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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in craigjclark's LiveJournal:

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Saturday, June 25th, 2016
4:35 pm
What you did is something you cannot apologize for.
The moment dementia-ridden widower Zev Guttman (Christopher Plummer) wrote a note to himself on his arm is when it clicked for me that Atom Egoyan's Remember is a retiree riff on Memento, only instead of seeking his wife's murderer, Zev is out to find the SS officer who killed his family at Auschwitz. Not an easy task for someone who always wakes up confused and needs to repeatedly be reminded his wife is dead. Good thing for Zev, fellow nursing home patient and Holocaust survivor Max Rosenbaum (Martin Landau) has written down everything he needs to do and arranged for his transportation and lodging so all he has to do is buy himself a gun (remarkably easy to do in Cleveland, his first stop), point it at the right Rudy Kurlander, and pull the trigger. The trouble is there are a number of Rudy Kurlanders of the right age and extraction, so Max has had to plan for Zev to potentially meet and confront them all.

If Zev is the audience's surrogate, not knowing where he's going or what he's supposed to do until he gets there, then Max is screenwriter Benjamin August's since he's the one providing the instructions. August also makes sure the viewer rarely knows more than Zev does at any given moment, which allows him and Egoyan to spring surprises on both simultaneously. And in terms of casting some of the Rudy Kurlander candidates, it was quite a coup for Egoyan to land Bruno Ganz (Downfall's Hitler) and Jürgen Prochnow (who will always be known to me first and foremost as the U-boat captain in Das Boot). Zev's most chilling encounter, though, is with the son of one of his targets who proves that the apple doesn't fall far from the antisemitic tree.
Friday, June 24th, 2016
12:15 pm
Anything worth having hurts a little.
I've deliberately avoided reading any reviews of Nicolas Winding Refn's Cannes-disapproved The Neon Demon, but I'm guessing most criticisms of it are that it's all style and no substance. Well, I happen to dig Refn's style, which this film has in abundance, so I'm less bothered by its relative shallowness than some. Besides, its story is about the modeling industry, which is entirely based on how things -- and people -- look, so it's entirely appropriate that it's entirely surface-oriented.

For his first feature since 2013's divisive Only God Forgives, Refn returns to Drive's Los Angeles stomping grounds, this time bringing along cinematographer Natasha Braier to help him push his visual aesthetic futher than ever before and reuniting with composer Cliff Martinez for their third film in a row. And to flesh out his story, he collaborated with screenwriters Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, who added a feminine perspective to the proceedings (not that I expect this to prevent feminists from lobbing charges of misogyny at Refn and the film). His first film with a female protagonist, The Neon Demon is a cautionary tale about a fresh-faced 16-year-old from Georgia who parlays her natural beauty into a fledgling modeling career, unaware of just how cutthroat this business really is. In fact, when we meet Jesse (Elle Fanning), she's in the midst of her first shoot -- for amateur photographer Dean (Karl Glusman) -- which is reminiscent of the ones Laura Mars is famous for since she's been posed with her throat artistically cut. This turns out to be the handiwork of makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone), who takes Jesse under her wing and offers to be her protector, whether she thinks she needs one or not.

Then again, how could she not think she needs protection what with the unfriendly rivalries with established models Gigi and Sarah (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee), both of whom feel threatened by her, and the predatory nature of most of the men she meets, chief among them the skeevy manager of her skeevy Pasadena motel (played by Keanu Reeves with maximum skeeviness)? It seems everybody wants to get something out of her, whether it's Jack (Desmond Harrington), the professional photographer her agent (Christina Hendricks) sends her to for a test who demands a closed set and takes advantage of the privacy, or Robert (Alessandro Nivola), the fashion designer who recognizes true (i.e. not manufactured) beauty when he sees it. And I suppose there are some who will claim Refn similarly takes advantage of Fanning and her co-stars for the sake of a little titillation, but that's not an argument that holds much water for me. Sorry, ladies.
Sunday, June 19th, 2016
12:13 pm
Fathers have a way of turning up raped and killed when you try to help.
Since I made a point of watching the Troma Team Release of Mother's Day last month to mark the titular holiday (pun entirely intended), it only seemed right to follow it with their release of Astron-6's gender-swapped horror. Made in 2011, Father's Day (which is not to be confused with Ivan Reitman's Fathers' Day starring Billy Crystal and Robin Williams) is a full-on bad-taste odyssey engineered Grindhouse-style to look like a product of the '80s slasher boom. In a reversal of expectations, though, here fathers are the victims, and in addition to being killed they're also brutally raped and often bloodily dismembered. Still on board? Because it only gets more depraved from there.

