Thursday, 30 May 2019

Classic Movie Review: Cries and Whispers (1973)

Cries & Whispers (1973)
Directed by: Ingmar Bergman.
Written by: Ingmar Bergman.
Starring: Harriet Andersson (Agnes), Kari Sylwan (Anna), Ingrid Thulin (Karin), Liv Ullmann (Maria / Mother), Anders Ek (Isak), Inga Gill (Storyteller), Erland Josephson (David), Henning Moritzen (Joakim), Georg Årlin (Fredrik). 
 
I’m not sure Ingmar Bergman ever made a darker, more despairing film than Cries and Whispers – and if he never did, you have to wonder if anyone ever did. It is essentially a film about four women – three sisters, one of whom is dying, and the dying woman’s nurse who cares for her. It is a film obsessed with death – and the moral failings of this family. It is also the most stunning use of color in Bergman’s career – he preferred black and white, but black and white would be unthinkable for Cries and Whispers – which uses red perhaps better than any film in history. This is a story of love, death and faith.
 
Agnes (Harriet Andersson) has been sick for over a decade now – slowly dying of some form on cancer, and now in her final days, she is in almost constant pain. Throughout all that time, her companion has been the family servant and nurse – Anna (Kari Sylwan) – who loves Agnes more than anyone, and has a simple faith – praying to God for Agnes, and for her own dead child. Like most all of Bergman’s films, Anna only receives silence in response to her prays – unlike most of his films, she is not haunted by that silence. It does not shake her faith.
 
In the final days of her illness, Agnes is joined at the family estate by her sisters, Maria (Liv Ullman) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin). There are perhaps not two more vain characters in Bergman’s entire filmography than these two. They are repulsed by Agnes and her dying body, so they pretty much avoid her. Maria is obsessed with her own beauty, and when the doctor (Erland Josephson), a former lover, arrives she tries to seduce him, not caring about her own marriage. The doctor is also a horrible person – he knows Maria’s vanity, and so picks on the few flaws of aging that have started to show on her face. Karin is hard and cruel – if Maria is overtly sexual, Karin is the opposite. What she does to avoid having sex with her husband makes for the film’s most shocking moment.
 
This is perhaps the most claustrophobic film ever made. It keeps us in this manor house – which is decorated almost entirely in reds and white, and keeps us inside of the pain of the film. These three sisters come from a wealthy family, and have essentially done nothing with their lives, except to remain wealthy. They were once close – we see in some flashbacks – but that has gone away now. Maria and Karin despise each other – and they despise Agnes as well. Her death brings them close for a moment – the only moment we see the sisters touch each other, as they caress each other’s faces, and talk briefly how they love each other, before Bergman drops out the sound, so we can no longer hear them. It’s all an act anyway. They are incapable of loving each other – or anyone else. The next day, they will revert back to their cold, calculating hatred of each other, spoken in polite terms – not like earlier when Karin confesses her hatred for Maria. As they prepare to leave, the family – Maria and Karin, and their husbands who they hate, all talk dispassionately about Anna – about giving her something remember Agnes by before they dismiss her without a thought after more than a decade of service. Anna, in what passes for raising her voice, tells them she doesn’t want anything. She has already taken Agnes’ journal – something that wouldn’t interest her family anyway.
 
If Maria and Karin are among the worst characters Bergman has ever put on screen, then Anna is probably the most purely good. She has faith in God, and that gets her through everything. She loves Agnes – and doesn’t shy away from her as she is dying. She cradles her against her bosom when she cries out in pain – bringing to mind religious painting of Mary cradling Jesus in the gripes of horrific pain. Agnes does endure that pain with Christ-like resolve. Bergman admires Anna and her faith – even if he never confirms it.  The silence of God haunted Bergman – but it doesn’t haunt Anna. It brings her comfort and faith. Bergman admires that – even if he can never share it.
 
There is more going on than that in Cries and Whispers – it is about maternal sexuality in its way. It is also the film in Bergman’s filmography that most resembles a dream – that operates on a dream logic. It’s the culmination of a number of films, perhaps starting with Persona (1966) that tried to capture that feel. Perhaps feeling he perfected it here, he moved on to something more realistic with his next film – Scenes from a Marriage – and continued for most of the rest of his career (pretty much retiring a decade later) with Fanny and Alexander (which takes some elements from Cries and Whispers as well).
 
It is a stunning film. It is the one film in Bergman’s career that garnered a Best Picture nomination – and it one the great Sven Nykvist his first of two Oscars (the other for Fanny and Alexander) for Best Cinematography. Bergman was smart to keep the runtime short – it’s only 91 minutes – because spending more time here could easily become suffocating – a nonstop misery parade that no one would want to endure. It still wasn’t much of a box office hit – understandably – but has become a staple of art house films – something all film buffs eventually have to see and wrestle with – much like other Bergman films like The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Persona and Fanny & Alexander – among many others. It may not be his best film (my vote has always gone to Persona) – but it’s one of his most personal, most painful and most stunning. It’s one of his many masterpieces.

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Movie Review: Brightburn

Brightburn *** / *****
Directed by: David Yarovesky.
Written by: Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn.   
Starring: Elizabeth Banks (Tori Breyer), David Denman (Kyle Breyer), Jackson A. Dunn (Brandon Breyer), Abraham Clinkscales (Royce), Christian Finlayson (Fauxhawk), Jennifer Holland (Ms. Espenschied), Emmie Hunter (Caitlyn), Matt Jones (Noah McNichol), Meredith Hagner (Merilee McNichol), Becky Wahlstrom (Erica), Gregory Alan Williams (Sheriff Deever), Elizabeth Becka (Principal Susko), Annie Humphrey (Deputy Aryes), Michael Rooker (The Big T).
 
