Movies reviewed this week: Ghosts of Mars, The Swan, The Night Eats the World, Phantom of the Paradise, Meek’s Cutoff, Synchronic, Mississippi Masala, The Blood on Satan’s Claw, From the Life of the Marionettes, Candyman, The Beast Must Die, Huesera: The Bone Woman, A Separation, and Faust.
10/2/2023: Ghosts of Mars (2001): **1/2
I get what Carpenter was going for, I just think the core cast was too many people to make the kind of lean cool 80s action movie he was aiming at. Also the flashbacks within flashbacks were neat experiments but required too much brain power. Dumb action movies gotta be dumb.
Prompt: there must ALWAYS be a Carpenter movie (become ungovernable)
10/2/2023: The Swan (2023): ****1/2
I think I’m watching these Anderson/Dahl shorts in slightly the wrong order, but that’s okay. As such I will refrain from speculating on progression of narrative styles and limit myself to the seventeen minutes at hand.
Which are starkly minimalist. Frame story: check, along with the pull back to Ralph Fiennes as Dahl to layer in another frame in the closing minutes. This time the main frame is intensely abstract, with Rupert Friend almost just reading the story to us. The visual accompaniment is minimal to the nth degree, with the two antagonists never appearing as characters. At a couple of points, the omnipresent stage hands fill in to represent the pair. That’s it.
What’s going on here is that the narrator is telling a story about something that affected him deeply as a child. The visual form of that story is abstracted because he can’t look at it too closely. Indeed, that climatic scene is clearly what he wished had happened, at least until he can’t deny the reality.
The train scene is the other point at which Friend can’t keep himself separate from the past. It’s also Anderson at his best, focusing in tight on Friend for an agonizing few minutes, making the already tight frame positively claustrophobic.
Finally, there’s even more playfulness with the narrative form throughout. The fourth wall breaks down once, and I think this is the first time I’ve caught the actors giving clear instructions to the stagehands. Amazing work; I’m sad I’m about to finish the series up but I’m stoked to watch all four again.
10/2/2023: The Night Eats the World (2018): ***1/2
I have to admit I chose this one because I love Denis Lavant. I got precisely the performance I wanted, so that was cool. I also got a surprisingly interesting meditation on isolation channeled through a zombie flick.
Anders Danielsen Lie was quite good in this; he’s the only person on screen most of the time, so he’s got a lot to do. Rocher doesn’t give into the temptation to explain all the backstory. The first scene makes it clear that Lie is playing the kind of guy who hates crowds and gets stubborn about letting go of things, which in turn informs everything that happens to him for the rest of the movie. It’s tightly built for a slow movie about the end of the world.
Prompt: movies from six different countries (France)
10/2/2023: Phantom of the Paradise (1974): ****
Still the perfect deranged rock musical. It’s got all the De Palma quirks, with split screens and slow pans and obsessive acts of observations, plus as a bonus a real sense of excessive fun. It’s a shame that sort of faded as his style developed.
Very few of the actors in this are all that good, with the exception of Paul Williams, who plays the over the top Paul Williams role with the villainy dial turned way up. Jessica Harper wasn’t all that good back then, but she’s a perfect ingenue and thus fits the bill. She can also actually sing, which is handy.
Red blood on a black leather body suit: no notes.
10/3/2023: Meek’s Cutoff (2010): ****
Reichardt lists Walkabout as one of her top ten, so I think it’s fair to assume she’s conversing with Roeg across the decades. I felt that way while I was watching it, before I searched for potential connections. The two movies are not simply in opposition, although how interesting that Rod Rondeaux’s Native American is explicitly enslaved here. They’re just going in the same direction on different paths.
Meek’s Cutoff is a survival story. The tight, Academy ratio frame cuts us off from the easy answers; this is not the kind of movie that allows us to believe that the beauty of the landscape will awaken our inner outdoorsman. The long shots serve to heighten the isolation. The limits of the frame are invisible walls, made of thirst and hunger. The characters can see forever but not go forever.
I don’t think it’s really that Meek changes his mind, there at the end. I just think the women outlast him.
10/3/2023: Synchronic (2019): **1/2
Pretty disappointing actually. I forgave the stylistic quirks and overuse of yellow filters in Spring because they came with an innovative story. <I<Synchronic was a much less innovative science fiction adventure, so it didn’t bank enough goodwill to get me through the problems.