Presented as if it's the Late Night Movie on ASTR-TV, Father's Day opens in medias evisceration as Chris Fuchman (Mackenzie Murdock), alias The Fuckman, is committing his latest patricidal atrocity. He's interrupted before he can finish the job, and apparently run down and executed by one-eyed vigilante Ahab (co-writer/co-director/cinematographer/editor Adam Brooks), but 20 years and one credit sequence later, he's up to his tricks again, going so far as to burn the disapproving dad of male prostitute Twink (co-writer/co-director Conor Sweeney) alive right in front of him. Curiously, that makes Twink a prime suspect in the eyes of the law, represented by hard-nosed cop Det. Stegel (frequent Guy Maddin player Brent Neale), but the church sees things differently, spurring blind priest Father O'Flynn (Kevin Anderson) to send novice Father John Sullivan (co-writer/co-director Matthew Kennedy) to enlist Ahab's aid in bringing Fuchman down -- permanently this time. Oh, and his sister Chelsea (Amy Groening) insists on tagging along, and she works at a strip club because any B-movie worth its salt has to feature all three of Joe Bob Briggs's Three Bs.

The other two members of Astron-6 stay more behind the scenes, with co-writer/co-director Jeremy Gillespie taking care of the music and co-writer/co-director Steven Kostanski the prosthetic makeup effects. Gillespie also created Star Raiders, a spoiler-ridden commercial for which appears about an hour in, and Kostanski took charge of the miniatures and stop-motion animation for the sequence where Ahab, Twink, and Father John go to Hell for reasons much too complicated to go into. Still, they do allow for Troma head honcho Lloyd Kaufman to have a dual role as God and the Devil (who are revealed to be two sides of the same coin). Much like Troma's home-grown efforts, this is not for the weak of stomach or the easily offended since the Astron-6 crew goes way over the top with the blood, gore, and nudity (both male and female, I should note). What saves it for the rest of us, though, is the fact that it's so goofy, it's impossible to take anything about Father's Day seriously for even half a moment.
Friday, June 17th, 2016
3:28 pm
The eyes of this man are the eyes of the male we've always known.
About an hour into Federico Fellini's City of Women -- just out from Cohen Media Group -- his frequent stand-in, Marcello Mastroianni, asks "What kind of film is this?" That's a fair question because there are a number of times when this comic fantasia resembles nothing less than a cockeyed horror movie, especially at the moment when Mastroianni is moved to pose it. Released in 1980, City kicked off Fellini's last decade in the director's chair and gave Mastroianni a leading role in one of his films for the first time since 1963's 8 1/2. In the intervening years, he had grown into middle age, but Fellini was not above having him revert to behaving like a hormonal teenager on the make.

That's the mode his character, Snàporaz, is in when he awakens to find he's sharing a train compartment with an alluring woman (Bernice Stegers) and, after some mild flirting, follows her into the restroom where he attempts to make love to her. They're interrupted, though, when the train makes an unscheduled stop across from an open field and they both get off (a sequence that strongly recalls Amando de Ossorio's Tombs of the Blind Dead). From there, he pursues the woman to a hotel overrun by a horde of militant feminists, which is where his odyssey -- and Fellini's satirical exploration of the typical male's panicked response to strong-willed females -- truly begins.

After being driven from the convention, where he's rightly viewed as an interloper, Snàporaz receives "help" from various women on wheels, working his way up from a gaggle of girls on roller skates to an amorous older woman on a motorcycle to three cars full of crazy kids. Finally, he takes refuge as the mansion of the eccentric Dr. Katzone (Ettore Manni), who's throwing a party to celebrate his 10,000th conquest before he's forced to tear it down by the local lesbian security force. It's at this party that Snàporaz runs into his estranged wife Elena (Anna Prucnal), who drunkenly reads him the riot act regarding the selfish behavior that has brought him to this place. This is followed by a slide down memory lane as only Fellini could conceive it, allowing Snàporaz to revisit many of his formative experiences with women. Frankly, the reveal that it's all just been a dream is the least surprising thing about the whole affair.
Thursday, June 16th, 2016
2:59 pm
Catching him is no piece of cake.
Of all the iconic stars of classic French cinema, was there a cooler customer than Jean Gabin? As the title character in 1937's Pépé le Moko, co-written and directed by Julien Duvivier, he's the very definition of a charming rogue, an infamous Parisian thief who's been hiding out in Algiers -- the Casbah, to be specific -- for two years. Periodic attempts have been made to flush him out and stop his gang (which includes the redoubtable Gaston Modot) from continuing to operate, but nothing works until he becomes smitten with the diamond-laden Gaby (Mireille Balin), whose jewelry catches his eye, but soon after they're acquainted he forgets all about relieving her of it. This not only provides an angle for local inspector Slimane (Lucas Gridoux) to play, but also sparks the jealousy of gypsy girl Inés (Line Noro), who's too much in love with Pépé to bear seeing him end up with anyone else. All the while, Pépé deals with dissension in the ranks -- mostly from greedy upstart Carlos (Gabriel Gabrio) and opportunistic traitor Régis (Fernand Charpin) -- and starts to think seriously about leaving the Casbah to return to the country he loves so much. He'd rather not do so in handcuffs, but with the odds stacked against him, the alternative doesn't seem to be in the cards.
Wednesday, June 15th, 2016
11:15 am
Is your little woman such bad company?
During his two-decade stint in Hollywood, Fritz Lang directed two remakes of films by his French compatriot, Jean Renoir. The second, 1954's Human Desire, was based on Renoir's La Bête Humaine, but the first, 1945's Scarlet Street, is the one that has been afforded classic status in its own right. Part of this may be due to the fact that its progenitor, 1931's La Chienne, just put out by Criterion, is a masterpiece, but credit is also due to the Georges de La Fouchardière novel from which both films sprang.

