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The New West: The Greatest Revisionist Westerns of All-Time

Written by Tony Hinds, June 22, 2017 at 8:48 am 

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The classical western exists as an ideal sandbox for stories of heroism, in which white hats can immediately separate our protagonists from the black-hatted antagonists. Occasionally, though, we have a revisionist western that questions and defies the well-trodden patriarchal confines of the genre, as if looking at an old image from a tilted perspective and finding something new.

Sometimes, the characters don’t fit into the dusty old boxes occupied by so many western heroes and heroines. The hero robs and kills to stay alive, frightened and overwhelmed by this strange, new frontier. Other times, the stereotypical Western landscape disappears, blanketed in snow. Horses drive their hooves through ice-covered puddles. Wind screams past bone-thin trees — manifest destiny frozen over, encasing the American dream in ice.

In the case of Sofia Coppola’s newest, The Beguiled, gender and power roles reverse: an injured Union soldier (Colin Farrell) turns up at a girl’s school, an arrival which breeds intense sexual tension and rivalry among the women (Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning). According to our review, the movie is “primarily based on the 1966 book by Thomas Cullinan,” and “appears, at first glance, to be a remake of Don Siegel’s 1971 film adaptation rather than any sort of new reading of the original text. Coppola, of course, is far too clever for that.”

In celebration of The Beguiled, we’ve decided to take a look at the finest examples of the revisionist western. Enjoy, and please include your own favorites in the comments.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik)

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Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) idolized the legendary outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt), growing up hearing campfire stories about the man. Ford loved James so much that he eventually willed himself into the man’s life story. You cannot tell James’s story without also telling Ford’s. These two tragic lives are irrevocably linked by Ford’s betrayal. The film’s dryly antiseptic voiceover narration confides that Ford grew to regret his violent ways. The same goes for James, who at one point beats a child and then weeps into his horse’s neck, unable to live with his own deeds. While James’ propensity for violence is a deeply cut character flaw, Pitt plays the outlaw like an emotionally wounded teenager. His jovial sense of humor cloaks a vindictive and self-loathing interior. Whether Jesse James hurts himself or someone else, there is always a witness looking on with wide eyes. After James’ murder, Ford became a celebrity, touring the country reenacting the shooting. But Ford gained his prominence by killing a beloved folk hero. And so, one day, a man named Edward Kelly walked into Ford’s saloon with a shotgun and took revenge for James’s murder. Unlike the aftermath of Ford’s deed, people leapt to Kelly’s defense, collecting over 7000 signatures for a petition, leading to his pardon. America hated Robert Ford because he killed Jesse James. They loved Edward Kelly because he killed Robert Ford.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (Robert Altman)

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Robert Altman’s largely forgotten and often funny western about egotistical showman Buffalo Bill Cody (Paul Newman) treats its lead without respect, eagerly mocking him at every opportunity. Known across America as they best tracker of man and animals alive, Cody runs Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, a rodeo-like performance of cowboy-feats, ranging from simple rope tricks to the trick-shots of the legendary Annie Oakley. However, Cody is a fraud, a walking accumulation of lies and tall-tales. When Cody gets the chance to hire Chief Sitting Bull, the man who defeated General Custer at Little Big Horn, he’s thrilled, until Sitting Bull refuses to participate in his offensive show. Contrasted with phony Buffalo Bill Cody, Sitting Bull drips with dignified authenticity, totally uninterested in living up to the ignorant public’s racist image of his people. While the manufactured “reality” of Cody’s shows gets applause from white audiences, the stoic realness of Sitting Bull initially receives jeers, until something occurs to the crowd: this isn’t showmanship; this is the real thing. Later, when Cody and his gang form a posse, he hastily removes his show attire and searches through his wardrobe, cursing: “Where’s my real jacket?” So utterly consumed by his own public image, Cody can no longer locate his true self. Altman’s film is a rare western with a lead character who never succeeds, changes, or learns from his mistakes, always remaining a hopelessly pompous horse’s ass.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill)

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As we meet the legendary Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) he’s scoping out a bank, recently renovated to include heavy iron bars over every window and bolted-locks on every door. He asks the guard what happened to the old bank, which displayed such architectural beauty. “People kept robbing it,” the guard says. “Small price to pay for beauty,” Butch replies. It’s a running theme in revisionist westerns to reveal the truth behind the legend. The changing times had rendered bandits on horseback obsolete. But Butch Cassidy and his partner, the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) didn’t see the end coming until the future was already upon them. After barely evading a super-posse (to use a term coined by screenwriter William Goldman) led by a ruthless bounty hunter, they escape to Bolivia with Etta (Katherine Ross) Sundance’s girl, where their criminal ways are similarly received. What began as a vacation away from their troubles slowly becomes a permanent getaway run, sowing seeds of inevitable tragedy. Etta sees what Butch and Sundance cannot: the end. “We’re not going home anymore, are we?” Etta tearfully asks Sundance, informing him that she has no plans to stick around to watch them die. George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a tearful celebration of a pair of old dogs too foolish to learn new tricks.

Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch)

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The gorgeous and haunting Dead Man opens with a soot-faced Crispin Glover trilling as he points out the window of a train: “They’re shooting buffalo,” he cries. “Government said, it killed a million of them last year alone.” The American machine greedily consumes the landscape, leaving smoldering devastation in its path, while a stone-faced accountant named William Blake (Johnny Depp) travels to the hellish town of Machine, where he’s promised a job. Unfortunately, there’s no job at the end of the line for this seemingly educated man, blissfully unaware of his namesake, the poet William Blake. After taking a bullet to the chest, Blake wanders this dying western landscape as if in a dream, guided by Nobody (Gary Farmer) a Native American raised in England after getting kidnapped and paraded around as a sideshow attraction for whites. At one point, Blake stumbles upon three hunters by a camp fire, one of which, played by Iggy Pop, wears a muddy dress and bonnet like a twisted schoolmarm. Writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s twist on the western (accompanied by Robby Müller’s flawless cinematography) hums with textured period detail and vivid costume design, the accumulation of which achieves an eerily stylized tone.

Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino)

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The spirit of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is in the sequence scored by Jim Croce’s “I’ve Got a Name.” Django (Jamie Foxx), now a free man, removes the old saddle from his horse’s back, a saddle originally procured by a white slaver, the animal’s previous owner. He then mounts in its place, his own saddle personalized with an embroidered D. His freedom is still new and unfamiliar but, Django is more than willing to grasp those reigns. What works best about the film is how Tarantino’s screenplay embraces the politics of the Antebellum South in a fashion carefully ignored by every other western of its time. The dialogue, Tarantino’s most applauded talent, wheels a careful turn between a sly comedy-of-manners and a bluntly provocative historical indictment, always landing on a shameless exploitation cinema influenced need for violent catharsis. Tarantino’s channeling of Spaghetti Western violence, with the gore cranked up to a level far beyond that of even Sergio Corbucci’s bloodiest work, delivers tenfold on that catharsis, splattering the pristine white walls of Candyland plantation bright red.

El Topo (Alejandro Jodorowsky)

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Dripping with transgressive and bizarre imagery, El Topo embraces every taboo imaginable with a breathless zeal. Existing somewhere between Midnight Movie oddity and art-house epic, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s second feature envisions the west as an unknowable landscape, dotted with peculiar and grotesque characters, such as a legless gunfighter who rides around on the back of an armless man. Describing the film in narrative terms, beat by beat, would be pointless, although we follow a rider in black, the titular El Topo (which means The Mole) who crosses the desert with a naked boy on the saddle. Though we spend more time with El Topo, his son is the heart of the film, this warped and subversive pseudo-fable exploring the cyclical nature of life. Jodorowsky’s painterly eye for composition lends individual shots with arresting and breathtaking resonance. With less than subtle biblical imagery scattered throughout, including a marvelous sequence involving a religion based around the game of Russian Roulette, Jodorowsky’s film feels at times like a twisted celebration of mysticism, sampling notes from Catholicism, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism. It’s ending, a chaotic, dream-like burst of violence, adds a scathing gut-punch to an already overwhelming experience. There is no other western quite like El Topo, to say the least.

