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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.


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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.

‘My Winnipeg’: Illusion Travels by Streetcar

Written by Nate Fisher, February 23, 2017 at 1:42 pm 

my-winnipeg

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.

It’s some time after midnight, and you’re riding the bus. The rehearsed movements from here to bed are already running through your head: ten or eleven more blocks, fifty steps to the building door, up two flights of stairs, three doors in total. Effectively, you’re already asleep. So your mind wanders into a waking dream space encased in this bus. The lights, buildings, and trees around you reflecting from one window to the other intermingle with your recollections, from what you did two hours ago before you got on the bus to what you did six years ago on that bench you’re about to pass. Maybe you can see the city skyline, or, on occasion, a passing car or a silhouetted person. Perhaps, for a second, you dream about what’s way out there, off the bus route and past the skyline. The narrative of Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg comprises this split second.

Late-night public transportation serves as the spine for our journey into the city of Winnipeg and the mind of Guy Maddin, which are, in the lonesome frustrated air of the circling streetcar, inseparable. What follows for the rest of the 79-minute film is difficult to pin down by genre, and remains, ten years on, one of the furthest forward in the vanguard of 21st-century formally flexible documentaries. My Winnipeg is a stringent Marxist history of the city of Winnipeg interspersed with a raucous, often silent comedy. We see grainy footage of the snowy streets as if from a passing car or trolley inserted within Maddin’s black-and-white phantasmagoria. There are no formal restrictions — silent intertitles, stock video footage, stock color photos, animations, and grainy color camcorder DV are all included. But because the filmmaker is always “trapped” in Winnipeg and his memories, we return to the circling streetcar, host to “ghosts” of all kinds.

Memories of Fellini’s 8 ½ flicker in the mind, and Maddin does little to distance himself from the well-traveled cinematic landscape of directors having a good old navel gaze. But the difference between 8 ½ and My Winnipeg points to a core reason for Guy Maddin’s genius. Where the first scene of 8 ½ puts us in a nice Italian car with Fellini’s avatar Marcelo Mastroianni, My Winnipeg starts on a much less impressive trolley with (apologies to him, but) Darcy Fehr as “Guy Maddin.” His flashy style is always mapped onto a dowdy parochialism, and often has a laser focus on his ho-hum hometown. My Winnipeg may be his masterpiece in this regard.

Maddin, as has always been central to his aesthetic, pushes towards a detailed hyperspeed montage of surreal images, but a montage that winks back at its extremely low-budget origin and production. He is a backyard filmmaker at heart, a director for whom something as intimate as black sheets covering a garage wall can be a soundstage. In films like Archangel, The Saddest Music in the World, and Brand Upon the Brain, Soviet city symphonies and expressionist canvas backdrops are mimicked by hand with a physical closeness that lays bare their psychological underpinnings.

This stylistic tendency becomes the narrative arch of My Winnipeg, where Maddin turns his mental processes into fodder for story. Before we even get to the dreamspace streetcar, the first image is of the director’s mother, played by Ann Savage, 60 years on from Detour, and being directed from offscreen by Maddin. Inasmuch as there is a story to My Winnipeg, it concerns the Maddin character, dreaming throughout his extended trolley trip, living out his memories in an attempt to exorcise those ghosts that keep him mentally and physically in Winnipeg. In order to complete the exorcism, the director hires local actors to play his family and restage events from his childhood.

Such is the film’s pace that the restaging of his childhood, the primary narrative event, scarcely covers a chunk of the runtime. It is a tough task to describe My Winnipeg because it is a tough task to describe the director’s Winnipeg, which is at once an imprisoning force and a series of shifting illusory surfaces. Winnipeg is a city where “everything here is a euphemism,” and there are not too many straightforward facts in Maddin’s voiceover of his film. Winnipeg doesn’t have “ten times as many sleepwalkers as the average” as he alleges, but it is a city where corporate interests have destroyed cherished landmarks and have consigned others to being mere ghosts, as is well elucidated. This Winnipeg is a city where a psychic confluence under the forks of two rivers causes a hotbed of labor politics in the twentieth century.

These places draw Maddin back time and again, places like the Sternbergian restaurant downtown and the hallowed hockey rink. In one of the films greatest tragedies, the old Winnipeg Arena is demolished, but not before the director gets one last commemorative piss in the fabled men’s room trough. This activity, one of the picture’s many lewdnesses, is in lockstep with Maddin’s sensory and Freudian treatment of memory. And that act demonstrates how his ritualistic journey through the places of his past fails to exorcise him of his past the way he would like. The irony, an irony not lost on the man, is that it’s the very belief that only by returning home can he conquer home that has always trapped him there. This is what he means when he sarcastically admits: “When you miss a place enough, the backgrounds in photos become more important than the people in them.”

