Chopping Mall

40/100
Killbot!

Chopping Mall is not the shopping-center slasher-movie its title suggests. Here’s what you really need to know: It includes a scene where a woman clad in light-blue Playboy panties runs screaming through the spacious halls of the Sherman Oaks Galleria in a hail of laser fire, chased by a killer robot resembling a cross between a Dalek from Doctor Who and Number Five from Short Circuit. The opening sequence features Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov in a cameo as their Paul and Mary Bland characters from the cult classic Eating Raoul. The always-game Barbara Crampton, who had just shot Re-Animator, takes her top off. And, like the maraschino cherry on top of a soft-serve strawberry sundae, the great character actor Dick Miller plays a crusty janitor who trash-talks one of the malevolent tin-can tyrants like a Jet giving the finger to Officer Krupke. Continue reading

The Immortal Story

70/100
Orson Welles in The Immortal Story

It’s one of those salutary coincidences of movie history that the final narrative film completed by Orson Welles would turn out to be this rumination on an old man’s obsession with storytelling. It’s not that Welles was exactly elderly at the time (he was 51 when he made it), but there’s a matter-of-fact finality to the work that becomes just a touch spooky in retrospect. Commissioned by the French national television agency as a Jeanne Moreau vehicle to commemorate the transition to colour television, The Immortal Story required that Welles work in colour for the first time, catalyzing a fairly dramatic evolution of his style. But it gave him the opportunity to adapt a short story by Karen Blixen (a.k.a. Isak Dinesen), one of his favourite writers, and to work again with Moreau, one of his favourite actors. Less than an hour long, it has remained an obscure film for a variety of reasons, but it’s intermittently remarkable despite its modesty. Continue reading

Elle

71/100
Isabelle Huppert in Elle

The first thing that happens in Elle is something that’s heard but not seen — the sounds of heavy breathing and bodies in motion, rubbing against each other. It’s almost certainly the sound of a sex scene, but there’s an aggression to it that suggests either exceptionally good sex or really, really bad sex — an act of violence. The smash of breaking glass is inconclusive, and the quick gasps and grunts don’t clarify a thing; divorced from visual context, they are uncommunicative, inconclusive fragments of expression. It’s an unnerving way to stage what is eventually revealed as a horrifying scene — a woman is brutally raped by a masked intruder — and of course Paul Verhoeven knows it.  The director’s first major film in 10 years is as sensational a crime drama as you’d expect from the director of Basic Instinct and Showgirls, a cutting psychological study anchored by ugly, explicit rape scenes. Its restrained look and feel are a far cry from the gleeful chaos favored by the Verhoeven of the 1970s, the poster boy for Dutch auteurism on the international scene. That filmmaker all but vanished during the director’s stay in Hollywood, only to resurface with the pulpy and absorbing Nazi resistance drama Black Book. But as lurid as Elle is, Verhoeven’s style is resolutely low-key. I suspect he’s deliberately channeling the austere Euro-drama of Michael Haneke, couching his irrepressible mischievousness in the international language of the arthouse. Continue reading

Meat

57/100

Philly-based distributor Artsploitation Films has just pulled a Dutch film called Meat (aka Vlees, 2010) out of the freezer, and it’s kind of a doozy. Produced by Amsterdam-based co-directors Maartje Seyferth and Victor Nieuwenhuijs (she’s the writer, he’s the cinematographer), Meat is a nonlinear murder mystery that starts out as day-in-the-life middle-aged sexual intrigue, morphs briefly into one of those young-people-and-discotheques Euroflicks, and finally turns into a post-modern police procedural. It’s not much of a whodunit, but it’s a pretty good example of a 21st-century grindhouse film, serving up pungent elements of low-budget horror and surrealism with erotic aromatics and a permeating abattoir stench. But I don’t want to oversell it. Just think Luis Buñuel crossed with Jörg Buttgereit. Continue reading

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

76/100
Bel Powley

Loses many of my favorite scenes from the book, but still pretty decent as adaptations go; writer-director Marielle Heller chooses to focus on the imbalanced sexual relationship at the story’s heart, making it clear she finds it emotionally exploitative (check out the repeated, clumsy references to the Patty Hearst kidnapping) while amply illustrating why a sexually active teenager would find it compelling and even romantic. Part of the reason is the presence of Alexander Skarsgård, so rakishly charming that you can understand why anyone would want to sleep with him, let alone a horny adolescent. For 80 minutes or so, this is an utterly credible depiction of a likable but awkward girl making some bad life decisions. But where the source material — a somewhat autobiographical novel with comic-strip passages by Phoebe Gloeckner — takes a sudden and harrowing descent into darkness, the film spends a few vacation days at the Sundance Institute before tying up its too-happy ending. If I hadn’t read the book, I’m not sure I’d notice that Heller botches the landing. Either way, Bel Powley is so good in the title role that it almost doesn’t matter.

