Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Flirt (1995)

Seen: On my laptop, originally rented from Scarecrow Video in Seattle.

Months ago I was taking a train down to my brother's graduation, and I started watching Flirt, the one Hal Hartley movie I'd been unable to find during my Hartley craze sophomore year. Then the train ahead of me derailed somewhere in Connecticut and I was ferried about from train to train for a very long, very unpleasant night. So I never finished Flirt. Last week I was on another train on the way to NJ for Christmas, and I decided to test fate and watch Flirt again. And it WORKED. Basking in his own love of repetition and theatricality, Hartley places the same story in three different settings, considering how nearly-identical scenarios would play out in New York, Berlin, and Tokyo. When one person prepares to leave for an extended stay in another country, their lover must decide whether to go ahead with a long-distance relationship or embark on a new romance with a friend who is separating from their partner. They move around their respective neighborhoods, looking to friends and strangers for advice on what to do, and each walks into a violent situation at the end.

Working in a number of his regulars (Bill Sage, Parker Posey, Martin Donovan, Karen Sillas, Elina Löwensohn, Miho Nikaido, among others), along with some new faces, Flirt is a fascinating exercise in storytelling possibilities. The premise sounds kind of dull: a bunch of people wandering around moaning about their love problems three times in a row. But, as with most Hal Hartley films, I found myself captivated. Each segment is unique, though linked by circumstances, and I was ever-curious about how events would play out. In New York the events take place primarily in a bar, with Bill Sage aching over two women and seeking advice from strangers in the bathroom. In Berlin, ultra-stylish Dwight Ewell wanders around the city as he is forced to choose between two men (one who is married), interacting with varied denizens and merging languages. Finally, in Tokyo, Miho Nikaido is a theater student torn between a fling with her married teacher and her long-term filmmaker boyfriend (played by Hartley himself!).

While linked by their supposedly flirtatious natures, the protagonists in each story are wildly different, as are their contexts. Hartley not only hints at cultural variables affecting each story but also individual personalities, so that each tale manages to be unpredictable. I loved Dwight's attitude, but was surprised when his confrontation with his love interest's wife morphed into a dangerous seduction. I loved the juxtaposition of performance art and realism in Miho's story, a fun commentary on Hartley's noted theatrical style and intentionally stilted dialogue and blocking. I of course also loved Bill Sage's section, mostly because he's really attractive, even if he has a terrible 1995 haircut. It's a strange little film, beautiful in many ways and one of the director's more daring features. I was a little frustrated with the anthology structure mainly because I wanted more time with these characters, and their stories all felt cut short. But of course it's amazing because Hal Hartley is amazingggggg. Lovely soundtrack, too, as usual.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: After every Hartley movie I only want more Hartley, that's just the way it is.

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Monday, December 30, 2013

Wuthering Heights (2012)

Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, rented from netflix.

I remember reading about this film years ago, as there was something of a furor surrounding Andrea Arnold's decision to cast a man of color in the classic role of Heathcliff, a part usually played by a white dude even though he was written as "dark-skinned" and likely Romani. I never really loved Wuthering Heights but I applauded Arnold's casting and was intrigued to see her version of the story. Set in an isolated farm house along northern England's moors, the film uncovers the intense, complex relationship between Catherine Earnshaw (Shannon Beer and Kaya Scodelario) and her sort-of-adoptive brother Heathcliff (Solomon Glave and James Howson). A homeless black boy, Heathcliff was found by Cathy's father and taken into their home because it was "the Christian thing to do," but he is never fully accepted by his new family or their neighbors due to his unknown background and somewhat wild ways. Though they are inseparable as children, Cathy eventually is pulled into the well-to-do world of their neighbors the Lintons, and when she agrees to marry their son Edgar, Heathcliff runs away in despair. He returns after a few years a grown man, and endeavors to once again become an integral part of Cathy's life while also seeking revenge on her hateful older brother Hindley (Lee Shaw).