Which go beyond the cinematographic choices. At the end of the movie, Anthony Mackie sacrifices himself to save the white girl. It’s set up appropriately, with good emotional weight around the importance of friendship. Nevertheless, it’s a black guy dying in the past at the hands of a white bigot for the sake of a white woman, and that lands poorly.
I think they meant well. Time travel should suck for black people, all things considered. They just didn’t think through the implications.
It’s a shame because the elements I like about their work are all here. The intricate connections between moments are so good, and they even subvert that at one point. The nods to a larger universe are catnip for the genre hound in me. The cinematography is fluid and controlled. It’s just not all that interesting a story.
10/6/2023: Mississippi Masala (1991): ****
The rich texture of this movie elevates it above the quality romance story at the core. It’s not just that it’s a movie about people of color back in 1991. Nair and Sooni Taraporevala take those two strong pillars and add layers of complexity about the nature of home among two societies of exiles.
Denzel and Sarita Choudhury are excellent. Roshan Seth is marvelous as the father. The movie belongs to the kids; it doesn’t work without the parents, and Seth really makes his mistakes feel real. And yeah, Sharmila Tagore is plenty good, but wow, Seth is quietly superb.
Boofest 2023: connected to Ali: Fear Eats the Soul by interracial love. (Disclaimer: race is a sociological construct.)
10/6/2023: The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971): ****
Piers Haggard had such a wild career — a perfectly competent journeyman director who happened to direct this seminal piece of folk horror and Dennis Potter’s Pennies From Heaven. Was he just happy to be able to do satisfying work, and then on a couple of occasions everything came together to make something really brilliant? Cause boy, there’s a certain gap between this and Peter Sellars as Fu Manchu. (I know, that one’s not totally Haggard’s fault.)
The Blood on Satan’s Claw is awfully gnarly. It earned that UK X rating with nudity and some excellent body horror. Haggard makes some unpleasant body transformations perfectly clear without being overly gory; it’s impressive. There’s also a sort of difficult rape scene, in which the camera lingers on how the coven is reacting. It’s a fairly uncompromising movie.
It belongs to its era. The uneasy subcurrent of mistrust in kids is very close to the surface. That’s balanced by the way the mob is depicted — nobody comes out all that well in the end.
Prompt: 3 Satan/Devil focused films
10/7/2023: From the Life of the Marionettes (1980): ***1/2
That’s a seriously austere piece of experimental work. Sere, perhaps. Bergman famously talked about transferring the pain of his exile in Germany into something concrete. The themes here are an echo of those in Scenes from a Marriage, deprived of Liv Ullman’s warmth and Erland Josephson’s charm. It must have hurt a lot to be so far from Sweden and Fårö.
When Katarina (Christine Buchegger) discusses love as an intertwining — “Our nerves have grown together in an uncanny way” — it’s nearly horrific. She doesn’t talk about emotional bonds, just the bare fact that it’s impossible for them to part, no matter what. There’s no romance in it.
I struggled a bit with the depiction of homosexuality. I think in the end it’s about flawed narrators; yes, Doctor Jensen (Martin Benrath) blames the murder on latent homosexuality, but he’s also been trying to seduce Katarina away from Peter (Robert Atzorn) in the same way that Tim (Walter Schmidinger) has been trying to lure Peter away from Katarina. His accusations are unreliable. Nobody in this is a pleasant person.
There’s a cute bit at the end, which may be relevant. Jensen is explaining his flawed theory about why everything happened. Meanwhile, we see Peter playing a game of computer chess. The computer informs Peter that he “missed the mate.” I’ll risk over-interpreting the moment, since Bergman is so precise and crisp in his choices, and juxtapose the computer’s critique on the lines Jensen’s saying.
As a whole, the film is a bit too emotionless for me to love it. It is, nevertheless, fascinating.
10/7/2023: Candyman (2021): **1/2
If only the whole movie was as chilling as the conversation in the cop car in the final scene. Cut to the fierceness: the underlying concepts are strong enough to support a savage clarity. In practice, this version of the story doesn’t get there.