The Neon Demon

61/100
Elle Fanning in The Neon Demon

Jesse’s gonna die. From The Neon Demon‘s opening scene, a staged tableaux that has the aspiring model (Elle Fanning) slumped on a settee, head back, covered in a rush of blood as if her throat’s been cut, it’s clear that she’s doomed. Her demeanor in front of the camera is compared to a “deer in the headlights.” She has no family, no friends, and nobody keeping tabs on her after her arrival in L.A. She has full lips, big eyes, and a delightful nose. She is 16 years old, and everyone she meets comments on her beauty. She may as well be wearing a sign on her back: “Kill me.” Continue reading

Midnight Special

75/100

Midnight Special is readily understood as a film about being a parent who loves a child so much — and of course there are plenty of movies about people who love their children, so a common objection is that this one is too humorless and withholds action and who needs that? But there’s something about the way this film depicts the way adults interact with the child in question — not so much a cute kid like you’d see in a Steven Spielberg movie, but a weird kid like you’d read about in a Stephen King novel — that’s as heartening as it is serious and sad. It works as a metaphor for raising an autistic child, or a physically ill child, or a prodigy, or some other young handful. The climactic visualization of the remove between young Alton and his surroundings isn’t tremendously satisfying as an action set piece, but it’s a solid science-fiction metaphor, and it makes better emotional sense here than the same gimmick did in Tomorrowland. But in its presentation of confidence and selflessness as imperatives for parents and parental surrogates, Midnight Special plays like a stoic, even-keeled answer film to the crisis of faith posed by The Babadook. Continue reading

Bitter Rice

91/100
Bitter Rice
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Bitter Rice is a heck of a film. It’s the story of a couple of refugees from an American film noir who stumble into a grindhouse showing an Italian social-issues drama. The beautiful losers are Walter and Francesca (Vittorio Gassman and Doris Dowling), a pair of small-time crooks on the run following the heist of a lifetime. The social conscience is personified by a class of peasant women who have for hundreds of years traveled from all over the country to work hard days in the rice fields of northern Italy, and also by, to some degree, ethical, committed soldier Marco (Raf Vallone), who lingers in the rice fields after his discharge because he has come to care about the fate of the women there. And the sex appeal is provided, in spades, by Silvana Mangano, a bombshell and a half. When producer Dino de Laurentiis and director Giuseppe De Santis cast the 18-year-old in the role, she had already appeared in a few films and had been the teenaged girlfriend of young Marcello Mastroianni. But her performance in Bitter Rice–a role that had her shaking her tits, swinging her hips, and hiking her skirt up to here–made her an overnight sensation.

Though it shares some characteristics with noir, Bitter Rice comes straight out of the original Italian post-WWII neorealist movement. It’s much pulpier than textbook neorealism, but it also feels earthier and more grounded than your typical noir. It’s definitely more fun than most neorealistic works, pitting its characters against each other as they jockey for power, shelter, and affection. A cadre of laboring mondine in short shorts or with their skirts hitched up above their thighs might not raise the body temperature of young cinephiles raised with access to Rihanna’s Instagram feed, but in 1949 it must have been quite a diversion. At any rate, according to Gregory D. Black’s book The Catholic Crusade Against the Movies, 1940–1975, the film’s U.S. distributor didn’t even bother running it by the Production Code office for approval before booking it in theatres on both coasts. The code’s enforcer, “Mean” Joe Breen, was no doubt dismayed at reports that the picture’s wanton display of female flesh was at once “flagrant and purposeful.” If Bitter Rice annoyed the censors, it ran into similar trouble with left-wing critics who applauded the political aims of neorealist cinema and thus deplored the introduction of salaciousness and genre-film elements into such a film. “The workers cannot be educated with the bare legs of Silvana,” complained the Marxist critic Guido Aristarco. He had a point: As complete as Bitter Rice‘s commercial success was, its more sensational elements heralded the decline of neorealism, as Italian audiences grew impatient with hard-luck stories and filmmakers began taking more cues from Hollywood cinema, which dominated the local box-office.