Filled with despicable people who turn everything into a life-or-death melodrama, Wuthering Heights is actually kind of ridiculous depending how one looks at it. The only thing I really remembered about the book was that I felt bad for Heathcliff even though he was a jerk, I hated everyone else, and I had to make a family tree to keep all the characters straight. Also the frame story was unnecessary. Arnold wisely cuts the frame story, leaves out some characters, and ends her film before the events of the book actually end, thus trimming the plot down to its basic components: two people who are unhealthily obsessed with each other. She casts inexperienced unknowns to varying success, and zeroes in on small, intimate moments to tease out her story. It is completely told from Heathcliff's point of view, and his perceived "otherness" is clearly delineated. He overhears snippets of conversations and cautiously watches others' lives unfold, all from a removed standpoint. After he runs away from his enforced baptism, he is never fully included in the life of the Earnshaw household, always made aware that he doesn't belong- for reasons of his skin color, unnerving silence, and unseemly origins.

The real star of this story has always been its memorable setting, the vast and mysterious moors in which Cathy and Heathcliff roam as children. Arnold's thoughtful handheld camera and quiet takes depict a beautiful, tragic landscape with foggy skies and howling winds. She takes her time with the narrative so that she can linger on these natural elements, and the viewer is invited to consider how these breathtaking but lonely settings influence and reflect the protagonists. I'll admit I wasn't particularly engaged by the love story- mostly because I don't really like any of the characters- but I was wholly taken in by the visuals and by Arnold's pensive style of storytelling. The cast is capable (though the children aren't great), and the casting of a man of color in the role really emphasizes the theme of difference and ostracization so central to the development of Heathcliff's character. Also James Howson is like, a total babe. Mhmmmm.

3.5/5

Pair This Movie With: Unsure! Maybe the other recent Brontë adaptation, Jane Eyre?

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Sunday, December 29, 2013

Her (2013)

Seen: At the Kendall Square Landmark Theater in Cambridge.

With as many ways to communicate as there are ways to shut ourselves off from physical human interaction, it is not difficult to imagine a future like the one shown in Her. Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is a sensitive writer unable to move on after his wife (Rooney Mara) leaves him. He's put off signing the divorce papers for a year. Unsatisfied with his self-isolation but unable to sate his emotional needs with actual people, he buys a new operating system that is designed to act like a human being, learning and adapting to suit the personality of its user. With a funny, flirtatious air and a seemingly genuine interest in Theodore's well-being, the self-named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is easy to like. The two gradually find themselves in an unexpected romance, with both sides questioning the validity of their feelings and the possibility of true love with a mechanic intelligence.

At times funny and at others uncannily sad, Her is at heart a touching, relatable romance despite its futuristic premise. It isn't so hard to imagine a person falling in love with a computer, especially one as adorable as Samantha. This is definitely one of those "write about our future to comment on our present"-type of stories, with Jonze pondering the ramifications of our technology-obsessed world and our ever-changing means of interaction. Theodore is convinced he's felt all he's ever going to feel, he's lived as much as he's going to live, and it is only through a "pure", inexperienced presence like Samantha that he finds new reasons to keep on going, new ways of thinking and feeling. Their conversations are interesting for their blend of realistic banter and inhuman considerations, and it is Samantha's constant evolution that ultimately becomes the major factor in their relationship. She surpasses Theodore in sweeping, indefinable ways, so much so that she cannot even find the language to communicate with him anymore.

The film moves from eccentric love story to existential drama in its last act, and while I found that aspect of it fascinating, it didn't quite fit with the rest of the film. The pacing is strange all over, skipping ahead at some points and moving laboriously slowly at others, so that by the time it made its thematic switch I actually thought the movie was about over. Maybe if there had been less of a focus on Sad-Sack Theodore listening to depressing music and feeling sorry for himself (though I understand the character is something of a parody of that archetype), and more of Samantha being a genius renegade computer or whatever, it would have flowed more smoothly for me. Also while I'm thinking about its negatives let me point out that Her has a definite case of white-people-itis, as if future Los Angeles would be so fucking homogenous? As if it is now? Come on. Get your shit together, Spike Jonze and also most other filmmakers. I do think the high-waisted pants and hipster mustaches were good trend-spotting, though. Definitely our future fashion.