Ably adapted for the screen by Renoir, Fouchardière's sturdy story concerns an unassuming nonentity -- the cashier for a wholesale hosier company -- who becomes smitten with a pretty young woman of questionable morals and is taken for a ride by her and her pimp. When we first meet the slow-on-the-uptake Maurice Legrand (Michel Simon, one of Renoir's most reliable collaborators), he's being openly mocked by his colleagues at a company dinner, but having reached the ripe old age of 42 he's learned not to pay that sort of talk any heed. Then, while ambling home to his harridan of a wife (Magdeleine Bérubet), he comes to the aid of the distressed Lulu (Janie Marèse) by giving her abuser/lover Dédé (Georges Flamant) a good clout. Knowing a good mark when he sees one, Dédé doesn't retaliate, but rather orders Lulu to get her claws into Legrand, which she does but good.

One month later, Lulu has been installed in an apartment, which doubles as Legrand's art studio since his wife harps on him about his harmless hobby, and Dédé has the bright idea of passing Legrand's paintings off as hers, which you'd think he'd be more upset about than he is. Then, thanks to the unexpected return of his wife's first husband (Roger Gaillard), who was presumed dead during the war, Legrand is able to extricate himself from his unhappy marriage, only to find his mistress has no qualms about making his life unhappier. From there, the story follows the same trajectory as Scarlet Street, with Dédé taking the fall for Legrand, but without the strictures of the Production Code, Renoir is able to guide his version to a surprisingly wistful conclusion.
Tuesday, June 14th, 2016
11:04 am
Man, the intruder, came into the Jungle... He fought it... He never vanquished it...
Following in the snowshoe tracks of Robert J. Flaherty's Nanook of the North, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack broke into the movie business with two silent ethnographic-style documentaries purporting to be the unvarnished accounts of people battling the forces of nature in inhospitable climes. In the first, 1925's Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life, they followed a tribe of nomads on its annual migration across Iran in search of arable land, but it was the second that foreshadowed their biggest success, 1933's King Kong, since Carl Denham's whole schtick is making wildlife pictures like Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness.

Released in 1927, Chang was filmed in the northern part of what was then called Siam, deep in its dangerous Jungle, which is always capitalized in the intertitles and is as much a character as the tribesmen attempting to eke out a living there -- or at the very least not get eaten by tigers or trampled by elephants. Cooper and Schoedsack's focus is on a farmer named Kru, who has ventured into the Jungle with his wife Chantui, their children, and their livestock (including two goats, a calf, a water buffalo, and some pigs), but is able to return to his home village for help whenever they're threatened by the local animal population. (This is where Chang's story diverges sharply from The Witch.) In addition to the tigers and elephants -- called "Chang" by Kru's people -- said threats include leopards, snakes, and bears, all of which fall prey to the various traps set out by Kru and the other villagers. Suffice it to say, regardless of Chang's place in film history, it's not recommended for animal lovers. Aside from the comic antics of Bimbo the Monkey -- who's given more dialogue than everyone else in the film combined -- much of the rest of the animal action is a little hard to watch today.
Monday, June 13th, 2016
5:10 pm
An organization like that's bound to lead to mob violence.
In 1937, the same year Warner Bros. released Black Legion and one year after Columbia's Legion of Terror, the Halperin brothers put out their own low-rent variant, Nation Aflame. Directed and produced by Victor and Edward Halperin, respectively, and based on a novel by Thomas Dixon, Jr. (best known for writing the book D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation is based on), Nation Aflame foregrounds the activities of the flimflam artists who figure the easiest way to make a buck during the Great Depression is to form the Avenging Angels -- a KKK-like secret society built on the platform of "100% Americanism" -- so they can dupe hard-working men into paying inflated initiation fees, swearing binding oaths, and dressing up in "elaborate robes," which they also have the privilege of paying for.

Led by the silver-tongued Frank Sandino (Noel Madison), who hides his ethnic heritage behind the assumed name "Sands," the Angels whip up anti-immigrant sentiments and whisk blowhard "philanthropist" Roland Adams (Harry Holman) right into the governor's mansion. (The state is never specified, but most of the action is set in the aptly named Middleton, a "typical American community," meaning the film could take place damn near anywhere.) Even before that happens, though, the organization falls under the scrutiny of D.A. Robert Sherman (Arthur Singley), who vows to take it down but lacks the political power to do so. What he doesn't realize is the hatemongers were initially bankrolled by his sweetheart Wynne (Norma Trelvar), a society dame who just so happens to be Roland's daughter and should probably think twice about financing her deadbeat dad's get-rich-quick schemes, especially ones based on the demonization of whole groups of people.

