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‘Silent Light’: Carlos Reygadas’ Cosmic and Personal Drama of Austere Simplicity

Written by Colin Stacy, April 25, 2017 at 8:54 am 

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Looking back on this still-young century makes clear that 2007 was a major time for cinematic happenings — and, on the basis of this retrospective, one we’re not quite through with ten years on. One’s mind might quickly flash to a few big titles that will be represented, but it is the plurality of both festival and theatrical premieres that truly surprises: late works from old masters, debuts from filmmakers who’ve since become some of our most-respected artists, and mid-career turning points that didn’t necessarily announce themselves as such at the time. Join us as an assembled team, many of whom were coming of age that year, takes on their favorites.

“Amen” is the first word uttered in Silent Light an appropriate and reverent punctuation to follow the glory that director Carlos Reygadas unveils in the film’s opening minutes. Beginning in a milky, celestial darkness that then twists away from the heavens and tracks forward into earth’s blazing, tree-flanked horizon, Reygadas draws the stage curtains of this universe with a time-lapse sequence of a northern Mexico sunrise. The sounds of livestock, birds, and insects swell like a primal symphony; they are gatekeepers keeping watch o’er a familiar land made bizarre by this aboriginal gaze. Yet the opening prayer doesn’t end in the field, but a farmhouse. A Mennonite family sits around the breakfast table anticipating the word. All heads are bowed and eyes and mouths shut as the father sits patient and stoic, as if looking for a breach in meditative spirit in which to conclude their grace. The mother lifts her head and softly stares at him, a genteel yet troubled gaze. The waiting burdens the air as tension reaches a crescendo — then, finally, the word.

It’s this family with whom the narrative is concerned, and the opening sequence imbues the film with a promethean quality that implies the vast otherness of their world. Set in the milieu of Old Order Mennonites living in northern Mexico, Silent Light is about a common man’s wrestling with the demands of his faith and the desire of his flesh. Johan is married to Esther but has fallen in love with Marianne. These competing passions lead him to a crisis of faith: he cannot reconcile the division in his heart, especially since he feels that God has placed him in this situation. Reygadas lays the tension out with an austere simplicity. He is not interested in finding quick resolution but in slowly immersing the situation and audience into the world containing this story. It’s both cosmic and personal.

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s masterpiece Ordet often comes up in writings on this film. There are indeed similarities in narrative and theme: a believer’s faith tested by impossible circumstances, there is the staging of the death and resurrection of a certain character, names and likenesses are shared, and we witness the centralization of a staunch religious community. And while Reygadas does indeed find inspiration in Dreyer, there’s no need to belabor a comparison wherein Silent Light is seen as the inferior or borrowed work. Each is fruitful according to their respective fascinations in this vast, shared subject.

Reygadas’ formal concerns are where he diverges from Dreyer comparisons. Silent Light is an expansive vision shot in widescreen, mostly static shots. Scenes are flattened in perspective, as if almost every image were a landscape. This spatial approach imposes a paradigm of egalitarianism upon land and person. Close-ups are like horizons, and landscapes like faces. When Reygadas does move his camera, it is to highlight what’s in the foreground by tracking forward or to switch perspective with a slow pan. His sustained patience yields a texture of graciousness, as if opposing the notion that the universe is an oppressive, fatalistic force and positing it as one where there is liberty and consequence in equal measure. The existential weight of one’s faith may impede desire and action, yet the world these men and women function within allows them free will — even if that means they sometimes choose to remain static.

Time is also given to asides that don’t amplify the conflict so much as build an emotional and textural world around it. (Reygadas acknowledges that even a man’s outright infidelity must be treated delicately, since there are lives lived adjacent to it.) There’s a lovely reverie that takes place when the family visits a creek to bathe. It’s an immersion into a moment of experience, an invitation to be present and to partake of life’s small beauties. Shots of the kids swimming in the water, bathing, talking quietly, and playing in the grass are observed as simple vérité delights. And when Johan seeks counsel from his father, the scene starts as an observance of process: a morning begun by his father and mother milking cows. When he and his father venture out of the barn into the snowy expanse, the camera does a full 360-degree pan of the landscape, an envelopment in a gloriously pure domain.

Johan’s conflict does come to a breaking point when one character is no longer able to bear the weight of the affliction. Despite the guilt of religious burden, this is indeed a merciful world, and that character’s passage from misery to solace is dealt with in a way that doesn’t yield tragedy but genuine hope. Reygadas chooses not to play by the rules of realism but to allow cinema to function in a fantastical, transformative way that’s not often permitted. Silent Light is a film where everything that lives and breathes is precious, and so life doesn’t have to be annihilated just for lessons to be learned.

Every frame is embedded with a profound reverence for its subjects. There is a visible closeness between Reygadas and his actors, as if the film weren’t just a straightforward narrative film but also part documentary. Using mainly non-actors from actual Mennonite communities in Mexico, Reygadas utilizes their rudimentary skills much like Robert Bresson or Eugène Green: as a means to craft vessels out of characters. The frank simplicity of the inexperienced yields an honesty that Reygadas complicates with his narrative. That’s why Silent Light has the feeling of pure observance — that and the belief of these Mennonites that one shouldn’t have their image captured.

The concept of the graven image, and therein the sanctity of life, coheres this work. It took Reygadas years to convince Cornelio Wall, who plays Johan, to allow him to film his community. (That it was the story of a doubting Mennonite adulterer was an obstruction as well.) In a world full of images and imagemakers, it is impossible to fathom an entire society whose pictures haven’t been taken — not to mention one that believes this is a blasphemy against our very creation. Their reasoning comes from Exodus 20:4, which commands the Israelites — and, now, Christians — against the worship of images (i.e. creation) over God (i.e. the Creator). That’s why Silent Light feels like something ancient: it’s a film filled with people who have never been in front of a camera. It’s an anomaly in our modern age. When the cosmos twist into being at the beginning, it’s an invitation into a world no one has ever witnessed on camera before. It is part-documentary, a vérité discovery, and also a work about us all: these are a sort of mythic, primal people, yet ones who can speak in the truths that we ourselves know. The universe is a vast place, full of mystery and delight, shared by a host of faces overseen by a singular silent light.

Follow our complete retrospective on the best films of 2007.

‘To Be or Not to Be’: Ernst Lubitsch’s Comedy of (T)Errors

Written by Darek Kuźma, April 22, 2017 at 9:58 am 

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Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, that controversial World War II farce/satire/dark comedy about a group of ham actors who go on a mission to save Polish resistance from the Gestapo – and, in the course of doing so, ridicule the Nazi war machine as well as Adolf Hitler himself – recently turned 75, and is one of those films that age like good wine.

“Shall we drink to a blitzkrieg?” seems precisely the kind of question you should not put into one of your actors’ mouth in a farcical comedy shot at the beginning of 1940s, when the Nazis were gradually turning Europe into a wasteland. “I prefer a slow encirclement” would be, then, a perfect illustration of a witty repartee every director making movies at that time ought to stay away from. Yet Ernst Lubitsch, that German virtuoso of sophisticated American comedy who taught millions of viewers how to use allusion, innuendo, and pointed satire with elegance and style, made his To Be or Not to Be a film searing with this type of humor — the one so multilayered that it makes you react in one way, then leads to the realization that what you laughed at was only the tip of the iceberg. Or that invades your senses with a seemingly exploitative or tasteless gag that proves playful only after you delve deeper into its meaning.

Doesn’t make any sense? It does seem a bit dry on paper. But try watching one of Lubitsch’s comedic masterpieces, including To Be or Not to Be or his cinematic evergreen Ninotchka, co-written by Billy Wilder, and you will be immersed in a world of sophisticated comedy of the “they don’t make them like this anymore” variety. To Be or Not to Be is a film with lots of intellectual banter, clever references, numerous farcical disguises, cultural insults, sexual undertones, and morbidly funny gags at the expense of the Nazis — including the one with two soldiers jumping out of a plane without parachutes because the Fuhrer said so. Oh, and dozens of Hitler jokes, including the running one that goes: “They named a brandy after Napoleon, they made a herring out of Bismarck, and the Fuhrer is going to end up as a piece of cheese!”

If you are offended only from reading this, you probably should not see To Be or Not to Be, but know this: Lubitsch was not a callous hack of a director aiming at the money and controversy, and he did not intend to disrespect anyone fighting for freedom and saving the lives of others. Far from it. This was actually his idiosyncractic tribute to all of them. Why such a form? Lubitsch thought laughter was sometimes the only way of dealing with traumatic events, or simply a starting point to a discussion. Because he strongly believed that the United States’ rigid neutrality stance is not the right path, and wanted to address this issue with what he was best at. Because he regarded cinema as a way of expressing most complex ideas in a manner that is simple and clear to all who want to listen. And because of many other things.

