(Kanopy Streaming, October 2018) Who would expect a black-and-while French horror movie of 1960 to remain effective nearly sixty years later? Well, do have a look at Les yeux sans visages, an effective body horror film that will leave you squeamish. Here, a surgeon with a disfigured daughter takes extreme steps in order to procure and then transplant a new face on her. The standout sequence of the film remains the face surgery, executed with a disconcerting explicitness and an even more disconcerting absence of cuts in the process. But gore aside, what really elevates this film is a more respectable tone, closer to poetic drama than to exploitation: despite the sometimes grisly subject matter, the direction is handled tastefully … except when it goes for the viewer’s throat in order to make them watch the worst part of it. Édith Scob proves to be an eerie presence in the film, her face usually covered by a mask except for the worst of it. Playing on uncanny-valley curiosity and disgust, Les yeux sans visage runs a bit long even at 90 minutes but still packs a few chills along the way.
(On Cable TV, October 2018) Some movies are best appreciated with as much context as possible. Heck, a few movies are best appreciated having already seen the films they inspired, and writer/director Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup is one of the best examples of them. Seen cold without any knowledge of cinematic history or later movies it inspired, it’s nothing short of infuriating. First we have a photographer living the late-sixties Swingin’ London lifestyle, taking pictures of supermodels and occasionally having threesomes with them. Then our photographer stumbles upon what very well may be a murder mystery which develops into a full-blown conspiracy when evidence of the crime disappears. Then the film concludes with an envoi that clashes with the tone(s) of the film and does not resolve anything. You’d be forgiven for wanting to set the film alight after such an inconclusive experience. But you should not see Blowup absolutely cold. You should know that it was one of the defining films of the 1960s in definitely breaking down the Hays Code that held back American cinema from 1934 to 1966—when it was released in the United States with graphic depiction of sex and nudity and no official consequences, Hollywood understood that the Production Code was dead, and that paved the way to the New Hollywood what would change cinema forever. In addition to this historical importance, that sense of atonal exasperation felt at the end of the movie would lead very different filmmakers to make two very different films based on Blowup’s two halves: In 1983, Brian de Palma would re-use the film’s thriller-based second half as the basis for Blow-Out, which really digs into the conspiracy angle to its natural conclusion, whereas in 1997, Mike Myers would re-use much of the first half of the film as a basis for Austin Powers’s shagalicious lifestyle. Having seen those movies before Blowup means that we’ve been provided a conclusion of sort to Antonioni’s unfinished work, and makes the film feel far less irritating. It may not be the best way to enjoy this film, but as someone who’s naturally not a good audience for the kind of European art-house film that Blowup aspires to (despite solid genre elements), then it’s probably the best I can hope for.
(On Cable TV, October 2018) Most movies that start with a great premise don’t manage to live up to their roaring start, and while that’s largely true to Village of the Damned (which is quite clearly separated in two sections), both the beginning and the end of the movie manage to be effective in their own way. As the story begins, an entire English village falls unconscious at once, and any attempt to enter the perimeter around the village leads to the valiant explorers also falling down unconscious. The government grows concerned as the hours add up. The mystery remains intact once the villagers wake up and the perimeter is lifted … especially, months later, when it turns out that most women of childbearing age in the village are now pregnant. Fast forward a few years, and the mysterious brood decidedly isn’t acting normal, what with their uniformly blonde hair, detached affect and supernatural powers. As the evidence accumulates that these kids aren’t all right, it’s up to the village professor (George Sanders, in a somewhat atypical but welcome heroic role) to take action … even when the kids can read his mind. The climax is still remarkably effective even with somewhat primitive techniques. Admirably short at 77 minutes, Village of the Damned remains resolutely low-key in its effects and setting—the result is all the more effective as a demonstration of what’s possible with limited means and a few good ideas. After all, creepy kids remain creepy no matter the decade they’re seen in.