In a last ditch attempt to free himself of the burden of having to care about his place of origin, Maddin concocts a revolutionary hero – Citizen Girl, who restores all the buildings and people and the entire city to their ahistorical former glory, so that they can stop being ghosts. This effort, shot in Riefenstahl style, is half-hearted, as he knows what direction history moves. The last rhetorical questions he asks himself after creating Citizen Girl are, “Now I can be free of the ghosts? How can one live without ghosts? What’s a city without ghosts? Unknown.” The film ends with a montage of those ghosts: the ghost of the old house, the ghost of the mother and dead brother. The streetcar ride out of town is forgotten and unfinished.

Follow our complete retrospective on the best films of 2007.

‘Hot Fuzz’ and Edgar Wright’s Art of Perfect Parody

Written by Daniel Schindel, February 17, 2017 at 2:06 pm 

hot-fuzzz

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.

Hot Fuzz is a true parody film. A lot of entertainment that’s created and sold as “parody” is, in fact, just an example of whatever genre or stock plot it’s targeting, but with jokes. Witness the sorry slew of films made by the Friedbergs, Seltzers, and Tiddeses of the world. This is easy to forget because the final act delivers a nonstop barrage of gunfire and explosions, but Hot Fuzz is comparatively light on action for most of its running time. It’s also easy to forget because it unquestionably feels like an action film for the duration, deliberately applying the Tony Scott school of editing to everything from paperwork to pen-clicking. Yet most of Hot Fuzz is a slow-burn build-up revolving around the more old-fashioned, decidedly more British genre of the provincial murder mystery.

Writer-director Edgar Wright and co-writer / star Simon Pegg conceived Hot Fuzz out of a desire for the UK to get its own big ‘80s-style action cop film. Historically, detective stories in print and TV have dominated that country’s pop-culture crime corner. (And since this film was released, we’ve seen the popularity of British detective TV go international, thanks to the likes of Sherlock and Netflix.) But hyper-competent rogue police officers getting into massive gunfights and constant chases, cracking giant criminal conspiracies, and clashing with cigar-chomping superiors would feel far too outlandish in such a setting.

And Wright and Pegg double down on the absurd clash by placing their pastiche in a quaint country village. As perhaps the foremost director of comedy working today, Wright has a knack for purely visual humor. He wrings endless material out of putting guns into the hands of wool-clad middle-aged people without ever exhausting it.

Hot Fuzz continually makes punchlines of either charging mundane situations with high energy — like a chase for a supermarket thief that’s interrupted by moms strolling their babies and a swan – or setting up archetypical action beats, only to cut them short – think the tremendous fake-out with a shed full of munitions that looks ready to explode, only for the characters to run out and… nothing happens. This can be seen as a “test run” for how The World’s End holds off on any genre elements until around a third of the way through, swelling with purely character-based tension right up until the point when it would be too much to take. Of course, Hot Fuzz tips its hand from the beginning that there’s more afoot than is apparent to (most of) its characters, and that all the deaths happening around the small town of Sanford are indeed not freak accidents.

The continual subversion and frustration of action clichés also channels the mindset of Pegg’s character, Nicholas Angel, a star London officer forcibly relocated to picturesque Sanford and addled with boredom by the lack of crime to fight. Angel is every small-town denizen driving themselves mad with fantasies of a more exciting life. He is essentially Wright when he was growing up in his own small town and in love with genre cinema – made all the more evident by the meta aspect of how the movie was shot in Wright’s hometown of Somerset. Hell, he even held a job as a youth in the supermarket that’s used as an important recurring location. (“I love it, but I also want to trash it,” he once said in an interview.)

The films of the Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy all feature arrested development as a plot point, and it appears here in a more complicated way than perhaps even in The World’s End — though certainly not in as dark a way, given how, in that film, a refusal to grow up literally destroys civilization. After Angel spends the entire story refuting the childish, action-movie-influenced ideas of his partner, Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), embracing that un-modern, unregulated form of policing proves to be empowering, and the proper way to combat the villains. And the movie ends with Angel and Butterman in full-on cowboy cop mode to respond to nothing more than “some hippie types messin’ with the recycling bins at the supermarket.” Which is a goodly larff but also scary when you think about it. After all, if they’re now sheriffing the town with such tactics, have they merely supplanted the fascistic Neighborhood Watch Association rather than defeated it?

That brings me to the oddest way this film has aged. And I’m sorry to bring contemporary politics into it, but, for God’s sake: main villain Frank Butterman (Jim Broadbent in one of the greatest against-type castings of the decade) actually says that the NWA’s motivation behind its covert murder campaign was to “make Sanford great again.” NIMBY conservatism in the middle class is, of course, an evergreen subject, but it’s taken on a new, scarier heft since 2016. While the political specifics of the modern situation are missing — immigration doesn’t come up, although itinerant Romani (“filthy Gypsies”) are at the root of Frank’s evil origin story — the NWA emblemize the core of Brexit. They want things to remain precisely as they are, and react to the slightest thing that’s out of place with utmost belligerence. Am I saying the proper response to UKIP is to drop-kick them in the face? Maybe.