The truth is, had he done To Be or Not to Be two years earlier, he could have competed with Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, another masterpiece of uneasy comedy aimed at ridiculing the Nazis and appealing to the good side of humanity. Yet Lubitsch made his film, probably his last truly great one, at the end of 1941, just before the attack on Pearl Harbor led the United States to join the war while American filmmakers were encouraged to enhance the patriotic mood and be more responsible with how they presented their cinematic stories. And it was released just after the tragic death in an airplane crash of Carole Lombard, then 33, the film’s female star. Needless to say, cinemagoers were not in the mood to laugh at war, they did not flood the theaters, and the critics were not amused at what they saw as a piece of fluff entertainment. This started to change slightly during the following years, and ultimately led To Be or Not to Be’s commercial profitability. More important, though, is that the film found an increasingly large group of admirers who saw it for what it was, eventually hailing it as a masterpiece.

Nowadays, after we have lived through several decades of dark satires and are able to fully appreciate their complexity and imaginative execution, it is especially difficult not to admire how Lubitsch made a trailblazing lighthearted war comedy out of such horrifying events. (The jumping-from-a-plane gag looks more akin to a ZAZ spoof than anything else.) And it is quite impossible not to marvel at To Be or Not to Be’s verbal beauty. “What he did to Shakespeare,” says a Gestapo officer about an actor he disliked, “we are doing now to Poland,” without ever being tasteless. “I can drop three tons of dynamite in two minutes,” boasts a young Polish aviator to a woman, unaware that his romantic comment just made the erotically inclined viewers giggle with joy. “Heil Hitler!” shouts one actor playing a German officer, to which his colleague impersonating the Fuhrer responds subversively “Heil me!” And then there’s the scene in which Carole Lombard’s Maria wants to play a concentration-camp sequence in a stunning dress to outshine her husband Joseph (Jack Benny, perfectly cast). And then there’s… you know, just watch the film and see for yourself.

In going with To Be or Not to Be where nobody except Chaplin dared, Lubitsch did us a great favor. It may have not been appreciated or understood at the time of its premiere — in that sense proving a slow encirclement, not a blitzkrieg — but today it is crystal-clear why the film deserves its canonization. We can admire it, and laugh at it, and learn from it. Just perfect.

To Be or Not to Be screens at Film Forum on April 23 and is available on The Criterion Collection.

40 Films to See This Summer

Written by The Film Stage, April 18, 2017 at 8:30 am 

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The summer movie season is upon us, which means a seemingly endless pile-up of superheroes, reboots, and sequels will crowd the multiplexes. While a select few show some promise, we’ve set out to highlight a vast range of titles — 40 in total — that will arrive over the next four months, many of which we’ve already given our stamp of approval.

There’s bound to be more late-summer announcements in the coming months, and a number of titles will arrive on VOD day-and-date, so follow us on Twitter for the latest updates. In the meantime, see our top 40 picks for what to watch this summer below, in chronological order, and let us know what you’re looking forward to most in the comments.

Berlin Syndrome (Cate Shortland; May 5)

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While the recent 10 Cloverfield Lane and Room told stories of captivity with various hooks — science-fiction and the process of healing, respectively — Cate Shortland’s approach in her latest, harrowing drama Berlin Syndrome makes room for more nuance and depth. Locked in a Berlin apartment, there is little hope for our protagonist for nearly the entire runtime. And while some of the story’s turns can feel overtly manipulative, Shortland finds a bracing humanity in depicting the perverse situation of Stockholm syndrome. – Jordan R. (full review)

Violet (Bas Devos; May 12)

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After a success festival run, which included winning at Berlinale for Best Feature Film, Violet, the feature directorial debut of writer-director Bas Devos, will finally hit stateside. The drama follows a young boy (Cesar De Sutter), the sole witness to the stabbing of his friend by a BMX gang. Now, Jonas, who stood silent and passive as his friend was murdered, must process the dark journey of coping and turmoil of childhood on the cusp of adulthood. Shot by Nicolas Karakatsanis (The DropBullhead) — partially with gorgeous 8-perf 65mm film — Violet looks to be a lush, harrowing portrait of trauma and youth, and a startling debut for Devos. – Mike M.

Hounds of Love (Ben Young; May 12)

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Director Ben Young’s feature debut is the kind of film you wish you could un-see – except not really. Sure, its extended depictions of physical and psychological abuse will upset/offend many. At the same time, there’s no denying the level of craft and performance involved that probes human depravity so compellingly, you’re left with much more than just rattled nerves and a taste of bile. – Zhou-Ning Su (full review)

Paris Can Wait (Eleanor Coppola; May 12)

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With her last feature directorial credit being contributions to 1991’s Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s ApocalypseEleanor Coppola is perhaps better known as Francis Ford Coppola’s wife than a filmmaker. Yet, she triumphantly returns this year with one of the sexiest and most joyful road movies in some time with Paris Can Wait. – Jordan R. (full review)

The Woman Who Left (Lav Diaz; May 19)

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Lav Diaz’s Golden Lion winner from this year’s Venice Film Festival feels like something of a surprise because, for all its extended shots, luminous black-and-white photography, and socio-historical weight, The Woman Who Left is ultimately an unostentatious work. Compared to, say, Norte, The End of History’s remarkably grim ending, with its reaches into fantasy / metaphysics (don’t forget that Tarkovsky-esque levitation), there doesn’t seem to be quite the same need to impress or belabor the point. – Ethan V. (full review)

Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott; May 19)

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In the Alien franchise, it’s difficult not to seem old hat. That even goes for creator Ridley Scott, who managed to bungle the long-awaited and subsequently frustrating Prometheus, a not-quite return to form for a series long overdue for one. While Covenant (which follows the crew of the titular ship bound for a planet in the far side of the galaxy, only to stumble upon a dark and dangerous world) has the potential to feel like more of the same, its initial trailers are boasting some serious creep factor (shower aliens, back bursting, eww) – something that Scott has proved he can still excel at. – Conor O.

The Survivalist (Stephen Fingleton; May 19)

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Post-apocalyptic thrillers don’t come much leaner or meaner than Northern Irish director Stephen Fingleton’s gripping debut feature The Survivalist. The world’s population has polluted the earth to the point of extinction – a fact snappily brokered by an opening graph comparing increasing oil production to a rapid decline in the worldwide population – with the few survivors living off the scraps that the land provide. Our rugged unnamed hero (Martin McCann) lives in a rural shack surrounded by woodland, spending his days growing crops in his garden and whiling away his time looking over photos of his past, presumably long dead, wife. – Ed F. (full review)

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (Steve James; May 19)

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Steve James’ filmography has long been about finding entry into larger conversations through intimate portraits. The director’s landmark debut, Hoop Dreams, and latter-day efforts like 2014’s monument to critic Roger Ebert, Life Itself, don’t have much in common on the surface, but they both use their central characters to tell larger stories about big picture topics like structural dysfunction and the purpose of film criticism. – Michael S. (full review)

Hermia & Helena (Matías Piñeiro; May 26)

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For beginning with a dedication to Setsuko Hara, recently departed muse of Ozu and Naruse, Hermia & Helena — the new film by Viola and The Princess of France director Matías Piñeiro — perhaps aligns us to be especially attuned to the Argentinian auteur’s use of female collaborators. One to already emphasize the charisma and big-screen friendly faces of frequent stars Agustina Munoz and Maria Villar, he still seems to have an ability to make them points of representation, not fetish. – Ethan V. (full review)

War Machine (David Michôd; May 26)

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Brad Pitt has gone back to World War II a handful of times in the last decade or so, but this summer he’ll be taking on a more modern battle with War MachineDavid Michôd‘s follow-up to The Rover is based on Michael Hastings‘ novel The Operators, which depicts the rise and fall of General Stanley McChrystal, the commanding general of international and U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Also starring Tilda Swinton, Sir Ben Kingsley, Anthony Michael Hall, Topher Grace, Will Poulter, Lakeith Stanfield, Emory Cohen, John Magaro, RJ Cyler, Alan Ruck, Scoot McNairy and Meg Tilly, this satirical comedy will hopefully flex a new muscle for Michôd after his previous films. – Jordan R.

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‘Death Proof’ and Quentin Tarantino’s Thunderous Roar of Total Cinematic Adrenaline

Written by Willow Maclay, April 6, 2017 at 11:28 am 

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Looking back on this still-young century makes clear that 2007 was a major time for cinematic happenings — and, on the basis of this retrospective, one we’re not quite through with ten years on. One’s mind might quickly flash to a few big titles that will be represented, but it is the plurality of both festival and theatrical premieres that truly surprises: late works from old masters, debuts from filmmakers who’ve since become some of our most-respected artists, and mid-career turning points that didn’t necessarily announce themselves as such at the time. Join us as an assembled team, many of whom were coming of age that year, takes on their favorites.

