard, the narrative writing is rock solid, and the direction is just as fine, giving us many wonderfully orchestrated scenes - the climax not least of all.
The result is a film that, while clearly representing another time, nonetheless holds up very well. This is altogether fun, neither dipping in quality nor becoming overbearing at any point. How much one enjoys it may come down to one's engagement with silent films or romantic comedies, yet 'It' is a swell feature fit for the entertainment of a wide general audience.
Well worth seeking out, and highly recommended!
Revenge Ride (2020)
Fair concept ruined with tawdry, imbalanced execution
I'm not entirely sure why I decided to watch this. I think it was the idea of a revenge flick centering women, and a biker gang at that. If only a B-movie, 'Revenge ride' could have been a decent film. But the presentation is so inelegant and mildly stylized that from the very beginning it's more schlock than fun, and alternates between overbearing and underwhelming. More so than not, no sooner had I clicked "play" than I regretted doing it.
Every scene of the "Dark Moon" biker gang at their hideout is simply awkward for how staged and forced the revelry and proud cheering feels. The predatory behavior of the frat boy jocks is, naturally, far more repugnant. For whatever slight variations there may be in a handful of roles, mostly the characterizations are direly flat, if they're given any personality at all. I'd like to think that the cast are capable, and would prove it in a feature that allowed them to demonstrate their skills, but 'Revenge ride' isn't it. Between Timothy Durham's screenplay and perhaps more so Melanie Aitkenhead's direction, every actor present is either railroaded into chewing scenery, or seemingly coached into delivery that leads me to wonder if they hadn't just imbibed some camomile tea and were ready for a nap.
I do highly appreciate the wardrobe and costume design, makeup, and blood effects. I think the filming locations are swell. I like the core concept of the film, and I think all involved would have benefited had the narrative thrust been more tightly centered around that vengeful conflict. For that matter, it's notable that 'Revenge ride' is adapted from a short film, 'Blood ride,' likewise concocted between Durham and Aitkenhead a few years prior. That little movie doesn't seem as readily available to watch, but I'd be very curious to check it out as a point of comparison. It's also noteworthy that the feature broaches (however briefly and incompletely) all too common realities - the uselessness of police in matters of sexual assault, and college administrators, to say nothing of the way that other men may fail to repudiate predators, if not also enable or encourage them. In the face of injustice, the idea underpinning this movie is not just rational, but possibly even necessary.
It's too bad that these worthy elements are overwhelmed not just by the characterizations and unconvincing performances, but by the deeply uneven and even contradicting execution otherwise. The pivotal conflict of the story is substantially watered down by overemphasis on a "star-crossed" romantic B-plot. Even scenes focusing on the gang or the jocks, showing us more of their lives and who they truly are, are overwrought. I think the plot as written is complete and whole, but there's nonetheless excess and deficiencies in the screenplay, and 'Revenge ride' marks another instance where a more straightforward, plainspoken presentation (think 'Ms .45') would have been much more engaging and compelling. There's no real balance in the writing. Moreover, for a picture with "revenge" in the title, the fight scenes seem unsatisfyingly inauthentic, with generally sluggish choreography that greatly dampens the excitement.
And that brings us to some especially dire, glaring faults with the film as it is: despite mostly starring women, being directed by a woman, and ostensibly being about female empowerment, the feature we get nonetheless feels somewhat sexist. The very first thought I had as I began to watch was not an encouraging one - a film that focuses on women behaving with the same coarse boorishness more typically seen in men doesn't exactly do much to raise the glass ceiling. Without specifically counting, there are perhaps one to two dozen hardnosed, rough and tumble, "take no s---" women in Dark Moon, and a mere three arrogant jocks still manage to bloody them up pretty well. What happened to "girl power?"
The pointedly ruthless leader of the gang, Trigga - portrayed with every ounce of spite Pollyanna McIntosh can muster - is a pure embodiment of the "straw man" fallacy, a character defined almost entirely by the mythological misandry that the most toxic of men use as an excuse to rationalize their violent misogyny. Meanwhile, save for protagonist Maggie (Serinda Swan) and her cousin Mary (Vanessa Dubasso), the rest of the women in the gang are so bereft of individuality and reason that they follow Trigga's beck and call without question. At the same time that 'Revenge ride' would champion sisterhood, defying patriarchy, and claiming one's own justice in the face of rape, in my mind the end product also raises a massive red flag in other regards as a tent pole for "incel" and "men's rights" ignoramuses to rally around and justify their repellent worldviews.
And the ending, reasonable and appropriate as it may be, is shot and acted with such bluntness as to diminish its impact.
There are strong ideas here for what could have been a thrilling, visceral revenge flick. There are too many more ideas that negate that value, or dilute it. There are still other ideas that, in their realization, twist the whole into something else altogether, an abomination that undermines the original intent. 'Revenge ride' is only 73 minutes long, but in both written word and in light and sound, it would have been significantly enhanced with more severe consideration for editing.