DaCosta has a consistently strong sense for visuals, which don’t always cohere well. The use of Chicago’s distinctive architecture in contrast with the Cabrini Green projects works throughout — I wanted more of that. I really liked the way this verged on being a haunted house movie.
The characterization was so thin. Yay, it’s a snotty gallery owner. Yay, it’s an even snottier New Yorker. Yay, it’s a gay dude — got anything on the overlapping minority experiences of queerness and blackness? Oh well.
Overall disappointing, because it had so much potential.
Prompt: 1 film based on a Clive Barker story
10/7/2023: The Beast Must Die (1974): *
Turgid nearly beyond belief. The pacing is awful; it felt like an hour before we get to the first kill. Calvin Lockhart’s performance as an arrogant nouveau riche hunter is weirdly mannered and unengaging. Peter Cushing collected his check.
I guess it’d be cool if this inspires a Benoit Blanc film someday?
Prompt: 2 Peter Cushing films (also an Amicus film)
10/8/2023: Huesera: The Bone Woman (2022): ***1/2
Horror movies are always about being trapped, right? So it is not a spoiler to say that this is a movie about being trapped by pregnancy; that much is clear quickly, no matter how kind Raúl (Alfonso Dosal) is to his wife Valeria (Natalia Solián). Michelle Garza Cervera takes her time building from there, because Vale is trapped by much more than that.
It’s a first feature, and there are choices I’d nitpick. I didn’t think the flashback was necessary — we know who Vale was before she got married, even if Vale still isn’t sure who she is now. The ending, which is brilliant, has some rough edges. It still hit like a ton of bricks once we spent some time with it.
I kind of want Cervera to trust her subtlety, actually. The scene where Vale’s aunt crosses over to meet her friends tells us absolutely everything we need to know about her story. The cruelty of Vale’s family is sharpened by the question of whether or not they’re right, which in turn reminds us that cruelty in the service of truth is still cruel.
Natalia Solián’s performance is delicately lovely. It’s a bit of a high wire act, maintaining sympathy as a mother who is (maybe) breaking down. She’s fragile fire throughout. I want to see more from her too.
I’ve seen a lot of very good Latin American horror in the last few years. It’s nice adding another one to the list.
Prompt: movies from six different countries (Mexico)
10/8/2023: A Separation (2011): *****
I love difficult movies that aren’t afraid to be difficult. There’s no justice in this story; subtly, while less religious audiences might not appreciate it, even Razieh (Sareh Bayat) betrays her own values for most of the film. Everyone winds up scarred.
It starts with a separation, then continues with the results. The gulf between secular Iranians and the devout creates problems. Those problems crash into an unyielding Iranian courtroom. “I have no choice,” says the judge, although he later shows that he does. People lie; director Farhadi trusts his audience to develop a complex understanding of the truth without shining a spotlight on every falsehood.
I am left with the image of Nader (Peyman Maadi) half-smiling as his daughter leaves, late in the movie. He smiles because she’s chosen to believe him, regardless of whether or not he deserves it and regardless of the consequences. It’s horrible and it completely encapsulates his arrogance. I rented this because I’ve seen Maadi in two half-decent movies this year, and I wanted to see him in something great. That worked out well for me.
The funny thing is that he doesn’t stand out. There are five actors at the core of this: the two I’ve mentioned, Leila Hatami as Nader’s wife Simin, Shahab Hosseini as Razieh’s husband Hodjat, and Sarina Farhadi as Nader’s daughter Termeh. They’re all so good. As noted, all the characters are full of deeply human flaws and watching them take out their internal criticisms on each other is — you can’t call it pleasant. You can call it great acting.
10/8/2023: Faust (1926): ****
Maximalist silent brilliance! I spent a lot of the movie trying to wrap my brain around Murnau’s leaps of imagination. This is such a good example of using technique to satisfy artistic ends.
The first and last acts are a satisfying cinematic whole. The exotic adventure movie and the weird romantic comedy stuffed into the middle do nobody any favors. It’s a testament to Murnau’s ability (not to mention the acting of Emil Jannings and Camilla Horn) that the final act still carries a serious weight of pathos.
To be fair, those thematic divergences are also really cool in their own right. Love the elephants. They just felt out of place for a bit before the movie settled back down into being a masterpiece.
Prompt: 3 films centered on Satan/devils