At about the midpoint of the film, the parallels with Black Legion creep in with the introduction of Mona Burtis (third-billed Lila Lee), wife of an up-and-coming lodge member, and her brother Tommy (Douglas Walton), who's made the leader of its youth division. When Mona overhears something she shouldn't, she's sworn to secrecy at gunpoint at a "mystic tribunal," and when a newspaper editor who's a friend of the family is strung up and whipped to death for being critical of the Angels, Sherman is enjoined to throw his hat into the ring in an effort to at least defeat Sands's puppet at the polls. In the end, though, it takes Wynne's willingness to let her name be dragged through the mud to bring the hooded menace down.
Friday, June 10th, 2016
10:01 pm
How I am says something.
On the same day Muhammad Ali's body was laid to rest, he was resurrected after a fashion by the re-release (in selected markets) on Michael Mann's 2001 film Ali (which I had to travel to Indianapolis to see). Boasting a magnetic lead performance by Will Smith, who received his first of two Best Actor nominations for his efforts, and the dynamic true story of a remarkable individual who made his mark during turbulent times, Ali covers the decade between a brash, 22-year-old Cassius Clay's title match with Sonny Liston in 1964 and his older self's bruising Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman in 1974, when he regained the world heavyweight championship unjustly stripped from him for refusing to be drafted in 1967. Singled out for his religious faith and membership in the Nation of Islam, as well as his friendship with Malcolm X, Ali stands his ground, making plenty of enemies -- and history -- in the process.

With a sprawling cast that includes Jamie Foxx (as Ali's loyal corner man), Best Supporting Actor nominee Jon Voight (an uncanny Howard Cosell), Mario Van Peebles (as Malcolm X), Ron Silver (as Ali's trainer), Giancarlo Esposito (as his father), Jeffrey Wright (as his official photographer), Joe Morton (as his lawyer ), LeVar Burton (as Martin Luther King, Jr.), and Mykelti Washington (as Don King), Ali is a veritable who's who of talented black actors at the turn of the millennium -- plus Jon Voight and Ron Silver. As for the women in his life, Jada Pinkett Smith, Nona Gaye, and Michael Michele make less of an impression, but that's because the film's domestic scenes are underwritten. (I'll be curious to see if any of their parts are beefed up in the director's cut.) One aspect that can't be argued with, though, is the film's look, which Mann and director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki achieved using a variety of cameras and film stocks, including some nighttime shots done in high-definition video, which Mann would revisit on his next feature, 2004's Collateral. Alas, Lubezki would not return with him, but he's done pretty well for himself in the decade and a half since.
11:55 am
Your lack of belief in my good intentions here is disturbing.
It says something about how close they were at one time that soon-to-be family man Michael (Peter Cilella) is willing to leave his pregnant wife for a week to help his best friend Chris (Vinny Curran) clean up his act. A talented artist who has descended into a spiral of addiction to meth, crack, and any other illicit substance his dealers can procure for him, Chris has secluded himself at an unfinished cabin in the woods, a convenient place for Michael to handcuff him to a pipe and keep an eye on him while he gets sober. That's the premise of 2012's Resolution, the events of which test both of their resolves, but co-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead confront them with more than just their own personal demons.

The first feature from the filmmaking duo -- Benson also wrote the screenplay, Moorhead was the cinematographer, they both produced and edited -- Resolution shows a lot of promise, some of which they've already fulfilled with their follow-up, Spring. As in that film, the nature of the supernatural element in play here is revealed gradually as Michael discovers strange photos, an amateur film, a scratchy record, a library book, a batch of slides, and other crudely rendered stories, all of which come to what he deems "a fucked-up ending." Things take a turn, though, when Michael begins stumbling onto "stories" in which he and Chris are the ill-fated protagonists. As if that's not bad enough, they also have to worry about Chris's dealers -- a pair of miscreants they knew in high school -- and the security team from the local Indian reservation, which the cabin just so happens to be on. Michael insists on sticking it out the whole week, though, regardless of the consequences.

Once Benson's screenplay crosses a certain threshold, Resolution becomes a meta-movie in the mold of The Cabin in the Woods, only not as arch. That's likely a function of the fact that its characters are concerned with more pressing matters than merely having a fun weekend in the woods. It also isn't necessary to be pop-culture savvy to fully appreciate what Benson and Moorhead are doing. Being interested in the nature of stories and the reasons why they're told is sufficient.
Thursday, June 9th, 2016
11:07 am
And seeing the morning break, Scheherazade fell silent.
First things first, director Miguel Gomes does not pop up at the end of Arabian Nights: Volume 3, The Enchanted One to bring his trilogy to a neat conclusion. As a matter of fact, arriving at one appears to have been about the furthest thing from his mind. He does, however, finally bring Scheherazade into the picture, giving form to what had previously been a disembodied narrator. Played by Crista Alfaiate, who had small roles in the first two parts, Scheherazade takes a short reprieve from entertaining her tyrannical husband to explore his kingdom, encountering a treasure hunter, a potent paddleman, a soulful thief, and a wind genie along the way. That's good for about 40 minutes. Then she hunkers down to tell of "The Inebriating Chorus of the Chaffinches" so Gomes can make a feature-length documentary about a close-knit community of bird-trappers, the point of which eluded me. Stick with it long enough, though, and it transitions into the birdsong equivalent of the spelling bee doc Spellbound, so that's something. And Gomes tosses in another wind genie at the end (trapped in a net of all things) to prove he hasn't completely forsaken the films' more fantastical elements. It's just a shame they don't end as strong as they began.
Wednesday, June 8th, 2016
11:06 am
We're doing remarkable things here.
Full disclosure: I have never seen the original 1978 version of Patrick, so the only way I can judge Mark Hartley's 2013 remake is on its own merits. (The only clips I've seen from it are the ones in the trailer and, appropriately enough, Hartley's essential Ozploitation primer Not Quite Hollywood.) Working with novice screenwriter Justin King (for some reason, original scribe Everett De Roche goes uncredited), Hartley crafted a film that had the potential to be a creepy supernatural thriller powered more by suggestion than cheap special effects, but that's before it devolves into an out-and-out schlockfest, which is unfortunate considering the talent he attracted to the project.