(In French, On Cable TV, October 2018) I’m not working with the largest of reference pools when it comes to writer/director Jean-Luc Godard’s work, and so watching Pierrot le fou so soon after À bout de Souffle is a bit like going over much of the same terrain. Once again, we have a man (played by Jean-Paul Belmondo) on the run, pursued by violent forces, followed cinéma-vérité-style with a romantic relationship complicating everything, all leading to a tragic end. This is an overly reductive plot summary, but it does encapsulate my own similar reaction to the work. Except that Pierrot le fou isn’t quite as accomplished, as vital, as interesting as À bout de souffle. This being said, it’s Godard’s first colour film and clearly a more expensive production, which does have qualities of its own, slick and colourful. The presence of women and guns ensures that it’s not uninteresting, but it does have its annoyances, from free-flowing improvisational dialogue that doesn’t have the concision best suited to those kinds of films. I’m still glad I’ve seen it, but it’s one step shy of essential.
(In French, On TV, October 2018) Jerry Lewis is often portrayed as an acquired taste (“The French love him!” etc.), but I wonder how much of this perceived difficulty has to do with crucial miscalculations in his best-known films. It’s not uncommon, for instance, to watch The Nutty Professor and being extraordinarily irritated at the nominal protagonist of this Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde parody. Lewis, as the Julius Kelp counterpart of the dual role, is grating, infuriating, intolerable and abrasive. You really don’t want to spend any more time with him. On the other hand, his “monster” persona of Buddy Love is charming, suave, debonair and rather likable despite being an obnoxious egomaniac with a tendency to verbally abuse others. (One suspects that if this wasn’t a movie, we’d feel differently about him.) The jokes in the film are fairly standard (although they sometimes jump the strict limits of realism, meaning that there isn’t a lot here that we haven’t seen elsewhere). The period atmosphere can be interesting, though, and Lewis’ performance does have a few good moments even when they come at the expense of the character we’re supposed to cheer for at the end. Despite the feeling that at least some of this loathing for the protagonist is intentional, the result seems at odds with itself. As a result, The Nutty Professor isn’t quite as good as it could have been with some self-awareness and slight characterization alterations. And much of Lewis’s comic genius gets lost in the transition.
(Kanopy Streaming, October 2018) One seldom refers to a 1920s silent film as a thrill ride, but director Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera is different, especially with a semi-modern soundtrack. While the film is in the public domain and thus widely available on-line, do make an effort and pay the added price for the 1995 soundtrack as performed by The Alloy Orchestra (it’s the version available on Kanopy): it combines sound effects and pop-song-worthy musical hooks for a breathlessly exciting movie-watching experience. The score only underscores the frantic aspect of the film, which multiplies fast cuts in an expressionist representation of a day in the life of a 1920s Russian city. The one-cut-a-second style is meant to impress: The film is very playful in the way it’s executed (it starts with an audience filing into a theatre, pauses as the film’s editor takes a break, closes with the audience leaving the theatre and thus constantly winks at the audience) and not afraid to break the wall between filmmaking and film: time and time again, we see the camera (well, another camera) being set up for the audacious shots that follow. The flurry of cinematic techniques that pepper the film is just as impressive today as it was back then, jumping to split screen, optical effects and provocative editing of the Eisenstein school. By itself, it would be an impressive film—but with the right musical accompaniment, it becomes an authentic movie-watching experience. Man with a Movie Camera is one of those early classics of cinema not to be missed, and it rivals most subsequent movies ever made for sheer impact.
(Kanopy Streaming, October 2018) I’m not saying that there isn’t some potential in a movie taking on religion and rich people as satirical targets. But I’m saying that Viridiana isn’t it—not with its muddled message, punching down to the homeless as objects of scorn, fuzzy dramatic arc and few overriding commitment of cohesion. But then again—it’s from writer/director Luis Bunuel, meaning that consistency may not be the point. The plot, as loosely as it can be called as such, has to do with a noviciate visiting her wealthy uncle, avoiding his seduction, staying at the mansion following his death and the arrival of her half-cousin, trying to morally uplift some vagrants who then trash the mansion, avoiding another sexual assault and then settling into a ménage-a-trois with her half-cousin and a servant. Or something along these lines—I wasn’t exactly paying rapt attention to the film by then. There is some supposedly comic material here (usually mixing piety and vulgarity, such as when the homeless re-create The Last Supper) but it usually feels haughty and forced. I strongly suspect that the different social context matters: The Vatican designated the film as blasphemous, whereas there’s little here that modern audiences would find particularly shocking. (The film itself is still a bit off-putting, what with its multiple instances of sexual assault.) It doesn’t amount to much—Viridiana may have some potential, but it feels obvious and mean today, much of the satirical intention has been stripped away by the decades.
