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Movie Reviews: 3/6/2023 to 3/12/2023

Movies reviewed this week: Women Talking, Caliber 9, The Maiden’s Tune, The Living Dead Girl, and Onibaba.

3/10/2023: Women Talking (2022): ****1/2

This is a quietly beautiful movie. The austere tones of the cinematography set us in autumn, which is where the characters are: not in the calendar, but in their time in the Colony. Winter is coming — the men are returning — and they need to decide how they’re going to face that coldness.

This is not a narrative movie. Rather, as Sarah Polley tells us in the first minutes and as Miriam Toews tells us in the original novel, it is “an act of female imagination.” The women are true, because the rapes happened, but they are also taking on the weight of symbolism and representation. The dialogue is hyperreal by design.

This is a symbolic movie. Women have only dreams, and the only song we hear is “Daydream Believer.” The only outsider in the movie is briefly seen, only in a reflection. The raised fist is for navigation, but surely also for rebellion. “These are commas. They signify a short pause in the text.”

This is a movie that doesn’t hide behind symbolism. Polley doesn’t show us violence, but she shows us the immediate aftereffects of everything the women talk about. There’s not a speck of symbolism in this movie that isn’t easy to interpret.

This is a movie about love. Ona and August, that’s easy, and women who love their children, that’s easy, but also people who love their faith. I was wondering, part way through, if Polley was going to interrogate the way Agata finds her north star by following an essentially patriarchal faith, but I think I liked it better this way. As with the older boys, the choice is to keep faith close and redefine the collective.

This is a movie about despair, and it would not have been honest without Frances McDormand playing the fearful Scarface Janz.

I liked it very much.

3/11/2023: Caliber 9 (1972): ****

It’s so nihilistic, the final shot is a cigarette burning slowly to ash. If you’re a moral cop, you get put out to pasture. If you’re a criminal who lives by a code, you wind up dead. This is a dark one.

Gastone Moschin is pretty good as the protagonist, in a heavily noir-inflected role. He’s got that imperturbable world-weary gaze down pat. Mario Adorf is also good as the hyperactive, hyper violent foil. It’s not more than ten minutes in before he’s setting off dynamite under some people who’ve become inconveniences.

3/11/2023: The Maiden’s Tune (1973): ***1/2

I read Olivera Katarina‘a performance as the isolated noble siren as overwrought for the first 45 minutes, but I’m here to tell you that it all comes together in that spectacular ending. The cinematography is the same stunning high contrast black and white that we saw in Kadijević‘s Štićenik, and while I think the chill ambience of the hospital in that movie was more effective, this film’s gothic sensibilities are second to none.

Those earrings!

3/12/2023: The Living Dead Girl (1982): ***1/2

It’s one part tenderness, one part obsession, and one part gore. This is my first Jean Rollin movie and I’m struck by how even the bloodiest scenes are lyrical. The supporting actors were a bit, uh, stiff, but Francoise Blanchard and Marina Pierro make up for it.

3/12/2023: Onibaba (1964): ****

I got quite a ways in before I decided, yeah, it’s a horror movie after all. It would have worked well as a grim historical slice of life movie, showing us how the brutal civil wars of the Sengoku period affected the peasants forced to fight in them. The turn it takes at the end makes it better, though.

And I don’t think that turn would work at all if it wasn’t rooted in the movie’s examination of class. Check the symbolism: when Hachi comes home from the war, he’s carrying a polearm. It’s what you give to peasants who don’t have time to train. In contrast, the soldiers we meet in the first few minutes are carrying swords. I don’t think they’re samurai, because they’re not carrying two swords, but at the very least they’re professionals and a notch above the peasants in the social hierarchy.

So the women might be nearly animalistic predators on the dying, sure. They’re also taking back what the war stole from them, as best they can. (The younger woman’s husband isn’t ever coming back, of course.) It’s the same again when they take the soldiers in the water, who also carry swords.

To complete the picture, the final catalyst is an actual samurai. The women are moving up in the world, as it were. The final lesson isn’t that you’ll pay for stealing a noble’s stuff, it’s that the masks they wear — usually symbolic — are inherently corrupting. The very real mask has the same effect on both the samurai and the woman. The repetition in the final shot speaks to the cyclical nature of the story. There’s always someone new coming along who claims they should have power.

The setting was great. The fields felt isolating, keeping our protagonists separated from the world. Even the hits felt like caves. Just stunning use of shadow and light throughout. Apparently they found the right location and the whole crew lived out there for three months.

I also loved the acting, which was earthy enough to ground the characters. For two women who are never named, we get a lot about who they were, and that’s a credit to Nobuko Otowa and Jitsuko Yoshimura. And how about that soundtrack? Jazz and taiko drumming merged to build tension in a very effective way.

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