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June 1977: When New Hollywood Got Weird

Written by Max O'Connell, June 21, 2017 at 12:52 pm 

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Last month, coverage of the 40th anniversary of Star Wars was understandably extensive, with pop-culture publications, daily newspapers, and TV media commemorating a film that by all rights changed the landscape of Hollywood, for better or worse. Conversely, there will likely be relatively little retrospective celebration for William Friedkin’s Sorcerer or Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, two terrific films released roughly one month later in the week of June 19-25. Though they weren’t the first examples of New Hollywood directors following huge successes with more difficult works that flopped (Peter Bogdanovich’s secretly lovely At Long Last Love comes to mind), they stood in 1977 as back-to-back examples of talented filmmakers – one Oscar-winning, the other well on his way to becoming the most-acclaimed director of his generation – overreaching and failing after becoming a bit too full of themselves.

That is, of course, an oversimplification, just as the other charge popularized by the likes of Peter Biskind – i.e. George Lucas’ grand space opera and Steven Spielberg’s personal blockbusters killed Hollywood’s interest in movies for adults – is an oversimplification. In all truth, it isn’t surprising that audiences didn’t go for Sorcerer or New York, New York, two especially challenging-for-the-mainstream features that pushed their creators’ aesthetics to greater extremes than before while tracking in subject matter that was pessimistic even for the time. But while both films and their troubled productions saw directors burned by their ambition, they are also exceptional works showcasing how exhilarating it can be when all commercial sense goes out the window.

Friedkin’s Sorcerer can lay more claim to having been actively harmed by the arrival of Lucas’ megahit, arriving exactly one month later, on June 25, and competing for a thrill-seeking crowd. (One theater reportedly pulled Star Wars for Sorcerer for a week, only to replace it when Friedkin’s film failed to lure an audience.) The film, a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 masterpiece The Wages of Fear, was also hurt by its confusing title — named after one of the trucks transporting dynamite through a dangerous jungle to put out an oil fire — and a budget that ballooned from an initially planned $15 million to $22 million following a difficult production.

Friedkin, hot off the Oscar-winning The French Connection and hugely successful The Exorcist, already had a reputation for his temperament and arrogance. They were in full force on Sorcerer: he clashed with cinematographer Dick Bush, who left halfway through filming, as well as producer David Salven, whom Friedkin fired after fights over the expensive location shoots. Friedkin extensively clashed with Paramount brass, sometimes reasonably (kicking executives off set after perceived interference), sometimes amusingly but questionably (the evil oil execs pictured in the film are actually Gulf & Western’s executive board, and they repaid him by not promoting the film). The jungle shoot itself was hell, with about 50 people quitting following injury or illness while Friedkin himself contracted malaria and lost 50 pounds.

But it’s only appropriate that the making of Sorcerer was so desperate, given the story it tells. Friedkin’s worldview has always been bleak and cynical, and Sorcerer may be the purest expression of that. Its heroes are a hard-bitten New Jersey hood (a spectacularly testy Roy Scheider) hiding out after shooting a mobster’s brother, a crooked French banker (Bruno Cremer) on the run following fraud accusations, a Palestinian terrorist (Amidou) behind a Jerusalem bombing, and a Mexican hitman (Francisco Rabal) who gets in on the job after murdering the fourth driver (Karl John), apparently a fugitive Nazi. The film presents their crimes as facts and without real judgment, their rottenness just another bad part of a burned-out, brutal world.

Where The French Connection and The Exorcist gave viewers visceral thrills early on and some sense of right and wrong (even if it’s fatally compromised), the early action in Sorcerer is more painful, with suicide, terrorism, and the loss of friends and partners forming the four prologues introducing the men at this film’s center. Friedkin then drops us into squalor and despair in a small South American town where the heat and rain are nearly as oppressive as the police state, the work is dangerous and pays little, and the mud seems to soak up any sense of hope. It’s little wonder that they might take up the dangerous assignment of driving through an arduous jungle landscape with unstable explosives that could set off at any moment. When you’ve been driven into no man’s land by your sins, any way out is worth it — no matter how unlikely it is that you’ll survive.

The actual drive up to the oil well doesn’t begin until about halfway through and takes on the tone of an unusually fraught funeral march for the protagonists. Friedkin’s immediate, docurealistic style helps ground the proceedings as set-pieces grow more heightened, most memorably when the drivers guide their trucks over a deteriorating bridge as the river beneath it overflows — the most expensive sequence in the film, as well as the most difficult-to-shoot of Friedkin’s career. As Popeye Doyle’s car chase in The French Connection and Regan & Chris MacNeil getting jerked around in The Exorcist evince, Friedkin always had a gift for making scenes that were already dangerous in conception even more tactile and nerve-wracking. Here, his emphasis on the mechanics of the crossing – the snapping rope and wood – as well as the fragility of the bodies attempting to cross (particularly as one rider steps outside to guide the truck and risks getting thrown off or crushed in the process) make the danger of their situation all the more palpable.

Yet there’s a more existential doom permeating the film compared with the nihilism of his earlier efforts, a more complete melding of his hard-bitten style with expressionistic touches that peppered The Exorcist. Part of that comes from Tangerine Dream’s ethereal score, which accentuates a sense that the elements are set against the drivers. But Friedkin also lends the film’s grungy look a sort of otherworldly menace, whether the camera soars through gorgeous greenery while a fire burns in the background or Scheider envisions a stream of blood soaking the dirt.  Even the small moments of beauty (e.g. a butterfly hiding from the rain or a woman briefly dancing with Scheider) seem to tease the protagonists and underline their utter hopelessness. By the time we reach a grim conclusion, Friedkin has taken us through a world without mercy or decency, in which fate mocks even the most resilient of us.

Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, released just a few days earlier on June 21, was less plausibly affected by the release of Star Wars, and more likely the victim of critics and audiences being put off by its mix of glossy, Vincente Minnelli-esque musicality and aggressive, John Cassavetes-influenced verisimilitude. Scorsese, with the story of a creative and personal relationship collapsing under the weight of jealousy in a postwar environment, sought to bring to the forefront the unhappiness lurking under the surface of films such as Meet Me in St. Louis and My Dream is Yours.

It, like Sorcerer, had a difficult production, with the director battling a severe cocaine addiction while breaking up with then-wife Julia Cameron and carrying out an affair with lead actress Liza Minnelli. The film’s herky-jerky rhythms and circular intensity seem to take cues from that tension, the big-band musical numbers clashing with deliberately repetitive improvisations and screaming matches. Scorsese had mixed realism with melodrama (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) and grit with florid formalism (Taxi Driver) previously, and would go on to marry his classic and New Hollywood interests more palatably in Raging Bull. But New York, New York isn’t a marriage so much as it’s a push-pull war, one that’s sometimes exhausting.

Acknowledging the unattainability of Hollywood fantasies makes it no less vital a love letter. Scorsese opens with an astonishing crane shot on V-J Day as Robert De Niro’s Jimmy gets lost in the excitement of a crowd, only to appear under an arrow that both pinpoints and isolates him. De Niro’s first interactions with Minnelli’s Francine, meanwhile, are less a meet-cute, more an ongoing, insistent harassment that eventually wears down her defenses. The entire opening sequence communicates a sense of spiritual and personal emptiness amid celebration, an early warning that not all is well in the postwar era.