After codifying the cinematic style he established with his TV series Spaced in Shaun of the Dead, Wright perfected it here by taking the speed from 40 to 100. This is as lightning-fast as a film can move while maintaining comprehension and letting its jokes land, and at the same time it crams in literally hundreds of smaller moments waiting to be caught on a rewatch or appreciated in a freeze-frame. I can appreciate it an entirely different way than I did as a teenager, even if the giddiness I get from a man’s head being exploded by a falling steeple is the same now as then. Hot Fuzz is perfect.

Follow our complete retrospective on the best films of 2007.

‘Music and Lyrics’: Sweet Dreams are Made of This

Written by Manuela Lazic, February 14, 2017 at 12:59 pm 

music-and-lyrics

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 many ways, Marc Lawrence’s 2007 rom-com Music and Lyrics begins like a fever dream. Not only does Hugh Grant suddenly appear onscreen with a sky-reaching hairdo, he’s also singing to the camera and wearing tight trousers. Soon, a similarly clad and always charming Scott Porter, of Friday Night Lights fame, joins him and also gets vocal. It is 1984 and, together, they are Pop!, the band whose hit “Pop Goes My Heart” had a video to match its greatness. Making faces straight out of a silent movie to portray Grant’s heartbreak (or heart-popping), the duo evolves through a scenario that involves a dizzying black-and-white room, a hospital, and choreography centered on their crotches and behinds. Like Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” sequence in Brian De Palma’s Body Double (also 1984), this music-video-within-a-movie captures the exhilarating, not-always-convincing liberated spirit of the 1980s with humor and devotion. The psychosexual obsessions of Body Double are, however, dismissed for a much more palatable and whimsical sentimentalism.

But the dream soon comes crashing down. An aggressive voiceover relates the duo’s history since: one day, Colin Thompson (Porter) decided to go solo and became an even bigger star, leaving Alex Fletcher (Grant) to drown his sorrow in drugs and alcohol. As if that weren’t bad enough, Alex now finds himself offered the opportunity to appear on television in an actual, physical “Battle of the 80s Has-Beens.” Yet this violent cocktail of nostalgia, shaming, and exploitation nonplusses Alex. Or at least he can joke about the term “has-been”: “It’s a very clear statement: ‘I live in the past. Everything good I ever did was long ago. Don’t expect anything new or exciting from me now.’ Really takes the pressure off. Especially on a first date!” Failure and near-bankruptcy have made Alex deeply sarcastic and less picky about his image. With acid humor, he convinces himself that the dream of earnest sensitivity sold by his old Pop! video was only a naïve fantasy, and hides his pain to others and himself.

But Lawrence’s decision to open with such a joyful homage to ’80s pop already suggests that Alex’s cynicism isn’t the writer-director’s. As surprising as the music video bursting on the screen for Music and Lyrics‘ opening sequence is a woman entering Alex’s life and offering a breath of fresh, hope-filled air. When he gets a shot at coming back on the music scene by writing a song for the sensuous but juvenile, pseudo-spiritual starlet Cora (Haley Bennett), Alex unexpectedly finds in his plant lady Sophie Fisher (Drew Barrymore), a gifted lyricist. The very fact that Sophie charitably accepts to help him should be a sign that all isn’t about greed and self-interest in life, but it will take Alex more than that to pierce the thick skin he’s grown through years of disillusionment.

Sophie’s tornado-like attitude isn’t a simple personality trait or plot device to contrast with Alex’s taciturnity; it takes a moment of vulnerability for her to reveal what lies behind her manic behavior and chronic lack of confidence. A bestselling novel in a bookstore window brings back memories of her ex-lover, an esteemed writer and professor who broke her heart and parodied their story in that very book. Rather than losing patience and worrying about his song, Alex listens carefully to Sophie. Just as she helps him write and encourages him to sing whatever he wants to sing, he tells her that she’s too talented and wonderful to care about this ex’s opinion of her.

The fact that both Alex and Sophie are perpetually struggling against a feeling of inadequacy gives Music and Lyrics a strange, deeply enjoyable realism. Their attempts to be socially acceptable versions of themselves results in extreme self-deprecation in Alex and a frenzied behavior in Sophie. The sense of awkward panic that taints their interactions with each other and the world is, of course, funny, but also keeps them down to earth and close to the audience, despite their rather unusual story.

Indeed, depicting the creative process via cinema is a high-wire act for several reasons. An artist can easily seem self-involved, when in fact creativity is often motivated by a genuine desire to open up to others and a willingness to make oneself vulnerable. While Alex and Sophie do successfully express their feelings through their song “Way Back Into Love,” Lawrence’s brilliant script avoids all potentially pretentious self-congratulatory moments for them. It’s not only that Alex’s cynicism regarding the music industry and Sophie’s lack of self-confidence imply that neither wants to praise their own efforts too loudly; it’s also that the race-against-time structure of this story leaves them no time to enjoy their success. Every line they manage to write is a small victory, but there are so many more to compose before Cora’s short deadline. The duo is making art but can’t afford to look cool doing it, instead remaining endearingly focussed on the task at hand.