The premise of Brightburn is a good one, and we are at the right time in our superhero obsessed culture for a movie of this nature. The basic premise is what would happen if Superman crashed to earth and didn’t turn out to be a superhero, but instead turned out to a psychopathic little kid – who when he discovers that he has special powers doesn’t take it seriously and question the proper way to use said powers, but instead decides to revel in that power – and make those who try and stand in his way pay for that. You could make a great movie out of this premise. Brightburn is not, unfortunately, not that movie. It doesn’t do as much with its premise as it could. For much of the first half, it feels like a darker version of the Superman origin story done and then it basically becomes a by-the-numbers horror movie. It is all works fairly well, is fast moving and entertaining. It’s just after you leave, and you realize all the things that this movie could have done and didn’t even attempt to that you are retroactively a little disappointed.
 
The adopted parents in Brightburn are Tori and Kyle Dreyer (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) – a Kansas farm couple, who have stacks of books about fertility, and no kids. And then, of course, something crash lands in their field – inside is a baby boy, who they “adopt” him and name him Brandon. They are honest with him that they adopted him – but not honest about where he came from. Most of the movies takes place just after Brandon’s 12th birthday, when things start to go wrong. He realizes he has, well, the same basic powers Superman has. He doesn’t use them in smart ways – injuring a girl at school – and from then on, he is basically trying to cover his tracks to get what he wants. And things escalate – quickly.
 
I wish there was more of an acknowledgement that the Kansas that Brandon crashed into is not the same Kansas as Clark Kent crashed into in the 1930s. Clark Kent was raised by good hearted people, and “Truth, Justice and the American Way” won out for him – so he became a hero espousing American values. The MCU version of Captain America went through some of this – this ultimate signal of American values now realizing that it doesn’t mean the same thing as it once did, and feeling like a fish out of water. And it is my understanding that even the Superman comics has acknowledged it – with him saying it’s not enough anymore, and becoming more of a global citizen. It would make a fascinating premise for Brightburn to say that the America of 2019 would not produce a superhero like Superman anymore if he followed American values, but would instead produce the selfish, violent psychopath like Brandon becomes. Yet the movie doesn’t really go that way – it kind of views Brandon has coming to his violence on his own – that this was all an interior struggle, and not much of a struggle at all. It doesn’t take him long when he realizes he has powers to become a creep – sneaking into the bedroom of a girl at school who was nice to him once, and jumping from that to hurting her, and then murder – and on and on. It may have been better to make Brandon a few years older – to see him more as the angry, young white guy with a gun who takes out his frustrations with the world on everyone in a mass shooting – except this time, he has super powers. Superman as an angry incel could have worked. And yet, the movie kind of leaves all of that unexplored, and instead is a fairly by the numbers horror film.
 
As that, it works. And I realize that I have spent most of this review doing something I don’t normally like to do – and that is complaining they didn’t make the movie I wanted to see, instead of critiquing the one they did make. As a film unto itself, it works. It is a fairly straightforward evil kid horror film – where one parent (in this case the father) is suspicious of their child, while the other (Elizabeth Banks) is protective of him, even past the point it becomes clear that she shouldn’t be trusting her own child. Banks is quite good here as the desperate mother, who always wanted a kid, couldn’t have one, and now will hold onto what she has at any cost. It’s better than a recent film like The Prodigy, which is essentially the same story, with different explanations as to why the kid is so evil – but not as much better as you would hope.
 
In short, I think Brightburn has a great premise, but is overall a mediocre movie. An end credits sequence hints at a whole new, darker Justice League operating in the shadows on earth – and it would be interesting to explore that world. It doesn’t look likely – Brightburn didn’t exactly make a lot of money on its opening weekend – but if they ever go expand the universe, I hope they do so with more ambition and thought than this one. This was a fun, forgettable horror film. It could have been so much more.

Monday, 27 May 2019

Movie Review: Booksmart

Booksmart **** / *****
Directed by: Olivia Wilde.
Written by: Susanna Fogel and Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins and Katie Silberman.
Starring: Kaitlyn Dever (Amy), Beanie Feldstein (Molly), Jessica Williams (Miss Fine), Jason Sudeikis (Principal Brown), Lisa Kudrow (Charmane), Will Forte (Doug), Victoria Ruesga (Ryan), Mason Gooding (Nick), Skyler Gisondo (Jared), Diana Silvers (Hope), Molly Gordon (Triple A), Billie Lourd (Gigi), Eduardo Franco (Theo), Nico Hiraga (Tanner), Austin Crute (Alan), Noah Galvin (George), Mike O’Brien (Pat the Pizza Guy).
 
Olivia Wilde is having a good year. Earlier this year, A Vigilante came out (sadly not many saw it) – and it featured Wilde’s best performance to date, as a woman who has escaped an abusive marriage, and is now trying to help other women do the same – even as she still struggles with the PTSD of that relationship. That seemed like the natural culmination of the last few years of Wilde’s acting career – where she took on roles in smaller films, more challenging films than we were used to seeing her in. Now comes her feature directing debut – Booksmart, which is a wickedly smart comedy, with a great screenplay and wonderful performances, and one that Wilde directs the hell out of. It is a stylish, fast paced, hilarious film – and a smart one about modern teenagers, one that certainly has a message, but one that is smartly integrated into the film so it doesn’t feel like preaching. So in a few months, Wilde has shown more range as an actress than I’ve ever seen her before, and proved herself to be perhaps even more talented behind the camera.
 
