Movies reviewed this week: Hour of the Wolf, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, Spiral, New Nightmare, Killers of the Flower Moon, The Flu, The Fury, Mimic, and Battleship Potemkin.
10/16/2023: Hour of the Wolf (1968): ****
None of y’all told me this was a found footage horror movie. I’m serious: the opening titles explain that the story we’re about to watch is drawn on a man’s diary and his wife’s recollections, and the silence is soon disturbed by a sudden sharp shock of a sound. The first real scene is a confessional, Liv Ullman as Alma speaking directly to the camera. Then there’s the scene in which we’re lost in von Sydow’s point of view as Johan arrives at the castle.
OK, it’s not a found footage film. It’s essential that we visit Johan’s nightmares and hallucinations. In fact, Bergman doesn’t want us reading everything the camera sees as the true events, since it’s about a descent into madness. It’s still a foreshadowing of the found footage form. Bergman was some kind of visionary.
It’s nice getting back to the Fårö trilogy. Shame was my first Bergman, and it went a long way towards convincing me that I needed to watch a lot more. In fact, Shame is up next in the Bergman boxed set and I’m going to need to watch it again.
In that review, I mentioned the perfection of a scene where Bergman focuses on Ullman’s face while she waits for von Sydow in a car. I was sharply reminded of that moment early on in Hour of the Wolf, when Johan returns home. Alma is delighted to see him, almost childish. She hugs him without getting a response. Her face falls for a second as he detaches and walks past her, but then she convinces herself it’s going to be fine and it’s (mostly) delight again… until he keeps on going, Bergman zooms in on her face, and we see despair.
Just alchemy between two actors, a cinematographer, and a director.
The second half of the movie is both thrilling and self-indulgent. I admire the bravery with which Bergman poured his own difficulties with sexuality onto the screen, lipstick and all. He must have known he was a horrendously difficult partner. The slow build is ideal, allowing the audience to slip into the dream world just as subtly as Johan does.
Just writing about it makes me want to watch it again immediately.
10/16/2023: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927): ***
The technique and vision here is just phenomenal; the whole carnival sequence stands up against just about anything on film. Wildly innovative in its time. But what’s with the story? Sorry, Murnau, but Dreyer was doing more with fewer special effects.
10/17/2023: Spiral (2019): **1/2
It worked quite well as an exploration of the day to day horrors of being an outsider in a small town, but it did not work well as a horror movie. The whole second act requires one of the characters to be an unreliable narrator, and once we get to the horror, very little is established in a satisfying way. Also there are two closing explanatory sequences to wrap up the movie, only one of which is necessary.
Man, I guess I actually didn’t like it much.
Prompt: one LGBTQ+ film
10/19/2023: New Nightmare (1994): ***1/2
It’s rather deftly metatextual, which is 100% my jam. Pretty early on there’s a scene where a talk show studio audience is cheering wildly for Robert Englund dressed as Freddy. It’s a critical view of media consumption if I ever saw one. Michael Haneke should have noticed this before he made his cerebral condemnation of horror movie fans; Wes Craven has the advantage that he actually understands his audience, and he has the self-awareness to acknowledge that he’s part of the problem.
From there on it just gets very Grant Morrison. The final shot looks like something out of a fairy tale, deliberately evocative of the principles of fable. It’s a fantasy because you can only deal with a fantastic monster by addressing it on its own terms, right? I was quite satisfied.
Kind of a shame that it also lived inside the 90s slasher movie aesthetic, which I guess is right next to the 90s mall aesthetic. It hasn’t aged well. It’s interesting to contrast this to Scream, which had about double the budget and which I think had the advantage of not being a callback. It would have been odd for this movie to look different than the other Nightmares, I suppose.
This was a two challenge movie! Totally by luck, but it’s fun that it worked out.
10/21/2023: Killers of the Flower Moon (2023): *****
On August 3, 1935, a radio program called G-Men broadcast a version of the story of the Osage Indian murders, which are of course also the story of this movie. I couldn’t find a copy to listen to online after a quick search, so I won’t comment on the quality of the show. I would bet that Martin Scorsese is well aware of it, though, because G-Men was made with the cooperation and sponsorship of the FBI.
Just as his movie ends: with a radio program, glossy and stylized, sponsored by the theoretical good guys. Radio announcers explaining how the FBI got their men and sent them to jail! Well, most of their men — let’s not forget the hung juries, and let’s not forget that Pitts Beatty is a KKK member and complicit throughout and never even indicted. It takes the stunning Scorsese cameo at the end to bring that home. To bring home Mollie Burkhart’s early death, while Bill Hale gets out on the parole he never should have received.
That is as close as Scorsese can come to telling us that if we watched the movie purely for pleasure, we missed. We are complicit.
“Well, we are complicit. But we are. We simply are. So… It’s really about everyone. We’re all the killers. The European white comes in, Western civilisation comes in. We are the killers, and we have to understand that. We have to confront it in ourselves.”
Those spouts of oil at the beginning, with the Osage playing in joy underneath, are an altogether blatant chunk of symbolism. But I didn’t want to go back to the beginning yet, so let’s go back to the start of act 3.
The FBI shows up at that point, complete with a pointed name drop. Tom White comes in all casual competence, and he makes sure that everyone knows J. Edgar Hoover sent him. Then he solves the case, more or less, which is accurate: he got Bill Hale, he got Ernest, and he got the immediate perpetrators. He didn’t get anyone else. It’s still pretty much the picture of triumphant law enforcement investigation. White’s team is even multicultural. (That’s historically accurate, to be fair.)