De Niro continues playing Jimmy as a halfway point between his insecure, jealous bruiser in Raging Bull and his relentless, obnoxious pest in The King of Comedy, but Scorsese finds some truth in his and Francine’s romance (even as it’s rotting from the inside out) in their musical performances, with the two finding a better balance and greater chemistry as they perform “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me.” Their partnership flourishes out of a mutual recognition of talent — or, in his case, recognition of greater possible success together. Still, that balance begins to tip whenever Francine asserts herself, as in a scene where she tries to pep up the band following one of Jimmy’s criticisms, only for him to tear her down. And the film’s most gorgeous images undermine any possibility of happiness between the two, with De Niro proposing (badly: “I love you… I mean, I don’t love you. I dig you; I like you a lot”) in front of a fake forest.

Purposefully, the film’s first two hours give more emphasis to Scorsese’s more discursive side, major arguments between Jimmy and Francine getting interrupted by Jimmy’s ability to get into a minor argument with anyone he encounters. It’s in the final third that focus shifts to the director’s inner formalist and New York, New York turns into a proper musical with the remarkably bittersweet “Happy Endings” sequence. Francine’s finally given a chance to flourish as a performer, unhindered by Jimmy’s jealousy, and Scorsese jumps into an unabashedly stagey finale not unlike that of The Band Wagon or An American in Paris.

Yet the climax still reflects the inherent unhappiness in Francine’s life, telling a story of a relationship ended by success, only to double back and conclude with a wish-fulfillment coda that only makes it more painful. We’ve already seen the truth in the lives of Francine and Jimmy, and no rousing performance of “Theme from ‘New York, New York’” is going to change that. Their final encounter twists the knife further, giving one last tease of possible reconciliation before recognizing that it’s impossible, leaving Jimmy with a final, lonely shot echoing that V-J Day opening.

Audiences and critics largely rejected New York, New York and Sorcerer, with neither film making its budget back or earning the raves their makers had come to expect, but time has been kind to both. They haven’t exactly seen widespread reevaluation as their makers’ best works — Sorcerer wouldn’t be too far off for this writer, and Scorsese’s film has its passionate advocates — but they’ve developed cult followings and at least partly shaken off their previous distinctions as merely ambitious follies. Perhaps it’s appropriate that they’re not as widely cited as Taxi Driver and The Exorcist – they’re pricklier than their more popular predecessors, better suited as advanced viewing than introductory works. They may not generate thousands upon thousands of appreciations 40 years later, but they’re there, waiting for curious viewers to make a discovery.

‘The Last Mistress’: Catherine Breillat’s Power Game of Sex and Fury

Written by Willow Maclay, June 9, 2017 at 7:45 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.

In the Bible, Paul the apostle wrote in the first letter to the church at Corinth these words: “Man did not come from Woman, but woman from man. Man was not created for woman, but woman for man,” which is repeated in the wedding ceremony between Ryno de Marigny (Fu’ad Aït Aattou) and Hermangarde (Roxanne Mesquida). These words cast a shadow — not only for Vellini (Asia Argento), the lover who has been cast aside, but for women everywhere in Christian nations. If one rebels, one fails god, but man can do as he pleases, for he is God. This breeds a generation of witches. If Man is God and Women refuses to acquiesce to Man then she is the Devil. Vellini, having been scorned by Marigny, becomes what is foreshadowed earlier by her crimson evening gowns, black veils, and propensity for blowing cigar smoke from her cherry lips. Vellini follows her heart and her carnal instincts to the seaside cliffs of Marigny’s elegant honeymoon where she finds a happily married man. Vellini is turned into a villain simply by the circumstances of her soul; and with Catherine Breillat‘s pointed lens on gendered conversation, she addresses the prickly differences between the perceptions of the sexual man and woman in 19th Century France.

Vellini’s narrative isn’t new or even unique. It is one for all time. She’s Hester Prynne, The Witches at Salem, and Courtney Love. She’s simply a woman and sometimes that’s enough. In contrast, Ryno is a man with an ill reputation. While it doesn’t sink his chances at marrying Hermangarde, the innocent girl he claims to have fallen for, it does call into question the differences between his reputation and the mistress he took years ago. Vellini is a figure who looms over their potential marriage, threatening to pull poor Harmangarde and Ryno into her poisonous fog. Even if she is merely a woman heartsick at the thought of losing who she loved.

Asia Argento, for her credit, plays this role with dominance and a hedonism that verges on the feral. The way she tilts her head or moves her wide shoulders to steer physical conversation through body language conveys power over the rather delicate performance of her lover and contemporary, Fu’ad Aït Aattou. With his elegant, puffy lips and fair, almost marble complexion, he appears softly feminine in the face of Argento’s more overpowering womanhood. It wouldn’t be strange to mistake Argento for a much older woman and Attou for a mere boy, but they only share a five-year age difference. Argento gives one of the great performances of the last ten years in the hands of Breillat’s intelligent script and direction, which sees a blatant power game of sex and fury unfold for all its misery and ecstasy.

The film is structured around a framing device where Ryno has to prove he would not go back to Vellini in the eyes of Harmangarde’s grandmother, La comtesse d’Artelles (Yolande Moreau), on the eve of her granddaughter’s wedding. He tells her the story of his taboo relationship in a series of flashback sequences. By choosing to replay the events through his perspective, the movie is able to pinpoint the societal expectations of women via the subtle ways in which Ryno demonizes the one he once loved. He speaks with soft admiration about the first time when they met at a gathering at the conclusion of an opera where salacious pictures were passed around as suppertime entertainment. The pornographic is merely an extension of Breillat’s reality. Sex is not locked away in layers of tights and pantaloons, but only a moment away from overcoming the movie like the red tide in the elevator from The Shining. When Ryno meets Vellini for the first time she expresses disdain for the man and even goes as far as to break a glass within her hands to move away from him at the dinner table, but in his own words he wins her over later that night after some routine gambling. Vellini does not have the agency of her own story in his recollected flashbacks, but Argento plays the role as if she does. She sees Ryno as less of a love interest and more as a plaything she could have if she wanted. It’s a power fantasy, and within her smouldering eyes she ensnares Ryno simply because she can.

Ryno’s honesty about his own carnal desires in the face of his soon-to-be-wife’s grandmother is endearing to the older women, and — in a meta-commentary on our own voyeurism towards acts of sexuality, gossip, and relationships — she functions as an audience fulcrum. Sitting there, she is adorned in the finest clothing money can buy, but beneath the veneer she loves a good soap, and so do we. What was initially a cat-and-mouse game between Ryno and Vellini turns into exasperation and desperate longing for one another when the flashbacks resume. Breillat seems to graduate from the Oshima school of thought present in his masterpiece In the Realm of the Senses, that these two characters cannot exist without being beside one another in bed. They take to the countryside and the desert and flee into themselves, making the world small. But within their growing carnal affectations toward one another, a child is born and, with it, breeds tragedy that dissolved the relationship. When Ryno finishes the story, The Countess seems satisfied and the marriage follows, but Vellini does not lie down, even within her damaged heart. If she is a martyr, she is only one for herself and for the love that slipped away.

When Ryno and Harmangarde settle beside the sea for their honeymoon Vellini’s presence seems to come with the dark clouds lingering over the horizon. For as much as Ryno and Harmangarde seem to love each other, Vellini’s persistent admiration for the young man lingers and Harmangarde worries. Vellini is like a ghost who haunts their relationship, and when an apparition of this same woman appears on the island dressed in near drag, it spells doom for the couple. She is a dragqueen siren. Ryno cannot let go of her voice and he capsizes within the familiar waters of his former love. Like a sickness, they are addicted to one another and letting go is not merely possible. Breillat’s camera lingers on their naked bodies cascading in the bedroom as they consider what is next, but the final chapter is the image of their nudity. Vellini is the harpy. Harmangarde carries a widow’s pain. Ryno is merely a boy. Ultimately, though, Vellini is the one who is blamed. The vixen, the harlot, the Woman who is only guilty of accidentally falling in love.

Follow our complete retrospective on the best films of 2007.