(Kanopy Streaming, October 2018) If you encounter a list of the best silent movies, chances are good that you’ll see La passion de Jeanne d’Arc somewhere on it—Despite overwhelming odds against its survival (the film’s master copy burned down twice!), the film is now widely acclaimed for still-striking cinematic techniques and an awe-inspiring central performance. Writer/director Carl Theodor Dreyer, asked to produce a film about Joan of Arc, chose to focus on the documented portions of her life, most specifically her trial and execution. Working from transcripts (giving to the film an exceptional historical accuracy that still eludes modern filmmakers), he focused much of the film on closeups of lead actress Renée Jeanne Falconetti (in her second and last screen role) as she undergoes Jeanne d’Arc’s trial. It’s an unflinching depiction of a naked performance which came with a price—Dreyer was reportedly abusive on-set. On cinematic history marks, La passion de Jeanne d’Arc is practically a must see for serious film students. Alas, when it comes to enjoyment… I’m certainly showing my own background when I say that to a post-Révolution tranquille French-Canadian, La passion de Jeanne d’Arc stinks of the kind of parochial Catholicism that my parents’ generation jettisoned almost completely. To be fair, it was the intention of the filmmakers to make the film hard to watch from a contemporary perspective, portraying Jeanne d’Arc as a martyr of the Church’s persecutions. But the gloriously French myth making is something that hasn’t travelled well ninety years later, especially considering the ocean’s worth of differences between the French and French-Canadians. Other audiences’ kilometrage will vary.
(In French, On Cable TV, October 2018) As someone who like cinematic form experimentation, there’s no way I wasn’t going to be interested in Le Violon Rouge, a Canadian film tacking not a single character, but a single object through centuries. Here, the story begins in the late seventeenth century, as a grieving violin-maker coats a new violin with a substance of particular meaning. From that dramatic starting point, we follow the violin through Vienna (1793), Oxford (1890s), Shanghai (1960s) and Montréal (1997) as the violin changes hands, creates passions and undergoes surprising changes in fate. As a concept, it’s quite lovely—there are a lot of novels of the sort (or close to it—see the bibliography of James A. Michener and Edward Rutherfurd) but for obvious reasons it’s a much harder form to do as a film—juggling several time periods is a nightmare in itself, not to mention the added production costs. As a result, I can’t help but compare the potential of Le violon rouge with its execution and being slightly disappointed—more time periods, stronger dramatic ironies, perhaps a longer running time in the form of a miniseries could have done the best justice to the idea. Still, what we do have with the finished film in 131 minutes isn’t negligible—the editing hopping back and forth between 1997 Montréal and earlier time period is admirable enough, but writer/director François Girard’s juggling of a large cast of character and five separate languages is an amazing feat in itself. Samuel L. Jackson, Colm Feore, Sandra Oh, French-Canadian cinema fixture Remy Girard and none other than Canadian director Don McKellar (who also co-wrote the film) are only some of the names in the ensemble cast. While Le violon rouge does have flaws, it’s also quite an interesting experiment in cinema itself and does warrant a look if that’s the kind of thing that interests you.
