I’m on board with this in principle — scrappy council-house kid gives stuffy old-rich-gentlemen’s club a kick in the ass is a solid enough baseline for the old-fashioned secret-agents-save-the-world story, and scenes of over-the-top, balletic violence provide an enticing hook. This is also an origin story — the jumping-off point for an obviously hoped-for franchise turning the film’s unknown Welsh star, Taron Egerton, into a street-smart action hero — and so we spend much of the film stuck in spy-school, where director Matthew Vaughn and co-screenwriter Jane Goldman spit up a range of pre-chewed chestnuts from the history of elite-training narratives on film to show how fatherless protag “Eggsy” Unwin (Egerton) earns his super-spy status under the mentorship of the ever-dapper veteran Harry (Colin Firth). It’s not unpleasant, but it doesn’t go anywhere new.
The Night Porter is one of the most bizarre psychodramas in the history of film, using the Holocaust as a dreamy, abstract backdrop for a toxic romance between a former SS officer (Dirk Bogarde) and the “little girl” (Charlotte Rampling) he isolated, humiliated, and raped in a Nazi concentration camp. If that sounds absolutely outrageous, that was surely part of the design. This wasn’t Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS or another in the short-lived cycle of Nazi-themed exploitation pictures. […]Read this review at FilmFreakCentral ...
Gone Girl is a David Fincher kind of date movie. It begins with a disappearance—pretty wife Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), relocated from New York to the Missouri hometown of her husband Nick (Ben Affleck), a failed journalist turned career bartender, vanishes from the couple’s home one morning. There are signs of a struggle. The police investigate. As TV newscasts spotlight the mystery, Nick barely seems distraught. His devotion to his wife proves to have been less than complete, if you get my meaning. And it turns out the police consider him not just a grieving widower but also the prime suspect.
A Most Violent Year doesn’t give viewers much to chew on, which is a shame given the film’s deliberately retro palette, recalling the glory days of New York filmmaking in the 1970s. Thing is, while movies by Scorsese and Coppola hummed with what felt like a novelistic depth and intensity, A Most Violent Year just sort of scoots along the surface of its milieu — heating oil distribution in greater New York City, circa 1981. And the violence of the title isn’t Scorsese violence, or even Coppola violence. Literally, it refers to the high crime rates in New York in the 1980s. Figuratively, it’s a metaphor for the pain caused by the unpleasant ethical dilemmas that are the film’s subject. Expect lots of terse exchanges and meaningful looks, not so much gunplay and fistfights.
The high concept — boot camp at a music conservatory with J.K. Simmons doing a displaced R. Lee Ermey — gets this pretty far right out of the gate. For about 20 or 30 intense, Simmons-driven minutes, Whiplash feels like one of the best films of the year. It’s the rest of the picture that has a problem, with contrivance piled upon story-driving contrivance so high that the film lacks a believable ground-level view of young drummer Andrew’s (Miles Teller) struggle toward expertise and mastery. Instead, we see a few sessions where he works under the sadistic tutelage of bandleader Terence Fletcher, who teases out his students’ weaknesses in order to pounce on them and humiliate them over what he insists are their shortcomings.
What scares you the most? If you chew on that question for a while, then imagine a narrative that gets you to that terrible place, your story might be a little like the one in The Vanishing. Completed in 1988, this downbeat thriller didn’t make it to the U.S. until a couple of years later, when it coincidentally landed in New York within weeks of The Silence of the Lambs. The Vanishing isn’t, strictly speaking, a serial-killer movie like Silence, […]Read this review at FilmFreakCentral ...
In 1971, Pauline Kael did her best to kill Orson Welles. In “Raising Kane,” an essay originally published in The New Yorker and later used as a lengthy introduction to the published screenplay, she argued that Welles had unfairly taken authorial credit for a film whose real creative force was Welles’ credited co-screenwriter, Herman J. Mankiewicz. Kael’s piece was persuasive but hardly comprehensive, cherry-picking evidence in an effort to make a liar of Welles. (In his definitive 1978 book on […]Read this review at FilmFreakCentral ...
The most feted horror film of the year, The Babadook is an exercise in psychological horror that mixes elements from Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Delving into the fraying emotional states of a woman and her special-needs son, director Jennifer Kent spins a harrowing yarn about the terror that accompanies the pleasures of motherhood — the fear that you will be unable to do enough, to muster all the spirit and goodheartedness that are required, to care for your child.
I opted to see this at the last minute, instead of Interstellar, because I worried that Interstellar might have too much of a feeling of self-importance about it for an early Saturday matinee. Hoo boy. There is no doubt in my mind that I made the wrong choice. Birdman wants to say something about what it means to be an artist — what it means to invest your heart and your soul in a project and to be racked with anxiety over the potential outcomes: fame! fortune! ruin! mockery! — but the chosen method of delivery is a hoary old backstage drama bereft of ideas.