The other dimension that’s challenging to depict is inspiration. How an artist gets ideas can rarely be explained without dumbing down this ever-elusive process. Some directors are literal about the magic of creativity: in Begin Again, John Carney chose a montage of instruments coming alive to represent Dan (Mark Ruffalo) thinking about a melody, thus making songwriting seem detached from its musician — not to mention whimsy. Music and Lyrics — a title already revelatory of a more humble approach than the cutesy Begin Again — shows Alex successively playing each musical part of the song himself, using simple melodies, loop machines, and computers. Rather than artificially adding a dose of fantasy to elevate pop music, Lawrence understands that its power to move listeners lies in its very simplicity and cheesiness. He highlights the easy bliss that Alex’s music brings to people at every concert the singer gives, big or small, for the hyper-excited middle-aged female spectators are never ridiculed. As Sophie points out, their glee is beautiful and something to be proud of.

Naturally, the aptly titled “Way Back Into Love” brings happiness to its makers, too. In taking breaks from songwriting to talk about their experiences, Alex and Sophie start detaching from their self-hatred by first putting it into words, then music and lyrics. Their dedication to their song leads to their devotion to each other and a realization that they are worthy of affection — but most importantly, of self-love. The dream of simple pleasures as presented by Pop! and pop music seems believable again.

Follow our complete retrospective on the best films of 2007.

‘Diary of the Dead’ and George A. Romero’s Formal Self-Awareness

Written by Mike Thorn, February 14, 2017 at 12:58 pm 

diary-of-the-dead

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.

For spanning half a century and six films to date, George A. Romero’s Dead series could reasonably be labeled the most ambitious single-auteur franchise in horror. Beginning with Night of the Living Dead’s release in 1968, this sequence is linked by its various uses of zombie uprisings as a vessel for sociopolitical critique. Night found as its inspiration Richard Matheson’s classic 1954 novel I Am Legend, a sci-fi horror tale that places its isolated protagonist within an apocalyptic world of humans-turned-vampires; surely, Matheson’s text posits an early sketch for the contemporary zombie, and Romero’s film cements that concept by replacing the novel’s creatures with reanimated corpses. Before Night of the Living Dead, the zombies of horror cinema aligned more directly with an origin in voodoo ritualism. Consider, for example, Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932) and Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943), a model Wes Craven later revisited in The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988).

Night of the Living Dead’s notoriety stems not only from its genre-related development, though; rather, it stands as a tentpole achievement of independent filmmaking, boasting rich black-and-white cinematography, a calculated development of tension, and insights into the angst of its contemporary zeitgeist, particularly ongoing battles for civil rights and vehement protests of the Vietnam war. Romero’s political intuition carries through Dawn of the Dead’s critique of then-burgeoning rampant consumerism, Day of the Dead’s thoughts on militarism and scientific ethics, and Land of the Dead’s proto-Occupy evaluation of late capitalism’s ludicrous wealth disproportions.

Enter 2007’s Diary of the Dead, a film as deeply political as its predecessors, but characterized by a uniquely pronounced formal self-awareness. After Land saw major studio development under the banner of Universal Pictures, Diary finds Romero reevaluating the kind of micro-budget conditions that produced Night of the Living Dead. It calls attention to the sensibilities that have overwhelmingly haunted mainstream horror since the release of two genre-shaking titles in the late 1990s: Wes Craven’s Scream and Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s The Blair Witch Project. Romero taps into the postmodern auto-critique of the former, and the subjective “found footage” aesthetic of the latter. It is worth noting that 2007 sees a general resurgence of the found-footage genre, bolstered most loudly by the premiere of Paranormal Activity, as well as Spain’s highly regarded [REC]. But as a rigorous self-evaluation and confrontational engagement with contemporary technology, Diary stands out. Romero’s film is forward-thinking genre cinema, as opposed to a work of simple reaction (Paranormal Activity mostly recycles the Blair Witch model) or homage ([REC] openly evokes the early works of the auteur in question).

Indeed, an accurate description for Diary of the Dead is less “found footage” and more “mock documentary.” The film’s voiceover alleges that it has been edited by Debra (Michelle Morgan) from various sources, including footage shot by her boyfriend, Jason (Joshua Close). The “documentary” also includes coverage from surveillance cameras, along with additional footage from Debra and Jason’s film-school classmates. Romero regularly calls attention to his own film’s fictitiousness. Debra’s opening narration lays bare the film’s methods of production: “The film was shot with a Panasonic HDX-900 and an HBX-200,” she says. “I did the final cut on Jason’s laptop. I’ve added music occasionally for effect, hoping to scare you.” Shortly after this reflexive admission, Diary sees Jason guiding the production of a mummy-themed horror film; in true post-Scream fashion, the scene incorporates Tracy’s (Amy Lalonde) incisive critiques of generic sexism: “Can somebody please explain to me why girls in scary movies always have to, like, fall down and lose their shoes and shit?” she asks in exasperation. “It’s totally lame. And why do we always have to get our dresses torn off?” Romero furthers this self-awareness when a climactic scene mirrors the droll opening: now, the mummy-costumed boy chasing Tracy really does mean to hurt her, and she voluntarily disposes her shoes before her dress is torn.