Grindhouse was intended to be the ultimate homage to the kinda cool, kinda sexy, kinda divine (but not too divine as to make you realize you’re still dealing with trash), kinda exploitation cinema on which Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez grew up. The directors sought to replicate the experience of the rat-infested midnight-movie houses that played kung fu pictures you’d later hear sampled in Wu-Tang Clan tracks. The beauty of the ’70s grindhouse experience was too large simply to be lost to time; but instead of repackaging the same, artists such as Tarantino found their voice within the homage via Kill Bill and Jackie Brown, which freely took music cues (and everything else) from movies like the pinky violence feminist revenge picture Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, as well as damn near all of Pam Grier’s oeuvre. Death Proof in particular was supposed to be his ultimate gift to the movies he grew up on. The problem: no one saw it. While Tarantino has been largely deitized, ten years later, it’s still the only film from the director that hasn’t been reclaimed as some sort of lost classic, and the sad truth of the matter is that it should be. In indulging his own childhood film fantasies, Tarantino distilled the very vibe of his movies into a thunderous roar of total cinematic adrenaline and effortless cool.

On the surface, Death Proof appears to be a reworking of the ’70s muscle-car film, best exemplified by Vanishing Point, Two Lane Blacktop, and Dirty Mary, Crazy LarryVanishing Point in particular is this biblical text within the text of Death Proof — characters do everything from name drop it to seek out an exact replica white Dodge Challenger with a 440 engine to rev into the countryside for a little game of ship’s mast. To merely pin this as a sister film to Vanishing Point is nevertheless to undermine its true nature as a both a slasher film and girl-gang movie. When Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) appears with the crisp Austin, Texas sun baking the hood of his shatter-machine, it is a statement of foreboding that a bad man has just rolled into town. Tarantino emphasizes this by having the vehicle take on a Michael Myers like approach as it creeps along the streets following Jungle Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier) and her band of girlfriends to the tune of giallo soundtrack artists (e.g. Ennio Morricone and Pino Donaggio). Atop the hood is a skull and lightning bolts followed by a jet black paint scheme of all-encompassing intimidation for anyone who’d dare stand beside Stuntman Mike’s vehicular chrome sword. Let’s just say it’s a hell of a ride.

Kurt Russell’s cinematic image is one of an eternal badass — his Snake Plissken eyepatch, his flamethrower in The Thing — and, on the surface, Stuntman Mike seems to fall in line with those John Carpenter creations, but it’s a different Carpenter-Russell collaboration that Death Proof reveals itself as: Big Trouble in Little China‘s emasculated Jack Burton. There’s a clue for his characterization early on when he’s seen hanging out at the bar Jungle Julia and her friends crash with the same tank-top Burton wore in that 1986 film hanging in the corner alongside all the posters of films everyone has seen within Tarantino’s universe. Mike’s even self-described as a teetotaler who can’t hold his alcohol, building up to his one big drink of the evening: a virgin piña colada. It’s now clear that the car’s over-compensating for something, and that Jungle Julia and her pals are actually the coolest motherfuckers in the room. By so clearly clipping his own constructed masculinity with these pathetic signifiers — the over-abundant car, the tough job, and the longing to just get one lap-dance from this gang of girls he can’t seem to comfortably interact with — Tarantino and Russell subvert typical slasher movie tropes with the honesty that this villain isn’t Johnny Cash cool, but sniveling, pathetic, and blown away by the mere existence of womanhood.

Stuntman Mike functions as a disruptor of female friendship when he butts his way into the hallowed space of their conversations and hang-outs. Tarantino is famous, and rightfully so, for his ability to write long scenes of discourse, and in Death Proof‘s witches brew of muscle-car, slasher, and exploitation cinema there’s a dash of the hang-out movie — of course, where characters simply just sit and chat about whatever. The finest of these sequences are the long conversations between Jungle Julia, Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito), and Shanna (Jordan Ladd), who’d like everyone to know it’s Shanna-Banana not Shauna-Banauana, “Because there’s nothing worse than girls named Shanna being called Shauna,” in her own words. Like any real gang of women who are ride-or-die together, these girls have a language of specificity that they’ve created together through years of friendship. They rag on each other, but love one another too, to the point where there’s total openness between the three girls about everything from their sex lives to what drugs they’re using. Mike, though, is a wedge — and like all the other pathetic men in the film they try to find their way into Jungle Julia’s gang of women through sex. When Julia & her crew decide to go back to their cabin, just us girls, the men all go off on their own paths, but Mike sticks around & when they end up on the road together Mike kills these women by crashing his Death Proof car (the title is literal) head-on into Jungle Julia’s ride.

The film is split into two parts; in the second we once again meet a group of women that Stuntman Mike is stalking; but here, he failed to realize that he was about to mess with the wrong group of vixens. Shanna wears a Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! tee-shirt in the first half, but it would’ve been more accurate for Zoe (Zoe Bell), Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), or Kim (Tracie Thoms) to wear. We again hang out with women as they talk about everything. They work on a movie set together (Zoe & Kim are stuntwomen in their own right) and plot their week off. Zoe and Kim want nothing more than to chase after the dream of driving the Dodge Challenger from Vanishing Point, and there just so happens to be a man selling that exact vehicle in the back-hollers of Lebanon, Tennessee, where these women are stationed. Abernathy and Lee (the naive hanger-on of the group, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead) don’t see what the fuss is about over an old car, but it’s the car from Vanishing Point and they’re willing to indulge in their friends obsessions, because that’s what besties do. Viewing these scenes of conversation, it cannot be overstated just how important Sally Menke was to Quentin Tarantino’s work. She edits the dialogue in such a way that makes viewers feel as if they’re present, cutting between the women as the conversation swaps point of view and moves freely between one another. In the filmography up through Inglorious Basterds there was always this driving sense of communication between characters that brought out the very swagger of Tarantino’s words, and that couldn’t have been accomplished without Menke’s editing prowess. Tarantino has become over-zealous with his own dialogue in the past few years, but before Menke passed away she gave his films their very drive.

The car chase between Stuntman Mike’s black-winged angel of death and Kim’s brand-new white horse of a Dodge Challenger is one of the best things Tarantino has ever shot. He was adamant about not filming the chase with CGI, feeling there hadn’t been a single good scene of this nature since James Cameron’s Terminator 2. In Tarantino’s own words, “With CGI he couldn’t feel it in his gut.” There is something primal and muscular about the final showdown between the two vehicles. It’s a sequence that has two narrative beats split in two where Stuntman Mike is the villain chasing and attempting to murder the unsuspecting girls — in his eyes, it’s all a bit of fun — and the other is the revenge. He slams his car into theirs as Zoe Bell slides all over the hood of her dream muscle car  through the hills of a Sunny California meant to be Tennessee. During this chase, Tarantino’s cinematic universe collides with reality, and it’s something he has never tried to accomplish since. As the factory-line vehicles with no personality trail Kim and Mike on the freeway, there’s a real sense of fissure between a world he considers lost and the world in which we reside. It’s almost experimental, pushing the boundaries of what we’ve come to know in a Quentin Tarantino movie. It’s an image like animation spilling over into live-action: cinema cleaving into reality.

When Mike actually runs the girls down and corners them, he exits his car for a little bit of gloating and flirting as he screams to the girls, “That was fun. We should do it again some time,” like some sort of maniac who can only have sex with his car. Kim doesn’t take this too lightly, though, and shoots Stuntman Mike in the arm. What follows is a reversal of the previous sequence with Kim & Co. chasing Mike down as he whinges like a totally pathetic villain at his gunshot wound that barely grazed him, all while attempting to evade the girls in his now-beat-up car. He can’t quite get rid of them, and after a long climactic chase, the girls flip his car upside down. He crawls out begging for mercy but doesn’t find any. The camera follows Kim, Abernathy, and Zoe, focusing on the sway of their hips in skin-tight jeans with symbiotic motion as they approach Stuntman Mike — and, like that iconic image of Varla laying waste to men on the poster of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, they, too, find their calling in the circular camerawork of the beatdown of this creep who uses his car for sexual gratification. In the ’70s, this scene would’ve been transgressive, an oppressive force knocked down by those he attempted to victimize, and it still carries some level of deep satisfaction today. Due to the near-constant vocal references to Vanishing Point, it would be easy to consider that Tarantino’s focal point. But this is his girl-gang movie. Chick Habit? You betcha.

Follow our complete retrospective on the best films of 2007.

