544. Head

26Jan16

In 1968, the Monkees set out to make an art film, forgetting that they were not, strictly speaking, artists. The notorious commercial flop that followed was the final nail in the coffin of their careers, flummoxing their fans and ignored by everyone else. But it’s hard to reconcile all that tragedy with the pure joy that is HEAD. The film’s structure is a cyclical series of loosely connected vignettes, ranging from music videos to psychedelic dreams to anti-war satire to stoner sketch comedy. It’s hit-or-miss to be sure, but the overall effect is bizarre and fun. Even while the Monkees try to break away from their television personas, they just can’t help hamming it up for the camera. Those goofy performances may dampen the film’s artistic merit, but they are also what make it watchable 50 years later. And beneath the slapstick, there are some genuinely interesting cinematic experiments, and a still relevant commentary on pop culture and artifice. Basically, this is as entertaining as 60s counterculture filmmaking gets, and I’m so glad it exists despite what a bad idea it was at the time. Keep an eye out for cameos from Frank Zappa, Dennis Hopper, and the film’s coscreenwriter Jack Nicholson.

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Right from the get-go in Luis Buñuel’s BELLE DE JOUR, the viewer is dropped into the nebulous space between reality, fantasy, love, and desire, and then kept there for the remainder of the film. The story stars Catherine Deneuve as Séverine, a well-off housewife with an active imagination, who can’t manage to reconcile her kinky fantasies with her happy but sexless marriage. At least, not until she decides to become an upscale sex worker while her husband is away. I’ll admit that I enjoyed this film far more than I was expecting. For something that came out in the 60s, Séverine is given a surprising amount of agency over her own sexual development. The narrative is interspersed with erotic dreams in surrealist fashion, until it’s unclear what is and isn’t real. And in this way, her unusual sexual interests are presented without judgment, as though the film were a considered meditation on BDSM only pretending to be an exploitation film with a moral. Deneuve’s subtle performance seals the deal with a glimpse into some, but not quite all, of her character’s psyche. She takes the film’s complexity, and turns it into a puzzle to be solved. Not only is this now my favorite Buñuel film—it’s also one of my new favorite portrayals of female sexuality. Who would’ve thought?

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A Winner Is Me

02Dec15

Yeah, this is a few weeks late, but I’m just getting back from a vacation, okay? Anyway, I am so proud to announce that my contribution to the Criterion Blogathon, for CHILDREN OF PARADISE, won Best In Show for Most Original! It feels like cheating, because all I did was the same drawing-instead-of-review that I’ve been doing for years now, but I’ll take it. I’m still catching up on all the other entries to the Blogathon (like I said, I was on vacation). But there’s a lot of good stuff in there, and I encourage everyone to take a look. You can find the final list of contributions here.

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Here’s my contribution for the Criterion Blogathon, hosted by Criterion Blues, Speakeasy, and Silver Screenings. Make sure to take a look at everything else being blogged this week in the Criterion-verse.

Although it’s considered one of the greatest French films ever made, I was still a little wary going into a 3+ hour epic featuring a mime. I shouldn’t have worried. Marcel Carné’s CHILDREN OF PARADISE is engaging and perfectly paced throughout its two parts, and the pantomime is delightful. Set in the early 1800s Parisian theater scene, the story revolves around the beautiful Garance and the men who fall for her, all based on historical figures: an actor, a crook, an aristocrat, and yes, a mime. The story woven between these characters is constantly shifting, highlighting new aspects of love, humanity, and the stage at every turn. It’s a dense, complex film that feels light and effortless. And while the performances are all outstanding, it’s Jean-Louis Barrault’s portrayal of the lovesick mime that’s the most difficult to look away from. I’m sorry I ever doubted it.

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Hey everyone! There’s a blogathon just for Criterion starting soon, and as lovers of fine cinema, you should probably follow along. I’ll be posting my contribution sometime tomorrow. You can read the daily digests here on Criterion Blues, or you can look ahead to the full schedule here on Speakeasy. Talk to you soon!