What sets Diary apart is not simply its acknowledgment of itself as mock documentary, but a sustained and attentive scrutiny of itself as a cinematic object. It also conducts a genuinely complex study of information overload in the age of digital technology. Romero gets away with skillful editing and composition by attributing his subjects with backgrounds in film. In providing this character information, Romero also justifies his film’s incorporation of highly stylized montages, which consist of overlaid newscast footage and narrations alongside Debra’s sharply political commentary. The formal self-awareness plays out even more powerfully in an emphasis on individual images: multiple scenes find subjects recording each other on handheld cameras, so that the audience is watching itself watching. Romero, highly critical of digital media’s fallibility, mirrors these images with one striking shot that finds the camera pointed similarly into the barrel of a National Guard member’s rifle. This explicit visual metaphor speaks to the film’s questions about the merits (or lack thereof) of documenting violence —“There will always be people like you,” film professor Andrew Maxwell tells Jason, “wanting to document, wanting to record some sort of diary.”

Yes, Romero is well aware of the pun on “shot” that goes along with recording brutal imagery, and he makes his auto-critique clear. It seems that Romero has no interest in subtlety, stationing himself instead within the territory of direct confrontation. This is a film of unavoidable conflicts, rendered all the more indelible through its horrific imagery. One especially disturbing episode finds Debra revisiting her suburban home to find her undead mother feasting on her father’s flesh, before being attacked by her young brother. The paradoxically “sophisticated” and “savage” Maxwell dispenses with the boy using a bow and arrow. Indeed, as the oldest major character in the film, Maxwell might well be Romero’s stand-in – erudite, pessimistic, and wryly humorous, he acts as a guardian and lovably cynical overseer of the young adults’ journey. One telling scene shows Maxwell discovering a first edition of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities and quoting without an apparent sense of irony: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

For finding his vision newly rejuvenated by digital technology, Romero might admit that, in some sense, this is “the best of times.” In offering perhaps his bleakest worldview to date, with a final line that asks, “Are we worth saving?,” he might be just as quick to state that this is “the worst of times.” A decade later, it has perhaps become tiresome to belabor the dire political state of our world. But it is fascinating to ponder whether a 2017 Dead entry would still allow for a belief that this contemporary moment is the best of times.

Follow our complete retrospective on the best films of 2007.

Recommended New Books on Filmmaking: Princess Leia, Alfred Hitchcock, Going Rogue, and More

Written by Christopher Schobert, February 13, 2017 at 12:31 pm 

princess-leia

The world of film-related books has been dominated by Star Wars for the last two years, and that’s not a bad thing. With insightful authors like Pablo Hidalgo and gorgeous efforts like Star Wars: Galactic Maps, there has never been a better time to be force-crazed. This month is no exception, but you’ll also find new releases about Hitchcock, the Marx Brothers, and even two involving X-Files prequels. Let’s start with a book that took on new relevance just weeks after its release.

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher (Blue Rider Press)

the-princess-diarist

Carrie Fisher’s The Princess Diarist, a hilarious and touching look at her life as Star Wars icon Princess Leia, was a must-read even before the sudden, shocking passing of its author in December. It is even more poignant now. While the book earned pre-release buzz over its revelation of an on-set affair with Harrison Ford, that juicy item is only one of Diarist’s noteworthy elements. Even better is the tale of how she was cast by George Lucas in A New Hope (“George gave me the impression of being smaller than he was because he spoke so infrequently”) and how Leia’s legendary hairdo came to be (she calls it a “hairy-earphone configuration”). Her memories are mesmerizing, and so is The Princess Diarist.

Going Rogue: New Rogue One books

the-art-of-rogue-one

Another year, another must-own Star Wars visual dictionary from DK … The latest, Star Wars: Rogue One: The Ultimate Visual Guide by Lucasfilm creative executive Pablo Hidalgo, is lovingly crafted and smartly designed. The best element of these books is always the level of detail, and in the Rogue One text that means a full spread of Jyn’s childhood toys (I heart “Koodie” the Tooka), a Saw Gerrera timeline, and even a section on those aged Death Star scientists working for Galen Erso. The Art of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Abrams Books) by Josh Kushins is a visual stunner that demonstrates how the film’s designers paid tribute to the past (including Ralph McQuarrie’s ) and forged the unique worlds of Eadu and Scarif. It’s also fun to see the evolution of characters like K-2SO, Baze Malbus, and Chirrut Îmwe. Alexander Freed’s novelization, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Del Rey), nicely expands on some of the film’s key scenes. Cassian, for example, has a nice moment of contemplation before the final explosion that adds much to his character. Similarly, Jason Fry’s Star Wars: Rogue One: Secret Mission (DK) and Rogue One: Rebel Dossier (Disney Lucasfilm Press) provide interesting tidbits that are sure to help young readers better understand the context of the film. The “personnel files” that make up the Rebel Dossier are especially fun.