‘Sunshine’ and Humankind’s Poetic, Horrific Will to Live

Written by Sydney Wegner, April 6, 2017 at 9:14 am 

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Looking back on this still-young century makes clear that 2007 was a major time for cinematic happenings — and, on the basis of this retrospective, one we’re not quite through with ten years on. One’s mind might quickly flash to a few big titles that will be represented, but it is the plurality of both festival and theatrical premieres that truly surprises: late works from old masters, debuts from filmmakers who’ve since become some of our most-respected artists, and mid-career turning points that didn’t necessarily announce themselves as such at the time. Join us as an assembled team, many of whom were coming of age that year, takes on their favorites.

Humans are nothing if not stubborn. Through our entire existence, we have insisted upon our right to remain alive, evolving a brain so that we might push against anything that stood in our way to conquer what we took to be rightfully ours. We decided that simply being born granted us the right to beat the earth into submission. We expanded through the most extreme weather conditions and forced bodies to adapt to landscapes that never wanted us there. No matter what the odds, no matter how many floods or droughts or hurricanes or fires may have come to wipe us out, we persisted. We inherited something precious and stripped it clean, slowly destroying everything given to us because we felt everything wasn’t enough. It’s horrific, but there is something poetic about it as well. In the face of indifferent destruction we decided that the toil and pain was worth living and loving and hating and dying. It’s practically an underdog story: in the battle of Man vs. Nature, we may have sabotaged ourselves, but we showed nature who’s boss in the process.

Danny Boyle‘s Sunshine takes place in 2057, and lies somewhere between 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Core. The sun is about to burn out, so we have to detonate a bomb inside it to recharge. We have used up the last of our resources in order to build the second bomb, and this shot is the last one. Following the crew of the Icarus II, seven years after the first ship lived up to its fate-tempting name by failing on this same mission, Sunshine begins as they near their destination. Everything is running smoothly until they pick up the distress signal of the original Icarus, and must decide whether to continue on their course or divert to investigate. As with most “conveniently mismatched spaceship crew” sci-fi movies, some fissures are apparent, relations are tense, and human error imminent. Everything hangs on a choice, and then everything slowly falls apart.

The most remarkable thing about Sunshine is the way it blends the clean, cold lines of mechanical equipment with the textures and flaws of its human counterparts. The camera glides over slick surfaces but focuses often on faces, displaying a particular fetish for eyes. For such a future-chic picture it has a very visceral, almost primal feeling, and we are always in touch with the messy reality of the subjects against the industrial background of electronics. Unsurprisingly, the use of light factors in heavily. The scenes in the ship’s interior are soaked in blues and greys, spliced together with piercing flashes of sunlight and the crew’s awed faces bathed in orange. It’s an obvious trick, but highly effective, and the impeccable blending of CGI coupled with beautiful washes of color create an overwhelming assault on the eyes, something so sensual and bright that it feels heavy on one’s chest. Further enhancing the lush futuristic aesthetic, much of Sunshine is made abstract with quick cuts, extreme close-ups, and effects blurring the action. It all unfolds in front of an indifferent sun, the closest thing to a tangible God that our species may ever know. Much of the film’s horror lies in its very presence, as at least a vengeful God acknowledges that we are alive. The sun only sits uncaring, seeming infinite. Searle (Cliff Curtis), the crew’s psychologist, spends much of his time in the sun’s rays at the observation deck. “The point about darkness is, you float in it. You and the darkness are distinct from each other because darkness is an absence of something, it’s a vacuum. But total light envelops you. It becomes you,” he says in explanation. The sunbathing serves as something of an invigorating drug, and the crews of each Icarus mission seem uncontrollably drawn to its power. The sun is life itself, the light at the end of the tunnel, and as fire can create or destroy, the sun is to be respected and feared. This is a story that is told only in extremes of hot and cold, peace and chaos.

In a third act that’s been widely dismissed because of the sharp turn into the pattern of a cheap slasher from the rest of the film’s dreamy philosophical tone, chaos fully erupts. When the crew docks with Icarus I, the ship seems abandoned, but there are signs of sabotage. Essentially, that ship’s captain, Pinbacker (Mark Strong), had a last-minute crisis of faith: if God decides we must die, it is not our right to challenge or outsmart Him. He sneaks aboard the Icarus II and sets about killing the crew and their machines, a bloody spectre that is never shown without a heavy overlay of CGI blurring his image. In the context of the visceral sweating and heavy breathing and panic of the first two acts, it’s only natural that this journey would devolve into violence. Slasher-esque though his actions may be, Pinbacker lurks and strikes much like the nagging urge of a depressive to just opt out of life. For all the grand themes about religion and existence, despite the epic scope of its production and the magnitude of its images, this is primarily about tiny, insignificant people. Fallible beings are forced into decisions that will determine Earth’s fate, and Sunshine‘s fascination lies in watching them react. Like most pictures of this ilk, its effectiveness comes down to little things: a short video message for home, a tiny sprout in the charred wreckage of an oxygen garden, a virtual-reality simulation of an ocean wave, an ability to see the beauty in a bomb going off. To be chased by a crazed bogeyman isn’t just about defying the institution of religion with science, but to assert our right to live. Though Pinbacker represents a generic fundamentalist who has shunned the God of nature that is literally right in front of him in favor of the vague God of earthly religion, he also may stand for a sort of giving up — a restless conscience whispering to us that we don’t deserve what we already have, that those small joys are worthless. The question asked of the crew, specifically “hero” physicist Capa (Cillian Murphy), is simply: what’s the point? Why bother? Our time to give in has come, and there’s really no need for all this hassle. In Capa’s final decision to defy God’s will and stave off destruction, he also keeps alive the inextinguishable human spirit. Nature has thrown us yet another obstacle, and again we launch a kamikaze attack rather than give in.

Sunshine asks its audience to surrender themselves completely to experience. The overwhelming sense of scale, the sensuality of images and colors, and hypnotic electronic score all seek to lull you into a sort of awed trance, hoping that by the time a complete break from any semblance of reality comes you’ll be so far gone as to buy whatever the final act is selling. Mostly, it works – maybe not for those looking for a 2001 redux, and certainly not for those seeking a logical scientific approach. For those who want to lose themselves in light and sound and feverish emotion, however, it is a wholehearted success.

Follow our complete retrospective on the best films of 2007.

Posterized April 2017: ‘Free Fire,’ ‘The Lost City of Z,’ ‘Colossal,’ and More

Written by Jared Mobarak, April 5, 2017 at 12:24 pm 

“Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover” is a proverb whose simple existence proves the fact impressionable souls will do so without fail. This monthly column focuses on the film industry’s willingness to capitalize on this truth, releasing one-sheets to serve as not representations of what audiences are to expect, but as propaganda to fill seats. Oftentimes they fail miserably.


There are only four weeks in April, but a ton of films are scheduled for release. A common thread between them, however, is a distinct lack of mammoth bugdgets—something the latest installment in the Fast and Furious franchise probably didn’t expect (or maybe it did considering a return to April after Part 7 bowed in May). Instead we’re looking at wide releases of festival favorites from A24 and WWE Studios with productions from Fox Searchlight, Bleecker Street/Amazon, and STX.

Talk about a change of the guard. Maybe spring is slowly becoming autumn-lite to bookend the popcorn, throwaway excitement of summer tent-poles. Here’s to hoping this trend continues.


They all need to fit

That volume means there will be a wealth of good posters and a wealth of bad. The latter is never helped by a studio desire (or contractual imperative) to throw as many characters into one sheet as possible, but that’s still what happens only too often.

Just look at The Refinery‘s Going in Style (April 7). Could no one get its three stars together for a publicity photo that didn’t look more airbrushed than authentic? Could they not be positioned in front of a wall, brick or otherwise, so that real lighting could create shadows that weren’t just blurred ovals on fake ground? A jaded person would look at this poster and assume it was an animated film utilizing the technology that brought Peter Cushing back to life last December.

It’s made even worse when compared to the artwork that advertised the film it is remaking. This thing had character with some nice illustrative work and an infectious bit of comedic appeal. Here were three names so big that you could cover their faces without studio brass batting an eye. Why then is the newest trio—Academy Award winners all—unable to be seen beyond manufactured plasticity? We know how old they are. We know how good they are. This depiction feels like a metaphor for the film itself: something talented people now regret.

What Gravillis Inc. does with The Circle (April 28) isn’t much better. They’re allowed to utilize the medium’s two-dimensionality and not worry about shadows to provide depth, so that’s a plus. But throwing in part of your film’s motif to cut through the rectangular canvas doesn’t make it any different than if they simply bisected the page with two stills. Despite being a “circle,” having your actors both look in one direction reads very “straight line” to me too.

They get no assistance from the circle maze design tease by mOcean either as it comes across as a child’s drawing rather than anything of dramatic weight (more so when enlarged with the actors). It’s so smoothly curved right down to the line ends and yet the title is in san serif and squeezed to the point of illegibility. They’re so desperate to keep the space between lines consistent, but the gap between title and lines is less than half. It’s being crushed in a vice and it’s the last thing I look at—so it’s perhaps never seen by those walking right by.