‘Hostel: Part II’ and the Monster of Neoliberal Late-Capitalism

Written by Mike Thorn, June 8, 2017 at 12:46 pm 

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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 torture scenes in writer-director Eli Roth’s Hostel openly evoked the 2003 Abu Ghraib photographs, which depicted United States military and Central Intelligence Agency personnel subjecting Iraqi prisoners to acts of profound cruelty and abuse. The film also addressed post-9/11 U.S.A.’s widespread xenophobia and confusion in the midst of an incompetent administration while satirizing upper-class masculinist group dynamics. Shortly after Hostel enjoyed overwhelming mainstream success, David Edelstein published “Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex: Torture Porn” for New York magazine, an article that leveled unilateral arguments against the wave of brutal films flooding the American mainstream — including Hostel, but also films such as Wolf Creek, The Devil’s Rejects, and the Saw franchise.

This incendiary context set the stage for Roth’s Hostel: Part II, which acts both as an inversion and political expansion of its predecessor. Where Hostel offers a glib satire of homosocial desire among hyper-masculine males, the sequel focuses on a trio of young women. If Hostel reacts to the Abu Ghraib photographs by leveling a critique against unchecked western military imperialism, Part II condemns rampant late-capitalist neoliberalism at large. In 2007, the sequel’s political resonance was lost amidst blanket arguments against “torture porn” (a term that Edelstein’s article leaves unfortunately broad and open-ended); in 2017, its nastily incisive observations remain too relevant to be brushed aside.

But Roth’s films are not simply exercises in pessimistic wallowing. Following in the tradition of the first Hostel, Part II amplifies its horrifying political insights with dark humor. It uses these most emotionally charged of genres, horror and comedy, to attribute its subject matter with physical reaction, seeking visceral impact above all else. If subtlety is what you seek, Roth is probably not the filmmaker for you — here’s a film that uses castration to symbolize resistance against violent masculinity; that shows human bodies turned into consumable and disposable objects in order to illustrate capitalism’s brutal exploitation of animals and people alike. Unlike the first entry, Part II’s point-of-view is not restricted to the victims. Instead, the film is divided into two plot-lines — the first sees the aforementioned group of women vacationing in a small Slovakian village, and the second follows two wealthy, white American businessmen who win a bid to “purchase” the unknowing women for torture and murder.

By extending its narrative reach to include the Hostel “clients” as well as its prisoners, Part II deepens its moral and political insights. The audience is asked not only to empathize with the victims, but also to recognize its own complicity as spectators. This broadened perspective also substantiates Roth’s sustained homage to Italian horror auteur Sergio Martino; like Martino’s excellent Torso (1973), Hostel: Part II oscillates visually and narratively between different subjective positions to disturb the viewer and to complicate their political assumptions. Part II makes its connection to Torso blatantly clear, going so far as to play an early scene as a direct reversal of Torso’s introduction. Where Martino’s film begins with an inquiry into the objectification of women in art history, Roth’s stages a nude male model for the leading trio of women to sketch. Edwige Fenech, Martino’s career-long collaborator, plays the art instructor; “Hands on your pencils, boys,” she says, when female model Axelle (Vera Jordanova) takes the male’s place.

This genre-specific self-awareness works in favor of political commentary. Following in the tradition of Martino’s masterpiece, Hostel: Part II doesn’t use horror as an escape from reality but rather as a means of confronting it. In 2017, this method of genre filmmaking remains generally unpopular. While some exceptions (e.g. Anna Biller’s The Love Witch and Jordan Peele’s Get Out) openly contend with relevant political problems, the majority of mainstream American horror (e.g. the Paranormal Activity and Conjuring franchises) continues following a trend of old-school paranormal superstition. By comparison, combative genre cinema such as Hostel: Part II urges American audiences to reflect on horrific sociopolitical realities. In 2017, its plot holds truer than ever — with boorish, chauvinist tycoon Donald Trump now serving as President of the U.S.A., capitalist enterprise and political leadership are more explicitly linked than ever. In 2007, Roth already saw the scariest machinations of neoliberal capitalism at work.

While addressing his film’s lofty political throughlines, the writer-director also lends Part II more formal flourishes than its predecessor. This sequel offsets its Martino references with coyly Gothic imagery: one scene finds a client lying within a ring of candles, scything her suspended, nude young victim before bathing in her blood, Elizabeth Báthory style. Part II also maximizes on architecture and locales, but uses them as defamiliarizing spaces rather than geographical markers. Scenes in misty Slovakian spas play out as placeless, sensual daydreams, and an anachronistic music festival echoes the first film’s visual allusions to the Minotaur myth. Specific Slovakian characteristics are largely left in the background because, like its predecessor, this film is much more about its protagonists’ perceptions of Europe than Europe itself. Whitney (Bijou Phillips), one of the focal vacationers, demonstrates this point-of-view: she conflates Bosnia with Slovakia, and calls local Miroslav (Stanislav Ianevski) “Borat.” (Fittingly, comedian Sacha Baron Cohen uses the titular Borat of his 2006 satirical mockumentary to tease out evidence of widespread American ignorance.)

Yes, there is plenty of humor in Hostel: Part II, but it never allows us to forget its primary vocation: fear. In the tradition of pure horror cinema, it denies us a happy ending. While the third act briefly hints at simplistic moralizing, it quickly steers away from that course. Ultimately, its resolution arises bluntly from financial negotiation, and it concludes with a gang of street children playing soccer with a decapitated head. Some of the victims may get out alive, but what good is survival if it only results from torturing the torturers? In 2007, the film’s box-office earnings and critical reception suggested a pale and unsuccessful sequel. A decade later, Hostel: Part II stands out as one of the most urgent, combative, and complicated American horror movies of its time.

Follow our complete retrospective on the best films of 2007.

The Emotional Naïveté of ‘Good Morning’ and Poignant Cynicism of ‘Ghost World’

Written by Eli F., June 4, 2017 at 12:41 pm 

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Yasujirō Ozu tends to be known by reputation as a restrained, despondent dramatist — and not, regrettably, as one of the rare artists immaculately in tune with the psychology, behavior and energy of children. His 1932 silent comedy I Was Born, But... is a delectable slice of humor, humanism, and social satire, grounded by an exceptional insight into the verbal and physical language of grade-school boys and brought to life by pitch-perfect performances a cast of young actors. In Good Morning, his characteristically sedate, loose remake of the aforementioned silent film, Ozu revisits similar thematic territory from the wizened perspective of his postwar films. Now with the tools of full audio and Technicolor at his disposal, Ozu spins a social and emotional tapestry from a 1950s Tokyo suburb in which two young brothers, desperate for their own TV set, take a vow of silence in protest against the frivolous speech of adult society.

Amidst a landscape of economic upheaval and social repression, Ozu — whose 1953 drama Tokyo Story was voted the greatest film of all time in Sight & Sound’s 2012 poll of filmmakers — celebrates the bluntness and emotional naïveté of his child characters, and is not above indulging their fondness for flatulence-driven humor from the very first scene. At the same time, the film suggests darker social undercurrents the likes of which Leave It to Beaver wouldn’t dare touch: housewives gossip and cast aspersions on one another, salarymen struggle to maintain their middle-class lifestyles, hurtful words are exchanged between family members. The new Criterion Collection disc is remastered in beautiful 4K definition, and among several featurettes includes I Was Born, But… in its entirety. Above all else, the two films together stand as powerful testament to the shared experience of boyhood across generations and cultures alike.

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Though Terry Zwigoff‘s 2001 dark comedy Ghost World may hail from this century, its spirit belongs unmistakably to the 1990s. Apathetic teens, postmodern nihilism, suburban malaise, local video stores, and Thora Birch — playing a far more layered and interesting variant of her alienated high schooler from American Beauty – all mark the film as a distinct cultural product of pre-9/11 America. And yet, as the 2010s approach their waning years and a new generation of culturally displaced youths comes of age, Ghost World seems as poignant now in its ode to outcasts, losers, loners and misfits as it’s ever been.