It’s the last day of high school – and overachievers Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are happy with how things have turned out. They have dedicated themselves to study and hard work – and Molly is on her way to Yale, and Amy is on her way to Columbia. Their idiot classmates have spent all their time partying, so they’re all losers, going nowhere, right? Molly’s world is turned upside when she realizes that no, those idiots are not idiots – they’re going to same schools they are – or going to work directly for Google (it’s not Apple, but it’s mid six figures, so it’s alright). Molly, the more vocal and driven of the two, convinces the quieter, more reserved Amy that they need to go out and party tonight. The biggest idiot in class – Nick (Mason Gooding) is having a party, and Amy’s crush – skater girl Ryan (Victoria Ruesga) will be there. They go – but end up at one party after another, one Lyft after another, one spot after another, that isn’t that party. And it’s a crazy ride.
 
The comparison that has been made most often is probably a female Superbad – and it’s not a bad comparison overall, but I do think that Booksmart is a wiser film. It can be just as crash as Superbad - and these two girls, and their classmates can swear with the best of them, but I think the film better understands the nature of these friendships. How freakishly close they can be, but how tenuous they are. I’m not going to say there is an air of sadness over the film – but I’m not not saying that either. There is a sense that this is the last something, the last adventure. Things are going to change, one way or another.
 
It’s also a really good portrait of this generation. Amy being gay is treated like no big deal – even her Christian parents bend over backwards to be supportive, and not once does she face any taunts or insults for it. But it doesn’t pretend that these young feminists are perfect – Molly at least isn’t above calling on of her fellow classmates Triple A (Molly Gordon) – because apparently she provided three guys with “roadside assistance” in the past year. Or assuming the worst about spoiled rich kid Jared (a charmingly dorky Skyler Gisondo). They pride themselves on being woke, on being sex positive – but they aren’t perfect. If anything, the message of the movie is to not hide yourself away, judge and look down on people you haven’t even tried to get to know. It integrates this message seamlessly into the film – it doesn’t feel like an add-on (like it kind of did in the still charming Blockers last year).
 
It’s also downright hilarious. Feldstein expands on her range already seen in Lady Bird and the TV show What We Do in the Shadows (she is a delight on that show), here pushing the comic persona so far you think it may edge over into caricature, but never does. Dever – who I loved in Short Term 12 – is perhaps even better in the more difficult, more reserved role. She isn’t quite comfortable in her own skin, and who she is yet – and does have the confidence to fake it as effortlessly as Molly.
 
And as a director, Wilde does a great job. The pacing of the movie is fast and relentless, and Wilde has picked up some tricks from her Vinyl director Martin Scorsese. It’s stylish without being overly stylized, and finds the right note throughout. Many directors for comedy kind of step back and just let the performances and screenplay take over. Not Wilde, who puts her stamp on it throughout.
 
I could go on about Booksmart – I haven’t even mentioned the wonderfully deranged performance by Billie Lourd as rich girl Gigi yet. But needless to say, I really liked Booksmart. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel as far as teen comedies go, but it does bring them into the present – nodding to the past, while acknowledging the blind spots, and going into the future. You aren’t likely to see a better mainstream comedy this year.

Movie Review: Aladdin

Aladdin ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Guy Ritchie.
Written by: John August and Guy Ritchie.
Starring: Will Smith (Genie), Mena Massoud (Aladdin), Naomi Scott (Jasmine), Marwan Kenzari (Jafar), Nasim Pedrad (Dalia), Navid Negahban (Sultan), Alan Tudyk (Iago), Billy Magnussen (Prince Anders), Imran Yusuf (Omar), Amir Boutrous (Jamal), Maya Saroya (Ese), Jordan A. Nash (Barro), Minhaz Zee (Razaq the City Guard), Song-Hung Chang (Ahmed).
 
One of the previews I saw when I took the family to see Disney’s live action Aladdin remake this weekend was for Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, the second film in the series starring Angelina Jolie as Disney’s Sleeping Beauty villain. I said to my wife then that at least with those films, as flawed as the first one was, that Disney was at least trying to do something different – trying to have a new take on a classic. The biggest problem that films like Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast a few years ago, is that there doesn’t seem to be much of a reason for them to exist. They are essentially just completing remaking animated classics – that kids are still watching, still loving, in an effort to make more money from existing Intellectual Property. The songs are the same, the action beats are the same, the costumes, the characters, everything is the same. They do add to the stories – Beauty and the Beast was 45 minutes longer – this one is just about 40 minutes longer. They added a few new songs here – the biggest one being for Jasmine, which was part of a larger effort to give Jasmine more agency, and more to do, than the films from 1990s did. That’s a good thing. And yet, for the most part, I sat watching this film – which wasn’t particularly bad, but wasn’t particularly good – and wondered if we all wouldn’t have had a better time sitting at home and watching the Blu-Ray of the animated version for the 10th time. The answer is no – and not just because I don’t like leaving the house.
 
Relative newcomer Mena Massoud has the title role, and he’s is rather bland and forgettable. He isn’t bad by any means; he just doesn’t stand out. He’s an okay singer, an okay actor, but has a minimal screen presence – you don’t really ever feel much for him. Naomi Scott is a legitimately wonderful Jasmine – that she is drop dead gorgeous is undeniable, but she has real charisma and presence, and she can really sing. She makes what is basically a fairly forgettable new song and turns into something quite good. You really want her to be the focus of the movie – as she is the best part. As for Will Smith as the Genie, well, he does what he was asked to do. He was clearly told to go big, bigger if possible than Robin Williams, which was already probably too big for the movie to contain it. He goes really big from his first scene, and that keeps getting bigger. His musical numbers are okay, I guess – he isn’t the world’s best singer, but he does it okay. Marwan Kenzari as Jafar just isn’t quite as menacing as his animated counterpart.
 