Overall I did find Her a really intriguing, and even moving, film. It's funny and well-written, with a fantastic cast and surprisingly sweet love story. Of course I loved Johansson's endearing vocal performance as Samantha, as she so fully embodied this form-less character and gave her a very real personality. Phoenix and Mara are strong as well, though I was hard-put to believe they "grew up together" when she's so clearly at least 10 years younger than him. Whatever. My favorite was actually Amy Adams, in a supporting role as Theodore's friend who, after a rough divorce, also gets a smart OS that ends up becoming her best friend. I like Adams in general, but I think this is the most down-to-earth I've really seen her, and I just connected with her performance and character. I kind of want a side-movie all about her friendship with her computer, actually. Let's do that.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: A sad mustachioed man falling in love with an artificial woman naturally reminded me of Lars and the Real Girl, which I liked. At the end it gets kind of Blade Runner-y in its themes, so that works too.

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Friday, December 27, 2013

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

Seen: On dvd on my parents' tv, from my personal collection.

Last month I saw a local production of Spamalot, which I saw when it premiered on Broadway but didn't actually remember all that well, so it was fun to revisit. Like most red-blooded American teens, I watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail pretty regularly between 7th grade and 11th grade. Because it's funny, dammit. But I realized I hadn't watched it since at least 2006 and decided to revisit it when I was home for Thanksgiving. The first full-length feature from zany British comedy troupe Monty Python, the film is a wacky, irreverent take on the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Arthur (Graham Chapman) travels around Britain looking for men to join him in his quest for the holy grail, and along the way comes across various weirdos and militants. Ultimately the boring Bedevere (Terry Jones), the cowardly Robin (Eric Idle), the bloodthirsty Lancelot (John Cleese), and the dashing Galahad (Michael Palin) all the hunt. They all have various non sequitur adventures.

With heavy gobs of irreverence and an almost overwhelming amount of silliness, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the kind of comedy that improves upon multiple viewings, but eventually hits a wall after too many watches. Even seeing it now for the first time in so long, I found myself remembering every line, anticipating every joke, and the film does lose something from over-familiarity. I still think it's funny, mostly because it's so ridiculous you have to smile, but it doesn't elicit that gut-busting laugh it did when I was younger. I still giggle at the minstrel's uncomplimentary song for Sir Robin, and the farcical witch trial, and Sir Lancelot's homicidal raid on Swamp Castle. But honestly, I'm no longer particularly amused by the amputation of the Black Knight, or the ludicrous insults of the French, or The Knights Who Say Ni, because I've seen those jokes repeated ad nauseum (and have myself done it) for so long. I don't need to hear the debate about how much weight a swallow could carry again.

It's not that I don't have a ton of affection for this movie, because I totally still do. I still chuckle quietly when I think of certain scenes, and if the occasion arises I will make reference to it. It is a funny, bizarre, and enormously silly movie. It wears its low budget on its sleeve and cares little for any clear narrative or sensible pacing. It's mostly just a bunch of British dudes making goofy faces and putting on high-pitched voices and prancing about fields wearing bogus medieval outfits. It's exactly the kind of weird, nonsensical humor that appeals to me but for whatever reason it hasn't shown the longevity of other old favorites (classic Mel Brooks, for example). If I hadn't watched it hundreds of times as a teenager I'd probably be more entertained by it now, but it just fell a bit flat.

WELL I GUESS THIS IS GROWING UP.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: It's been quite a while since I watched Monty Python's Flying Circus so a few episodes of that would be a nice follow-up. Or, I don't know, another Arthurian movie?

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Sunday, December 22, 2013

Berberian Sound Studio (2013)

Seen: On dvd on my projector set-up.

For one reason or another I kept missing this the few times it played near me, so I was glad to have a night off before Thanksgiving when I could finally watch it. Written and directed by Peter Strickland and set in the 1970s, Berberian Sound Studio tells the uncanny tale of Gilderoy (Toby Jones), an uptight British sound designer who is invited to work on a low-budget horror film in Rome. His talent is obvious, and he sets out making squishy slasher noises with watermelons and lettuce, but he remains uncomfortable with the type of film he's working on, having had more experience with nature documentaries and the like. Unfamiliar with the language and culture, he is unnerved by his over-friendly but often two-faced coworkers, and fears he will never actually be paid. In his isolation and confusion Gilderoy sinks further into his work, until reality and fiction become blurred.