(In French, On Cable TV, October 2018) Even considering that I’m not a country music fan, it took me far longer than I care to admit to realize that Coal Miner’s Daughter wasn’t just a musical drama, but a biopic about major country music star Loretta Lynn. (To be fair, I did start to suspect something once Pasty Cline started playing a role in the film.) So, speaking about a perspective as ignorant as it’s possible to be, I must say that the film works well. It spends a lot of time detailing Lynn’s upbringing in a desperately poor Kentucky community, the first few years of her marriage (including a bit of domestic abuse too quickly glossed over) and only then her ascension to the top of the country charts. The struggles of an up-and-coming musical are convincingly rendered, and so are the other kinds of challenges that come with success and fame. The inclusion of a tragic subplot featuring Cline does add a bit of complications not usually found in most music biopics. Sissy Spacek is compelling in the title role as she transforms herself from a poor teenage bride to a country music superstar; Tommy Lee Jones has an early (and not entirely glorious) role as her husband. While I’m not a natural audience for that kind of film and even if the musical biopic subgenre has a history of repeating itself, Coal Miner’s Daughter remains a well-executed example of the form, with its 1980s patina further enhancing its look at 1960s country music.
(In French, On TV, October 2018) Oh, Michael Caine, how could you? I suppose that every long and distinguished career has its duds, but it’s still rare to associate such a great performer with a project as ill-advised from premise to polish as Blame it on Rio. It’s bad enough that the film has a fortysomething man having an affair with his friend’s 18-year-old daughter—the script does no one any favour as treating it as a sort of life-affirming comic experience for everyone involved. (Conveniently enough, the protagonist’s wife is later revealed to have had an affair with his friend … and the film thinks that explains and forgives everything.) For once, you can’t blame 2018-era viewers for revulsion as something that was de rigueur back in 1984—contemporary reviews of the film were just as horrified by the premise and nonplussed by its execution. Taking the form of a farce, Blame it on Rio compounds the wrongness of its premise by treating it as a source of wacky hijinks. How droll that the friend talks about killing his daughter’s unknown lover right in front of the protagonist! Even worse is the obvious approach of the film, which seems designed to cater to fortysomething fantasies rather than a realistic (or, heck, an empathetic) examination of the situation. No—in this film, the teenagers are merely fantasy figures actively looking for middle-aged lovers. (Try not to retch when the film makes a point of highlighting that the protagonist has known his teenager lover since she was a baby.) There is a remarkable disconnect between what the film assures us is normal, even light-hearted behaviour and what we suspect would happen if that scenario played in real-life. The whole thing feels dirty, and not the good kind of dirty—the kind where I can’t even bring myself to mention the name of the actress playing the teenager for fear of perpetuating the film’s voyeuristic exploitation of her nudity. To be fair, Rio is beautiful, there’s some material here that is mildly funny, and Caine gives it all he’s got—but the jokes fall flat considering the context, and we feel sorrier for Caine-the-actor than the character he’s playing. As a final indignity, the soundtrack is also too terrible for words. I thought last week that OSS 117: Rio ne répond plus was the worst film I’ve seen about Rio (and that came soon after Moonraker), but that title didn’t last long. Don’t blame Rio. Oh, Michael Caine, how could you?
(Third viewing, On Blu-ray, October 2018) This is probably my third viewing of Octopussy, first after seeing it as a kid when it first played broadcast TV, and then again later as a re-run as a teenager where I found it far more interesting given the film’s higher-than-usual-for-Bond sex-appeal. As a middle-aged man, I’m a bit cooler on the film, but not by much—Octopussy is a slightly better than average Bond, with a strong heroine and one of the finest sustained suspense sequences of the series. Moore can’t help but let some of his characteristic silliness contaminate the film (It would be significantly better with about ten seconds’ worth of cuts to take out the dumbest moments and sound effects) but he also manages one or two of his finest acting moments as he realizes the nature of a nuclear-driven plot to destabilize Europe. Fully playing into Cold War dynamics does lend a bit of authenticity to this instalment, even though the film seems determined to undermine this seriousness with sillier moments ranging from a chase through an Indian city where all the clichés are used in rapid succession, to a dumbfounding Tarzan yell. While I wasn’t particularly fond of Maud Adams in The Man with the Golden Gun, her character and appearance here are far more mature than most of the Bond Girls—she’s an older woman with significant power, and the film does toy with the idea of Bond finding something of an equal. Alas, Octopussy does mess it up with a seduction scene that is less than enthusiastically consensual, and then again when it transforms this capable character into a damsel in distress. It’s really too bad that a handful of sequences can significantly damage an otherwise enjoyable film. The stunts are rather good, some of the narrative twists are interesting, and then there’s that breathless chase sequence in Germany that pushes Bond to his limits and maintains the suspense for a surprisingly long time. Octopussy evens out to an OK film, with a few frustrating issues but not as bad as many of the films in the series—or even just in Moore’s run.
