The Phantom Carriage, a seminal achievement in silent filmmaking from that other great Swedish auteur, Victor Sjöström, is a stern, supernatural moral drama that rails against social problems of the day by enlisting an emissary from the Great Beyond to lecture the feckless, abusive protagonist on what a rotten shit he is. Sjöström remains best known internationally for his later Hollywood films, made with the likes of Lillian Gish and Greta Garbo, but The Phantom Carriage already testified to genius behind the camera as well as in front of it. When the movie finished playing, I picked up the disc’s keepcase and squinted at it, in all my ignorance, to determine who so expertly essayed the central character of the alcoholic David Holm. When I read the answer (Sjöström himself), I wanted to fling the box across the room. Show-off.
Clint Eastwood doesn’t overthink his material. He grabs a screenplay he likes and starts shooting. Writer Peter Morgan said he was quite surprised that Eastwood started filming Hereafter without demanding rewrites, or even discussing the script much, and the resulting film has an obvious first-draft quality. It doesn’t really work.
Perhaps funded and distributed on the promise of Christina Ricci in her skivvies and less, After.Life is weirdly compelling for such a marginal movie. Its premise is a little coy, toying with the expectations of audiences that have had their fill, lately, of stories with characters caught in some strange limbo between living and dying where they work out the psychological issues that hectored them in the real world.
I first encountered Monika Treut when wandering the aisles of The Video Station, the great video-rental emporium in Boulder, Colorado, where her playful, enigmatic, and slightly unsettling lesbian art film Virgin Machine sported perhaps the most provocative box art in the entire German-language section. I liked Virgin Machine a lot. But then there are many things I liked a lot in 1989 that I’d be vaguely embarrassed by today. After I finished watching Ghosted, Treut’s newest film, I found myself digging out my decades-old VHS copy of Virgin Machine to try and square my memories of Treut’s earlier film with my experience of her latest. Virgin Machine still seemed weird and wonderful, and its star Ina Blum, first researching the idea of romantic love in Germany, then searching for her mother in the Oz of San Francisco, felt like she could be Treut’s Anna Karina, her face and form the text and subtext of so many shots early in the film, before Susie Bright (nee Sexpert) shows up and helps her learn to have fun exploring eroticism. Its black-and-white, borderline expressionist aesthetic aside, Virgin Machine feels a little like an early Godard film where the anti-capitalist screeds have replaced by cheerful pro-sex polemics.
Even if you haven’t read the jacket promo copy, you’ll suspect Passengers is up to some kind of supernatural wish-fulfillment from its first few minutes, as a slumbering Anne Hathaway is awakened on a rainy night by a phone call from a colleague who tells her something terrible has happened requiring her presence at a nearby hospital. It’s not just that Hathaway plays Dr. Claire Summers, a therapist charged with helping a group of plane-crash survivors cope with their near-death experiences and the accompanying trauma—it’s that the chilly, insistently otherworldly production design strongly implies something strange (but comforting, very comforting) is going on, too.