Berberian Sound Studio first came to my attention through its truly impressive series of posters by Brandon Schaefer and Peter House. The visuals of the film itself certainly live up to its advertising, seeped in over-saturated reds and blues while the camera lingers lovingly over analog recording equipment. The narrative is a little muddled, with scenes beginning and ending in media res and a few dream sequences seamlessly blended in to the main events. Frankly, I found most of the film gripping, completely transfixed by the strange, grungy imagery and Jones's bizarre performance, and of course the sound design porn. As Gilderoy becomes more affected by the giallo film the overall story becomes more and more disjointed, sputtering in its structure like a scratched record. I couldn't really tell you exactly what happens, but I know I was totally into it.

What holds me back from all-out loving Berberian Sound Studio is its ending: it's kind of missing one? It felt like Strickland had written himself into a dead end and wasn't sure what he actually wanted to say with this film, if he wanted to resolve or explain matters, or make things worse or better. So the movie just... stops. I have no problem with ambiguous or unconventional endings, I'm not saying I need everything to make sense or for loose ends to be wrapped up neatly, but SOME sort of ending would have been nice. The pacing is so off at the end that I had no idea I was at the climax, and so when the credits rolled I wasn't satisfied- the movie doesn't feel finished. In a film that otherwise had me so engaged, it was really frustrating to walk away from it with this incomplete feeling. Definitely worth the watch, though, and I'd like to see it again on blu-ray when I get a chance so I can get the full audio/visual effect. Also I have to give mad props to the women voice actors in this movie, who do an impressive amount of screaming. Looks exhausting to me.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: The setting and premise reminded me a little of CQ, which would be a nice uplift after the dark tone of this film. Similarly there's recent release In a World... which offers another look at sound on film, only it's about voice acting instead of sound effects.

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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Stridulum (The Visitor) (1979)

Seen: At the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, on 35mm.

Well, when Drafthouse Films digs up a weird forgotten movie and pushes it into the cult film sphere, I do generally take note. The Visitor is certainly ripe for cult stardom, a forgotten bit of 70s ultra-weirdness from Italy that inexplicably stars John Huston. Set primarily in Atlanta, GA, the film follows Barbara Collins (Joanne Nail), a single mother who's beginning to suspect that her daughter Katy (Paige Conner) might just be completely evil. Also, telekinetic. And psychic? Probably. I KNOW this sounds crazy, and Barbara doesn't want to believe it, but then Katy "accidentally" shoots her in the spine, paralyzing her. And the little angel is showing an awful lot of 'tude lately. And magic. Meanwhile, an old dude from space (John Huston) is searching for Katy, presumably to kill her to prevent her from taking over the world or whatever. And Barbara's boyfriend Lance Henriksen is oddly obsessed with getting her pregnant. It's gonna be a weird few weeks, THAT'S FOR SURE.

Ok. First of all I have to say: this movie is fucking RAD and not in the "ironically funny" way. It's just a really awesome, bizarre film. At my screening I sat next to two dudes who were obviously there to have a good time, they were ready to laugh, and they guffawed hysterically throughout the entire movie, even though most of it isn't actually funny. These guys were literally laughing at scene transitions, like they thought it was hilarious that a scene would end and a new one would begin? At first I thought they had never seen a weird movie before, so they were laughing out of surprise, but then I thought maybe they just had never seen a movie at all before and this was a wonderfully novel experience for them. I have no idea, I did not understand where they were coming from, but it was incredibly distracting and made me really angry for most of the running time, and so I feel like I need to watch this again as soon as possible without any loud, laughing idiots in the room.