At the top of the list is Sharni Vinson, fresh off what should have been her star-making role in You're Next, as Kathy Jacquard, the new nurse hired on at the private clinic of Dr. Sebastian Roget (the always-welcome Charles Dance), whose work with patients in long-term comas is controversial enough that he has to carry it out far away from prying eyes. And Rachel Griffiths finds more notes to play than just "Nurse Ratchet, only more strict" as Matron Cassidy, who has a penchant for appearing in the right doorway at the wrong time. Hartley's biggest get, though, was composer Pino Donaggio, who delivers a subtly eerie score that can only do so much to elevate what is, at its base, a movie about a strapping young lad in a mysterious coma (Jackson Gallagher) who can, in the parlance of Pod People, do magic things.

These things start small, with Patrick communicating with Kathy by spitting -- the old "once for yes, twice for no" routine -- but only with Kathy. Whenever the flirty Nurse Williams (Peta Sergeant), Matron Cassidy, or Dr. Roget are around, he clams up, as it were. And whenever Kathy is around another man -- like local media maven Brian (Martin Crewes) or her ex-fiancé Ed (Damon Gameau) -- Patrick gets jealous, reaching out to them via their cell phones to discourage them from getting too close. Eventually, Patrick figures out how to get on the internet and communicate with Kathy by typing things on her computer or sending her texts, but things tip over into the ridiculous when he uses his fellow patients to pass along the message that he "wants his hand job." (And they say romance is dead.) Coupled with the increasing frequency of unconvincing digital effects in the home stretch, the best one can hope for from Patrick is that the next time Hartley tries his hand at fiction -- if there is a next time -- he chooses a project that's less derivative.
Tuesday, June 7th, 2016
10:58 am
Make this city an example of thy vengeance.
Retitled Horror Hotel and shorn of two minutes when it arrived Stateside the following year, 1960's The City of the Dead is an atmospheric British chiller about witchcraft in New England, where it was taken most seriously by its practitioners and enemies alike. The last project story writer and executive producer Milton Subotsky had a hand in before forming Amicus Productions, The City of the Dead is a film of two halves, with the second one a deliberate repetition of the first, in which eager young college student Nan (Venetia Stevenson, "introduced" in this film despite already having half a dozen others on her CV) travels to the blighted town of Whitewood, Massachusetts -- where a witch was burned at the stake in 1692 -- to do some ground-level research for a term paper. Before she sets out, though, Nan has to overcome the objections of her skeptical brother Dick (top-billed Dennis Lotis), a science professor, and boorish boyfriend Bill (Tom Naylor), a fellow student in her witchcraft class taught by the intense Professor Driscoll (Christopher Lee), who is the one who sends her to Whitewood -- and to her doom as she's sacrificed by a coven of witches led by sinister innkeeper Mrs. Newless (Patricia Jessel), the reincarnation of Elizabeth Selwyn, the aforementioned witch burned three centuries earlier.

Early on, when Driscoll expounds on the existence of the supernatural, Dick smugly replies, "This would be more effective at midnight with howling winds and crashing thunder, and even then it wouldn't frighten anyone." He's made to eat those words when he goes to Whitewood to look into Nan's disappearance and gets caught up in trying to prevent another young woman -- this one descended from the priest who condemned Elizabeth Selwyn back in the day -- from being the coven's latest victim. All the while, director John Moxey -- later responsible for guiding a hooded Lee through the English-language krimi Circus of Fear -- makes the most of the fog-enshrouded village set he was given, as well as a fine supporting cast that includes the sepulchral-voiced Valentine Dyall as Newless/Selwyn's second-in-command, Jethrow Keane, who's fond of spooking anybody unwise enough to give him a lift into town. One comes away with the impression he's played that trick on many a young sacrifice-to-be down the years.
Monday, June 6th, 2016
6:36 pm
There are no half-sizes.
Fittingly, there are a pair of exchanges early on in Yorgos Lanthimos's lacerating black comedy The Lobster (the deadpan Greek director's long-anticipated follow-up to Dogtooth and Alps) that perfectly sum up the totalitarian society in which it takes place. The first comes when sad-sack architect David (Colin Farrell, suitably schlumpy), just out of an eleven-year-and-one-month relationship, is being checked into The Hotel where he's to spend 45 days looking for a replacement mate and is asked what sex he prefers. After he confesses to having had a homosexual experience when he was a young man and inquires if bisexual is an option, he's immediately shut down and told to pick one or the other. Similarly, when he's forced to surrender his clothing and other personal belongings -- as if he's entering prison -- he's unable to get shoes that fit him because the facility only deals with whole numbers for sizes. No vacillating allowed. Pick one sexual orientation or shoe size and make it work, damn it.

