Movies reviewed this week: Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, Bottoms, Chan Is Missing, Saraband, The Dunwich Horror, Daughters of Darkness, Elvis, Depraved, The Devil Down Under: Satanic Panic in Australia from Rosaleen Norton to Alison’s Birthday, Alison’s Birthday, and Johnny Mnemonic.
9/4/2023: Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (2022): ****
I cannot believe a sequel to a Shrek spinoff movie got me like that. Nothing hugely groundbreaking in this but computer animation continues to escape the old school Pixar stereotypes, the writing was clever, and I think casting a lot of Latino actors was smart.
9/4/2023: Bottoms (2023): ****
That reached levels of full on cartoon anarchy the likes of which I haven’t seen since Savage Steve Holland was rejecting the chains of reality. Bottoms goes harder than his classics. Much bloodier and much more gay. Emma Seligman didn’t just make a gender-flipped crass teen sex comedy either; there are a couple of points where she gut punches the audience. Like it’s funny when Marshawn Lynch is explaining that he knew women were evil all along but it’s also just a wee bit familiar, right?
9/4/2023: Chan Is Missing (1982): ****
I love shaggy dog stories that wind up being sneakily formalist. Wayne Wang loops back to identity over and over again, harmonizing with himself and with the complex life of Chinese-Americans in San Francisco. There are three unanswerable questions here: where is Chan, what is Chinese identity in America, and where’s the best Chinese food in San Francisco? Jo makes fun of the first question in the first minute; Wang spends the rest of the movie making fun of the other two.
9/4/2023: Saraband (2003): ****
Criterion is correct: one should watch Saraband directly after Scenes from a Marriage. It would stand alone well enough; however, starting with the opening sequence, it builds on its predecessor. Marianne (Liv Ullman) sorts through a sea of photographs, speaking directly to the camera in a way that signals we’re about to see a conscious commentary on the previous work.
And yes. In the first scene, when Marianne intrudes on Johan (Erland Josephson), it’s clear that they’re as bad for each other as they ever were. She asked if she could come visit after decades apart, and he said no, and she did anyway. He reveals that he knew she’d come anyway, and she can’t leave because he’s arranged for dinner. It’s funny; it’s also a microcosm of the toxic relationship Bergman showed us over the course of five hours of television.
(I am holding back from talking about the acting, since that’s a whole essay on its own. Suffice it to say that Josephson and Ullman are masters, and that Börje Ahlstedt and Julia Dufvenius keep up.)
That acidic honesty is crucial for the rest of the film. The focus is on the damaged relationship between Johan’s son Henrik and Henrik’s daughter Karin. It’s easy to lose track of the fact that it’s a generational trauma: Johan crushed his son at a young age, and he never recovered. Nor did Johan listen to Henrik’s dead wife Anna while she was still alive. All four family members spend time mourning Anna, even Marianne, who never met her. None of them listened to her, so that mourning is hollow at the very least.
Is Marianne innocent? She wasn’t a direct part of this specific family dynamic, after all. Well…
The film ends with a shot of Marianne’s daughter Martha, who is in an asylum of some kind. There’s not time to examine that story, but I think there’s an implied weight to it which is no less significant than the story Bergman does tell. It takes a final separation between Marianne and Johan before Martha and Marianne can touch each other once again.
9/5/2023: The Dunwich Horror (1970): **1/2
Ed Begley and Dean Stockwell wind up in a magickal duel while Sandra Dee writhes around with the Necronomicon balanced on her thighs, so it’s got that going for it. Its heart was in the right place, it just needed more energy. If the acting had been as vibrant as the psychedelic hallucinatory interludes it might have gotten somewhere.
9/7/2023: Daughters of Darkness (1971): ***1/2
There’s a certain purity to this story that elevates it a bit above the Eurotrash horror pack. Our ill-fated newlyweds and the perfectly menacing Delphine Seyrig as Elizabeth Báthory (plus Andrea Rau, sidekick) are literally the only guests in the seaside hotel which holds the bulk of the plot. That leaves the coast clear for a ton of psychosexual tension, superb interiors — filmed in the Corinthia Grand Hotel Astoria — and excellent fashion choices.
The little touches are pretty clever. Director Harry Kümel costumed Seyrig to evoke Marlene Dietrich, and Rau is a stand-in for Louise Brooks. It’s a small thing but it conveys their vampiric timelessness. Not great art, but good trash.