The film was directed by Guy Ritchie, but apart from a couple of moments where he goes full slow motion with it (for reasons that aren’t clear) – he seems to have muted his style. This is both good and bad – good because Ritchie has at times in his career he goes overboard with style, completely overwhelming the material, bad because it makes Aladdin seem like even more of a faceless corporate product than it otherwise would be. Watching it, you see the competence of the filmmaking on every level, but you don’t really feel like anyone involved feels anything personal connection with the material. It’s all just a job – something churned out cynically for money. While it’s true that all movies – particularly all movies made for this much money, by companies like Disney – are made for money, the best of them still feel like something someone is making because they believe in it. Here, it all just feels like a job.
 
The film is big and bloated – it goes on for 129 minutes, which as mentioned is much longer than the 90 minutes of the original, but other than a few nice moments with Jasmine and her handmaid (played by SNL’s Nasim Pedrad), there isn’t much of a reason for that added runtime. It’s a movie cynically made to separate those who grew up with Aladdin from their money – hopefully taking their children, so another generation will fall in love with the movie. It may work at that – in that kids will watch the animated film, and love it. As for this film, yeah, it will pass the time for kids – and they may well like it. I cannot imagine too many of them feeling the same way about this film as their parents feel about the original though.

Movie Review: The Perfection

The Perfection *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Richard Shepard.
Written by: Eric C. Charmelo and Richard Shepard and Nicole Snyder.
Starring: Allison Williams (Charlotte), Logan Browning (Lizzie), Steven Weber (Anton), Alaina Huffman (Paloma), Winnie Hung (Mingzhu), Graeme Duffy (Geoffrey), Milah Thompson (Young Lizzie), Molly Grace (Young Charlotte), Mark Kandborg (Theis), Eileen Tian (Zhang Li), Johnny Ji (Li Jun).
 
Spoiler Alert: I will try to keep spoilers to a minimum below, but I listened to those critics on Twitter who said that you should go into the movie cold – knowing as little as possible about the film – and I agree with that. While great movies can sometimes handle being “spoiled” and still be great, a film like The Perfection, which is merely good, would benefit greatly from you knowing nothing about it. I think you should see it – although be warned, some have been offended (and not without reason) with some of the last act twists. So be warned.
 
In many ways, Netflix original The Perfection seems like it has been designed by an algorithm to be a perfect Netflix film. It is a horror film that grabs you from the opening, and then reinvents itself every 20-25 minutes or so, to make sure that you don’t grow bored or complacent as a viewer – that you don’t switch over to something else. If that sounds like an insult, well, in a way it kind of is. This structure does keep The Perfection from being a deeper film on any level. But on a narrative and WTF did I just watch level, in this case the algorithm delivered a film that keeps you hooked, and disturbs you greatly.
 
The film is about Charlotte (Allison Williams) who was once the prized pupil of Anton (Steven Weber), who runs a school for gifted cellists. Charlotte was supposed to be the next great cellist in the world – but then she abandoned her calling when her mother had a stroke, and she spent the last decade taking care of her, until she died. She then reaches out to Anton again – and he invents her to Shanghai. There, Charlotte meets and immediately bonds with Lizzie (Logan Browning) – who became what Charlotte was supposed to become. They are in Shanghai for a competition – the winner gets a full ride at Anton’s school. Charlotte and Lizzie fall into relationship built on mutual respect, and lust. Lizzie is supposed to take two weeks off – and go through China in some rougher than normal conditions. She invites Charlotte along – who willing agrees. They get on a bus – and then Lizzie gets sick, really sick. And then The Perfection becomes some sort of body horror film. And then 20 minutes later, it twists again. And then again. And then again. You will probably never be able to tell just where all this is going until it hits you.
 
I wont get into any of those twists, except to say that film gets increasingly extreme, increasingly disturbing and increasingly ridiculous – which means, of course, it becomes increasingly entertaining. The film was directed by Richard Shepard (who co-wrote it with Eric C. Charmelo and Nicole Snyder). Shepard is the kind of journeyman director who in decades past would have an interesting career in genre film – but in this climate, he goes years between films, and fills the time with a lot of TV work. None of his previous films that I have seen (Oxygen, The Matador, The Hunting Party, Dom Hemingway) have been great, but they’re all quite good. He has worked on numerous TV shows – most notably Girls – where he did 12 episodes. This helps him, because he seems know precisely what Allison Williams can do, and pushes her to extremes in the film. Williams is great in the film – she has the trickiest role, as she has to hold back throughout the movie, while making you believe that this time, she isn’t holding back at all. Her co-star is Logan Browning – who is great in the Tessa Thompson role in Netflix’s Dear White People show – and she’s quite good here as well, although the role doesn’t have as much to do as Williams’ does.
 
Because the film keeps twisting itself, Shepard gets to draw on numerous influences. You’ll see a little Chan-wook Park, a little Brian DePalma, a little David Cronenberg, a little Dario Argento, and a little Darren Aronofsky – and probably some others I didn’t notice. Because it keeps twisting, no, its not as deep as the best of any of those directors. But Shepard gets the surfaces of all those filmmakers right, and just keeps on pushing it further and further.
 
Yes, the ultimate end game of the film will immediately turn some people off – bringing in some all too plausible real world terror and turning into an exploitation horror film. It will immediately take some people out of the movie – and fair enough. But to me, it’s clear that the filmmakers here are not taking any of this too seriously – and are going for shock value. And on that level, the film works wonderfully. This is the type of film that Netflix should be making – you won’t feel guilty for watching it at home rather than in a theatre, but you may feel guilty for just how much you enjoy this ridiculous monstrosity that just plain works on the level it wants to.