WORKS ADV does things correctly with Their Finest (limited April 7) by contrast. They embrace the idea of collage but don’t pretend to be doing anything to subvert it. They aren’t cutting characters out to fabricate a scene and they aren’t boringly keeping things apart in their own separate boxes either.

Is it Photoshopped? Yes. But the lack of a desire to “create a scene” renders that choice acceptable. These actors are Photoshopped into a symmetrical hierarchy to guide our focus and compliment the Union Jack design behind them. It’s clean, informative, and never talks down to our ability to parse visual stimuli. It won’t win any awards, but it nevertheless accomplishes its job by impressively cobbling together a lot in a way that makes it seem like much less.

And while I usually rail against the totem collage, I can’t lie and say I don’t find BLT Communications, LLC‘s—with photography by Jose Haro—sheet for The Promise (limited April 21) attractive. The characters are just barely positioned for billing hierarchy but artistically joined in a Mount Rushmore pose rather than a bumbling “moment” that doesn’t exist. The colors are vibrant and rich, popping the dark portraiture off the page. And the morphing from flag-like fabric to character wardrobe is seamless in its transitions and hard layering from background to foreground.

It also nicely balances out the heavy photography at the top against the stark white at bottom. The slight lowering from Oscar Isaac to Charlotte Le Bon moves our eyes with the angle of the fabric down to the corner only to flow back on its curves to the title at left. You want to stay and move through its ebbs and flows rather than stare at one piece before moving on.


Sullen faces in the crowd

The previous section shows the importance of the concept of “less is more.” Just look at Concept ArtsThe Fate of the Furious (April 14). That’s right. The Fate of the Furious.

It isn’t necessarily some stunning work of art, but it is successful. And in the marketing game, successful is what truly matters. We arguably receive the series’ two biggest stars in Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson as their friendship has fallen—nothing else. Whether one is literally a “candy-ass” or not, the characters of Dom and Hobbs are at odds. “Family no more” explains what the image shares: anger in the background and guilt in the fore. With perfect use of depth of field, a blurred The Rock tells us that the latter is the imperative.

This stuff pushes the series into overt melodramatic, but it’s also why I keep watching. Many audiences, however, do so for the cars, stunts, and action. So while this tease speaks to me, the others talk to the public. Characters are replaced by automobiles doing their best to symbolize each actor in America while chaos and insanity takes their spots internationally. Whichever brings you out to the theaters, though, there’s no question Furious will hit pay dirt.

Blood & Chocolate‘s Sleight (limited April 7) utilizes emotions too as Jacob Latimore arrives in profile to set a scene more than shine a spotlight. It also isn’t flashy, but it uses design effectively to grab our attention and retain it enough to read through what it’s selling. The grain on the photo and lens flare put the image in line with the comparison at top (Chronicle meets Iron Man) and the red words steal our gaze while also bookending the title so it jumps off the dark hoodie below (thanks to a heavy font and pristine white color) as well as the wealth of text surrounding it.

Match the title with the playing card and ideas about magic, con games, and twists are conjured to add a level of mystery and excitement. It looks gritty and intrigues with how little it says. Don’t discount the miniscule size of the WWE logo either to not completely turn off potential ticket buyers via prejudice as far as wrestling quality might be concerned. They didn’t produce it. They merely acquired distribution after it debuted at Sundance. So rest assured.

When it comes to Arnold Schwarzennegger’s pained expression on Aftermath (limited April 7), we get a great example of how two posters can deliver two very different tones despite using the same image.

LA‘s somber look of wheels turning is enhanced by the stripped down color. We aren’t just seeing a photo of a man grieving—this is an expressionistic view of his sorrow mixed with his drive to get even. Things are colliding like the two airplanes about to crash into the title, itself small yet impactful due to the square block font and thick characters. Past, present, and future are coming together and we can’t wait to see how it plays out.

Now look at the other version. The color filter is gone. The expert typography is replaced by in-your-face size over substance. And Schwarzennegger’s soft squint is altered into a harsh grimace. This isn’t a man thinking. It’s a man uncoiling to pounce. This is direct-to-DVD action whereas the first was introspective drama. So why not just show the crashed plane instead of implying it too? Nuance has already left the station so they might as well leave nothing to interpretation.

Put all the above together and you get something like Buster’s Mal Heart (limited April 28). We have the expressive face—albeit a blank one that’s not as easy to read as Dwayne, Vin, and Arnold; the carefully cropped imagery supplying ample white space to position text; and a carefully placed detail to either crack the whole wide open or make us scratch our head.

The title font’s mix of capital letters and lower case makes me think “free font search,” but it gets the job done. Its size makes it disquieting with the lowercase letters feeling even bigger than they already are—a sense of oddity to match the crop of Rami Malek at his chin and the inverted clock behind him. On quick glance you’re simply seeing a man at a desk. But if your brain realizes something is off, you move closer to inspect. Things start to sink in, curiosity increases, and you find yourself hard-pressed to forget its name.

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‘Angel Heart’: Hell Hath No Fury Like the Devil Scorned

Written by Darek Kuźma, March 6, 2017 at 12:16 pm 

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Today, March 6th, Sir Alan Parker‘s Angel Heart turns thirty, thus creating a golden opportunity for yet another appreciation of what was considered by many an over-stylized satanic shock-fest back in the 80s but has since revealed itself to be, in this writer’s humble opinion, one of the best psychological horrors in the history of American cinema. Read our take on it, though a disclaimer should be made for those who have yet to watch Parker’s mercilessly dark and sinister masterpiece: as the film depends to some extent on the gradual reveal of the mystery central to its narrative – the many elements of which shall be discussed in the following piece – the best way to experience it is with as little insight as possible, and only then compare your view with ours. This is due to the fact that Angel Heart boasts one of the great twists of 1980s, ranked aside the family-oriented revelation of The Empire Strikes Back, but also because following its narrative is such a damn fun. Consider yourself warned.

So, who the hell is Johnny Favorite and why should you care about this has-been crooner’s fate?

The obvious answer is: because the film begins with a renewed interest in Favorite, the once-famous big-band frontman who has been considered long dead, which results in hiring private dick Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) to find him. What ensues is a succession of brutal murders with satanic traces written all over them that prompt the protagonist to dig deeper and discover a conspiracy of diabolical proportions to which realization he is indispensable. The more complicated answer would be this: when Angel, an earnest PI working low-profile cases in 1955’s New York, is hired by the perversely named Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) to uncover the whereabouts of some old debtor who happened to be a rising star in the beginning of 40s, his life goes on a downward spiral. The detective embarks on a path that will lead him to the voodoo-filled Louisiana bayous only to become the main suspect in what appears to be as series of ritualistic murders, and possibly lose his mind in the process.

But this is basically only scratching the surface of what Angel Heart really has to offer.

For Alan Parker, a British director and screenwriter with an imagination to be envied and a knack for using the cinematic language to externalize his characters’ minds and souls, Angel Heart‘s main enticement was the way the plot and the narrative circled around the popular conventions of the Chandler-esque detective story and the Faustian tale of losing one’s humanity, only to reveal itself to be something else entirely. Harry Angel’s odyssey through the worlds of voodoo and black magic (not the same, mind you), his journey of experiencing New York’s many faces and immersing in New Orleans’ spiritual atmosphere, gave Parker an ideal blueprint for a layered tale of the duality of human nature. And scaring the living daylights out of the viewers.

For Angel Heart is a horror in the truest sense of the definition; not some schlocky slasher but a film of real terror creeping slowly into your mind and refusing to leave. Heart ripped from a person’s chest, genitalia cut off and stuck into their owner’s mouth, brain splashed on a pillow after shooting someone in the eye – oh yes, there are quite a few graphic scenes to be endured. But the film’s true menace, and brilliance of Parker’s direction, lies not in the use of flashy props and makeup but in how ordinary evil looks on screen. Fans, elevators, staircases, fingernails, eggs – things of everyday use, things to which we are accustomed – enable the filmmaker to reveal before our eyes the existence of a world of malevolence and wickedness atop what we know. And bedevil the audience with how Angel is gradually stepping into a trap.

You know, some religions think that the egg is the symbol of the soul,  did you know that? – Louis Cyphre

In other words, what permeates through the film is the feeling of perpetual uneasiness. It comes from the images which stem from each and every viewer’s imagination, encouraged by Parker and his crew to interpret every suspicious object or oddly looking person as something potentially nefarious; to look beyond shabby churches, extravagant housings, refined restaurants and see the infernal forces working from underneath. This atmosphere of permanent sense of dread is established in the very beginning of Angel Heart, in the film’s first images, when a mysterious figure, possibly Louis Cyphre itself, exits some New York back alley leaving a dead body grotesquely lit by the pale moonlight. We will never know who the poor soul was, but the intensity of such a prologue never wears off. There’s death everywhere, as Cyphre points out later in the film.