The Normal Heart begins in 1981, as a ferry pulls in to Fire Island Pines, the nexus of social life for well-off gay New Yorkers who prize sunshine and sexual freedom. Stepping off that boat is Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), a writer from New York who seems simultaneously titillated and disturbed by the buff, barely dressed men who suddenly surround him. Weeks, it turns out, is a notorious buzzkill. He wrote an infamous novel criticizing promiscuity (“All I said was […]Read this review at FilmFreakCentral ...
Celebrated as an incisive, self-lacerating backstage spectacle and razzed as an indulgent and pretentious passion project, genius director-choreographer Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz is one of the most ambitious American films of the 1970s. At this point in his career, Fosse had nothing to prove to the show-business establishment — in 1973, he won the Oscar, the Tony, and the Emmy, all for directing — but a 1974 brush with death (exhaustion, heart attack, life-saving surgery) put him in an […]Read this review at FilmFreakCentral ...
It’s quite possible that there is no better-known director of truly terrible genre movies than the late Italian filmmaker Bruno Mattei. Though I’ve not seen any other Mattei films, I feel comfortable making that assessment based solely on the “blood-soaked double feature” assembled here by the B-movie mavens at Blue Underground.Read this review at FilmFreakCentral ...
By any rational measure, Hell of the Living Dead and Rats: Night of Terror are cheesy barrel scrapings, budget-starved and blandly offensive horror counterfeits. But by the standards of Mattei’s filmmaking ouevre—which also includes nunsploitation, Nazisploitation, women-in-prison flicks, and mondo-style “documentaries”—they are the cream that rises to the top of the milk.Read this review at FilmFreakCentral ...
Jake Gyllenhaal is Lou Bloom, a petty thief in the Los Angeles dark whose shamelessness — specifically his lack of anything like a moral compass — becomes an enormous asset when he manages to get a foothold in the straight world. Pawning a fancy bicycle (was it stolen?) in exchange for a camcorder and a police scanner, he joins the ranks of the video shooters who prowl at night, angling for close-up footage of bloody meat on the city streets.
The list of things Terry Gilliam doesn’t like includes iPhones, earphones, computers in general, advertising, modern pop music, and the yawning vacuum at the end of the universe. Gilliam drafts Christof Waltz as his beaten-down-by-bureaucracy surrogate this time around, casting him as a kind of genius math whiz who’s put to work as a kind of human calculator, performing numeric operations to help prove the titular postulation about the fate of the universe and the meaninglessness to which it suggests human existence amounts.
It’s schematic and mostly redundant in Gilliam’s body of work, but still there’s stuff to like here, including the performances (David Thewlis does a mean Michael Palin, as it turns out) and some of the production design. I liked the parody of targeted advertising, in which annoying talking billboards follow right on your heels as you walk down the sidewalks of the future. I was pretty impressed, even, by Gilliam’s crude-by-CG-standards visualization of mathematical problem-solving as a huge three-dimensional puzzle, especially the deflating moments when huge masses of perfectly stacked building blocks come tumbling down, another big idea collapsed into rubble. (Gilliam knows a thing or two about that kind of heartbreak.)
There are some striking moments where the grim conditions of Waltz’s life are compared to the benevolent, it’s-always-the-golden-hour fantasies that a virtual-reality suit bestows, but mostly it feels like Gilliam is directing a screenplay written by a tyro who was really, really impressed by Brazil — homage becomes cannibalization, and as Big Statements go The Zero Theorem doesn’t add anything to what Gilliam’s delivered before. Part of the problem is surely budgetary, lack of funds limiting the film’s visual scope and finesse. On the other hand, there’s that script. Emotionally stunted hooker with a heart of gold falls in love with disturbed hermit 25 years her elder? Ye gods, Gilliam, you can do better than this.
Say what you want, dude gives a good interview. You may well be sick of hearing about Interstellar, the new nearly-three-hour opus from director Christopher Nolan that is, depending on whose critical take you favor, “a sweeping, futuristic adventure driven by grief, dread and regret” or “a spectacular, redundant puzzle.” This mostly flattering profile by Tom Shone in The Guardian is still worth a read for its colorful depiction of what I can only describe as breathtaking high-handedness. (I want to send flowers to Walter Volpatto, the DI colorist sitting on the wrong side of the computer from Nolan.) By the way, if you’re going to see Interstellar, you may as well drag your ass out to an actual IMAX theater running 15-perf 70mm, assuming there’s one near you. The picture quality is better than anything, and one day soon you know that one of these “real IMAX” releases is going to be the last one.