Movie Review: I Trapped the Devil

I Trapped the Devil *** / *****
Directed by: Josh Lobo.
Written by: Josh Lobo.
Starring: Scott Poythress (Steve), AJ Bowen (Matt), Susan Burke (Karen), Rowan Russell (Ben / Cop #1), John Marrott (Alan / Cop #2), Jocelin Donahue (Sarah), Chris Sullivan (The Man), Jack Vernon (Santa), Victoria Smith (Her).
 
In general, I am in favor of slow burn horror. I think that horror is scarier when its built on atmosphere, and a mounting sense of dread, eventually building to the cathartic climax. The new horror film I Trapped the Devil pushes this slow burn premise almost too far. Luckily, for Josh Lobo’s debut film, the climax is worth the slow buildup, and he is smart enough to keep the film – just 83 minutes – so even if it takes a long time to deliver what it promises, it’s still not that long. And there’s a lot to admire along the way.
 
The film opens with Matt (AJ Bowen) and Karen (Susan Burke) deciding to visit Matt’s brother Steve (Scott Poythress) at Christmas – for the first time in two years. Steve isn’t happy to see them – he tells they need to leave, right now. But it’s the family home, Matt has a right to be there, and they are concerned for Steve – who has been on a downward spiral in recent years, for reasons we will eventually learn. They want to be there for him – and the state of the house, crosses all over the walls, windows papered up, a loaded gun under a bed, etc. makes them concerned for him. The concern reaches a fever pitch when Steve confesses that he has a man locked in the basement. But it isn’t any man – it’s the devil. He’s managed to trap him. And if he can keep him down there, the world will be a better place.
 
Of course, this films spends much of its time wavering back and forth – providing enough evidence so you are unsure of whether or not Steve has just gone crazy, or if he’s gone crazy, but that he’s right. Like the audience, Matt and Karen aren’t quite sure what to make of this either. This is probably the hardest part of the movie to believe – the decisions Matt and Karen make, when they decide to hold off on doing anything, when they venture done into the basement, when they do whatever they do seem to more at the mercy of the plot needs than anything that makes sense from their point-of-view. There is no real evidence to suggest that any of them are religious – that they are prone to believe something this crazy sounding.
 
And yet, the film still works. Part of this is because of the film’s strongest performance – by Scott Poythress as Steve, who is convincing as the already unraveled Steve. Whatever descent he has gone through, it’s already in the past. He’s already off the deep end. But he really, truly, deeply believes in what he is saying – he believes everything that he is saying. Part of that is wonderfully creepy atmosphere that Lobo and company are able to create. The house is a normal house, made to look and feel incredibly creepy. It looks mainly normal, just a little off. It’s mainly a three room film – the rundown, but not overly dilapidated kitchen, the attic, full of Steve’s insane diagrams, and the basement – bathed in red light. The voice behind the door (provided by Chris Sullivan) walks that fine line so that he never gives the game away – until it’s time to give it away. It’s also rather smart that Lobo doesn’t try and explain anything – we never really learn how or why Steve came into contact with this man, or how he trapped him in the basement. You have to accept it.
 
When the climax does come, it is effective. You can pick on some of the character motivations as to why they do what they do, but the ultimately final moments in the final are so skillfully staged and shot that you are truly terrified. It’s a great finale.
 
This is an indie film, so you know it’s fairly low budget. It’s smart for Lobo then to do what he does here – it’s basically all in one house, with three actors, and a voice behind a door. Given those limitations, the movie works very well. It is probably a little too slow, a little too clichéd, with characters who behave a little too conventionally for the sake of the plot. But there’s skill here. I want to see what Lobo does next.

Friday, 24 May 2019

Classic Movie Review: Samurai Rebellion (1967)

Samurai Rebellion (1967) 
Directed by: Masaki Kobayashi.
Written by: Shinobu Hashimoto based on the novel by Yasuhiko Takiguchi.
Starring: Toshirô Mifune (Isaburo Sasahara), Yôko Tsukasa (Ichi Sasahara), Gô Katô (Yogoro Sasahara), Tatsuyoshi Ehara (Bunzo Sasahara), Etsuko Ichihara (Kiku), Isao Yamagata (Shobei Tsuchiya), Tatsuya Nakadai (Tatewaki Asano), Shigeru Kôyama (Geki Takahashi), Michiko Ôtsuka (Suga Sasahara), Tatsuo Matsumura (Lord Masakata Matsudaira), Masao Mishima (Sanzaemon Yanase), Jun Hamamura (Hyoemon Shiomi), Emi Yamada (Shiomi's wife), Takamaru Sasaki (Kenmotsu Sasahara), Hideo Fukuhara (Sahei), Noriko Kawajiri (Nui), Tetsuko Kobayashi  (Otama), Hisano Yamaoka (Sannojo Kasai's mother), Tomoko Hito (Yoshino), Yoshirô Aoki (Takazo Komiya). 
 
Masaki Kobayashi’s Samurai Rebellion is similar to his 1962 masterpiece Harakiri – which is one of the best samurai films (hell, one of the best Japanese films) in history. Both are historical dramas about samurai – which spend most of its time talking, then ending with an explosion of violence at the end. Harakiri was an intricately structured film – with flashbacks upon flashbacks, which slowly builds to its intense climax. Samurai Rebellion is somewhat different – it’s basically a domestic drama for about 90 minutes, before it again explodes into violence. It isn’t quite as good as Harakiri – but it’s still an effective film, in part because of the lead performance by Kurosawa favorite Toshirô Mifune (who at this point, had made his last of 16 films with Kurosawa), and in part because Kobayashi knows how to tell this story. He didn’t really want the word Samurai in the title – he wanted it to simply be called Rebellion – because it’s not just a samurai film after all.
 
