Movies reviewed this week: Blue Ruin, Once Upon a Time in Uganda, Nightbreed, Elemental, The Day of the Beast, The Exorcist III, The Novice, and Dracula.
10/11/2023: Blue Ruin (2013): ****
That’s a harrowing chunk of film. It starts out with a precise, clear scene that tells us everything about Dwight (Macon Blair). He’s homeless, he’s not all that competent, and he’ll do whatever he needs to do to survive. Even if it’s really risky.
It’s the kind of pared down storytelling you get when the lead actor and director know each other really well, plus the director is also the cinematographer, because that’s what happened. Well, and when they’re fucking talented.
The ending feels inevitable and uncertain at the same time. You don’t know what exactly is coming, you just know this can’t last all that long. “I don’t know how this ends, but I’d like it to.”
10/13/2023: Once Upon a Time in Uganda (2021): **1/2
I couldn’t really sort out whether or not the drama between Alan and Isaac was staged. It wasn’t a great central story point either way; the whole dispute got resolved awfully quickly during the genuinely moving climax. So if the movie was trying to tell a story about white wanna-be saviors clomping into Uganda and putting people at risk, I don’t think it actually succeeded.
And ultimately the conflict between the American and the Ugandan just obscures the genuinely fascinating material here. I care about Isaac, and his wife Harriet, and the dynamics among the crew he built. Alan’s interesting enough; he’s just way less interesting than the brilliant driven guy in Uganda who learned to make movies on his own because he had to.
10/14/2023: Nightbreed (1990): ***1/2
Nightbreed is more or less a fairy tale wrapped in the skin of an 80s adventure movie, turbocharged by Clive Barker’s outsider imagination. It worked well for me, plus seeing David Cronenberg in a prominent role is awesome. He’s not bad, although perhaps not leading man material.
The engine of the movie is the conflict between society and those who society hates, of course. There’s plenty of discussion out there about the carnival that is Midian, and the warmth of the Nightbreed. I’ll tell you what really struck me, though: the frenzied militaristic spirit of the small town cops, who eventually roar into action in a scene that feels straight out of a rah rah Vietnam War movie. There’s even one of those dramatic sunsets as they ride into — can’t resist, sorry — the heart of darkness. Barker knows which side he’s on and it’s got nothing to do with the police.
Note: we saw the Director’s Cut.
Prompt: a film based on a Clive Barker story
10/14/2023: Elemental (2023): **1/2
Some exceedingly gorgeous visuals mired down by a fitful story and characters I couldn’t connect with. While the immigrant metaphors are tricky to use in a kid movie, Turning Red managed it.
10/14/2023: The Day of the Beast (1995): ***1/2
Deliciously scabrously funny in the main, as it must be to succeed. Nobody escapes the savage satirical pen. Good. Even Álex Angulo’s protagonist priest is a bit of a schmuck, not just because he’s hapless in his quest: you also have to ask if he’s anywhere near the mark. I mean, he’s on hallucinogens when his worst suspicions are confirmed.
Like this reviewer, I wonder if there’s not another layer here. The climax takes place at two skyscrapers called (although not identified in the film) the Gates of Europe, which is about as anti-nationalist as you’ll get for a commercial building. There, we once again meet those right-wing extremists calling for the cleansing of Madrid. The days of far right terrorism in Spain ended in the 80s, a decade before this movie was released, which is not all that long ago.
What would that mean if I was on track? I’d tentatively postulate a darkly comic statement about the tendency to assume evil is far less banal than it actually is. Pretty darned tentative, though.
Then 15 years later de la Iglesia made his explicit commentary on Franco and fascism, The Last Circus. So who can say.
Prompt: movies from six countries (Spain)
10/14/2023: The Exorcist III (1990): ***1/2
George C. Scott used his physical presence to inhabit and dominate the still set pieces Blatty created with his camera. It’s a great pairing; Blatty needed someone who could shoulder into his scenes and own them, just for the sake of the contrast when Scott was faced with something he couldn’t handle.
Which is sometimes physical danger, sometimes spiritual danger, and most importantly emotional desolation. This would work without the spiritual element, because life can be that shitty. I was oddly reminded of Andrew Vachss’ icily dark Burke books. Scott could have played that character perfectly. We’re not used to those big American manly actors playing open despair and it’s deeply effective.
Blatty’s directing is cool. I wish he’d made more movies behind the camera. There’s this sense of stillness, evident in those metronome-regular montage cuts that occcur throughout the film. Excepting the studio ending, Blatty’s understanding of how to slowly build tension is very crisp.
Ah, the ending. I want to revisit the director’s cut one of these days, since that sudden right turn into an action packed exorcism compromises everything Blatty was building. It makes explicit what was implied or discussed. Terrible move; the conversations between Patient X and Lieutenant Kinderman are more than enough to make the relationship between films clear.
Prompt: a movie with “x” in the title
10/15/2023: The Novice (2021): ****
Director/screenwriter/editor Lauren Hadaway has all the technique in the world; not surprising, when she’s talked about how this movie came out of her own obsessive tendencies. In her first movie, her storytelling just about keeps up with her technique. Watch the way she focuses shots; it’s usually a close focus, with only Alex (Isabelle Fuhrman) at the center. Or consider the early scene where she’s the center of abuse; all the other faces are in darkness and shadow, out of focus and barely visible. This movie is about one person and one person only, because Alex is about herself and nobody else.
That’s the story Hadaway is telling. I suppose the Whiplash comparisons are inevitable. Here’s the difference: Whiplash is about a conflict of wills between two people. The Novice is about the conflict between your own will and your own body. Both are pretty interesting. They’re also very different, and they’re very different statements about what it takes to reach the pinnacle. Andrew needs a human being pushing back at him, actively. Alex uses other humans as milestones. For her, a metronome would probably do as well.
10/15/2023: Dracula (1931): ***
Man, I wanted to like this more than I did. Helen Chandler and Dwight Frye turn in delightfully committed performances, and the cinematography is worth your time, as are the ornate sets and backdrops. On the other hand, Lugosi didn’t stir much in me and the plot is both abbreviated and overly deliberate.
Prompt: a movie based on a work of or invoking the name Bram Stoker