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Parker plays his audience’s ability to imagine what could never be depicted on a screen against themselves. He uses fans – normal, ordinary fans, contraptions pushing air into a space before them – as a kind of inanimate version of the Greek choir foretelling the impending doom; a portent of death, as the director calls them on a commentary he recorded for Angel Heart’s home video release. Hell, even the motionless Ferris wheel in Coney Island’s deserted amusement park resembles a gigantic fan. Then, the numerous staircases we see in the film, some twisted more than others, start to mirror the state of Angel’s frail mind, and his growing sense of entrapment. It is enough to see the poor gumshoe walking on stairs, looking at some kid or lost in his thoughts, to see clearly what is only later becoming visible on his face.

Parker’s genius also stems from not shooting Angel Heart as a supernatural horror film, but as a hard-boiled detective story. A genuine, true-to-life lost person tale with a few religious themes. We follow Angel to the subsequent locations, hear him question different people and get valuable information, and watch him do his usual PI routine, while the details planted carefully by Parker earn the ordinariness its ‘extra’ part. Even when the detective sets off for New Orleans – depicted as normally as it was possible considering the predetermined conceptions of the city existing in the viewers’ minds – everything seems a part of the mundane reality. Even after things start to go horribly wrong, we cannot shake the feeling this diabolical trickery is an aberration rather than an integral part of this normal world.

Now, this shows the importance of shooting a film like Angel Heart outside of sterile studio soundstages, even though this decision added to the problems experienced by the film’s cast and crew. But they really shot basically everything on location, 78 different locations to be precise, dressed by the skilled craftsmen for the period look and the desired feel. The atmosphere and the imagery were already there, just needed a little push. The job was performed with the usual panache by the masterful cinematographer Michael Seresin whose desaturated, monochromatic, stylish cinematography (they were shooting a black and white film in color, as Parker once described it) fills your heart with wonder and dread at the same time.

What is extremely important is not only to watch Angel Heart, but also to hear it. Trevor Jones‘ score is full of saxophone laments, piano cries, bluesy vibes, jazz tunes, as well as intense heartbeats woven into lyrical themes, thus filling the screen with a strange mix of adventure and anxiety. But the most haunting guide through the broken world of Johnny Favorite is Angel Heart’s sound mix. Watch the film at night, with the speakers’ volume increased to hear some voices whispering both Favorite’s and Angel’s names, listen to the cacophony of various religious ceremonies and rituals, roars of a vicious pit bull, metal sounds of gun shots, whizzing noise of fans, and only then you will experience Angel Heart in its full glory.

That this is yet another piece of the giant satanic puzzle Parker is putting together is quite obvious, but it makes the revealing Favorite’s identity and Angel’s descent in an ominous elevator into the depths of hell, far more disturbing. Why, even personal, as the film’s soundscape underlines the feeling of betrayal you feel at the end. The emotions you invested as a viewer in Harry are used against you; it’s as if Frank Capra made you empathize with George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life only to show in what-would-happen-if-you-had-not-been-born sequence that the world would be a better place without the guy.

They say there’s enough religion in the world to make men hate each other, but not enough to make them love. – Louis Cyphre 

There is one more element to take into consideration. William Hjortsberg‘s book, Falling Angel, which is neither better nor worse than the film, simply different. But watching Angel Heart knowing how Parker, also the film’s screenwriter, modified the source novel makes it an even richer experience.

The most crucial change is in the way the story is told. Hjortsberg used first-person narrative, an obvious choice for a detective story, making the reader understand Angel’s way of reasoning and thus revealing, bit by bit, the true identity of both Johnny Favorite and Louis Cyphre. Parker has Angel in basically every scene of the film but finds myriad of ways to deceive the viewer, to manipulate the perception in order to hold the final revelation until the final moments (hence fans, staircases etc.). It is of course entirely possible to guess the twist earlier, especially nowadays when so many lesser films have copied from Angel Heart, but it does not decrease the film’s power.

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Parker’s take on the story also warranted quite different characters. Harry Angel is a pragmatist and cynic in the novel, he despises the elites and the rich and is a mean, physically strong, tough detective who is able to kill with his bare hands. When he falls for a black girl Epiphany Proudfoot, which is important for the subsequent revelation of who Johnny Favorite really is, it makes him softer and weaker but still not very approachable. This is not a nice guy. You pity him at the end and yet you despise him. Parker’s Angel, played by Mickey Rourke using his everyman’s charm to the fullest, is definitely more earnest and relatable. Here is a PI with whom you can connect, if only because you get to know before him that this will not end well. Rourke makes Angel’s flaws his strengths and when you see him in the final scene, with a look of utter despair on his pale, ghostly face, you feel sorry for him because he didn’t know and tried his best to solve the mystery.

And Louis Cyphre is… well, there could be a separate article written about the differences between Hjortsberg’s and Parker’s Cyphres. You see, in the novel Cyphre, though he undeniably is the Lucifer itself, is more of a trickster than a menacing presence. He has black hair, white beard, blue eyes and a tan, and he amuses himself with playing the part of a magician who delights in giving Angel weird clues to his true identity. De Niro’s Cyphre is an elegant gentleman, with gleaming dark eyes and coal-black hair tied back into a ponytail, with perfectly manicured, pointy, beast-like fingernails that grow longer every time he meets Harry, with perversely soft voice that gives you goose bumps. He is the evil incarnated. His Cyphre is also more devilish in the final act, when it turns out that it was Angel who murdered all these people – ripped out a woman’s heart, cut off a man’s genitalia – even if guided by the hand of the Devil. Whereas in Hjortsberg’s novel it is suggested that Cyphre personally committed the murders to frame Angel and thus get his soul. Meaning the novel’s Lucifer is larger-than-life but at the same time, paradoxically, more human.

And then there’s the setting. The entirety of the novel is set in New York, with Hjortsberg going to great lengths to inform the reader at which part of the city the quest for Johnny Favorite’s soul currently takes place. Parker on the other hand, knowing there exists a plethora of films set in the Big Apple and documenting its numerous faces, moved the second part of the story to New Orleans, thus giving his film a distinct visual identity that further emphasized the duality of everything depicted on the screen. He also played with symbols that hint at who Harry Angel really is: a man who sold his soul for the wealth and fame, got scared of what he had done, ripped out another man’s heart and ate it to possess his soul and thus cheat the devil.

Take the chickens for example. Angel repeats a couple of times that he has a thing with chickens. It seems an idea added to make the film a little bit lighter but when you consider the fact that Johnny Favorite was into dark magic and voodoo (again, not the same thing), it starts to make sense. One of the more disturbing scenes in Angel Heart involves a ritual during which Epiphany slits a chicken’s throat and spills its blood all over herself and other participants. It is only logical that Johnny had to perform similar things, and take pleasure from it, but now, with an amnesia clouding his sense of former self, chickens became a living thing to be feared, a subconscious flicker of something dark and troubling he had done in life he does not remember. The scene in which Cyphre meticulously crushes egg’s shell before informing Angel that an egg is a symbol of the soul, and then eats it with an ominous look on his face, is an extension of that. It was not included in the book, but it was shot by Parker and Seresin to resemble Favorite crushing and eating the heart of the real Harold Angel.

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One of Angel Heart’s greatest strengths is precisely the number of intellectual and emotional paths it lays before the viewer. There is no one answer to the presented tale, apart from the obvious one: you cannot cheat the Devil.

The flesh is weak, Johnny. Only the soul is immortal. – Louis Cyphre

There is also another one: we all die at the end, though it is partly up to us how we choose to live before this happens. You see, Angel Heart is not only a horror, or a psychological horror. It is also a fable, very violent and surreal one, about the human condition being governed by vanity and the desire to have it all and pay nothing. We will never learn how to peacefully coexist with each other because there is some part of us – and it exists in all of us, even though in many people it stays passive for the whole of their lifetimes – that simply wants to control people and watch their worlds burn. That this is one of the many aspects of Angel Heart being more timely than ever, with the rise of nationalist sentiments, with the social media’s preoccupation with post-truth, with the ever-growing feeling of confusion about the future, is poignantly obvious with each viewing of Sir Alan Parker’s unsettling masterpiece.

However, this was mostly lost on viewers and critics after Angel Heart’s official release. The film barely equaled its budget in the American box office, making it something of a commercial flop. But ultimately, year after year, home video release after home video release, it gathered a growing fan base. Now it is widely considered one of the best in its genre, oft-compared to Roman Polański’s Rosemary’s Baby and Richard Donner’s The Omen. Its once-shocking final revelation does not have the same value as it did thirty years ago, but Angel Heart remains an imaginative, powerful and original film that still holds a spell over viewers. And creeps the hell out of them.