Like Harakiri, Samurai Rebellion focuses on an older samurai. This is Isaburo Sasahara (Mifune), the leader of his family, who is approaching the age of retirement. All he really needs to do is find a wife for his son – something he takes very seriously, as his own marriage, while lengthy, hasn’t exactly been happy. This is thrown into a little chaos when the lord decrees that Isaburo’s son, Yogoro (Go Kato) marry Lady Ichi (Yoko Sasahara) – a young woman who became the Lord’s mistress (not out of choice), even gave birth to his son, but eventually grew angry in her position – and struck the lord. Because of her position as a woman who birthed a son to the Lord, she cannot be completely discarded – so, she is pawned off on Yogoro. The family isn’t happy about this – but refusing the request from the lord would bring more shame than excepting it. Years pass, and Isaburo is happy in “retirement” – with Yogoro now the head of the household. He and Ichi have genuinely fallen in love – they have a child together, and are happy. Then, of course, the lord comes back. He wants Ichi back – as the son she bore him has now become next in line for the lord’s position – it doesn’t look good to have that child’s mother married off to someone else.
 
This is the plot for most of its runtime – it is all about these various maneuverings, and the domestic life of Isaburo and his family. Isaburo has been married for years – but he and his wife don’t really love each other. He is, of course, the head of the family – but she really runs things, make the decisions, and he basically goes along. When the lord, or more accurately the lord’s steward (we, of course, don’t see the lord until near the end) comes to try and pawn off his mistress, Isaburo at first wants to stand up then – and only backs down when his son makes it clear he accepts the match. He was prepared, then, to finally stand up to his wife. Years later, again the wife wants to capitulate to the lord’s whims – but this time, Isaburo will not be dissuaded from rebelling against the wishes.
 
There is a giant battle at the climax of the films. Dozens of people are chopped down at the end of Isaburo’s sword. It is probably what we expect all along – after all, we have seen Mifune as a samurai many times before, and know what he is capable of. This is one of his best performances because for so much of the movie, he isn’t the Mifune we know from those other films. He seems more mild mannered, meek and mild – willing to let his wife run things, and just go along for the ride. For his own life that is good enough. It’s only when his son – and his beloved daughter-in-law – face something similar that he finally manages to stand up. He slowly becomes the Toshiro Mifune we know from Yojimbo and other Kurosawa films.
 
The rebellion in Samurai Rebellion is one against conformity and complacency in Japanese society. Everyone in the film is unusually polite – as long as you do what is asked of you. If you don’t, that it where the problems start. Samurai Rebellion is about Isaburo deciding to fight back against the system that forces them to all be the same. It isn’t the masterpiece that Harakiri is – but it’s still a great Samurai film just the same.

Thursday, 23 May 2019

Classic Movie Review: The Big Heat (1953)

The Big Heat (1953)
Directed by: Fritz Lang.
Written by: Sydney Boehm based on the Saturday Evening Post serial by William P. McGivern.
Starring: Glenn Ford (Dave Bannion), Gloria Grahame (Debby Marsh), Jocelyn Brando (Katie Bannion), Alexander Scourby (Mike Lagana), Lee Marvin (Vince Stone), Jeanette Nolan (Bertha Duncan), Peter Whitney (Tierney), Willis Bouchey (Lt. Ted Wilks), Robert Burton (Gus Burke), Adam Williams (Larry Gordon).
 
Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat is a cruel, merciless film noir that moves quickly throughout it 87-minute runtime and shows us a world built or corruption, violence and vengeance. Its “hero” Dave Bannion (a brilliant Glenn Ford) goes on a quest for revenge that warps him in irreparable ways – despite the sunny ending the film wraps with. But, when you think about it, Bannion was already kind of an asshole even before his (understandable) quest for revenge. Hell, if he wasn’t an asshole, if he handled things with more intelligence and tact, he wouldn’t have had reason to try to get revenge in the first place. Everything that happens in this film is basically because of him – and yet it’s the women of the film that pay the price. I suppose some would argue that the film is misogynistic – but I think the film is really showing something else – that it is women who most often pay for the behavior of men – who get to go on with their lives, get congratulated and welcomed back with a happy face. A lot of good it does for the women in The Big Heat – they’re dead.
 
The movie begins with a suicide – a high ranking cop kills himself, and leaves a note to be delivered to the D.A. – a note that could bring down the mob running things in town. The cop’s callous widow picks up the phone and calls Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) and tells him that she’ll keep the letter for him, which would destroy him – but it will cost him. Lagana calls up his violent henchmen – Vincent Stone (an early performance by Lee Marvin – and one of his best) to let him know the score. Stone’s girl is the delightfully ditzy Debby (Gloria Grahame, perhaps in her best performance ever) – who enjoys needling him, but also enjoys the life she has with him – enough to endure his violent outbursts. Bannion, a detective, is assigned the case – and while it looks like an open and shut suicide, things start to get more complicated when he gets a call from the dead man’s mistress. She ends up being just the first women Bannion will get killed. Bannion also has a wife and daughter – and it will be what happens to his wife (played by Jocelyn Brando, Marlon’s sister) – which will send him on the war path. And again, if he hadn’t been such an asshole, it never would have happened.
 