Apophenia. Thanks to Sam Adams (he runs the engaging Criticwire subsite at Indiewire) for the word of the day, a term I was unfamiliar with until he deployed it while defending Rodney Ascher’s The Shining interpretation documentary Room 237 from a dismissal by no less an authority than Stephen King* as “academic bullshit.” (The film is about interpretation, you see; representation does not equal endorsement; this seems as good a place as any to link to my own review, which set off a bit of a firestorm in the Film Freak Central comments section.) The Wikipedia entry on apophenia is a story in itself, tracing the word’s origins to an untranslated monograph published in German back in 1958 before characterizing the term as “a misnomer that has taken on a bastardized meaning.” Take that, apophenia!
* I’m kidding. Stephen King is a lousy authority on visual media based in any way on his books.
Piehole should be quiet. Here’s a street preacher getting served by an obnoxious little girl during Halloween season in Salem, MA.
via Film Noir Photos
Ah, the good old days — when an introspective B movie with an incongruously complex, multi-threaded narrative got sold on the drive-in circuit as a straightforward sex comedy. Directed in Miami Beach by NYU film school grad Joseph Adler, and shot in 16mm, it all takes place over the course of a couple of days at a toy manufacturers’ convention. One “convention girl” is looking for sweet corporate revenge against her ex. An older wife is looking for no-strings-attached sex with a genial cabana boy. Another woman is trying to sell the industry on her anatomically correct Barbie and Ken, including Ken’s tiny, magnet-induced erection. I’m not making any special claims for the quality of this generally drab little movie, but it clearly has things on its mind — infidelity, parenting, sexism, depression — and it’s an interesting artifact.
Seeing an outrageous cult movie on DVD is one thing; seeing it projected from a 35mm print on a huge movie theater screen is another. In your living room, Buddha’s Palm might be a mildly headache-inducing oddity from the twilight years of the legendary Shaw Brothers studio. In a movie theater, it’s a mind-altering hallucinogen, stuffed to bursting with wizard battles and wuxia action and edited with a head-spinning propulsiveness that can make you wonder if shots, scenes, or entire reels have gone missing.
I’ve seen a lot of Shaw Brothers films, but none of them like this —which probably just means I haven’t dipped deeply enough into the studio’s 1980s catalog, which chronicles a time when the studio ventured further into low-budget genre territory, borrowing ideas from American horror and science-fiction films and incorporating them into very Chinese narratives. Buddha’s Palm has animated FX that are strongly inspired by the Star Wars movies — at one point someone switches on a lightsaber, and, I swear to god, the sound-effects editor swiped a snippet of audio from The Empire Strikes Back, including Darth Vader’s breathing, to match the visual — but it has its own charms, too, including the out-of-nowhere appearance of a strange sort of dog-dragon hybrid that perhaps anticipated Falkor in The NeverEnding Story. It’s completely phony, of course, just two guys in a suit. (I kept imagining Secretariat from The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson up there with the swastika-blasting grandmasters, with a huge grin on my face.) But it’s also raggedly impressive, like something you’d want to applaud if it appeared in a live performance on stage. And then there’s the killer combo of a very big man carrying a very small one (a child? a dwarf? I couldn’t tell you, officer; it happened so fast) who squirts skin-burning acid from a, erm, sizable pimple on his chin. Yeah, holy shit.
At times it all seems kind of … let’s say inept and desperate, but then again there are moments so perfectly judged — like a breathtaking decapitation near the climax — that you know there was talent at work here, though probably squeezed by time and money constraints that made just getting this thing in the can a herculean task. It’s amazing, especially in a theatrical print with those trademark Hong Kong-movie subtitles that force you to swivel your head back and forth like you’re taking in a tennis match just to scan every word from the lower-left-hand corner of the screen to the lower right. I’m just trying to say: I had a fantastic time with this. I’ll never forget it. I wouldn’t necessarily want to see it again — at least not without a crowd — but does it exponentially increase my interest in this period of the Shaw Brothers catalog? You bet.
Wow — here’s misery, violence, and cruel fate seen through a prism of yakuza assassinations, gambling addiction, and a sublimated tough-guy love affair. Muraki (Ryo Ikebe) is a hit man fresh out of prison who falls for Saeko (Mariko Kaga), a mysterious, big-eyed beauty who hangs around in gambling parlors and asks Muraki to find her a game with bigger stakes.
Director Masahiro Shinoda lets the story’s yakuza intrigue play out around the margins — Muraki returns to a new world where the gang bosses he knew as arch-rivals have joined forces to close ranks against a threatening newcomer — but is more interested in Muraki’s frame of mind, which tends to nihilism. Muraki has never felt more alive than he did as an assassin; he and Saeko grow close but stop short of declaring their love either verbally or physically. A midnight race through the streets of Tokyo leaves Muraki in awe of Saeko’s thrill-seeking spirit, but a make-believe hand of cards played between the sheets in a borrowed hotel room is the closest they come to an erotic consummation. Muraki is preoccupied with Saeko, but he’s worried about Yo, a glassy-eyed killer from the younger generation of yakuza who he notices in the game rooms. As it turns out, Yo represents more than one kind of threat.
