Noah Wiseman and Essie Davis in The Babadook

The Babadook

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.

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Michael Keaton in Birdman

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

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.

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Mark Ruffalo in The Normal Heart

The Normal Heart

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 […]

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Ben Vereen and Roy Scheider in All That Jazz

All That Jazz

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 […]

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Rats: Night of Terror

Rats: Night of Terror

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.

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Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler

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.

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Mélanie Thierry and Christoph Waltz in The Zero Theorem

The Zero Theorem

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.

Christopher Nolan Said What?, IMAX, Apophenia, and the Shutting of the Piehole

In my experience ...

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.

Elsa Lanchester.

Elsa Lanchester on the set of Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Ms Elsa Lanchester - The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Elsa Lanchester on the set of The Bride of Frankenstein (Whale, 1935)
via Film Noir Photos

Convention Girls

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.

Buddha's Palm

Buddha’s Palm

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.

Mariko Kaga and Ryo Ikebe in Pale Flower

Pale Flower

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.

Ryo Ikebe in Pale Flower

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.

Pale Flower

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.

 



Pale Flower (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray] (Blu-ray)

Director: Masahiro Shinoda
Starring: Ryo Ikebe, Mariko Kaga, Takashi Fujiki, Chisako Hara, Eijiro Tono
Rating: Unrated

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.
List Price: $39.95 USD
New From: $21.97 USD In Stock
Used from: $12.94 USD In Stock

2048_neighbors

Neighbors

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?

Gojira in Godzilla

Godzilla

I keep imagining Juliette Binoche holding a script in one hand and a cell phone in the other, asking someone on the other end, “And you’ll pay me how much for this? OK, I’m in.” Every great actor in this thing — Binoche, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen — inexplicably cast aside, the movie instead focuses on Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s bland Navy officer, who follows Godzilla himself from waypoint to waypoint, from a ruined nuclear plant in the shadow of Mount Fuji to a wrecked Honolulu airport to the heart of San Francisco. (Eventually, he and the big green guy himself exchange meaningful gazes; it’s pretty silly.)

Riddled with sci-fi action movie cliches, the screenplay may not have a single original idea, but the film is all about the kaiju-on-kaiju action. Director Gareth Edwards has a good eye — the opening images of the Philippines implicitly compare the bumpy island landscape to giant lizard spikes peeking up from the water, setting up the film’s notion that Godzilla is a manifestation of the natural world itself. His camerawork is naturalistic, angling for documentary-style shots that inspire more awe than the swooping and spinning virtual cameras that have gotten so popular. And he sets up a genuinely spooky spydiving sequence toward the end of the film, brave soldiers plummeting directly into harm’s way.

But a reprocessed Gojira is wheel-spinning almost by definition — no way can the Hollywood version have the same mournful resonance as the radioactive creature that leveled Tokyo just nine years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even if the smoky imagery is rife with the kind of 9/11 visuals that have become commonplace in American action movies over the last few years. Even as homage, it’s secondhand — the big green guy’s high-decibel farewell (at least until the inevitable sequel) made me flash back to Jurassic Park rather than Gojira. Will Edwards develop his own style? Let’s hope this film’s box-office returns give him the confidence he needs to start developing as an artist without looking over his shoulder.

John Leguizamo, Emhay Anthony, and Jon Favreau in Chef

Chef

As long as this stays loose — just its writer-director Jon Favreau, Bobby Cannavale, and John Leguizamo pretending to run a commercial kitchen during the dinner rush, with Scarlett Johansson slinking around the margins and Dustin Hoffman making the occasional appearance as the know-nothing moneybags behind the culinary goings-on — it’s pretty much golden. (I don’t mean it’s exceptionally valuable, but that it’s completely engaging and entertaining in that family-night-at-the-movies kind of way that it clearly aspires to.) It only gets tedious when it heads into life-lessons territory.

Favreau’s chef character, who stumbles into an accidental Twitter feud after being chastised for his professional stagnation by an influential food blogger (Oliver Platt), quits his job because his boss won’t let him grow creatively. He only regains his mojo when he goes back to operating on a small scale, selling Cuban sandwiches out of a humble food truck. Favreau made a number of creatively unexceptional but increasingly successful Hollywood features before hitting a brick wall with Cowboys & Aliens, so you might expect this film to represent some soul-searching on the part of the auteur, but no — for the most part,Chef insists on the professional integrity of its main character, whose culinary genius has not stagnated (pshaw!) but has simply been held in check by his bosses. All it takes is a quick detour to Miami, where the local culture — exotica! — inspires him to start building magnificent pork sandwiches with the help of his magical Latino (Leguizamo). And, like that, Chef Carl Casper is back, baby!