Where The Lobster enters the realm of the absurd (as opposed to the merely symbolic) is the premise that any "guest" of The Hotel unable to pair off within the proscribed time limit is turned into an animal of their choosing. How this is accomplished is left to the imagination, but one of David's fast friends, "limping man" John (Ben Whishaw), has heard things that are plenty disturbing. As is the notion that guests are judged compatible in the most superficial way possible based on their "defining characteristic." (Example: John C. Reilly plays Robert, a man defined -- and literally singled out -- by his lisp.) This is why John fakes getting nosebleeds to be a match for a woman who's prone to them and David pretends to be unemotional to get closer to a heartless huntress (Lanthimos regular Angeliki Papoulia), allowing him to take a tentative step toward "making it" by moving into a couples' room with her, but how long can he keep the charade up?

Not too long as it turns out, leading Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou to shift gears at the halfway point, sending David on the lam and into the arms of the Loners who occupy the woods surrounding The Hotel. Their leader (Léa Seydoux) has as many hard-and-fast rules as the authorities, though, making her followers pre-dig their own graves and meting out disproportionately harsh punishments for minor infractions. (Two Loners who dared to kiss have their lips cut off, much like Robert has his hand burned in a toaster for the crime of masturbating.) Even if David's choice of animal isn't a frog, he can still relate to the creature's proverbial frying pan-related plight when he catches the eye of a Loner who's also short-sighted (Rachel Weisz, who doubles as the film's narrator) and they start making plans for a future together, which has unforeseeable ramifications for them all. No matter how they come together, The Lobster pitilessly rails against the tyranny of couplehood and sharply rebukes the pernicious lie that there's a "perfect match" out there for everyone.
Saturday, June 4th, 2016
8:40 pm
Your obsession with death is to my ears like a sweet love song.
Considering Roger Corman directed feature-length versions of four of the Edgar Allan Poe stories included in the 2013 animated anthology Extraordinary Tales, it's only right that writer/director Raul Garcia tapped him to voice Prince Prospero in "The Masque of the Red Death" -- the film's closing segment. That's also the only one that lacks a narrator, conveying by purely visual means how the plague sweeps through a castle full of debauched nobles in masks who mistakenly believe they're under Prospero's protection. There's no way to stave off death, though -- red or otherwise -- as its stony personification (voiced by Cornelia Funke) tells the talking crow standing in for Poe (voiced by Stephen Hughes) in the film's wraparounds, which appropriately enough are set in a cemetery.

The other stories those segments wrap around are "The Fall of the House of Usher" (narrated by Christopher Lee, who also voices Roderick Usher and his concerned visitor, Frederick), "The Tell Tale Heart" (narrated by a scratchy recording of Bela Lugosi), "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" (narrated by Julian Sands), and "The Pit and the Pendulum" (narrated by Guillermo del Toro). These are animated in a variety of art styles and methods -- "Tell Tale" is entirely monochromatic, taking inspiration from Argentine comics artist Alberto Breccia, "M. Valdemar" has the look of a moving newspaper comic, the painted backgrounds and characters in "Masque" have visible brush strokes -- but they all have one thing in common and that is Poe's knack for the perfect, chilling turn of phrase. With his authoritative baritone, Lee does them the most justice, but even Corman knocks his single line of dialogue ("Who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery?") out of the park.
Thursday, June 2nd, 2016
8:44 pm
One's plight, they say, is one's opportunity.
It's astonishing that it's taken Whit Stillman a quarter of a century to turn out his first adapatation, yet here he is, 25 years into his filmmaking career, with Love & Friendship, based on the Jane Austen novella Lady Susan. And for his Lady Susan Vernon, he reunited with Last Days of Disco's Kate Beckinsale, bringing along for the ride her co-star Chlöe Sevigny as her confidante, Alicia Johnson, whose priggish husband (played with aplomb by Stephen Fry) threatens her with permanent exile in Connecticut (from whence she came) should she not sever all ties with the scandalous Lady Susan. (For her part, Lady Susan chides Alicia for marrying a man who's "too old to be governable, too young to die.") But why so scandalous? Well, since the death of her husband, which has left her without an income, she's thrown one household into an uproar by seducing the man of the house and imposed herself on her late husband's relations, whereupon she sets her sights on its most eligible bachelor, Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel). On top of that, her efforts to marry her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) off to absurdly wealthy ninny Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett) are so mercenary as to be unseemly.