The film was directed by Fritz Lang, and on the surface, the film is efficient and less visually inventive than some of his earlier work – like Metropolis, M or The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. I think part of that is the budget restrictions – this is a Columbia B movie, and they operated on lesser budgets for these films – but part of it is by design. The earlier scenes are a little but more square – especially the domestic scenes in the Bannion home. It’s almost Leave it to Beaver like – the dutiful, pretty, wife who takes care of the kids, and has a steak ready for him when he comes home. The scene that really sets off Bannion on his violent rampage quite literally shakes up that domestic tranquility – the whole frame of the film shakes and upends the rest of the movie. And Lang does some other subtle tricks throughout the film as well – showing this corrupt world, but seeing it more clear eyed. Much of its insanity, and transgressiveness, is right out in the open – and treated rather matter of factly. Lagana’s “manservant” which certainly reads as gay in that scene where they are both in their pajamas. Or the rather violent posse who gathers at Bannion’s home to protect his family.
 
The film really is about toxic masculinity – and how it effects the women in these men’s lives. Bannion is so blinded by his own rage, his own self-righteousness, that he doesn’t see the damage he is doing. In many film noirs, the heroes are kind of sad sack men – guys who get sucked into a world of violence by a femme fatale, and end up doing things they would never do otherwise. They often speak in voiceovers, and their voiceovers are often sad sack whining about their lot in life. None of the men in The Big Heat are like that at all. Bannion never stops long enough to consider himself a victim. Even when, late in the film, he starts to get to know the sexy Debby, he regards her as nothing but a tool to get what he wants, never as a person – so when she shows up injured, after the film’s most famous scene involving hot coffee, he only sees how it will affect his plan. Marvin’s Vince is a little bit more pathetic – he’s kind of overgrown playground bully, who lashes out violently at those around him, but hops to when Lagana calls him up.
 
The women in The Big Heat are all victims, but they are not without agency. The all end up in a bad place, but they are not passive victims – they are attempting to change their circumstances, but are trapped by the toxic men in the film. Everyone remembers the Gloria Grahame performance of course – and they should, it is one of the performances that define her career (she had won the Supporting Actress Oscar the year before for The Bad and the Beautiful – in which she is great, but she’s better here – and she’s great for Lang in Human Desire the next year). It’s an odd performance – it’s kind of ditzy, but also rather heartfelt. She’s not really a femme fatale – although Grahame could do that – but something a little deeper. There are other fine female performances in the film – including Jocelyn Brando (Marlon’s sister) as Bannion’s wife, who looks so perfect 1950s housewife – but is made of stronger stuff than it seems.
 
The male performances are just as good though. This is an early film by Lee Marvin – and it’s interesting to see him here, before his screen persona was fully set. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him slimier, more pathetic than he is here – and it remains one of his best performances. It is probably Glenn Ford’s best work – he could do this type of thing in his sleep, but here he digs deeper. There is more darkness to Bannion here – and he doesn’t see it, but Ford does. It is a great performance.
 
The Big Heat is one of the best film noirs – in part because Lang seems to be playing with the conventions, at least a little. None of the characters are quite what we think they are going to be, and the plot is larger scale than most – it’s not just a personal story, but something larger. It’s one of the darkest noir films I can think of – even the last scene, which on the surface is a return of normalcy, is dark when you remember that now Bannion – who we have seen do terrible things without a badge, now has his back.

Movie Review: John Wick Chapter 3 - Parabellum

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum **** / *****
Directed by: Chad Stahelski.
Written by:  Derek Kolstad and Shay Hatten and Chris Collins & Marc Abrams based on characters created by Kolstad.
Starring: Keanu Reeves (John Wick), Halle Berry (Sofia), Ian McShane (Winston), Laurence Fishburne (Bowery King), Mark Dacascos (Zero), Asia Kate Dillon (The Adjudicator), Lance Reddick (Charon), Tobias Segal (Earl), Anjelica Huston (The Director), Saïd Taghmaoui (The Elder), Jerome Flynn (Berrada), Randall Duk Kim (Doctor), Margaret Daly (Operator), Robin Lord Taylor (Administrator), Susan Blommaert (Librarian), Jason Mantzoukas (Tick Tock Man).
 
We are lucky if we get one action movie a year that makes your jaw drop at just what is being put onscreen in terms of the action. The last film like that was Mission Impossible – Fallout, and before that you have Mad Max Fury Road. While John Wick Chapter 3 – Parabellum – isn’t quite up to those standards, it is the type of action film that shows you a bunch of stuff you have never quite seen before, and should be treated as a benchmark for future action directors – who need to watch the film to see what audiences can rightly expect from action movies, and adjust their ambitions accordingly. It is probably a little too long at 130 minutes, and there is little bit of a sense of diminishing returns at some point – the best action sequences are in the first act of the film, and while the action sequences near the finale are better than 95% of action sequences we see elsewhere, you do kind of wish they would have arrived sooner. Still, this is as good as mainstream action movies can possibly get in 2019 – and should be celebrated accordingly.
 
The action picks up literally at the end of John Wick Chapter 2 – where he had killed his enemy in the New York Continental Hotel, which is supposed to be a sanctuary for criminals, and no business is to be conducted there. This means that John Wick is now Ex Communicado – with a $14 million bounty on his head, running through the streets of New York with henchmen of all stripes out to get him. This opening sequence is the best in the movie – with one jaw dropping action sequence after another – one in a library, using of course, library books as weapons, one in a store, with an aisle of glass cases filled with knives and axes, all of which get broken, and the weapons used, and then an extended sequence involving a horse – first as a weapon, and then a chase sequence. Dozens are killed by John Wick in this sequence – and its glorious to behold. Keanu Reeves is in his element here, and does a great job in these scenes – which are expertly crafted by director Chad Stahelski, who has cleared watched the best of John Woo, and decided to try and top him.
 