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In DON’T LOOK NOW, Nicholas Roeg’s spooky supernatural thriller, Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie find themselves in Venice after the death of their daughter. Amidst the narrow maze of canals and bridges—a perfect setting for getting lost and some what’s-around-the-corner anxiety—they encounter blind psychics, strange visions, and ominous warnings. I’ve seen enough Nicholas Roeg at this point to recognize his hallmarks: story told through unexpected editing and the juxtaposition of imagery. Here, that collage style of filmmaking is at its most refined, and ramps up the sense of unease that permeates the film even when nothing bad is happening. It all leads to a jarring conclusion which, very unfortunately, I had already seen a clip of years ago. Sometimes that doesn’t matter. But in this case, I think I missed out on the full impact of the film’s slowly building sense of mystery. So my advice this Halloween is if you haven’t seen this film yet, and you don’t know what happens, consider yourself lucky and see it now! Quick! Before the spoilers get to you, too! Consider yourself warned.

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226. Onibaba

13Aug15

In 14th century war-torn Japan, among overgrown waving grass and an ominous pit in the earth, live an old woman and her daughter-in-law. They barely subsist on selling the gear of murdered lost soldiers, but their careful balance is threatened when one of the local men returns home—and a cursed demon mask appears shortly after. ONIBABA is a dark but fun tale of two women who have essentially sold their souls to survive. It’s full of tension, horror, eroticism, and a pinch of humor, all heightened by some fantastic acting and black-and-white art direction. The two main actors seem to have mastered the cold, dead stare, while the wilderness around them perfectly mirrors their wild desperation. I can think of few films in which the landscape itself seems so dangerously charged. Scenes of the wind ripping through the grass, set to a jarring and experimental soundtrack, are enough to set the tone for the whole film from the start. And watching the vulgar, macabre story slowly unfold from there is a treat.

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Whenever I sit down to yet another film about filmmaking, I have a hard time not rolling my eyes. Yes, I get it that filmmakers like talking about their immediate surroundings; who doesn’t? But Preston Sturges’ SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS places its scope well beyond Hollywood. Set at the tail end of the Great Depression, it stars Joel McCrea as Sullivan, a director of light comedies who wants to make a serious film about poverty. (He wants to call it, incidentally, O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?—maybe that’s old news for you diehard Coen brothers fans, but it was a fun surprise for me.) When it’s pointed out how little he knows about trouble, he decides to hit the road with ten cents in his pocket to find out. He has a few false starts, but succeeds in meeting the glamorous yet plucky Veronica Lake who wants to tag along. Unable to say no to such flawless shiny hair, they set off to experience poverty together, depicted in a loving silent montage. I’ll admit that Pulp’s “Common People” kept playing as the soundtrack in my head, but this is a satire that recognizes the flaws of the well-meaning. The beauty is that making fun of Sullivan’s desire to comment on poverty and the human condition also allows Sturges to do just that. And he does it warmly and movingly and full of humor, especially towards the end, concluding on what may well be his career’s thesis. No wonder that the Coen brothers wanted to pay homage to that.

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BLACK ORPHEUS, as the title might imply, is a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus, set in Rio de Janeiro with an all-black cast during the vibrant festivities of Carnival. As a refresher (because I had to look it up myself), Orpheus is the musician who ventures into Hades to retrieve his dead love. Unfortunately, the more compelling parts of that story (the going-into-hell parts) get far less screen time than the introduction of Eurydice and the love triangle that results. But this isn’t a film about the uneven storyline or the undeveloped characters. It’s only about the colors, costumes, dancing, and of course the revolutionary bossa nova soundtrack, which apparently paved the way for João Gilberto to do his thing. It’s certainly a fun film to watch, especially once the celebrations get fully underway, and it has some neat surreal elements towards the end. The viewer should be aware that the film’s clear love of Brazilian culture is a little tainted by its outsider French, white director. But that won’t stop me from my love of drawing dancing people.

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454. Europa

17Apr15

I make no secret of the fact that I don’t really like Lars von Trier. (See my entry for Antichrist.) So I was wary of watching EUROPA, one of his earlier works—and pleasantly surprised when I actually enjoyed it. The story follows an American pacifist who has decided to take work in post-WWII Germany, of all places, as a sleeping car conductor. He falls in love with the railway magnate’s daughter, and soon finds himself embroiled in violent, political events that force him into choosing a side. It’s a passable plot made exponentially more interesting with the film’s beautiful cinematography. The visuals seem borrowed straight out of classic Hollywood and then deconstructed, so that color mixes with black and white, characters interact with their projected backdrops, and the romantic railroad setting suddenly feels dirty and claustrophobic. Add to that Max von Sydow’s disembodied voice implying that the whole thing is simply a hypnotist’s suggestion, and the end result is something strange, beautiful, and—compared to other von Trier films—sort of fun.

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