Adapted by Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes from Clowes’ graphic novel of the same name, the film follows wayward high school graduate Enid (Birch) as she spends her last summer before adulthood pulling pranks with her BFF Becky (Scarlett Johansson, in a time when she was allowed to inhabit flesh-and-blood humans on the screen) and forming an unlikely bond with eccentric and desperately lonely middle-aged record collector Seymour (a meek, heartbreaking Steve Buscemi). The film drips with Zwigoff’s characteristic cynicism and misanthropy, as an angry and confused Enid rails against the evils of consumer culture, political correctness, sexual repression, capitalist enterprise, everyday stupidity, and the general scourge of inauthenticity. But hidden within the sardonic sea of bile is a creeping pathos, a heartbreaking portrait of loneliness seen through eyes both young and old, which culminates in a quietly devastating finale. This edition from the Criterion Collection includes new commentaries and featurettes with Zwigoff and Clowes, and even printed excerpts from the original Ghost World graphic novel.

Good Morning and Ghost World are now available on The Criterion Collection.

Posterized June 2017: ‘Wonder Woman,’ ‘The Beguiled,’ ‘It Comes at Night,’ and More

Written by Jared Mobarak, June 2, 2017 at 8:15 am 

“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.


A five Friday month means a lot of films will be hitting multiplexes and the fact it’s June means even more. Despite this, however, it’s still insane to see that there are five sequels (six if you consider June 16th’s All Eyez on Me as a continuation of Straight Outta Compton like the trades wanted us to believe when it was green-lit). That’s one a week to ensure talk of creative bankruptcy in Hollywood never evaporates. Then again, it doesn’t deserve to in a world where Michael Bay has been able to direct five Transformers films alone (The Last Knight bows on June 21st).

It’s the age of franchise bankability—so much so that studios have taken to blaming Rotten Tomatoes for poor box office performance rather than the quality of their too-quick churning. Maybe they’ll understand the concept of supply and demand soon enough to adjust their strategies. Just don’t forget that it’s up to you to buy tickets for the good stuff so they may begin to understand what’s truly viable.


Princess Diana of Themyscira

Look no further than DC’s Wonder Woman (June 2) as an example of what to spend your money on. Yes it’s a franchise player (sequel to Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad no matter how tangentially) and yes it is a remake (Lynda Carter donned the bracelets in the 1970s), but it’s also a big deal due to its behind the scenes barrier breaking. You can surely read about its budget as it pertains to a woman director (Patty Jenkins) and non-Caucasian female star (Israeli Gal Gadot) elsewhere.

I’ll focus on what this film means for its audience: namely young girls and women who have yet to see their gender lead the way as a superhero on the big screen. B O N D and Warner Bros. realize what this means and both ensured their marketing push mirrored it by putting their iconic character at the forefront.

It honestly doesn’t matter how you have Gadot pose (bracer deflection, tank lift, or lasso). You simply have to make certain she’s the only person on the poster. Throw words like “Power,” “Courage,” or “Wonder” if you’d like, but DO NOT take for granted what this property means for an audience that has for too long been ignored. This is DC’s badass moment to do what Disney/Marvel didn’t have the guts to do (the lack of Black Widow and Rey action figures upon release of their vehicles proves it). If you don’t clutter Man of Steel posters with Lois, you better not slap Steve Trevor next to Diana either.

And when you do (poor Little Giant Studios), the internet will mock you with derision. Granted, the firm didn’t do itself any favors by Photoshopping Chris Pine in the background as though he’s a Jedi ghost watching over our heroine. This poster is easy to laugh at and we all did. But at least they didn’t go the romantic route to try and “appeal to girls” because they still think females don’t like action.

For my money, though, it doesn’t get better than Concept Arts‘ tease. This thing is gorgeous with its smoky haze of colored atmosphere; its shadowy drama to match that of the DCEU yet retain the bright gold, blue, and red; and its pose of regality, hair flowing and strength ready to uncoil. I don’t like the bold “Ws” since the tag is literally over the logo to make it unnecessary—and why isn’t the one in “Power” bold too—but the imagery is too good to be ruined by it.


Kids vs Adults

June has a good mix when it comes to blockbusters hitting every age group. While Wonder Woman is in that sweet spot of targeting everyone (depending on parents of course), there are a few others for those seeking a bit more or less.

We’ll start with the less: animation. There’s a new property out (June 2nd’s Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie), but most little ones will probably be wanting Mom and Dad to take them to two tried and true franchise continuations in Blue Sky’s Despicable Me 3 (June 30) and Pixar’s Cars 3 (June 16). It’s actually funny how these two parallel each other in number of sequels and the ability to spawn offshoots with Minions and Planes respectively.

The thing about being the third entry in a series is that you don’t need much for brand recognition. Just look at LA‘s tease for Gru and company. You probably could have just left the whole thing white with the “2017” in that font and color and we’d know what it was. The banana-loving Minions are just an added bonus to turn kids’ heads.

The second brings more into play with a larger Gru, a full title stack, and a glimpse at plot with the reformed villain’s … brother? The trailer I saw mentioned nothing of this development so it’s either an intriguing direction to go with the poster or evidence that what I saw was deflection. Whichever is correct, the sheet is less than exciting.

No, the adverts with the Minions getting ink are much funnier—even if the act itself probably has nothing to do with the film. Gru is contemplating going back to crime, though, so maybe these yellow guys get arrested along the way and decide to immortalize their love of fruit in prison? Who knows? The idea of a banana teardrop tat simply made me chuckle, so I applaud them.

What Ten30 Studios does on Cars 3 is different. They still go minimalistic as far as not needing the title, etc., but the mood is the total opposite. Whereas Despicable Me 3 banked on light frivolity, Lightning McQueen and company have embraced drama—perhaps too much.

When you couple the tag “From this moment everything will change” with an image of its star crashing, the result is frightening. Did they just kill off Lightning? Is this a horror film? This vein of marketing went on for weeks if I remember correctly to create an interesting type of buzz that may have risked keeping kids away.

Thankfully the firm shifted focus to the cars driving down the speedway or through water for a more adventurous lilt devoid of the macabre. All three of these first teases are pretty with their splashes and sparks, diagonal layouts creating motion, and sharp colors. They introduce a new car in #20 too before finally allowing a fourth sheet to tell us he is the antagonist. We have a “VS” poster setting up the central race as well as competing aesthetics between glossy warms and matte cools. Welcome to the carbon age … whatever that means.

Now onto the adults for lackluster convention—there’s no sleek angles, compositional artistry or white space utilization here.

Photoshop reigns supreme with Concept ArtsRough Night (June 16), its collage so manufactured that it looks like Kate McKinnon and Ilana Glazer are playing children half the other actors’ size. “Terrible choices” indeed.

At least the character sheets have some spunk even if they’re generic. I prefer the close-up series best as it highlights the words on each sash so we can picture the actress through that description. You lose this imaginative interest once you move out to add their faces. Suddenly it’s a portrait rather than a gag, a glamour shot rather than an attempt to spark something in us. Not that either is going to cajole those uninterested in this gender-reversal Very Bad Things to buy a ticket anyway. The cast is king and the campaign exploits that truth so as not to waste time complicating matters.

LA tries to add some vision to their The Mummy (June 9) variations, but it’s tough to accomplish when you’re saddled with an unwieldy faux metallic title font that wouldn’t feel real if it was made of metal and glued on top.

They do choose intriguing images though whether a symmetrical view of the coffin or the mummy’s facial brands/tattoos (although I find the split eye thing to be laughably over-the-top). These are both effective teases to introduce atmosphere and mood without Tom Cruise plastered atop it to distract our attention.