(On Cable TV, October 2018) I’m not generally a fan of torture horror and extreme gore, but I do have a softer spot for the Saw series for a few very specific reasons: I do like the rhythm of its films, especially when the soundtrack goes crazy in an attempt to distract us from weaker plot points. While the series has constantly been a let-down in the way it doesn’t fulfill its own moralistic objectives, it is special in how it constantly plays with structure to indulge in temporal misdirection and surprising revelations. The obvious weakness of such complex shenanigans constantly digging in the same material for twists, acolytes and time loops is that the series feels incredibly convoluted after eight instalments. That’s why I would have much rather preferred Jigsaw to have been a series reboot than yet another increasingly untenable instalment seven years later. But it only took the opening score to put me back into the series’ twisted aesthetics and the curious comfort of a film still going for broke in its direction, set design and plot twists. Jigsaw is pretty much exactly what we’d expect from another entry in the series. Convoluted traps, bloody gore, half-hearted morality plays, death-punctuated narrative and final revelations that don’t make sense the moment you think about them. Everything is incredibly convoluted, but that is part of the charm—don’t use real-world logic and you’ll be fine. This late instalment switches the rusty industrial visual atmosphere of the series to a more rural one, and it’s not much of an improvement … or a change. The Spierig Brothers handle direction duties, bringing their usual flair to the series’ established style without much of a clash. (I’d rather see the Spierigs do more original material, but if Jigsaw keeps them commercially viable, then I won’t complain too much while awaiting their next film.) Jigsaw’s adherence to the codes of the series means that experienced viewers will spot when the film pawns a few cards—whenever a death occurs with an unusual lack of gore, for instance, it’s easy to recognize it as A Clue to later revelations. Jigsaw, in other words, is no more and no less than another instalment perpetuating more of the same. Fans and haters will react accordingly.
(Kanopy Streaming, October 2018) There’s a good case to be made that Metropolis was one of the first (if not the first) attempt to cohesively portray a future and, as such, earns the crown of being the first feature-length science-fiction film of note. Yes, I know about Méliès’s Un Voyage Dans la Lune—but it’s a short, and it’s strictly focused on one specific idea, whereas Metropolis shows us an entire future, restrained to a town but filled with texture and details. The vision shown here by Fritz Lang is ambitious and expansive—you see some of these shots and can almost hear Lang pining for CGI. It’s a film that tackles a thicket of issues from mechanization of labour to human/robot romance, adding to the sense that we’re watching something more than just a simple adventure story set in the future. For modern viewers, it’s impossible to deny the frisson of concern given by some of the film’s sequences, knowing what we know about where 1927 Germany was headed a decade later. (Of particular note here is the all-Caucasian vision of the elites in the film. Try not to squirm when you see the role played by the film’s darker-skinned actors.) Still, Metropolis itself remains a masterpiece even ninety years later: Imaginative, influential, and still a yardstick for good science fiction.
(Kanopy Streaming, October 2018) A band of men get together to protect a village from bandits: If Seven Samurai feels familiar, it’s because it’s been very, very influential since its release. You can trace successors both direct (The Magnificent Seven, original and remake versions) and indirect (the entire ensemble-cast of heroes action movie genre) to what it solidified. Akira Kurosawa left behind two templates (in between this and Yojinbo) for the action movie and other filmmakers haven’t been shy in reusing it. The draw here is as much the story as the performances of the actors, especially Toshiro Mifune as the wild card of the group, skilled but not sane. Seven Samurai is long, but there are a lot of rewards along the way, and a very immersive sense of being in a feudal-Japan-era village as the action unfolds. This may be an older black-and-white film, but it’s certainly not boring.