Alfred Hitchcock: A Brief Life by Peter Ackroyd (Nan A. Talese)

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For a biography of Alfred Hitchcock, A Brief Life is, well, surprisingly brief at 260 pages. But this economy proves a key selling point for what proves to be a marvelous book. While it covers the Master of Suspense’s entire life, it is the end section that finds Ackroyd’s writing at its most elegant, and most devastating: “He slowly faded away. He lost interest in the world. He refused food and drink. He was cold, even hostile, to visitors. He screamed at his doctor. He turned his face to the wall. He seemed to have forgotten that Alma was still in the same house. Once more he was lying alone in the darkness, with the scythe of death descending ever closer to him.”

Fantastic Books: The Potterverse goes Beast-crazy

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Harry Potter spin-off Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was an autumn smash, and seemed to mostly please fans of J.K. Rowling’s beloved wizard. Scholastic released a number of books to tie-in with the film, all geared toward young readers. The Beasts: Cinematic Guide, Magical Movie Handbook, and Character Guide are three above-average examples, as is the lovely Fashion Sketchbook. The latter beautifully highlights Colleen Atwood’s wonderful, Oscar-nominated costume designs. Also nice are four Cinematic Guides, slim but info-packed volumes focusing on old favorites Harry, Hermoine, Ron and Dumbledore. My copies have been heavily read by my 6-year-old, and that’s a good sign.

George Lucas: A Life by Brian Jay Jones (Little, Brown and Company)

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The life of George Lucas has been heavily chronicled in recent years, but Brian Jay Jones manages to unearth some new pearls in A Life, many of them revolving around the prequel trilogy years. If the early and middle sections feel overly familiar (the teenage car accident, friendship with Francis Ford Coppola, the rejection of THX-1138, the birth of Star Wars), the later period makes up for it with some fresh insights. Among these are details on the conversations between Lucas and Disney’s Bob Iger that resulted in the sale of Lucasfilm. But my favorite is the story of a visit from Coppola during the filming of Attack of the Clones: “Even with more than thirty years of friendship between them … it didn’t take long for the pair of them to fall almost unconsciously into the old familiar roles again, with Lucas playing the padawan to Coppola’s Jedi master.”

Television: A Biography by David Thomson (Thames & Hudson)

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Biographical Dictionary of Film heavyweight David Thomson turns his gaze to the small screen in Television: A Biography, and the results are typically fascinating. Disappointingly, there is no mention of Twin Peaks. But there is Thomson on commercials, Thomson on Carson, Thomson on long-form TV drama. Consider his oh-so-Thomson take on True Detective: “That first season was extraordinary, and yes, it was flat-out pretentious. But if that is permitted in all the other arts, why not in television, too?”

Showman of the Screen: Joseph E. Levine and His Revolutions in Film Promotion by A.T. McKenna (University Press of Kentucky)

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Who is Joseph E. Levine? You’ll discover the answer in Showman of the Screen, and it should delight you. A producer and marketing genius, Levine helped bring to American screens everything from Hercules Unchained and Godzilla, King Of The Monsters! to The Graduate and Contempt. He was a larger-than-life figure who, McKenna writes, was also “a little man with a bad leg and a big belly.” Showman is a fitting and wildly entertaining tribute.

Star Wars: Galactic Maps written by Emil Fortune and illustrated by Tim McDonagh (Disney Lucasfilm Press)

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While it’s classified as a children’s book, any Star Wars fan should consider snagging Galactic Maps. It’s nearly 80 pages of planetary maps (including Rogue One’s Jedha), all gorgeously illustrated, Each page is bursting with neat bits of info. (Who knew Dagobah had “jubba birds” and “dragonsnakes?) And the book opens with a helpful timeline and character guide that, on their own, would be useful. Here, they are sprinkles on top of Galactic Maps’ already delightful Star Wars sundae.

The Art of Selling Movies by John McElwee (GoodKnight Books)

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Lovers of old Hollywood and cinema history will be spellbound by The Art of Selling Movies, a 300-page tret packed with photos and vintage advertisements. (My favorites date from the fifties, specifically ads run by small-town newspapers to promote genre fare. One, a spider with a skull’s head, is particularly memorable) Featuring everyone from Valentino and Pickford to Bardot and Hitchcock, this is a wonderfully entertaining and insightful coffee table tome.

Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers on Stage by Robert S. Bader (Northwestern University Press)

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Robert Bader’s book highlights a fascinating, little-known segment of the Marx Brothers’ career: the 25 years the foursome spent on stage. He traces the comic legends’ road from live performance (Groucho made his debut in 1905) to big-screen successes, and does so with wit and insight.