You obviously have to add him in eventually, though—even if only for the IMAX sheets. What’s sad is that placing these two entries next to each other shows that the studio feels Sofia Boutella is as important as a stone tomb when compared with their box office juggernaut. It’s a shame because she’s honestly the only reason I’m interesting in going to the theater for this one.

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The Best Films of the 2017 Cannes Film Festival

Written by The Film Stage, May 29, 2017 at 12:48 pm 

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After nearly two weeks of viewing some of the best that cinema will have to offer this year, the 70th Cannes Film Festival has concluded. With Ruben Östlund‘s Force Majeure follow-up The Square taking the top jury prize of Palme d’Or (full list of winners here), we’ve set out to wrap up our experience with our favorite films from the festival, which extends to the Un Certain Regard and Directors’ Fortnight side bars. Check out our favorites below, followed by the rest of the reviews. One can also return in the coming months as we learn of distribution news.

120 Beats Per Minute (Robin Campillo)

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Sometimes a movie doesn’t need much character development to make an impact. The ensemble cast that comprise Robin Campillo’s AIDS activists in 120 Beats Per Minute all work together to be the same voice. Through this group, the director captures a force that resonates more in message than in any of the conventional, dramatic sparks you might find in a Hollywood version of this story. This is one of the most politically-minded movies to come around in quite some time as Campillo stages heated strategy sessions between the activists of ACT UP like a Godard cinematic political essay post-La Chinoise. Through effective direction, the activism on display here is inspiring enough to rile one up to set aside preoccupations and try to make a difference in the world. – Jordan R. (full review)

Before We Vanish (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

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There are few directors who would choose to take a semi-sincere approach to a lengthy pseudo-philosophical science-fiction film — especially not one that lightly pries into our fundamental psychological foibles — but there are few directors quite like Kiyoshi Kurosawa. The prolific Japanese filmmaker behind such varied genre gems as Pulse and Tokyo Sonata has constructed a sort of skittish and overlong, albeit pleasantly existential oddity in Before We Vanish, an alien-invasion B-movie packed with A-grade ideas and craft. Nail down your windows. Lock your doors. It’s the invasion of the concept snatchers. – Rory O. (full review)

The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola)

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Cannon fire rumbles menacingly in the distance, but it’s human desire that might prove to be the greater threat after all in The Beguiled. Set to the backdrop of the American Civil War, Sofia Coppola‘s film is a sumptuous and often campy erotic horror, one that marks a confident debut genre outing for a director better-known for contemporary and often quite personal filmmaking (Lost in Translation, Somewhere, etc.). Although primarily based on the 1966 book by Thomas Cullinan, it appears, at first glance, to be a remake of Don Siegel’s 1971 film adaptation rather than any sort of new reading of the original text. Coppola, of course, is far too clever for that. – Rory O. (full review)

The Day After (Hong Sang-soo)

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Hindsight is a marvelous thing. To quote the lead character of a recent Hong Sang-soo film (and by recent we mean Claire’s Camera, the second of three the prolific director has premiered so far this year): “The only way to change things is to look back on them, slowly.” It’s a mantra Hong clearly lives by as a filmmaker, as do many of the people who inhabit his movies. Hong’s world is all about repetition, and while the cold domestic and workplace settings of his latest film, The Day After, are somewhat of a departure from the unfamiliar streets his character usually walk down, the majority of his signature ingredients are present and accounted for: sad, unfaithful men abusing positions of relative power; dialogue that meanders between the everyday and the sublime; his current muse, Kim Min-hee; and, of course, generous lashings of Soju. – Rory O. (full review)

A Gentle Creature (Sergei Loznitsa)

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“Man is a wolf to his fellow man,” quotes a character early in Sergei Loznitsa’s A Gentle Creature. The ordeal suffered by its protagonist will indeed be solitary, poor, nasty, and brutish – it won’t be short, however. Powerful though bloated, A Gentle Creature is a companion to Loznitsa’s phenomenal first narrative feature, My Joy, once again following a person’s nightmarish odyssey through an allegorical rendition of post-Communist Russia. Though not as successful as its predecessor, Loznitsa’s latest nonetheless confirms the director’s place of honor amongst cinema’s most vociferous critics of Putin’s kingdom. – Giovanni M.C. (full review)

Good Time (Josh and Ben Safdie)

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It’s probably safe to say that, up until now, no lucid person had compared a Safdie brothers film to the work of Michael Mann. Indeed, it may still be a stretch, though Good Time  the New York siblings’ latest eye-popping, pill-popping, attention-deficit character study — could feasibly be described as just that. It’s in parts a heist movie (iconic masks included) and a chase movie, but not an homage in any sense — more an evolution, like a 21st-century fast-food hybrid that mixes trash television and drug culture with Day-Glo-splattered night-time cinematography and throbbing synthesizers, thanks to a standout score from Oneohtrix Point Never. – Rory O. (full review)

Ismael’s Ghosts (Arnaud Desplechin)

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Pasolini included an “essential bibliography” in the opening credits of Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, proffering five philosophical titles by the likes of Roland Barthes and Maurice Blanchot to help viewers navigate his rich and daunting Sadean masterpiece. The closing credits of Arnaud Desplechin’s Ismael’s Ghosts also feature a reading list that could be called essential. Of the four authors listed therein, one in particular might hold the key to interpreting Desplechin’s exhilarating, overflowing mindfuck of a movie: Jacques Lacan. – Giovanni M.C. (full review)

Lover for a Day (Philippe Garrel)

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Philippe Garrel, the 69-year-old veteran of the French New Wave, has produced a casual, bittersweet, and intoxicating study of relationships in flux starring his daughter Esther. In this swift, touching ode to lovers with heart-breaking, irreconcilable differences, the drama appears conventional on first glance, featuring that older-man-younger-women relationship frustratingly perennial in French art cinema, but this is a work of rare clarity by a director whose experience shows. – Ed F. (full review)

Okja (Bong Joon-ho)

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A dystopian story about a genetically engineered beast with overt anti-capitalist connotations, Bong Joon-ho’s Okja represents a synthesis and an upgrade – in scale as well as quality – of the director’s previous outings The Host and Snowpiercer, confirming him as one of the finest contemporary craftsmen of intelligent, ambitious blockbusters. – Giovanni M.C. (full review)

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The Greatest Monster Movies of All-Time

Written by Tony Hinds, May 25, 2017 at 3:13 pm 

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The monster movie represents one of the most enduring genres in cinema, a versatile formula for exploring the horrors of the unknown. Whatever it is that scares us, there’s always a monster to represent that fear as a metaphor in the flesh. Most monsters are misunderstood creatures, victims of a terrible fate seeking redemption and, in some cases, vengeance.

Alien: Covenant, now playing in theaters, returns director Ridley Scott to a beloved franchise, following the mixed and controversial reception to Prometheus. The plot follows the crew of a deep-space colony ship, which lands on what appears to be an undiscovered paradise. This new planet holds many secrets for its new inhabitants, including David (Michael Fassbender) the surviving robotic companion of the Prometheus crew. Sadly, the series isn’t always consistent in quality (Alien: Resurrection was a definite low) but movie fans will always welcome a return visit to this classic monster movie territory.

To celebrate, and with forthcoming monster movies The Mummy and Okja in mind, we’ve taken a look back at the most frightening creatures in the history of cinema. From snarling werewolves to man-eating sharks, misunderstood monstrosities to prehistoric beasts, please enjoy the greatest monster movies of all-time.

Alien (Ridley Scott)

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The simplicity of the set-up is key: a group of seven space truckers hauling mineral ore encounter a signal of unknown origin and land on an uninhabited planet to investigate. What follows ranks among the finest monster movies ever made because it creates such an all-encompassing world for its characters. The planet, LV-426, is a barren rock, devoid of life, save for a crashed ship, which carries hundreds of leathery eggs in its cargo hull. Don’t forget the contents of those eggs: the face-huggers and their inevitable full-grown alien spawn, dangerously adaptable beasts who bleed acid. The entire mythology of what later became a massive film series exists in director Ridley Scott’s Alien, a world so vast and fully realized that it understandably demanded serialization.