I’m not saying De Santis was deliberately moving away from neorealist principles. In fact, he takes pains to balance the movie’s genre pleasures by underscoring the story’s roots in reality. The opening scene features a narrator speaking directly to the audience to bring context to what we’re about to see: a grandly-choreographed tableau of a station where hordes of female laborers are boarding trains bound for the Po Valley rice fields. As the camera pulls back, the fourth wall drops into place as the man assumes the persona of a broadcaster and declares, “This is Radio Turin,” before continuing to describe the scene, which De Santis pans across to establish the grand scale of his production–scores of women walking, a train chugging towards the station, trucks passing by–before the camera alights on a pair of undercover cops scanning the crowd. Another impressive tracking shot, this one moving sideways alongside one of the train cars (we see the passengers inside, framed through their little windows), stops to introduce Silvana (the character shares Mangano’s first name), dancing among a group of women in repose as, in the background of the scene, a line of workers carrying baskets moves purposefully, in counterpoint to her relative abandon.

It’s all the stage-setting the picture needs. Walter dances briefly with Silvana before he is spotted by police. He flees the scene and Francesca boards a train out of town, stolen loot in hand, blending in easily with the migrant workers. Meanwhile, the attentive Silvana quickly deduces that Francesca and Walter were behind a newsmaking jewelry theft. Thus a romantic triangle is created, and the necklace Francesca clutches in a perfumed handkerchief becomes a talisman of sorts that changes hands, rising and falling in significance, over the course of the feature. So that’s the pulpy, noirish storyline. It’s carefully interwoven with a salt-of-the-earth tale of Italian labor, as a group of uncontracted workers (including Francesca) faces off against unionized labor for a share of the rice fields. Bitter Rice shows the adversarial relationship turning to solidarity as a community develops among workers all sharing the same kind of hard-luck stories regardless of their status. And there are metaphors aplenty. Walter’s crass treatment of both Francesca and Silvana suggests the exploitation of the Italian poor by its formerly fascist government, and Silvana’s enthusiasm for tabloids and the boogie-woogie symbolizes the encroaching, hegemonic influence of the U.S., which may have given Jean-Luc Godard some ideas.

What really distinguishes Bitter Rice is De Santis’s commitment to formal dynamics in ways that marry the social drama to the crime drama. The first real indication that De Santis is flirting with something akin to magic realism comes when the farmhands distribute wide-brimmed hats to the women for protection from the sun; the ensuing scene plays out with a plethora of hats spinning endlessly through the air in the background of shots, eternally aloft, as a chorus of women sing in unison about their work in the rice fields. The image has an unreal, almost storybook quality that threatens to sentimentalize hard labor. A scene in the film’s midsection where Walter dances with Silvana a second time, leading to a violent confrontation with Marco, is a master-level study in cinematic choreography, as the camera and the characters together make precisely-executed movements and the editorial rhythm builds to a fevered pace. As the mondine band together to protect themselves by going to work despite heavy rain–missed days in the fields will keep them working longer, putting their harvest contracts back home at risk–Silvana instead sneaks off with Walter, leading to the strongest and most harrowing sequence in Bitter Rice: Silvana teases Walter by poking at him with a long, slender branch; he grabs it away and starts whipping her with it in a scene that descends into a violent rape.

The film cuts immediately to measured, evocative shots of the women working in the downpour, with Otello Martelli’s high-contrast cinematography lending their faces a stark, severe look. The blankets tented over their heads suggest religious drama; as one of their ranks falls ill, the others attend to her in way that, photographed from a crane looking down, resembles the petals of a flower closing gently around the ailing woman. There’s a tremendous sense of beauty and fellowship here that nonetheless alienates the traumatized and needy Silvana, who shows up only when the group is already rallying around one of its own. The sequence culminates in a tracking shot showing Francesca carrying the sick mondina, a group of weeping women falling in line behind her, as Silvana runs clumsily alongside them in parallel, stumbling and falling into a ditch, her isolation and despair complete. The last we see of her in this scene, she is alone in the frame, staggering away from the camera while Walter watches, unperturbed, from the safety of a reverse-shot edit.