The premise drew me in, and the movie itself almost immediately cast me out. It's not totally bereft of value, but what worth it possesses can also be found in far greater abundance elsewhere. Show me a cut that trims the fat, concretizes the vengeful core, and is substantially reduced in length, then we'll talk. Until then, I have a hard time recommending 'Revenge ride' to anyone at all.
Two disappointed thumbs down.
Solid, violent thriller, if a little too slick for its own good
In some small measure, this feels like a conventional Hollywood crime thriller. All the component parts fit together a bit too neatly, including not least of all the leads pointing toward the killer, the partnership between the gangster and the cop, and some dialogue generally. Jo Yeong-wook's often hard-charging score, swell as it is, also seems to echo the narrative's slant toward being slick and stylish. These are noteworthy issues, and for me they do detract from the picture - yet overall 'The gangster, the cop, the devil' is so very well done that it's still quite enjoyable.
Strong attention was directed toward the visuals here, not least of all in brilliant color that fills almost every scene, and lighting is used to great effect to bolster every other aspect. Filming locations, set design and decoration, blood, and costume design are marvelous. Fight choreography, stunts, and action scenes as a whole are outstanding. For that matter, individual scenes are broadly orchestrated carefully, with fine consideration for detail. Not least of all, the lead actors are all superb. Kim Mu-yeol is excellent as young detective Jung Tae-suk - brash and headstrong, intelligent but distinctly forthright. Kim Sung-kyu, as the violent killer, bears a cold, twisted ruthlessness in his countenance that's pointedly disquieting, and employs a terribly sardonic sense of humor. And Ma Dong-seok has very well established himself and hardly needs any introduction. His turn as crime boss Jang Dong-soo is hard and unyielding with a ferocious force of personality. It's a real joy to watch everyone embody their roles here with all due vigor.
Inelegant though Lee Won-tae's writing is at times, the overall narrative construction is solid, and outright captivating. His hand as director is more steady, guiding the production with all the refinement of a seasoned veteran and tying the varied elements together. There are definite thrills on hand, and the movie is actively engaging throughout. While the deficiencies in the writing persist to the end, they're never so glaring as to inhibit the entertainment. The result is a picture that's a little bit uneven, but generally exciting and a real treat to watch. 'The gangster, the cop, the devil' is a really great action/crime thriller, worth checking out.
Jisatsu sâkuru (2001)
Lurid and riveting, if not also inconsistent and uneven
No movie one has seen can truly prepare them for the opening scene. 'Suicide Club' grabs us in the most ghastly and shocking of ways from the very beginning, and thereafter it remains engaging through to the very end. This is notably imperfect, but for good or ill it's as captivating as it is jarring - and this is nothing if not wholly unsettling.
Writer-director Sion Sono has concocted a frightfully grisly, spellbinding mystery thriller so grotesque as to be reasonably labeled horror. The original score from composer Tomoki Hasegawa is phenomenal - rich and full of emotion, every mesmerizing chord realized with marvelous instrumentation. Where it's most prominent, the music is utterly entrancing as it complements or even shapes the mood throughout. The blood and gore effects are superb and startling, making every cumulative incident all the more jolting.
I really like the costume design. Attention to environmental aspects like lighting or set decoration isn't generally prioritized, but where Sono accentuates it, these elements are eye-catching. More broadly, the careful orchestration and execution of scenes is admirable - even the most garish moments, obviously staged, nonetheless feel fluid and horribly real.
Yet all this is certainly not to say that 'Suicide Club' is flawless. The connections between some narrative threads are notably thin, making the movie feel somewhat disjointed, especially in the last third or so. For as much as the story has an air of the mystery, thriller, and horror genres, there comes a point where it also feels in no small part like an art film. The plot loses a bit of itself, leaving some aspects for the viewer to pick up on by themselves, if we can. There are noteworthy themes being toyed with, but they become muddled just as the narrative does. Presumably Sono believed that a more straightforward film would have compromised the integrity of his vision. And he may well be right - but at the same time, the result is a movie that, for lack of clarity, ultimately feels a little sloppy and incomplete.
Though it hardly needs to be said, there's a massive content warning here for depictions of suicide, and blood and gore. Likewise, while instances of animal cruelty are obviously fake, they are gruesome and unwelcome all the same - and frankly, wholly gratuitous. Viewer discretion is advised.
The result of it all is a film that, for about two-thirds of its length, is a sickeningly macabre spectacle, with loose but definite narrative proceeding toward a solid conclusion. In the last third, definition and solidity is lost as the plot takes turns that reshape the feature into a nebulous form where presumed artful intent overtakes narrative development.
I like it. But I also want to like it more than I do. Where 'Suicide Club' is made well, it is outstanding and acutely disquieting. Where it falters, the deficiencies are readily apparent. Still, it's more true than not that this is enjoyable and worth watching, with obvious caveats for content, and obtuseness in the latter stretch. Recommended mostly to horror fans who appreciate strong blood and gore in their movies - faults and all, 'Suicide Club' is an engrossing, disturbing thriller, however imprecise.
