Sex and cinema have a complicated relationship, and sex-film director Joe Sarno understood this better than most. In the U.S., nudity and simulated sex are generally understood as appeals to prurience–and, often, commercially exploitative gestures–but they can be more than that. They have to be, if they are part of a serious film. A filmed sex scene may be arousing, sure, but it’s also a vehicle to express character. Depending on performance and visual approach, screen sex can demonstrate frustration and restlessness as easily as romantic contentment; an actor can convey self-loathing instead of, or in addition to, satisfaction. That dicey territory–the sex film that turns you on while treating the action as problematic–was Sarno’s turf.
One among very few genuinely terrible films that are also justly famous, Blood Feast is the oft-cited progenitor of a certain strain of American cinema: the slasher film — or, more specifically, the splatter movie. Conceived by the briefly prolific, ultra-low-budget director Herschell Gordon Lewis (who will be forever known as the Godfather of Gore) — along with producer David F. Friedman — as an alternative to the commercially competitive genre of cheap-and-easy nudie flicks, the splatter movie was at the time even more disreputable than the soft porn film, ramping up the T&A with a new women-in-peril component. Gory murder scenes combined fake human blood and real animal entrails to sickening effect. Blood Feast is venerated by gorehounds and has a “so bad it’s good” reputation among horror buffs, but what’s really breathtaking about it is its shameless demonstration that, in the grand cinematic scheme, artistic merit, cultural influence, and commercial success have precious little to do with each other. Continue reading
Director Olivier Assayas’s latest features the now-requisite fine Kristen Stewart performance, typically absorbing Assayas mise-en-scène, and a way more explicit representation of the supernatural than I had expected, even from early on. Of course it defies genre — it’s not primarily a horror movie or a suspense thriller but simply a character study, with the delicacy that term typically implies but also with a freakishness it doesn’t usually portend. I’ll cheerfully admit that the story is underwritten, particularly the half-baked police procedural that threatens to swamp the third act (Assayas backs away from it before it becomes too, too much) but the sleepy nightmarishness of it all appeals to me. Stewart, too, seems forever in a somnolent state of dressing and undressing, her vulnerability on display; she’s lost in the world, laden with sadness, weary beyond her years. She gets at something about grief, yes, but also mortality — the pale fragility of the human body and perhaps, though she is loath to concede it, the delicate impermanence of the soul. Spooky, for real.
Say what you will about Liquid Sky, there’s no other movie like it. Shot largely in a nightclub that feels warmed to sweltering by big costumes and body heat and a crowded penthouse apartment with a killer view of the Empire State Building (and a UFO on the porch), it mashes up an annoyingly slack New Wave fashion show with a New York sci-fi story about aliens who crave heroin and/or human orgasms cooked up by frisky Russian immigrant writer, director and co-editor Slava Tsukerman.
Having narrowly survived his harrowing brush with mainstream Hollywood filmmaking, Darren Aronofsky is back in bonkers tortured-artist mode with this allegorical freak-out about poetry, celebrity, and the act of creation. More impressive than the density of metaphors running through this plainly Biblical yarn is the ferocity of Aronofsky’s execution. No matter what happens, he keeps the camera close to Jennifer Lawrence; for the bulk of the film, any shot she doesn’t actually appear in is a point-of-view shot. So we experience events as she does — her property trespassed upon, her authority disrespected, she remaining in good-wife mode longer than is healthy. And Aronofsky directs the hell out of the film’s third act, which unfolds with a disorienting kind of dream logic that belies the fundamental absurdity of events on screen. I don’t find the central metaphor(s) so compelling in itself, but I think the film works on an emotional level as long as it’s fundamentally Lawrence’s story. She is the dreamer, and this borderline surrealist frenzy is her nightmare, and it’s spooky and scary and richly suggestive and I’m completely on board. But then the film establishes its continuity with the Aronofsky Cinematic Universe, which is kind of a bummer. Once the creator presents his revelation — God’s love for humankind, eternal recurrence, etc. — it becomes clear it’s not really her story. It’s Aronofsky’s story. It’s always been Aronofsky’s story. And I just can’t relate.
In which the most iconic female comic book superhero finally gets a feature film to call her own. Much of this is delightful — Gal Gadot’s performance is magnetic, and Patty Jenkins gives the film’s engrossing midsection an authentic screwball savor, presenting Gadot’s Diana as more frankly sexy than I had been led to expect and keeping sweet, blue-eyed Chris Pine in exactly the right place throughout. It’s a shame she’s saddled with a typical superhero screenplay that eventually brings the whole endeavor crashing down. The reversed gender roles give Jenkins a fighting chance at making some hoary tropes feel new again, and she slips into a confident groove for most of the film’s running time, culminating in the second act’s bracing, triumphant, Diana-led sortie into No Man’s Land. Like her hero, Jenkins is the man who can. But she can’t do much with the gloomy, CG-addled third act, which resembles a PlayStation cut scene staged inside a vat of Dr. Pepper and stomps all over what should be the film’s emotional payload. (It says a lot that the real problem with Wonder Woman is that it shares too much DNA with the rest of DC’s cinematic endeavors.) Still, Jenkins has her own enthusiasm and Gadot’s wild, wide-eyed idealism on her side throughout. Together, they go a long way.
If you’re going to steal, they say, steal from the best. It almost works out for Life, which borrows the fundamentals of its premise from Alien–hostile, shape-changing lifeform let loose in the confines of a spacecraft grows larger and more powerful as it eats its way through the crew–and rides that pony for a good forty-five nerve-jangling minutes before running out of oxygen. Alien‘s setting was an interstellar mining vessel that doubled as a haunted mansion, with long hallways, high vaulted ceilings, and other shadowy spaces where the boogeyman could wait for his prey. Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick lose some of those gothic atmospherics by setting their story on board the International Space Station, since it imparts a more sterile, sci-fi feel. Moreover, in what’s arguably a more brazen case of cinematic larceny, director Daniel Espinosa, best-known for the 2012 thriller Safe House, swipes his anti-gravity stylistics from Alfonso Cuarón, opening the film with a single, very long, VFX-heavy take that sends the camera around in gentle swoops from character to floating character as the space station itself tumbles slowly around its axis. Continue reading
John Wick: Chapter 2 opens, perhaps incongruously, with shots from a Buster Keaton action sequence projected on the side of a midtown Manhattan office building. Make no mistake — that’s not homage. It’s a declaration of principles. Hell, it’s a boast. A master of stunts, sight gags and visual effects, Keaton was perhaps the most sophisticated silent filmmaker when it came to truly understanding and exploiting cinematic space — the magical Méliès, perhaps, to Chaplin’s more grounded Lumière. For much of film history, his influence was felt most vividly in movie musicals, where the influential athleticism of Gene Kelly, especially, seemed to call back directly to Keaton’s knockabout screen presence. In the 1970s, the most musical action on screen was happening in Hong Kong, as Bruce Lee’s lethal martial arts style laid the groundwork for Jackie Chan’s more broadly comic (but no less precisely conceived and executed) on-screen fighting style. Jackie Chan was no fan of guns, but John Woo developed a balletic, two-fisted style of gunplay while imagining rom-com mainstay Chow Yun-Fat as an action hero in the Clint Eastwood mold. That brings us more or less to John Wick, as director Chad Stahelski and the army of drivers, stunt coordinators, military veterans, tactical firearms consultants and Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructors who helped turn Keanu Reeves’ into a precision-tuned killing machine assert their legitimacy as heirs to a tradition that began in the days of hand-cranked cameras and nitrate stock.