An American Werewolf in London (John Landis)

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As two lovable idiots backpack across northern England, they’re warned to stay off the moors. “Beware the moon,” the locals cryptically advise. Instead of heeding this warning, writer-director John Landis’ hapless protagonists step off the road and into the moors, goofily unaware of the violence awaiting them. The comedic elements of An American Werewolf in London are essential. David Naughton and Griffin Dunne’s wise-cracking backpackers joke their way across the English countryside, oblivious of the full moon overhead. This warm comedic tone, like a magician’s sleight of hand, lends the audience a false sense of security from the impending danger, which Landis delivers with hair-trigger timing and ruthless impact. Cleverly effective jump scares follow visually arresting dream sequences. Dead friends rise from the grave to advocate for suicide and before long, our hero becomes the very monster that he once feared.

Attack the Block (Joe Cornish)

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A sea of meteorites descend upon a rough London neighborhood, meteorites containing vicious ape-like alien creatures. This commotion interrupts a group of delinquent youths mugging a young woman. A make-shift family unit forms as these mismatched Brits fight for survival against an alien invasion. At one point, an old woman bemoans the deterioration of her neighborhood and the delinquent youths running the block: “Excuse my French, but they’re fucking monsters!” While the metaphor might lack subtlety, the monsters are certainly top notch. Rendered by writer-director Joe Cornish like super-charged acrobatic killing machines, their air of menace stems from the simplicity of their design: an eyeless gorilla-wolf creature with rows of hideous bioluminescent fangs. To achieve this effect, Cornish simply employed a man in a gorilla suit, employing a minimal use of computer-enhancement to darken the fur pitch-black. As the majority of this list proves, complex photo-real CGI isn’t always the answer when creating a memorable cinematic monster.

Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale)

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The most tender and oddly contemporary creature on this list may be Frankenstein’s Monster in James Whale’s classic, Bride of Frankenstein. After rising from the flames of the iconic burned windmill, the Monster returns home to find that his creators seek to build him a mate. He’s a pathetic creature, confused and lashing out at the world that utterly rejects him. As the mad scientist schemes in the castle, the Monster stumbles into the home of a blind man and strikes an unlikely friendship. They eat and drink together, but the relationship is inevitably doomed. Filled with rage, the Monster returns to meet his Bride, desperate for companionship, only to face rejection from her, as well. The ensuing fiery tragedy sadly confirms there is no place for such a mournful, pitiable creature in this world.

Dracula (Tod Browning)

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Bela Lugosi’s unforgettable portrayal of Count Dracula began on a Broadway stage. When the film was in-production, Universal didn’t want him for the role, but Lugosi campaigned hard and landed the job. His oft-imitated turn as Bram Stoker’s titular Count, a broadly silent film-esque performance, brings a creepy demonic sensuality to the character. Lugosi’s vampire openly lusts after the same women he wants to bite, his fearsome and penetrating gaze locked on the object of his obsession. In fact, Tod Browning’s film also originated a frequently-imitated formula for lesser adaptations of the Stoker story: defenseless women get neck-bitten by the Count in his castle while their chivalrous boyfriends lounge at the pub, debating the existence of vampires.

The Fly (David Cronenberg)

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The Fly is a perfect match between director and material, creating the ultimate body-horror film. Treating the film’s sci-fi subject matter with utter seriousness, director David Cronenberg grounds the twisted story in a textured emotional reality, which lends the darker developments such an immense, tangible impact. Like so many Cronenberg films, the monster comes from within, transforming Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) into a hideous mutant, hungry to adapt to his new being. Brundle’s twisted science experiment shatters the test tubes and destroys his life as a human. His life as a fly, however, seems to thrive. Soon, he’s hanging from the ceiling and vomiting on his food, his humanity slowly slipping away. It’s one thing to create a monster, but to transform yourself into one would be a terrible fate for any mad scientist. Comparatively speaking, Dr. Frankenstein had it pretty easy compared to poor old Brundle-Fly.

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‘Waitress’: A Portrait of Motherhood with Rare and Refreshing Depth

Written by Sydney Wegner, May 25, 2017 at 3:03 pm 

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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.

Waitress begins with three women in a bathroom. Jenna (Keri Russell), Dawn (Adrienne Shelly), and Becky (Cheryl Hines) are huddled around Jenna’s pregnancy test in their diner uniforms, praying for a negative result. Jenna hates her husband, and, with the appearance of a small pink line, the door leading out of her marriage closes. It’s appropriate that we meet these women in the bathroom, the place where secrets are told and gossip is passed, where deep breaths are taken in solitude and cold water is splashed on faces. They revisit the bathroom often to put on makeup and have serious conversations, this small room with its tacky wallpaper acting as a haven for the three. A man’s voice calls out for them to get back to work, and the real world continues spinning.

The great strength of this film is that it takes “women’s work” and grants it dignity. Jenna’s passion is baking pies, and the only times she seems calm are when she’s above a mixing bowl. She fantasizes a pie for every situation; when she closes her eyes to visualize them, we see overhead shots of hands filling pie crusts with her various inspirations. These dreamy interludes elevate her baking to something close to alchemy. The pies are luscious, beautiful, and spoken of with quiet awe, the way one would describe a particularly moving artwork. Baking is no longer just a thing your grandma does in the mysterious cave of her kitchen, but a remarkable skill that is serene and sensual. Waitressing itself is, if not exactly elevated to an art form, shown as a thankless task performed by women resigned to serving others. Exhausting yourself with a smile on your face is an inevitability, an expectation. Work and personal issues are taken in stride, and sadness is a given.

But within this endless cycle there is room for hope, and because their place in the world is an accepted fact, they are able to remain optimistic. They keep alive a dream of happiness without feeling entitled to it. They navigate the world of men with only each other for support, with casual yet loving moments together the times we see them relax with the freedom to be themselves. Men are not all villains; there are moments of sympathy and kindness alongside displays of insensitive nastiness. Each male character is a somewhat broadly drawn stereotype of southern Americana, but all are remarkably human. The greasy jerk who manages the diner gives a short poignant speech about happiness, the kooky old man is more tender-hearted than he appears, the obnoxious nerd has an affinity for romantic poetry. It isn’t that they’re bad people, but that they can’t understand.

The world of Waitress is, for all the dark corners it investigates, full of vibrant colors and wonderfully funny inhabitants. A sentimental tale that could have turned saccharine or melodramatic at any moment, it’s the sharp writing and delightful performances that keep us grounded. Jenna views her pregnancy as an inconvenience and the baby as an invader rather than a person. We can’t blame her, for the father is a brute who manipulates his wife with affection and smothers her with jealousy and need. Her friends give her a diary in which to write letters to the baby, and her “Dear Baby” entries, presented as a voiceover, are a frank insight into her fears and frustrations. Such a picture of motherhood, like the glimpse this film gives into low-paying service jobs, is one rarely seen. Motherhood has, of course, traditionally been treated as the pinnacle of a woman’s life, and though attitudes have changed drastically in the last few decades, we are still reluctant to admit the complications. We don’t want to hear about anything but joy or admirable martyrdom, and women are reluctant to admit to anything less — even to other women.

The reality is that there is doubt and anger and deep sadness tangled up with the joy, and the willingness to present these aspects of motherhood in a way that is both honest and amusing gives Waitress a rare and refreshing depth. So Jenna, like an exhausted animal in a cage, seems to have given up on any hope of escape. Something in her begins to change when she meets and has an affair with her new doctor, Jim (Nathan Fillion), and the affection he has for her is like a crack in a prison wall. An image of fleeing is always right in front of her, but barely out of reach. In Jim she finds the satisfaction of kindness with no expectation of repayment. The affair shows her what it’s like to be desired and listened to, but still she feels hopeless to get out of her marriage. When Jenna gives birth near film’s end, she has an instant change of heart upon seeing her newborn daughter’s face. It has to be acknowledged that, in reality, this doesn’t always happen. A woman who doesn’t want a child will not automatically change her mind when it is born, and she is not a lesser person for it.