As formula filmmaking goes, it’s not terrible, but it’s hobbled by a reluctance to deal with anything like the reality of being out of work (Casper does complain about money at one point, but as it turns out he needn’t worry about being gainfully employed because his rich acquaintances are willing to bankroll him) as well as the too-familiar subplot in which the divorced Casper struggles to be a decent dad to his mostly estranged son, who’s along for the ride. In the film’s father-and-son scenes, Favreau comes off as an inexplicably dim-witted variant on Louis C.K.’s tryin-to-be-good Louie, consistently choosing to stomp on the kid’s heart for no good reason other than to force some emotional tension on the way to the inevitable happy ending. And I do mean inevitable — a Robert Downey Jr. cameo sends some voltage through this thing, but otherwise there are no idiosyncrasies, no surprises, and no awareness that Favreau’s Chef is the cinematic equivalent of the kind of tasty but generic menu item that gets its lead character knocked on his ass in the first place.

Machete Kills

Machete Kills

Well, this got panned on its release — perhaps justly. But now that it’s on Netflix Instant, where you can queue it up without earmarking any money or committing much time to the experience, it’s in its element. I watched it at the beginning of a long holiday weekend after making a shaker full of margaritas (tequila, triple sec, fresh-squeezed lime juice, no mixers or any bullshit like that) and found that it fairly reliably delivered the laffs, one after another.

No, it’s not an action movie. I think it fancies itself a satire, but it’s not a very good one of those, either. And as grindhouse pastiche, it’s unconvincing. It’s just a live-action cartoon, with inane gags — starting with the garishly spotlighted Wilhelm Scream (presumably a Morricone parody) that punctuates the opening credits — that connect just often enough to keep things interesting. It has Lady Gaga! Mel Gibson! An absurdly brief Walton Goggins cameo! Some tongue-in-cheek reflections on American border paranoia!

I still cringe at the unconvincing CG blood and bullet holes (really? you couldn’t be bothered to just have a make-up guy paint a gunshot wound on that guy’s kneecap?) but when it’s used to allow Machete to tangle a bad guy’s intestines in a whirring helicopter rotor? I guess I’m OK with that. At the very least, it’s rarely boring. And, in contemporary Hollywood, giving a 70-year-old actor of Mexican descent a multiplex action franchise is a mildly subversive act on its own. Would I watch Machete Kills Again … in Space!? Yeah, probably. But I wouldn’t pay 12 bucks for the privilege.

Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer

The first half of this is dynamite. Though the concept is derivative of any number of sci-fi conceits, Bong’s visual imagination lends the hoary old scenario some striking imagery — a masked army wielding hatchets, a man with a flash-frozen arm, Tilda Swinton whipping out a denture — and while he’s not the world’s greatest action director, he does know his way around a bloody set piece.

The central metaphor — a passenger train running around the world in infinite circles gives the swells the run of the front cars and relegates the poors to the back — just keeps chugging along for most of the film’s running time but eventually starts to creak under its weight and call attention to its artificiality. (As someone on my Twitter feed asked: do the kids have to walk through the rave every day on their way to school?* However, when the schoolteacher turns out to be an absolutely ferocious Alison Pill, I can forgive all kinds of artifice.)

It really does run out of steam once it reaches The Hall of the Exposition King and lurches toward not a happy ending but at least a hopeful one. Still bracing. Terry Gilliam would have had a field day with this material — and Bong knows it, which is part of what makes the whole production so much fun. I want to call it the best science-fiction movie of the year (take that, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) and then I remember Under the Skin and I nod solemnly and shiver a little. That’s a science-fiction movie. (Technically a 2013 release? Note to self.) But this one is really good, too. And the one about the apes isn’t even half-bad. Imagine, a cycle of excellent SF films in 2014. What did we do to deserve this?

* Judging from this diagram, I guess the answer is “No,” but it sort of feels like that’s the case when you’re watching.

Felissa Rose in Sleepaway Camp

Sleepaway Camp

Ah, summer camp. Softball games, capture the flag, nightswimming, and life-changing boating accidents. Not to mention killer bees, child molesters, maniacs in the shower, and one kid with a whole lot of baggage, if you know what I mean. Sleepaway Camp is a slasher movie, and it depicts lakeside Camp Arawak as a pressure-cooker of hormones and teenage flop sweat. Into this fetid milieu step Ricky and Angela, teenaged cousins united by tragedy: a boating accident that killed Angela’s parents and sibling […]

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Evilspeak

Evilspeak

Consider the pig. Pork is damned near a gourmet food these days. Celebrity chefs will serve you layers of pork belly wrapped around potatoes, figs, even pineapple. They’ll dip bacon in chocolate, infuse it in vodka, or drape it across an ice-cream sundae, resplendent in its brown glory. Your local organic market probably sells artisanal bacon cured with dark, fine-grained muscovado imported from Mauritius and flavored with angel farts and faerie dust. The recent cinema has also celebrated the pig, […]

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Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves

Breaking the Waves

Breaking the Waves can make you queasy from its opening moments, when director Lars von Trier’s name appears with the title superimposed over it, the title card swaying gently on screen as if it were photographed at sea. The effect is less subtle on home video than it is on a big screen, where you’re not as aware of the edges of the frame, but the message is the same: suddenly, you’re adrift, unmoored, alone.

Set in Scotland during the 1970s and […]

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