The X-Files Origins: Agent of Chaos by Kami Garcia and The X-Files Origins: Devil’s Advocate by Jonathan Maberry (Imprint)

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It’s a killer idea, really: What were X-Files protagonists Fox Mulder and Dana Scully like as teenagers? Two new X-Files Origins novels set in 1979 explore this question, and the results are certainly intriguing. Agent of Chaos finds a 17-year-old Mulder involved with a missing child, and dealing with the disappearance of his younger sister. Meanwhile, in Devil’s Advocate a 15-year-old Scully must deal with a series of mysterious dreams and a suspicious accident. They’re fun reads, and equally enjoyable is pondering who might play young Mulder and Scully in the inevitable adaptations.

See more recommended books on filmmaking.

What are you reading? Have you enjoyed any of the above picks?

The 50 Best Action Movies of the 21st Century Thus Far

Written by The Film Stage, February 7, 2017 at 1:18 pm 

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Since the dawn of the 21st century, action cinema has undergone a bigger change than perhaps any other genre. As the tools with which filmmakers craft their works have continually advanced, a sort of renaissance has begun wherein action films stepped firmly into their own. Often put in the same category as horror — not taken seriously as a form of artistic expression outside of its core fanbase — action has had to boldly announce itself as a viable medium through which big set pieces, but also big ideas, can be presented and explored.

With the highly anticipated John Wick: Chapter 2 arriving in theaters this Friday, we’ve set out to reflect on the millennium’s action films that have most excelled. To pick our top 50, we’ve reached out to all corners of the globe, choosing an array of films ranging from grand to gritty, brutal to beautiful. The result is a showcase of what action cinema can do at its peak presentation: knock you flat on your back while igniting ideas and emotions with explosive, lasting impact.

Check out our top 50 below and let us know your favorites in the comments. One can also see the full list on Letterboxd.

50. Shoot ‘Em Up (Michael Davis)

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Everyone has that one friend who is just crazy, who runs across a highway with a bottle of whiskey in his hand while screaming something that might be considered a slur and also shamelessly hits on his friends’ girlfriends. Why do we hang out with that guy? Because every now and then he does something so insane you know that when you’re 80 years old you’ll be telling your grandkids about it when their parents are out of earshot. That is what Shoot ‘Em Up is – a mad bastard of a film that must be seen to be believed and that would have a giant Motley Crue back tattoo if it ever took human form. Clive Owen plays a sharpshooter by way of Bugs Bunny that has to team up with a prostitute played by Monica Bellucci to keep a baby safe from… everyone. This movie takes place in a universe where guns are the only tool, and the only thing deadlier than a gun is a carrot. God bless it, and keep it away from weddings. – Brian R.

49. Hanna (Joe Wright)

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When it hit theaters in 2011, Hanna immediately distinguished itself from the annual mass of faceless action movies through sheer, idiosyncratic style. Spanning locations as varied as Finland, Germany, and Morocco and driven sonically by a pulsing electronic beat by The Chemical Brothers, Joe Wright’s film feels like a mélange of European art cinema, Jason Bourne, and Grimms’ fairy tales, a delectable confection that features Saoirse Ronan as a naïve teenage assassin qua Little Red Riding Hood and Cate Blanchett as the Big Bad Wolf in high heels who brings the wilderness of the wicked world to the uninitiated heroine’s doorstep. As a twisted tale of tainted innocence, Hanna packs a wallop, but the film can also be enjoyed on the more visceral level of its hand-to-hand combat, which astonishes not so much on account of its choreography (though the film ain’t half bad in that department either) but the accompanying editing and cinematography, which add a degree of rhythm and spatial dimension to the fight scenes that is absent from most of Hanna’s genre counterparts. Wright, in his wild experimentations with shot orientation, length, and composition, demonstrates an understanding that, though “action” can describe bodies in motion, the word can apply to the camera as well. – Jonah J.

48. Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (Mamoru Oshii)

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The sequel to Mamoru Oshii‘s seminal 1995 cyberpunk film may seem an unconventional pick for a list celebrating action films – after all, as many irritable fanboys may tell you, the majority of the film consists of quiet mood scenes and dense, citation-heavy musings on the fate of man in a post-human world. The action scenes present, however, are like nothing else ever glimpsed in animation or live action. Though the quick and beautiful blitzkriegs of gunplay and futuristic martial arts combat may warrant the easiest comparisons to John Woo, Oshii and his talented crew at Production I.G. take full advantage of the possibilities of digital animation to play with movement, framing and distortion in ways live-action cinema could never imitate to the same degree of breathtaking fluidity. Though the film’s composition and editing takes at least a general cue from live action (in contrast to some other animated gems like Hiroyuki Imaishi’s masterpiece Dead Leaves — too short to qualify for this list, regrettably, but most assuredly wreaking havoc in our hearts — Oshii, whose earlier work helped inspire the iconic action choreography of The Matrix, is not content to let himself be overshadowed by Hollywood. In GitS2 he proudly demonstrates his mastery of the medium in a final act in which nine minutes of continuous combat are choreographed to a sweeping, otherworldly vocal suite of Buddhist poetry from trusted musical collaborator Kenji Kawai. The “bullet ballet” of East Asian action cinema has never before or since felt so literal, or so transcendental. – Eli F.