So, who the hell was Johnny Favorite and why some has-been crooner’s fate should make you care? The real answer to that lies in each and every viewer, in the imagination, the mind and the heart of who is watching it, and how he or she is watching it. Some films defy categorization and Angel Heart is one of them. You should forget about the outside world and go for a ride.

Thus, on the film’s 30th anniversary, rent it, buy it, stream it, do whatever you need to watch it, sit back and relax, and take this journey with Harry Angel. Just don’t become another Johnny Favorite.

Posterized March 2017: ‘Logan,’ ‘Personal Shopper,’ ‘Kong: Skull Island,’ and More

Written by Jared Mobarak, March 3, 2017 at 4:00 pm 

“Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover” is a proverb whose simple existence proves the fact impressionable souls will do so without fail. This monthly column focuses on the film industry’s willingness to capitalize on this truth, releasing one-sheets to serve as not representations of what audiences are to expect, but as propaganda to fill seats. Oftentimes they fail miserably.


Get ready for remakes, sequels, and festival holdovers because it’s … a month of the year. Sometimes I miss the days of my childhood when there’d only be one new film a week, an era when no one thought remaking an animated film shot-for-shot with real actors would make money. But it’s invigorating nonetheless to see all those tinier films constantly stepping up to go against these behemoths and earn acclaim and cash while proving creativity does still exist.

For a month with five Fridays, however, March doesn’t necessarily have that much going for it poster-wise. There are some intriguing releases like The Belko Experiment (opens March 17) with lackluster artwork or The Blackcoat’s Daughter (limited March 31) with pretty if unoriginal design. Sure they get the job done, but they don’t get me more excited for the films. The same goes for the 90s-chic Song to Song (limited March 17) poster and carbon copy T2: Trainspotting (limited March 17) sheets portraying how much we’ve all aged in twenty years.

Thankfully there are a few works highlighted below that will excite you for what their films may deliver rather than serving as mere placeholders to share title and release date, nothing more.


Beauties, beasts & Power Rangers

But let’s talk about that shot-for-shot remake first. While I say this facetiously since The Jungle Book proved Disney wasn’t interested in remaking their classic films as much as improving them (which it did by a mile), it’s tough to watch the Beauty and the Beast (opens March 17) trailer and not think, “Why shouldn’t I just stay home and watch the cartoon?” I’m not sure there’s a good answer. Time will tell.

What we do know is that BLT Communications, LLC decided to double-down on the nostalgia by all-but copying its 1991 Oscar-winning predecessor. Just look at the teasers with darkly diffused atmosphere turning its pair engaged in dance to silhouette. The pose is different, but the intent is identical. Besides a bit more color and its stylized title font, the image triggers something dormant in our memories.

The same can be said about the full sheet with its not quite cartoonish menagerie of inanimate objects looking upon the titular duo. What’s different here is that the shift from cutesy to “realism” is disturbing, the live-action feel making things darker than the cartoon ever could. The shadowy mood lends a sinister aesthetic that may overpower the idea of romance we’re supposed to experience. Or maybe it’s intentionally underling the Stockholm syndrome aspects of the script.

As far as the character sheets go, it’s telling that the American versions are obligated to show the actors behind the animation while France retains a sense of mystery like the film (hopefully) will. And what’s with keeping the Beast in his cursed form despite this choice? Is it just because Dan Stevens isn’t well known here? (Although Legion is changing that if Downton Abbey didn’t already do so.)

Disney wants their cast to be seen and seen they are. Sadly it only renders the whole to look more Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland than the “most beautiful love story ever told.”

Power Rangers (opens March 24) has sought to set itself apart from its source material by relinquishing the “Mighty Morphin” except in tagline. Much like the trailer, however, they’ve adapted a similar bent to Chronicle instead. LA goes for silhouettes of kids readying to become what we know they will, much like the aforementioned “regular kids get superpowers” film (albeit MIDNIGHT OIL placed them in full flight). The grittiness is intact, the infinite possibilities as represented by a wide expanse of sky too. Those boys refused to come together while these boys and girls are told they must to “be more.”

This tease paired with the foggy action shot of mechanical beasts looking very Transformers-like is pretty cool. There’s atmosphere, mystery, and a distinct lack of polished faces (considering all are practical no-names thus far in their careers anyway). I also enjoy the simple “Go Go” with lightning bolt in lieu of the title. It still surprises me that this franchise is ubiquitous enough to get away with that, but here we are in 2017 with Saban spending big yet again.

From there we get the requisite character series with Lionsgate going full Hunger Games on the sheer number of variations. We get the portraits in shadow, the poses on Zords, and the “high-speed” static shots with blurred lines. There’s drama, scale, and action: although the main goal is to simply saturate the market and our eyeballs. Frankly, these all do a better job than the final, generic totem collage of costumes. At least Elizabeth Banks adds some excitement in that one to counteract the staid heroes.

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The Pleasure Principle: Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s ‘The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach’

Written by Ethan Vestby, March 3, 2017 at 9:56 am 

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“1st film watched in 1st freshman film class was ’72’s History Lessons. It was a great ‘Welcome to boot camp, motherfuckers’ moment.” – Nick Pinkerton

Parsing the embarrassment of riches amongst ’60s French cinema, the annals of Official Film History tends to split us into the New Wave (Godard, Rivette, Rohmer, etc.), the left-bank (Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, Agnès Varda), and the successive “ Second New Wave” (Maurice Pialat, Jean Eustache, Luc Moullet). Bouncing between realism and the avant-garde, these filmmakers, to varying degrees of mainstream acceptance, left an undeniable mark on post-war art cinema. Yet provided you’re hip enough to know, there’s two particular names that seem to instantly dwarf the aforementioned, at least in the terms of uncompromised Film Art: the husband-wife duo of Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet — or, if you prefer, the synthesized, punchier Straub/Huillet.

The mystique that has emerged around this duo is not just due to the general unavailability of their work — to this day, only one of their films are available on Region 1 DVD —  but in the almost-comical levels of difficulty that seem to surround them. Take, for example, the niche cinephile torrent site Karagarga, where enigmatic critic Tag Gallagher has taken to lamenting the subtitle files that accompany downloads for their films, to the point of sharing his own home-made, supposedly correct editions. This is to keep in mind that the two have openly stated that if you weren’t fluent in the native language of one of their films (be it Italian or German), you’d be at a total loss even with subtitles. The additional “homework” required by the viewer is familiarity with the source material, be it by Bertol Brecht, Friedrich Hölderlin, or Arnold Schoenberg. Their films ask you to reach beyond the cinematic and into history, literature, poetry, or opera.

Not quite the “boot camp” situation, this writer’s own personal introduction to Straub/Huillet came with a screened clip from The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach in a sophomore-year Film History class, that week’s unit dedicated to Brechtian cinema.  Their 1968 film was sensibly used as an introduction, as it’s long been considered the most “accessible” of their oeuvre, though one thinks at least the working-struggle of their 1983 Kafka adaptation Class Relations would find some kind of sad instant relevance to anyone entering the job market after completing a virtually useless Film Studies degree.

The question posed by the professor after the clip — at least to the best of this writer’s memory — was if there was “pleasure” to be found in this strain of off-putting political cinema practiced by the two. Technically qualifying as a musical biopic, The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach contains a large number of musical sequences with a high level of film craft on display; with geometric compositions of performances captured in a number of static shots, yet occasionally interrupted with strategically deployed camera moves, it’s hard not to think of the film as almost an example of kinetic slow-cinema.

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Noted cinephiles, the duo stated their attempt to follow in the footsteps of narrative filmmakers like John Ford and Kenji Mizoguchi, yet what came to mind when seeing the film again after all these years was Howard Hawks. While not exactly sharing that great Hollywood director’s penchant for group camaraderie, they do seem to have his ability for filling the space of a square aspect ratio with seemingly as many bodies as possible, evidenced by the plentitude of musical performances. Witnessing an orchestra of real musicians, not actors, perform in real-time, the film can come as almost an experiment in durational cinema, yet a later example of rear-projection calls into question any aspirations towards realism. This seems much on display in subsequent titles such as Moses & Aaron or The Death of Empedocles, where it’s apparent that the works’ almost miraculous existence comes with the upfront knowledge that you’re seeing a low-budget production with men and women wearing costumes in the woods, no period-piece verisimilitude to be found. The Straub/Huillet gesture ultimately seems to be along the lines of pushing classical form to a kind of extreme; if one wants a more mainstream comparison, see the Jonathan Demme-directed video for New Order’s “The Perfect Kiss,” whose lengthy shots stand in complete opposition to the dominant rapid-cut MTV style of the time.