The sexual politics are a touch dubious but not out of the ordinary for films of this era. It’s hard to shake the feeling that De Santis and his co-writer Carlo Lizzani are scolding Silvana for her regard for American culture as well as punishing her for licentiousness. Feminist readings center on Francesca, who is intelligent enough to eventually see through Walter’s manipulative, controlling routine–it’s the implication that she is a piece of property that is his to give away that drives her finally to action at the climax. Yet if De Santis is more condescending to Silvana’s character, he is also strongly empathetic with her. The camera evokes sympathy for her even during her humiliation, tracking along with her as she moves through the rice fields, going in close as she begins to comprehend the mess she’s made during the film’s slaughterhouse showdown. Mangano’s performance isn’t technically accomplished, but it is stirring nonetheless; you can read the moral epiphany on her face, and you can see that it absolutely wrecks her. And there’s the key–beyond the sex, the guns, and the jewels, Bitter Rice is anchored by its fierce convictions about right and wrong, justice and injustice. Mangano’s downfall isn’t so much her sexuality as it is her selfishness and avarice. Walter’s real criminality is the scheme he hatches to steal the stored rice that’s meant for distribution to the mondine. And De Santis’s accomplishment isn’t the debasement of neorealism some regarded it as–it’s a combination of humanism, technical skill, and straight-up showmanship serving a timeless story of class- and gender-based exploitation. As a political tract,Bitter Rice lacked purity. As cinema, its head-spinning melange of social commentary, romantic melodrama, heist picture, and, yes, shimmying movie musical is crystalline.

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THE BLU-RAY DISC
Criterion’s new Blu-ray of Bitter Rice should go some way towards raising De Santis’s profile in the U.S. (where neorealism is generally taught along the Rossellini-De Sica axis), even though extra features are scanty and the HD transfer is solid but unspectacular. Criterion’s liner notes are unusually vague when it comes to the provenance of this master, averring only that a “new high-definition digital transfer” was created from the “original camera negative.” Criterion’s Lee Kline is credited as the transfer supervisor, though the grading was performed in Rome by the Digital Factory at Cinecittà Studios. The resulting 1.33:1, 1080p presentation is attractively silvery and low-contrast–maybe a mite too low-contrast, as there’s a flatness to some shots that threatens to smooth out details completely, particularly in the highlights. Even with the restricted dynamic range, the picture has a pleasantly filmlike quality and it may underscore an aesthetic distance between the neorealist tradition and the more contrasty films noir out of Hollywood. There are some minor image imperfections (scratches, mainly), and a handful of shots, like one at the end where some of the women sprinkle rice on a body on the ground, exhibit notably less detail than the bulk of the film. The LPCM monaural audio is similarly OK. It’s remastered from an optical track and was substantially cleaned up, although surface noise is still quite audible and there’s an unavoidable brittleness to the sound, especially at higher volumes.

In a seven-minute interview originally recorded in 2002, De Santis’s co-writer Carlo Lizzani remembers the making of Bitter Rice, tracing its genesis to the director’s encounter with a large group of mondine departing for the rice fields at a train station in Turin on his way to Paris. Among other topics, Lizzani describes the film’s reliance on co-writers like Carrado Alvado to maintain the scenario’s working-class authenticity; the discovery and casting of journalist and former soccer player Vallone (who he calls “our Virgil”); and the decision to make Silvana Mangano’s role more prominent than originally planned.

Beefier scholarship can be found in “Giuseppi De Santis”, Lizzani’s 53-minute documentary on the filmmaker from 2008. Like the previous featurette, the image quality is strictly standard definition although it has been upscaled to 1080i, with some of the archival footage–including excerpts from interviews with De Santis himself–cropped on the top and bottom to 16×9. Generally, the program frames the director’s career in the context of Italian neorealism. It discusses neorealism’s political roots in the Italian resistance, the rarity of three-dimensional female characters in Italian cinema of the period, and De Santis’s status as “the Hollywood soul of Italian cinema,” as writer Steve Della Casa puts it in a talking head. De Santis’s childhood in the central Italian city of Fondi is considered, as is the critical re-evaluation he underwent following a neorealist conference/retrospective at the 1974 Pesaro Film Festival and the politically-motivated ostracization from the film industry he faced in the last 20 years of his life. It turns out that De Santis wouldn’t make anything he didn’t believe in–and that’s why he’s seen here on screen, insisting that his unproduced projects should be considered alongside his finished work as crucial elements of his biography.Bitterrice1