9/8/2023: Elvis (2022): ***
I’m in the pro-Tom Hanks camp. Because I watched this at home, I could pause and look up the historical details and discover that Colonel Tom Parker was born Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk in the Netherlands, which made sense of the accent. None of the other historical details were useful but at least I understood the accent. And I liked the rest of the performance. You’ve got to like Parker and be disgusted by him and understand him and notice that he’s acting out of sheer terror most of the time. I thought Hanks was great.
I’m sort of putting off saying anything else about the film.
The excess was amazing. I wish I’d seen it on the big screen. Most of the stylistic choices worked; I have always liked Luhrmann’s operatic sensibilities. The early moment where one panel of the split screen expands to fill the whole is perfect.
The last hour or so really disintegrated. Luhrmann is always going to try and use style to replace the mundane progression of plot; it’s no coincidence that his best movie had William Shakespeare holding down the story beats. Often that works. Here it did not: we go from Memphis Mafia to Christmas Special redemption to Vegas residency to bloated death without connective tissue. Since we’ve already flashed forward to Colonel Parker wandering the halls of Vegas casinos in the 80s, Tom Hanks can’t tell the story of what happened; until the very last scene, Austin Butler has too much youthful energy to make us feel Elvis’ decline.
So the greatness doesn’t overcome the flaws, which is oddly appropriate for an Elvis movie.
9/9/2023: Depraved (2019): ***1/2
Once again, the last half hour drags. It’s a strong Frankenstein movie until then, deftly sketching correspondences between resurrected Adam and the patchwork of human trafficking embodied by strippers and combat surgeons. Fessenden’s world is transactional in nature, as much as he hates it. Adam just wears the costs on his face.
I know this was a low budget movie but you’d never know it from what’s on the screen. Fessenden’s crisp visual style and the power of digital video yield excellent results. I’d bet he’s great with actors too; there’s real life in all the performances. The movie feels real, and the visual effects are deployed well.
Fun stuff and I’m looking forward to more of Fessenden’s work.
9/9/2023: The Devil Down Under: Satanic Panic in Australia from Rosaleen Norton to Alison’s Birthday (2021): *****
Lots of interesting material that doesn’t add up to a thesis. Alison’s Birthday is the opposite of American Satanic Panic: where the US version of the trope is about fear of non-family, Alison’s Birthday centers fear of family. And what does that have to do with Rosaleen Norton other than that Australians found black magick themes interesting? Shouldn’t a discussion of Australian obsession with Satanism touch on AC/DC?
I liked the individual nuggets! Norton in particular is fascinating.
9/9/2023: Alison’s Birthday (1981): ****
Alison and her boyfriend Peter, who have literally the healthiest relationship I’ve ever seen in a horror movie, slowly discover her adoptive family’s terrible secrets. It’s a real gem: competently made with a horribly dark finale, plus at no point does anyone have to be an idiot for the plot to advance. The kids trust each other and communicate. Peter’s dad knows his son isn’t a creep and acts accordingly when any other horror movie father would have reacted poorly. It’s incredibly refreshing.
Above and beyond the novelty factor, the wholesomeness provides a strong contrast to the horror. That’s probably needed, since it’s not all that horrific otherwise — almost more of a folk thriller than folk horror. That final sequence makes up for it, though.
9/10/2023: Johnny Mnemonic (1995): ***
What a fascinatingly flawed movie. The black and white re-grade brings a mythic timelessness to the whole affair. It’s much more than just showing us the same movie without color; the way Longo and Stowe bring out the grain, there are moments that made me feel like I was watching something filmed in the 1940s. When Keanu Reeves is moving through the luxury hotel at the start of the movie, it evokes classic exoticism turned on its head. I wouldn’t call it noir, but it’s vintage.
That’s not enough to fix it. Longo didn’t want to add action scenes, and he was right. They’re universally awkward. Every single explosion feels like it was added reluctantly. While half the actors are pure brilliance — I especially appreciated Udo Kier and Barbara Sukowa on excursion from the New German Cinema — Dina Meyer is terrible and Ice-T is not much better. (Keanu’s great.)
So you wind up with this half-cooked mess with way too much studio interference. Even the cool black and white feel clearly would have been better if Longo had gotten to make the movie that way in the first place. It’s a shame.
If you just want to get the best bits of the re-grade, you can stop watching when Johnny gets to Newark.