One can ask what’s at stake beyond simply their formal rigor. If there’s a second way into Chronicle, or one that inches us closer to “meaning,” then reading the lives of Sebastian and Anna Bach, the married couple at the center of the narrative, as stealth autobiography for Straub and Huillet, is none too difficult. This marriage of distance between two artists initially seems to favor one figure, he being the great famed classical musician, yet her journal (Straub/Huillet’s own dramatic invention), represented by a mix of narration and onscreen text, serves as the ostensible point of view throughout, making us not a direct witness to history in motion, but to a questionable past.

But seeking an emotional pull buried underneath the cold style may lead one astray, for if Chronicle is not traditionally narrative, nor realist, does it ultimately belong to art cinema’s oft-favorite realm, the “transcendent”? Late in the film, one of its most memorable exterior shots is a cut to the sky, which, in the right mood, could be seen as the heavens. Is Bach the Enchanted One? Fans of Bresson and Dreyer they may be, discerning a kind of metaphysical pull from the two — which, while not absent, seems reductive as their cinematic end-game. On the other hand, the politics of music may initially seem a trifle compared to their further subjects, such as the fall of democracy or the poisons of capitalism, yet in linking history and form, The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach emerges as, if not an angry work, at least the contradiction of a deeply questioning (yet forward-moving) one.

To return to the question of pleasure: some will only see them as puzzles to be solved through amassing intellectual cache; for others, they’re objects representational of a distinct formalist movement. To begin with the aforementioned “accessible” film, though, is not really to be eased in, but to make a commitment to an ever-evolving journey.

The Films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet begins tonight at TIFF with a 35mm print of The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach. See more details here.

The Careful Brutalism of David Fincher’s Masterful ‘Zodiac’

Written by Nate Fisher, March 2, 2017 at 10:56 am 

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Looking back on this still-young century makes clear that 2007 was a major time for cinematic happenings — and, on the basis of this retrospective, one we’re not quite through with ten years on. One’s mind might quickly flash to a few big titles that will be represented, but it is the plurality of both festival and theatrical premieres that truly surprises: late works from old masters, debuts from filmmakers who’ve since become some of our most-respected artists, and mid-career turning points that didn’t necessarily announce themselves as such at the time. Join us as an assembled team, many of whom were coming of age that year, takes on their favorites.

The most ready-made accolades handed out to our greatest film artists are invocations of other art forms. An artist can be labeled “painterly,” “literary,” or perhaps one who’s “sculpting in time.” (But never “theatrical,” by God. One of the first things you learn on the IMDb Message Boards – R.I.P. – is that a movie is NOT a play.) Such is the lot in life for the vulgar medium of cinema, the runt art that in 2007 was tiptoeing into only its second century. The “architectural” art form is invoked for the most meticulous craftsmen, directors whose camera and sets worked together in sharp straight lines to create worlds that often literally loom over their characters. Usually Hollywood artists, the “architectural” filmmakers include Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, and have David Fincher as a modern spiritual heir. Fincher’s 2007 masterpiece Zodiac prominently features works of brutalist architecture inside which the hunt for the Zodiac Killer is carried out by a group of obsessives. It is about the flowering and wilting of that obsession in the face of mounting indifference, and the failure to find any closure for the hole that an obsession creates. It’s a carefully brutal film.

There are murders in this movie — and very frank ones, at that — but the film is less about the jagged horrible crimes than the institutions and city whipped up by them. Our main investigator – among many – is a cartoonist and puzzle enthusiast named Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), who’s driven mostly by a fascination with the codes and patterns employed by the Zodiac in his letters and behavior. The Zodiac’s love of patterns form the structural basis for much of the film; patterns of behavior form over time within visual patterns etched in city space.

Zodiac is also about how those patterns break and confound. The investigation is unsolved, despite our characters spending a decade or more on it, partly because of how the Zodiac’s patterns change, and how the patterns of investigation used on him prove fruitless. Time and again investigators dwell upon the wrong details, running up what Inspector Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) calls “blind alleys.” The events of Zodiac are the ruin of this pursuit up blind alleys; when the unstoppable force of obsession meets unknowable truth, we are left with this piece about a ten-year-old movie based on a thirty-year-old book itself based on a nearly fifty-year-old series of unsolved murders. The Zodiac Killer destroys lives, and the investigation into the Zodiac Killer drags a few lives down with it.

Though our collective fascination with bizarre killings and the art they inspire is hardly new, there seems to be a kind of cottage industry of true and true-ish crime drama (whether Netflix shows, HBO shows, or podcasts) that has recently been able to occupy a recurring slot in our cultural conversation. None, of course, have any of Zodiac‘s sense of history, formal mastery, and honest emotional undercurrent. Many of these pieces of media — okay: pressed to give an example, I’ll cite the wholly loathsome The Night Of — share a clinical tone with Zodiac, but they never outshine the master.

None of those works are even as scary as Zodiac, to say nothing of their intellectual shortcomings. There is one rightly famous scene in which Robert Graysmith enters a stranger’s basement during their discussion about Zodiac suspect Rick Marshall. The recurrent clue about the Zodiac that “not many people own basements in California” finds payoff when the man tells Graysmith that he owns a basement and that he drew the posters Graysmith believes were drawn by Marshall. The man moves sinisterly to the basement and Graysmith, consumed by the inexorable hunger for truth that fear only amplifies, surprises no one by following him.

This man is not the Zodiac, and our protagonist will not be killed here; we know this, and he probably does, too. But Graysmith and the viewer are on complete autopilot. Our shared desire to know what’s down there automates our movement, and our fear supplants what we have already reasoned. The floorboards above creak with imaginary footsteps, and the autopilot fear has now sewn itself completely into the architecture around us. The fear comes from subliminally knowing how little control we have, all of which is down to Fincher’s sly manipulations throughout the scene. This is master-level horror filmmaking, in with a shout for the greatest scene the director has yet filmed.

Plain fear is not the primary objective of Zodiac, though Fincher does include that one scene to remind us that he could make us afraid, were he so inclined. The most vexing question when it comes to telling of the hunt for the Zodiac Killer is how a storyteller could elide across time and follow the many strands of this decades-long unsolved mystery while maintaining a feeling of continuity between events. The film, like the reality of the investigation, provides little details to establish patterns and connections, but only enough to make the frustration and indifference more pronounced. At one late turn, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) drives left and a cab pulls into the frame with Graysmith in the back seat, mimicking the location and blocking of the Zodiac’s taxicab murder in 1969.

By this point, when the investigators do communicate with one another, it is in a shared language of the false leads and failed investigative routines they have all undertaken. Our main characters converge on a movie theater to watch their failed pursuit of the Zodiac turned into Dirty Harry. This is immediately followed by a dead-end conversation between Graysmith and Inspector Toschi in the lobby. Then four years pass. Time hangs on moments like this as the film lurches into the burnout of the 1970s.

As detectives wash and the mystery fizzles, the architecture builds up around them. In one scene, when the last investigative frustrations force Toschi away from the case for years, he muses about his suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch): “I can’t tell if I wanted it so bad because I thought it was him or wanted it to be over.” He is framed under cut-out squares in the ceilings, brutalist architecture forming an empty black grid. At another juncture of frustration, an entire year’s passage is conveyed in a time-lapse via the construction of the Transamerica Pyramid, completed in 1972. The truth remains a void, but structures continue to go up upon it and the city of San Francisco marches on, though the viewer cannot help but become sidetracked by details that hint at a solution to the mystery inches beyond what we already suspect.

Little facts tease you. Each time I watch Zodiac, without fail, it has pushed me, upon finishing the film, to spend about as much time as the movie’s own length (157 minutes) scouring Zodiac theory websites. As exhaustive as they are speculative, websites like Zodiackiller.com have remained regularly active for over a decade. Fittingly, the mystery has only snowballed even further, as the majority of their enthusiasts and contributors have become fixated on one Richard Gaikowski. They are constantly scouring for evidence to add to the ample pile suggesting Gaikowski’s identity as the killer. Gaikowski is never mentioned in Zodiac.

Zodiac would have you be the Scottie to the truth’s Madeleine, locked in obsessive pursuit and stranded ten yards behind. There is a post-script set all the way in 1991, an empathetic return to the first zodiac victim, Mike Mageau (Jimmi Simpson), who’s brought in for questioning in some dingy breakroom in an Ontario airport — no doubt an exteriorizing of his mental state — and shown a series of photographs. In the final shot of the film, he identifies Arthur Leigh Allen, Graysmith’s main suspect, as the man who shot him. Fincher lingers on Mageau’s face with necessary melancholy and empathy as the film ends. (Zodiac feels quite a bit less ethically suspect than its descendants, which are often polished exploitation.) Fincher takes no pleasure in immediately after reporting the irony that Arthur Leigh Allen died of a heart attack before police could question him, nor the further gut punch that DNA evidence exonerates him. There’s no going back to square one.

Follow our complete retrospective on the best films of 2007.