It’s an odd tonal shift from the first two acts, which are a mournful story about spreading corruption and immensely flawed love. It bothered me until I got to that final scene. Now I think it’s part of the way Scorsese tells this story. I think that’s the second point where the narrative shifts and becomes controlled by yet another group of outsiders.
Now let’s go back to the beginning; on the way, I take note of how many times Bill Hale tells his own story about how he’s a great friend of the Osage. He believes it; he speaks the language. He wrote letters from prison to his friends. When he told his nephew Ernest that everything would blow over if he was freed, it’s chilling because he didn’t think he was lying. It is, parenthetically, so good to see De Niro doing the work he’s capable of.
When Ernest arrives at Hale’s house, his first real assignment is to read a book. It’s a children’s explanation of the Osage people — and yep, there it is, the first time we see the Osage narrative controlled by outsiders. Far from the last, though; this theme is interwoven throughout. When Pitts Beatty tells Mollie that her mother can’t possibly need $300 worth of meat, that’s just another white man’s story. The mere fact that Beatty is Mollie’s guardian is blatant fiction; there’s nothing that makes her incompetent besides those paper thin words.
Ernest is constantly telling stories that make no sense. “You steal my car, and I’ll collect the insurance!” That’s a dumb plan, and the story he tells the insurance company doesn’t hold up. Lots of insurance stories fall apart in this film. Hale tells Ernest stories to get what he wants.
The FBI tells Ernest stories! They say they have a deal with him for his testimony, which also turns out to be a lie when he’s sentenced to life in prison.
Even the way Mollie tells us what’s going on in Osage Oklahoma is a story. Foreshadowing the radio play, she adopts the vernacular of silent movies to present a series of killings.
Lots of stories, with those two explicit stories — the children’s book and the FBI-sponsored radio show — as bookends.
The other theme which intertwines with the stories is love; specifically, Mollie and Ernest’s love. They do love each other, which has a certain purity. Her more than him, though. She knows what she’s getting into; he’s a horndog with a serious case of greed. Coyote, as she says to her sisters. Yet he’s faithful to her throughout, and when it’d be easy to walk away from her, he doesn’t. He loves his kids.
In the end his stories — his secrets — defeat the love. Scorsese is such a bleak bastard. That is perhaps the central conflict of the film: will the made up myths overcome the power of love? Not this time.
As a film lover, I lean towards narrative. I care about stories and how they’re told, with a tendency to notice screenplay beats much more than I notice cinematography or framing. I have as such neglected discussing the brilliance of Scorsese and his collaborators in my struggle to understand the story they’re telling. So: they’re great, and there is particular sadness in my heart knowing that Robbie Robertson passed away after he made this. And joy, knowing that he ended on such a masterpiece of a score.
There are no weak points in the acting. Lily Gladstone deserves an Oscar for the powerful stillness of her performance. I could write another thousand words or so on how great everyone was. (Brendan Fraser’s surge of reprehensible indignation!)
Tonight, though, I wanted to think about the story. When I write something like this, I do it to help myself process and understand. I suspect that need is at the root of most stories.
10/21/2023: The Flu (2013): ***
Stars are a social contract but I still spent a while fretting about the extra half a star I almost gave this. It’s the kind of sharp, well-made thriller that the South Korean film industry can crank out seemingly by the dozen. The production values are excellent, with a few scenes which are genuinely stunning. It’s the kind of movie that opens with a set piece in which a car is dangling by a few cables halfway down an open shaft, with a woman in peril and a bold rescuer: it could be a climactic moment elsewhere. Here it’s just an amuse bouche.
I also dug the sympathy for immigrants/refugees and the fact that the cops aren’t the heroes. The good guy is a member of the Emergency Response Team! Thus:
“Not a single person here knows you’re a member of the Emergency Response Team!”
“But I do.”
Noble (and predictable) as hell!
Alas, it’s not more than the sum of its parts and even the predictably good sinister performance from Ma Dong-seok in the third act doesn’t quite make up for the fact that the third act drags. Cut fifteen minutes from this and it’s way better.
Prompt: 2 post-apocalyptic or natural disaster movies, by an expansive definition of natural disasters
10/21/2023: The Fury (1978): ***1/2
The Fury finds De Palma hanging out at the balance point between complete excess (which he sometimes makes great) and tightly built thriller. He’s such a natural when he’s working in the paranoid style. By using the exact same footage for psychic visions and the events themselves, he reifies the former, bending his fascination with surveillance to new ends.
For a while I kind of thought Kirk Douglas was phoning it in as aging intelligence agent Peter Sandza, coasting on old man movie star charisma. Nope. Listen to the way his accent shifts in the third act; consider why the facade Sandza built as a globe-trotting operative might be stripped away just then. It’s probably the kind of thing Douglas can do in his sleep, but he did it, which is what matters.
And the all too brief scenes with Douglas and Cassavettes — Old and New Hollywood — are riveting.
Prompt: 5 movies from De Palma (et al.)
10/22/2023: Mimic (1997): ***
Under severe studio pressure, Del Toro made a movie that’s clearly his work and that clearly fails to reach its potential. It’s still pretty enjoyable, since you can’t prevent the man from creating a sense of dread.
Prompt: 1 movie about something underground
10/22/2023: Battleship Potemkin (1925): ****
It’s always cool watching someone invent an art form. Eisenstein’s sense of space was remarkable for the time; those hammocks in the bowels of the ship were great. For a guy who believed in montage as the heart of film, Eisenstein leaned pretty heavily on captions in the first act, but thankfully that didn’t last.