Pale Flower is the only Shinoda film I’ve seen (yes, I know, Double Suicide; I’ll get to it), but I was surprised to see it so skillfully working Seijun Suzuki territory in a somewhat less outré, more naturalistic way. That’s not to say it’s a naturalistic film. It’s at least more restrained than Suzuki’s pistol operas, but all the elements are potent, from avant-garde composer Toru Takemitsu’s modernist score and the odd clack-clack of the hanafuda cards (they were replaced with tap-dancing sound FX, per Donald Richie’s A Hundred Years of Japanese Film) to the minimal set design, lithe montage, and expressionistic cinematography. And Mariko Kaga, of course, portraying a woman of leisure infiltrating a man’s world — she is tough, self-assured, but still very vulnerable.
In its shadowy depictions of the city after dark it out-noirs some of the best films noirs ever made, and some of Shinoda’s shot compositions are just dynamite — like the one that has Muraki sitting in a chair in a small, sparsely furnished room in front of a wall that’s blank but for a jagged mark that curves up and around his body on the right, as though gouged by a samurai sword. There’s a great use of negative space throughout (which may be crucial to making good use of the widescreen frame) and repeated employment of camera angles that peer through windows and doorways and down hallways and alleyways, as though taking in the action voyeuristically.
And there’s a moment at the film’s climax, as Muraki is commiting a swift but brutal murder, where Shinoda cuts to Saeko watching helplessly while the camera is still whip-panning to get her in frame — the camera jerks to a stop on her face, a now-common trick that gives the image an urgent, almost documentary edge. In fact, in an essay on the film included with the Criterion DVD and Blu-ray release, critic Chuck Stephens says this scene is deliberately modeled on the 1960 assassination of Inejiro Asanuma, a socialist politician, on-stage during a political debate by a 17-year-old nationalist. After looking up the footage on YouTube, I certainly believe him, and the reference gives the film a political resonance that I’m not ready to attempt unpacking. (According to Wikipedia, the kid hung himself less than three weeks later, after writing, “Long live his Imperial Majesty, the Emperor!” in toothpaste on the wall of his prison cell. ) Anyway, it does not surprise me at all that writer Masaru Baba was appalled by what Shinoda did to his script — but the script isn’t what makes this great. Pale Flower grows in my estimation the more I look at it.
In this cool, seductive jewel of the Japanese New Wave, a yakuza, fresh out of prison, becomes entangled with a beautiful yet enigmatic gambling addict; what at first seems a redemptive relationship ends up leading him further down the criminal path. Bewitchingly shot and edited and laced with a fever-dream-like score by Toru Takemitsu (Woman in the Dunes, Ran), this breakthrough gangster romance from Masahiro Shinoda (Samurai Spy, Double Suicide) announced an idiosyncratic major filmmaking talent. The pitch-black Pale Flower (Kawaita hana) is an unforgettable excursion into the underworld.
At 44, I sometimes feel like I’ve been growing up for decades while popular culture has been standing still. Radio stations I hear in grocery stores and coffee shops play the same songs that were popular when I was in high school. The comic books and fantasy novels that I read in the 1970s and 1980s (or their derivatives) have become the blockbuster TV and film franchises of the 2010s.Saturday Night Live has been on the air, in sickness and in health, since I was 5. And Hollywood studios are still making sequels to the movie that was my favorite at the age of 7.
But one thing has changed — we no longer get raunchy R-rated comedies targeted at teenagers. Back in their heyday, movies likePorky’s and Zapped and Screwballs were all about high school and high-schoolers, and they were obviously designed to appeal to viewers of the same age. Hell, the good ones — I think immediately of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but I know there are others — had three-dimensional female characters and could even teach a kid something useful about human relations. But over the years, culture has changed. Now we get raunchy R-rated comedies about and for adults. We get 40-Year Old Virgins andThis Is 40s and, Neighbors. in which the buff, sexy frat kids are actually the bad guys and the square 30-something couple next door are the righteous heroes, able to smoke up and party down to spec but still coming out righteously on top of the extended kerfuffle.
I approve of the loose, matter-of-fact approach to adult sex, with Seth Rogen’s soft hips making another appearance on the big screen, as well as the irreverent treatment of parenthood. But I wonder at the way this film turns suburban schlubs like me into wise-cracking, big-screen heroes with enough of the right moves to completely shut down the cool kids. It makes me laugh, and that’s the main thing. But is it wrong to be a little annoyed by the flattery?