Anyway. I really dug The Visitor. It's a fantastic combination of imaginative storytelling, ostentatious visuals, a strong cast, and a dash of off-kilter camp. It's a bit dated in some of its more psychedelic elements, but of course I loved that, and the effects are honestly impressive. (And there are so many freaky birds! My god, birds are terrifying!) Its remarkable opening shot depicts a hooded figure in an orange desert expanse, with a liquid-smoke sky, and it is breathtakingly beautiful. Then you have this super-fancy house that most of the action takes place in, with a grand staircase, a biomorphic swimming pool, and super modern decor. And sometimes Shelley Winters is snooping around, singing to herself and ever-prepared to be mean to a little girl, which I kind of loved. The soundtrack is dark but kind of fun and synthy, whic is basically the tone of the whole movie.

There are definitely some silly moments- the melodramatic close-ups, the at-times off dubbing- but I was just really into this movie the whole time. It's a strange story, fusing demon-child paranoia with outer-space mythology, all wrapped up in a "heaven vs hell"-type narrative. It's a legitimately interesting story, partly because it's so weird and party because it's so scary. I was genuinely worried for Barbara, who not only has to put up with a possibly matricidal daughter but also experiences a serious violation to her own body in the bad guys' quest to get her pregnant so she can produce more telekinetic spawn. I really liked Joanne Nail in the role, she's sympathetic and vulnerable without being useless, and she anchors the story as all these larger-than-life figures fight it out around her. Paige Conner is the real star, though, slinging around slurs and tearing up her house and staring coolly at everything, and it's just great. Definitely up there with my favorite evil-child performances. I mean, did you SEE her take out a bunch of bullies at the ice skating rink?

So there you go, The Visitor is amazing. Weird and wonderful and inventive, and I really want to watch it again. Because, like, wtf was happening in that space nursery? Was that Jesus? And what was up with John Huston's trippy light show? And how the hell did the gun get into Katy's gift box? Can she willfully transmute matter? Oh man! The possibilities!

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: Obviously The Bad Seed comes to mind! And I've never seen Rosemary's Baby but probably that too. Or The Omen?

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Friday, December 6, 2013

Brain Damage (1988)

Seen: On dvd on my tv, rented from netflix.

At this year's Coolidge Corner Horror Marathon I had to skip out of the last film, Brain Damage, a Frank Henenlotter film I'd been meaning to see for a while, so I resolved to make it next on my netflix queue. The cult director's sophomore feature, it follows the misadventures of Brian (Rick Hearst), a young man who unwittingly finds himself playing host to a parasitic worm creature known as Aylmer. This mythical beast injects an addictive substance directly into his victims' brains, and it causes an intense, psychedelic euphoria. But Aylmer himself feeds on human brains, and manipulates his hosts into finding him food. Brian is at first unaware of his new friend's hunger for human parts, but by the time he finds out what's happening he's in too deep to pull away. His girlfriend and brother worry over his strange mood swings and sudden misanthropy, but he doesn't want them sucked into Aylmer's cycle of drugs and murder. Meanwhile, Aylmer's former owners- now sick with withdrawal- are searching for him.

A little bit dark, a little bit funny, and largely just gross, Brain Damage wasn't quite the head-trip I was hoping for. It was underwhelming as a whole, to be honest, and I felt like Henenlotter didn't have enough story to fill out the running time, but could have fleshed out some of his ideas more. I also didn't love how Aylmer was done- his voice was annoying and I felt like he was supposed to be funnier than he actually was? Maybe a different voice actor would have worked better, or stronger dialogue. That being said, it's an impressively original low budget horror, with DIY special effects that made me lose my appetite, which I assume was the point. I loved the trippy drug-fueled sequences, the weird premise, and the gooey over the top kills, though the oral sex scene was too ridiculous even for me. It's a silly movie overall, naturally, but it maintains a gritty aesthetic and a slightly dark tone throughout. This balancing of camp horror and drug addiction is not always successful, though, which might be why I thought the film was a bit dull overall. NOT BAD just not as good as I wanted it to be?

Loved the Basket Case nod, though. I haven't even seen that one yet (I know, I know, I will) but I totally got the reference! And I love the idea that these films all take place in the same world. Maybe Frankenhooker's wandering around there somewhere off-camera.

3.5/5

Pair This Movie With: The whole thing is kind of a gritty, gooey update to Little Shop of Horrors, or any film with that familiar premise. I of course will heartily recommend the 1986 musical (especially the director's cut!) as a pairing.

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