With his facility for witty repartee, Stillman is the perfect conduit for Austen's well-spoken gentlemen and -women. Not a scene goes by that isn't filled with quotable lines, many of which trip off Lady Susan's tart tongue. The funniest character by far, though, is the blithering Sir James, who hasn't the slightest clue how much of an idiot he is, largely because he's insulated from such ruthless self-examination by his wealth and station. One can hardly blame Frederica for wanting to be paired up with someone with whom she can have an intelligent conversation, but I daresay I could listen to Sir James blather on about the Twelve Commandments (and which ones can be ignored once he's informed there are now only Ten) indefinitely.
3:04 pm
All you're telling me sounds vague and unlikely.
Just as in its opener, the middle part of Portuguese director Miguel Gomes's Arabian Nights trilogy -- subtitled Volume 2, The Desolate One -- comes with a disclaimer that it's not an adaptation of the book "despite drawing on its structure" to tell a handful of stories illustrating his country's recent financial woes. Forgoing the elaborate framing device -- I'll be curious to see if Gomes circles back to it at the end of part three -- this time out it jumps straight into the first story, "The Chronicle of the Escape of Simão 'Without Bowels'" and its meandering account of an old, scrawny fugitive who has taken flight after committing a quadruple-murder. Evading police capture for weeks -- not a difficult proposition considering their drones are so loud you can hear them coming a mile away -- Simão (Chico Chapas) visits various family members, hires a trio of prostitutes to have a naked slap fight on top of him and prepare a candlelight dinner, and encounters the corpse of a fellow ne'er-do-well being dragged through the desert by a malnourished donkey, the recipient of vigilante justice. That may explain why he chooses where he gets caught and by whom, meaning the authorities. He does make them wait until he's finished eating before surrendering, though. Priorities.

Next comes "The Tears of the Judge," which will wind up being my favorite part of the whole trilogy unless something in Volume 3 really wows me. Taking up the middle third of the film, it's centered on a stern female judge (Luísa Cruz) who hears cases in an outdoor amphitheater and the insanely complicated property dispute that comes before her one moonlit night. Sure, it starts out simple enough, but as it goes along more and more parties become involved, including a genie, a fugitive cow, five thieves in carnival costumes, and a machete-wielding "lie detector." At a certain point, it's hard to blame the judge for blowing up at them, screaming "Screw the lot of you!" After that, the final segment -- "The Owners of Dixie," about a dog that gets passed from person to person -- can't help but feel like an afterthought, but its use of nested stories shows Gomes still has a few tricks up his sleeve. Tune in next week for the exciting conclusion.
Wednesday, June 1st, 2016
11:58 am
Just be glad you and I work behind the scenes. We go unnoticed, no?
Generally speaking, giallo plots are inherently outlandish enough that you don't have to exaggerate them too much to enter the realm of parody. The Canadian filmmaking collective known as Astron-6 went for broke with their 2014 film The Editor, though, going to great lengths to make it as ridiculous as possible. In the interest of being as self-reflexive as possible, it's set during the production of a giallo that runs into problems because the lead actors keep turning up mangled and the most likely (which means he's the least likely) suspect is the unnamed film's physically and emotionally crippled editor, Rey Ciso, who's played by co-director Adam Brooks, who also happens to be The Editor's editor. Brooks shares directing duties with Matthew Kennedy, who plays Peter Porfiry, the out-of-his-depth inspector on the case, and they both wrote the screenplay with Conor Sweeney, who plays Cal Konitz, the callow sidekick in the film who seems like the sort who would do anything to take over as its lead -- including butchering his co-stars.

In addition to being the prime suspect in a series of grisly murders, Ciso is conflicted because he's theoretically happily married to retired giallo star Josephine Jardin (top-billed Paz de la Huerta), but he's clearly more in sync with his assistant Bella (Samantha Hill), who needs to do the detail work because his wooden fingers are always letting him down. (He can't even light a match with them.) Also looking their respective parts are Laurence R. Harvey (late of the odious Human Centipede series) as a priest who introduces a supernatural element to the proceedings and Kevin Anderson as Ciso's tyrannical director, but for an extra jolt of verisimilitude, Brooks and Kennedy cast Udo Kier (who had a key supporting in Dario Argento's non-giallo Suspiria) as Dr. Casini, the head of the asylum where Ciso was committed after his accident, which is shown in flashback in all its bloody glory. Then, of course, there's the requisite masked-and-leather-gloved killer, who skulks around in the shadows until about an hour in, when the viewer is finally given a good look at him.