For Jenna in Waitress, however, the synchronization of heart and mind is a symbol of the way women love and support each other. Though it’s her doctor that awakens a spark inside her and opens up the option that she is worth being appreciated, it’s the birth of a daughter that gives Jenna the strength to change the course of her life. Writer-director Adrienne Shelly, before her life was tragically taken from her, presented women with a gift: she gives permission for mothers and waitresses and bakers and wives to find pride in what they do, and explores a way to find validation outside the approval of men. A pregnant woman still has needs and desires, a baker can be an artist, a simple waitress is still a person who dreams of adventure. Waitress is a little space in the world where tired women can visit and be comforted and understood.

Follow our complete retrospective on the best films of 2007.

‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’: Julian Schnabel’s Profoundly Cinematic Exercise in Empathy

Written by Jonah Jeng, May 22, 2017 at 8:37 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.

Has there ever been a more perfect pairing of medium and story than Julian Schnabel‘s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly? Cinema, an optical art form whose audience views scenes that they are powerless to change, here emulates the first-person perspective of the true-life Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Almaric), a man who, after suffering a stroke, was diagnosed with locked-in syndrome. This extremely rare disorder causes head-to-toe paralysis, leaving only sight, hearing, and thought unaffected. In other words, Bauby was condemned to viewing his life as a movie, flashing before his eyes in vibrant, fleeting moments he couldn’t touch.

Eventually, Bauby’s speech therapists developed a system of communication where letters would be read aloud and he would blink when the right letter was said. In this manner, he was gradually able to spell out words, sentences, and, eventually, the book on which the film was based. Success came slowly, however, with minor triumphs often feeling futile next to the absurd agony of his debilitated, day-to-day existence, and it is the full gamut of Bauby’s experience that the film seeks to capture.

Ingeniously, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly does so by recreating what it would have been like to actually see the world through Bauby’s eyes. Beyond merely getting a standard POV shot, it places the viewer not just in Bauby’s general position in space but behind his eyelids. We see his eyelashes, the blurriness that results from tears or squinting, and, as a doctor shines a flashlight into his retina, the soft glow of the surrounding flesh being illuminated. When an infected eye has to be sewn shut, we watch how each additional stitch darkens the frame, shutting out the light to which Bauby desperately clings.

As we see what Bauby sees, we also hear his thoughts, which are presented in gloriously snarky voiceover to signal a man who, though physically immobile, is very much bursting with loud and lusty life. The guy can’t move, but he swears, he sasses, and even gets horny. (Rarely has the male gaze been applied so self-consciously in film.) Narratively, it makes sense for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly to also enter Bauby’s mind, to follow through completely on the film’s commitment to empathy, except the act of letting a paralyzed man narrate his own story is also a notably rare case in cinema of giving both literal and figurative voice to a disabled character. Though certainly sympathetic towards Bauby’s predicament, the film treats him not as an object of pity but rather a fiercely intelligent and engaging narrator capable of outstripping many of his able-bodied counterparts in wit and charisma.

That said, neither does The Diving Bell and the Butterfly swing too far in the other direction — it doesn’t turn Bauby into a prince simply to compensate for his misfortune. The man has screwed up a lot — mostly in the domain of relationships — and the wreckage of his bad decisions is on full display for both us and him to see. It is precisely his paralysis that compels a reckoning with the past; unable to move or run, he is forced to watch when previous mistakes catch up with him. In a wrenching scene, Céline (Emmanuelle Singer), the mother of his children, ends up mediating a romantic exchange between the paralyzed Bauby and one of his lovers — who is on the phone, because there are no other nurses around and he cannot speak. Through moments like these, it is clear that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly isn’t letting Bauby off the hook, but neither does it revel in schadenfreude. The film bluntly confronts the man’s shortcomings, but its heart still has space for him.

Compassion of this sort drives the film — both implicitly in the camera’s identification with Bauby’s perspective, and more explicitly through the numerous supporting players who shoulder the burden of loving and caring for Bauby with Herculean strength and selflessness. From the speech therapists to Bauby’s father to the woman tasked with translating eye blinks into words for Bauby’s memoir, the people in this film are large-souled to an extent that is deeply moving without becoming unrealistic. They exhibit patience and tenderness but never condescension, treating Bauby like the mentally capable man he is while also fully accommodating his disability. The simple but deep poignancy of observing kindness in action is enhanced by the fact that we, in a sense, inhabit Bauby’s body, thanks to the first-person POV. Thus, most of the other characters’ considerate actions appear to be made in our direction as if we were the recipients, a mode of viewing that makes each kind gesture feel more personal. Moreover, although the film is about Bauby’s perspective, his friends, family members, and caretakers are the ones being “depicted” in the conventional sense of the word i.e. shown onscreen. By becoming more “about” Bauby through adopting his vantage point, the film simultaneously becomes more about those around him. His experience is the focus of the movie, but so is their love.

Despite spending most of its runtime emulating Bauby’s gaze upon the material world around him, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly departs from this perspective in two crucial ways. The first is a shift to a third-person view of Bauby, wherein we see his immobile body as the other characters do, frozen atop a hospital bed or in a wheelchair. These scenes are essential to the film’s empathic power because they remind us of the typical position we hold in relation to the physically disabled: looking on from the outside and, often, with an unwarranted sense of superiority. When juxtaposed with these third-person viewpoints, the vivacity of Bauby’s inner life all the more powerfully subverts many of society’s stigmas toward disabled individuals. At the same time, shots of Bauby in his paralyzed state serve to confront us with the reality of his condition. Swept up in the liveliness of his narration, we can all too easily forget just how punishing it is to be imprisoned in one’s own body. These shots ensure that this doesn’t happen.

The second way in which the film leaves its POV mode is through leaving the material world altogether. In the key turning point, Bauby chooses not to despair over his condition but rather takes advantage of what he still has: his imagination and memory. Previously, Schnabel had used imagined scenes to conjure up Bauby’s sense of entrapment — specifically, those of a man encased in a submerged diving suit à la The Graduate — but it is in the scenes conveying the newfound freedom of the mind that the film soars. Bauby’s shift in perspective is a monumental triumph of the human spirit, and Diving Bell celebrates this by plunging full-tilt into his headspace, showing his reveries of snowcapped mountains, opulent feasts, and romantic trysts on sun-soaked shores. These scenes are visually resplendent — Schnabel plays with frame rate and color filters to create rollicking montages that look like a National Geographic music video as assembled by Danny Boyle — but they’re also tactile and gustatorial, such as in a prolonged shot that catches every strand of hair blowing into the camera or in close-ups of mouths biting juicily and noisily into succulent delicacies. In addition to being aesthetically pleasing, the sensorial vividness of these scenes is deeply moving because it shows that, though Bauby has physically lost much of himself, his mind enables him to feel whole again.

During one of the imagination sequences, Bauby’s voiceover suddenly shifts into a chastisement of the film itself, which is “erroneously” showing images of a young Marlon Brando when Bauby himself is the subject under discussion. This playful little “correction” gets at the core of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly because it shows that Bauby has control over the film we’re watching — not literally, given that the real Bauby passed away a decade before the film’s release, but still veritably in the sense that the man’s voice and vantage point permeate every frame of the film to a degree seldom seen among biopics. “Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts,” the late Roger Ebert remarked when accepting his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. “When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else’s life for a while.” This statement has never been truer of any film than it is of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which is the kind of movie that can restore one’s faith in humanity.

Follow our complete retrospective on the best films of 2007.