An engaging idea diminished by excess
Grain entrapment is a dire, deadly, urgent emergency, as illustrated in various films over the years but most of all documented in real life cases. To build a film based simply on that scenario is a curious notion, but the inherent drama is ripe for storytelling possibilities. 'Silo,' such as it is, is a mixed bag.
In the depiction of the entrapment, and the rescue process, the movie feels in large part like a simple dramatization. We see steps undertaken to save the trapped boy, and the way it all becomes a community effort. Disagreements in how best to go about the procedure reflect a disparity of specific knowledge and lack of communication, elements which are undoubtedly real enough. The central narrative thrust is the strength of 'Silo,' and the movie would have greatly benefited from focusing purely on this aspect.
Unfortunately, that's not what we get. A straightforward, plainspoken story of disaster and rescue would have been compelling, without any need for embellishment. Instead we're also presented with glimpses at the lives of all the characters, back story, and the low-down on their various interpersonal histories and conflicts. 'Silo' could have been a low-key, forthright, human interest thriller, but every bit of extra flair, intended to add greater sense of drama, only waters down what the film could have been. That goes for the score, dialogue, superfluous character writing - almost everything beyond the crucial core.
There's really just not much more to say. I didn't have any particular expectations before watching, yet I find myself somewhat flummoxed. I understand the compulsion, the trend of dressing up a story with the idea of making it ever more dramatic and impactful for audiences. But balance is required, and too many features tip the scale to become overwrought. This is one of them. A far less refined cut of no more than half the final runtime would actually have been twice as absorbing. Sometimes less is more.
'Silo' isn't altogether bad, and I do hope other viewers get more out of it than I did. I just wish film-makers would take time to step back and consider what is truly most essential to the tale they want to tell.
The Suicide Club (1988)
Disordered, aimless, wretched
Maybe it's someone in the cast that's drawn you in, or the source material. Please let me articulate as clearly as I can: These are red herrings. This is an awful movie, and you should never watch it.
One need only be passingly familiar with the stories of Robert Louis Stevenson to understand the thrust of the narrative. One may not even need that much to quickly grasp a chief difficulty with 'The Suicide Club' - an issue that feels all too typical when old stories are updated to a contemporary setting. So much work is put into establishing the modern era (1988, in this instance), and introducing the characters, that it's 20 minutes before any plot shows up. And when it does, the kickoff is so clumsy and inelegant as to feel desperately forced - and even after that, it takes far longer still to actually go anywhere, to the point that one wonders if this should genuinely be called an adaptation.
The promise of the premise is all but totally undercut by the critically haphazard construction - this is, emphatically, not a good movie.
We're given snapshots of characters that would pretend to be complete dissertations on their persons, but it's all so direly thin and hollow. We're told of their backgrounds, and their exceptional knowledge, and shown the ease with which the film's story progresses to get to the heart of the adapted narrative. But it's all bereft of reason, emotion, and motivation - graceless and empty, like a recreation of an Old West town that's actually nothing but facades propped up with 2x4s. Connections between plot points, or even from scene to scene, are threadbare at best; connective tissue in character interactions is all but absent; even dialogue feels staged, inorganic, slapdash. If one had no foreknowledge whatsoever, then 'The Suicide Club' would surely feel like a tawdry jumble of directionless nothing. Having some foreknowledge, that impression isn't meaningfully improved.
I do greatly admire the wardrobe and costume design. Set design and decoration, and filming locations, are impressive in their consideration. I do appreciate, on the surface, the orchestration of some scenes, and the arrangement of some shots, but there is exasperatingly little substance behind them. I think the cast demonstrates fine acting skills, including Lenny Henry and Madeleine Potter with some swell delivery of their lines. And there are still other recognizable names and faces present. But what is the point of any of this, in a film that's otherwise such a horrid mess?
What could have been a captivating thriller is instead an agonizingly middling, unbaked sketch of a mystery. I counted a total of three instances of plot progression in these 90 minutes, and one of those was the climax. Meanwhile, throwaway bits of conversation, and many scenes scattered throughout, suggest an entirely different movie with no connection to the titular organization. Any passing moment that should be impactful is rendered wholly inert by the trash that surrounds it. I've seen some utterly terrible movies, poorly made in countless ways, but I can't recall any other title that is so barren, desolate, vacant - void of content, entertainment, meaning.
'The Suicide Club' is so ineptly written and directed, forsaking real narrative development, that if all superfluous, unnecessary material were cut - reducing the feature to a short film of perhaps 15-20 minutes in length - the result would still be just as dreadfully destitute.
This is without a doubt some of the worst dreck to which I've ever borne witness. It's not enough to say that I don't recommend watching this. I could only be satisfied by wishing 'The Suicide Club' out of existence.