Along with the visual and aural signifiers of the giallo -- the colorful lighting schemes, the close-ups of the killer's gloves wielding various cutting implements, the obvious dubbing, the throbbing synthesizer music (some vintage, some composed especially by Astron-6's Jeremy Gillespie) -- The Editor tosses in direct references to specific Argento films of the period, including having one character reading a book on the Three Mothers and another leafing through one on the occult called Tenebre. And the introduction of a Betamax machine into the plot facilitates an out-of-left-field lift from Videodrome (the breathing videotape) that still manages to convey Ciso's rapidly loosening grip on reality. Then again, he's already noticed the reel-change cues in the corner of the screen, which recalls John Carpenter's Masters of Horror episode Cigarette Burns, as does the scene where the killer pulls out a victim's intestines and threads them through a projector. I guess if you're going to steal, you might as well steal from everywhere.
Tuesday, May 31st, 2016
4:54 pm
Things fall apart quick, don't they?
During my all-too-brief tenure as one of The Dissolve's contributing writers, one of my favorite assignments was coming up with Monday's Cable Pick of the Day since it allowed me to highlight films like John Sayles's masterful City of Hope, which was my last pick before the plug got pulled. Released in 1991, it's a wide-ranging story about corruption in a small city and how it affects a cross-section of politicians, policemen, government contractors, and ordinary citizens, as well as a harbinger of the "everybody's connected" films that would proliferate in the years to come. Films like Altman's Short Cuts, Iñarritu's Babel, and Haggis's Crash may have higher profiles, but Sayles laid the foundation for them.

The action takes place over three days and revolves around multiple hubs, one of which is resentful layabout Nick (Vincent Spano from Baby It's You), who walks off a cushy construction job his father Joe (Tony Lo Bianco), a builder with connections in city hall, got for him at one of his job sites (where the foreman is played by Chris Cooper from Matewan). In need of fast money to pay off local loan shark Carl (Sayles) and only able to scam $50 off his schoolteacher sister Laurie (Gina Gershon), Nick goes in on a robbery with two of his ne'er-do-well friends, which has unintended consequences for his father. For his part, Joe is feeling pressure from the mayor's office and other interested parties (including money man Kerrigan, played by Lawrence Tierney) to clear out the residents of one of his run-down properties so it can make way for a new development. The clock is ticking, though, and drastic measures may have to be taken (read: someone's going to have to torch the place).

This brings into play principled city councilman Wynn (Joe Morton from The Brother from Another Planet), whose own constituents view him with suspicion for the crime of putting his faith in the system they all know is rigged against them. Another major strand is the antagonistic interactions between some racist cops and a pair of black kids who take their anger out on an jogger they accuse of coming on to them and who turns out to be on the same college faculty as Wynn's wife Reesha (Angela Bassett, who would return the next year in Passion Fish), who gets him to pull some strings to get her ex-con brother-in-law a job as a security guard for ersatz Crazy Eddie Mad Anthony (Josh Mostel). And tying everyone together in a sideways manner is David Strathairn's Asteroid, a mentally ill homeless man who makes the rounds, bearing witness to events he has no way of comprehending.

Perhaps the most tragic part of the whole knotted affair is the fact that Nick, after coasting for far too long, has finally started getting his shit together. At the top of the list is finding a good woman to love -- for Nick, it's waitress and single mom Angela (Barbara Williams) -- and standing on his own two feet. As Sayles's extensive use of expertly choreographed master shots -- deftly pulled off by cinematographer Robert Richardson -- to link his disparate characters together shows, though, it's next to impossible to disentangle yourself from other people, whose problems have a way of becoming yours.
Monday, May 30th, 2016
11:59 am
Is it true that the man over there is dying?
The last thing that appears on the screen in Bill Sherwood's Parting Glances is the dedication "for Mark, Billy and Paul." Given the time and place it was made -- New York City in the mid-'80s -- and the film's subject matter, it's a safe bet all three dedicatees were gay men who died of AIDS, as Sherwood would himself at the dawn of the next decade. He was, however, still very much alive in 1984, when Parting Glances was filmed, and in 1986, when it was released, so he was able to dramatize what it was like to live in one of the syndrome's epicenters at a time when there was still so much the medical community and people in general didn't know about it. (Heck, when it was shot, President Reagan was still a year away from saying "AIDS" in public, the first step toward acknowledging the public health crisis his administration was doing as little as possible about because it wasn't affecting the right people.)

In Parting Glances, the character with AIDS is Nick (Steve Buscemi in one of his first screen appearances), a successful musician and virtual shut-in. He's also the ex-boyfriend of protagonist Michael (Richard Ganoung), an editor and frustrated writer who's down in the dumps because his lover of six years is due to hop on a plane to Africa for the foreseeable future. This is Robert (John Bolger), who drags Michael to a dinner party given by his insufferable boss Cecil (Patrick Tull), and his oblivious wife Betty (Yolande Bavan), and is in turn dragged to a going-away party thrown by their mutual friend Joan (Kathy Kinney, years before she took on the role of Mimi on The Drew Carey Show), a struggling artist anxious to have her first gallery show already. All the while, Michael considers his options -- stay faithful to Robert, go back to Nick, or respond to the overtures of cute record-store clerk Peter (Adam Nathan), who's a decade younger, but it might as well be an entire generation.

Since AIDS was such a hot-button issue in the gay community at the time, it's understandable that the most pointed scenes are the ones involving Nick. Introduced watching MTV with the sound off, waiting for his band's music video to get played, he's also shown rebelling against the health-food regimen Michael has him on and taping his video will, which doubles as his coming out to his father. The strangest interludes, though, are the ones where he's visited by a ghostly knight in armor, a device incongruously borrowed from Hamlet. Then again, its appearance does get him to take action -- or at the very least get out of his mausoleum of an apartment for a little while -- so it does serve a purpose.
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