A Most Violent Year

58/100
Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain in A Most Violent Year

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.
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The Vanishing

78/100
Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu and Johanna ter Steege in The Vanishing

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, but it shares that film’s deep interest in the psychopathology of its villain. Like a good (and by “good,” I mean “lurid”) true crime book, its interest is similarly piqued by the painful, quotidian details of an abhorrent crime.


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Pale Flower

88/100
Mariko Kaga and Ryo Ikebe in 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.

 

The Bling Ring

58/100
Still from The Bling Ring

Sofia Coppola’s metier is the direction of seemingly unguarded moments — a girl lounges in pink sweatpants, a boy grins dorkily as he bounces up and down on a dance floor, teenagers play dress-up and go gun crazy — so the more this strained to be on point with its observations about stalker culture and celebrity status, the less I liked it. Still, as a snapshot of a world gone crazy circa A.D. 2013, its verisimilitude is mostly undeniable, and it’s still a bit invigorating when movie girls are allowed to have the kind of disreputable fun the movie boys have always taken for granted.

Coppola has plundered young Hollywood for talent — cinematographer Wally Pfister’s daughter Claire Julien is here, as is Vera Farmiga’s (much) younger sister Taissa and even the actress (Georgia Rock) who, at 7 years old, was chosen to be the vaguely creepy drummer girl in the motion-graphic logo for Mandate Pictures (you may have seen her in front of The Purge last week) — and the actors are all just about exactly as good as they need to be to keep the endeavor afloat. Emma Watson has obvious fun playing a Calabasas girl with Beverly Hills pretensions, and Coppola pulls off the pretty good balancing act of making her characters thoroughly despicable and yet not completely unlikable — the quick glare that crestfallen Israel Broussard shoots at a passing pair of pink pumps when the jig is finally up is kind of heartbreaking.

Comparisons to Spring Breakers are both unavoidable and legitimate, though it’s hard to measure a straightforward narrative film directly against Harmony Korine’s dreamier, more deliberately anhedonic work. In its portrayal of the short history of a tiny fallen empire, The Bling Ring is most evocative of Coppola’s own Marie Antoinette. Kirsten Dunst even drifts through one scene, a lovely ghost — and, for those of us who don’t even know who the hell Audrina Patridge is, a spectral reminder of how quickly and decisively youth culture moves forward.

Killer Joe

76/100

As the final scene cut to black and the end credits appeared, accompanied by the ridiculous “Strokin'” by Clarence Carter, Killer Joe made me laugh harder than anything I saw last year, which is quite an accomplishment given that a more reasonable (not to mention easily defensible) response to its most over-the-top moments would be to recoil in disgust. If the film didn’t read in part as a knowing and deliberate parody of the literature of the American poverty belt — think of it as a demented three-way involving Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, and Jim Thompson — I’d likely find it psychotic.

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Scarface

One of the most powerful moments in Scarface is the culmination of a violent, perfectly judged sequence of events crafted for maximum impact by screenwriter Oliver Stone and staged with ferocious efficiency by director Brian De Palma. It takes place at the end of a night when Al Pacino’s Cuban gangster, a feisty little hard-on named Tony Montana, has survived an attempt on his life that left him with a bullet in his shoulder. He has overseen the execution of his boss, who was behind the hit. He has shot dead a corrupt cop who was extorting his cash and favours. And he has just been upstairs to collect from between satin sheets his boss’s woman, a sleek blonde dressed in white who is his prize. The camera zooms out from a medium close-up on Pacino’s face as, still bleeding, arm in a sling, exhaustion writ large across his face, Tony Montana peers through 20-foot-tall glass windows, staring dumbly into a Giorgio Moroder sunrise as an advertising blimp floats over the water, its pithy slogan an empty promise of greatness yet to come: “The World Is Yours….”

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Rote Sonne

Women are absolutely fabulous and also out to get you in Rote Sonne (Red Sun, an artifact of Munich, circa 1969, that puts an alluring, unnerving, yet weirdly dispassionate spin on social unrest. Shot at a time in German history when student protests and leftist communes were subverting the longstanding post-World War II status quo, Rudolf Thome’s film has a go at the country’s nascent feminist movement by taking as its subject a women’s commune populated by man-eaters. There are four of these succubi, and they’re submissive enough for five days of courtship and good times. But woe be to the who shows up for a sixth day with love on his mind and ends up with a bullet in his brain.

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Carlos

86/100