47. Three (Johnie To)

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A sterile hospital building may not be the first choice to capture cinematic beauty, but Three proves that a film in the hands of Johnnie To means expectations will be upended. If cinematography is as much about camera placement and movement as visual quality, Three is a masterclass in the former. The best (perhaps only worthwhile) action movie of last year, this is the rare genre entry in which the intense build-up may impress more than the guns-blazing climax — itself a euphoric, sublimely executed bout of showmanship. – Jordan R.

46. Fast Five (Justin Lin)

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The Fast and Furious movies began as a pretty blatant rip-off of Point Break. They offered the thrills and chills of high speed car races and undercover detective stories wrapped up in a single package. It was until the fifth installment, however, that the franchise found its true calling as a movie about demi-gods whose chariots happen to be muscle cars. A heist film mixed with action beats that laugh at even the pretense of reality, Fast Five put the outsized personalities of its stars (plus new addition Dwayne Johnson) into a mad context that deserved them. Everything since then has been bigger, but this is where the self-aware fun hit its apex. – Brian R

45. The Good, the Bad, the Weird (Kim Ji-woon)

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The films of Sergio Leone have influenced a generation (or more) of filmmakers, both explicitly and subtly, but few products of inspiration have more madcap fun than Kim Ji-woon‘s The Good, the Bad, the Weird. Featuring Lee Byung-hun (who would actually go on to star in another Sergio Leone remake last year), Song Kang-ho, and Jung Woo-sung, the perfectly-cast trio simply have a blast in this South Korean western, which never shortchanges both its sensibilities from its native country as well as the genre it’s embracing. – Jordan R.

44. Dredd (Pete Travis)

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In Dredd, all that was once old and stolid becomes searingly new again. Combining the acute spatial coherence and laser-focused screenplay of Die Hard with the gritty dystopian vibe and satiric wit of Robocop, the film may well be one of the greatest pure shoot-em-ups since the genre’s heyday in the 1980s. And yet, the dazzling sensory onslaught of aestheticized uber-gore and the meticulously constructed sense of topography, each keenly picking and choosing the strongest aesthetic and narrative qualities of violent video games, are unmistakably products of a new generation. (For a fun activity, just try and find a scene where you can’t figure out within 20 seconds where one character is, and where they are going, in relation to another — then compare that to a Christopher Nolan film.) The fusion of old wisdom and irreverent young blood proves an explosive, enticing and deliciously nasty concoction. – Eli F.

43. Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman)

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Prior to its release in 2014, Edge of Tomorrow seemed like a sure-fire failure. Its production was chaotic, its budget spiraled out of control, its title was changed (it wouldn’t be the last time), and the film generally had mounting bad buzz. However, it ended up earning glowing reviews, and it quietly climbed towards almost $400 million worldwide thanks to strong word-of-mouth. The film is a real sci-fi treat: Halo meets Groundhog Day, with Tom Cruise daringly playing against type in the first half as a cowardly guy who actually undergoes a character arc. Emily Blunt is likewise memorable in her role, and the two leads have genuine chemistry that helps to elevate the thrillingly repetitive story. While the movie suffers a bit in its final moments, reeking of studio intervention, the setpieces here make an impression — even if it’s the 50th time we see them. – John U.

42. Elite Squad (José Padilha)

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Brazilian favelas are both rich with culture and crime. In this 2007 film directed by José Padhilla, the native filmmaker dives deep into the slums and creates an action-packed crime thriller that is one of the most intense portrayals of life in the favelas to date. By alternating between two narratives between the corruption of the police and their connection to the street gangs, Padhilla weaves a tapestry of betrayal and revenge. It also features some of the grittiest and elaborate shootout scenarios that any action film fan can truly appreciate, propelling the film to become a franchise in South America where it spawned two big budget sequels. – Raffi A.

41. District 9 (Neill Blomkamp)

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South African director Neill Blomkamp was attached for some time to the unproduced adaptation of Microsoft’s Halo series, and that ill-fated project’s legacy peeks through in District 9‘s frantic, videogame-inspired second half. Eccentric aliens, head-exploding carnage and grimy futurism are all well and good, of course, but what really sets the film apart from the pack (including Blomkamp’s own modestly successful follow-ups) is the way it channels the political tensions of the director’s homeland. Drawing from South Africa’s loaded history of prejudice, terror and apartheid without offering explicit commentary, Blomkamp takes after The Twilight Zone in fashioning a twisted sci-fi fable in which cathartic action beats bear the undercurrent of lived history and relevant social context. District 9 may not be mistaken for a “cerebral” film — again, there are a lot of exploding heads — but in its class of genre thrill rides it’s one smart cookie. – Eli F.

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