Once the story elements of the movie take over for a while, the movie does slow down. There is a trip to Casablanca, and a walk through the desert, etc. At home in New York, an Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) from the High Table isn’t happy with Winston (Ian McShane) who gave Wick an hour head start before placing the bounty on him, or the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) who helped Wick, knowing what he was going to do. There must be punishment.
 
Let’s be honest, all the high table stuff in the John Wick movies is ridiculous. You know, I know it, the movie knows it – and for the most part embraces the inherent goofiness of it all. That’s the correct way to handle things, and the cast knows it, and leans into the ridiculousness – no one more so than Ian McShane, who is having the time of his life as Winston. It would be even better had there been less of it all – the better to get back to the action sequences, which keep coming fast and furious – and are all wonderful – a fight sequence featuring Halle Berry and her two killer dogs in a mid-movie highlight to be sure, even if objectively it goes on too long, you don’t much care.
 
The movie, of course, ends in an orgy of violence – all of which is handled very well, even if I could probably do without the heavily armored men with machine guns, and just get to Keanu fighting the movies big bad Zero (played by Iron Chef America’s chairman Mark Dacascos and his goons. Those fights, in the one of the increasingly strange, over designed (brilliantly) in the rooms of the Continental are awe-inspiring, in the way that seeing Keanu guns down a lot of people bathed in green light just wasn’t (again, it’s better than almost any other scene of its sort in recent memory – it’s perhaps just a little much given everything else in the movie). And, of course, it sets itself for yet another John Wick sequel. By the fourth entry, most franchises are starting to feel strained and silly – that should be especially true of a series that started with a revenge tour kicked off by a dog murder – but here, John Wick still feels like it has more room to grow. Each film in the series has been better than the last. That’s rare for an action series – and I cannot wait to see what is next.

Movie Review: Aniara

Aniara **** / *****
Directed by: Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja.
Written by: Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja based on the poem by Harry Martinson.
Starring: Emelie Jonsson (Mimaroben), Bianca Cruzeiro (Isagel), Arvin Kananian (Chefone), Anneli Martini (The Astronomer), Jennie Silfverhjelm (Libidel), Emma Broomé (Chebeba), Jamil Drissi (The Intendent), Leon Jiber (Daisi Doody), Peter Carlberg (Chief Engineer), Juan Rodríguez (The Man from Gond), David Nzinga (Mima Host), Dakota Trancher Williams (Tivo).
 
It is interesting that the Swedish film Aniara is debuting in the weeks after Claire Denis’ High Life came out in theaters. The two films are very different in many ways, but do have some definite similarities. Denis’ life is about a spaceship with a limited crew – all convicts – who are set adrift in space never to return to earth, ostensibly to have experiments done on them, but that may not really be the case. Aniara is set aboard a large spaceship – the space equivalent to a cruise ship really – who is supposed to be making a three-week journey between Earth (which is dying due to climate change) and the new colony on Mars. But fairly early in their journey, they run into some obstacles, and in order to save the ship, they have to jettison all their fuel. This works – but it basically means the ship is now adrift in space forever. The captain tells people not to worry – they just need to pass by a planet to get them back on track – two to three years at most, they say. Until then, the ship has enough life sustaining systems in place that they can survive. The gourmet meals will stop eventually – but you’ll be used to eating algae. What only a few of them know is that this is almost definitely a pipe dream – they will likely be drifting in space for the rest of their lives.
 
Based on an epic poem by Nobel Laurete Harry Martinson, Aniara is fascinating film in how it shows the ways this society either breaks down, and the ways in which it doesn’t. It wouldn’t be accurate to call it a Lord of the Flies story, because society doesn’t break down that rapidly. The movie’s main character is known as the Mimaroben (Emelie Jonsson) – so called because she runs the Mima machine – a kind of strange virtual reality room, that can read the users mind, and present them with idyllic images of their time on earth. As the journey takes longer and longer, more and more people start to want to use the Mima machine – so much so that the sentient machine starts to go insane itself – starting to show darker images to the people, and starting to malfunction. It’s the first of several mini-rebellions throughout the film.
 
The years drag on and on and on in Aniara – the film hopes forward, sometimes years at a time, to show how everyone is dealing with things. There is a part about a sex cult that forms – fuck the pain away I guess – and then more with how Emelie tries to build some sort of life in the film itself – a spouse, a child, etc. Homicidal rage is not prevalent – it gets there – but there is much more suicidal despair. How does a society without hope continue to function? There are a few times when hope is there – but it usually falls back into despair.
 
MR then is pretty much the only character in the film that doesn’t lose complete hope – that seems to try and move forward. The captain revels in his power, and will eventually basically see the ship as his own fiefdom. Others are lost in the existential despair of drifting forever without a destination. As we continue to tick forward, things in the ship become slightly more rundown – but you can still survive. But when you’re drifting with no destination, what is the point. MR tries to hold onto to something – when everyone else seems to be lost. Aniara is, of course, a microcosm of our own planet – our own existence. It’s just a smaller planet, hurtling through space, on a journey without end. Are our lives any different than those on Aniara? Is this the way humanity will come to an end?
 
Directors Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja do a good job, on a limited budget, creating the world of Aniara in terms of art direction and design. They also, smartly, don’t really attempt to answer any of the larger questions facing everyone on board the ship – they simply present them, and let you decide. And they take it all the way to the logical, despairing, conclusion without trying to put any sort of false hope or happy ending to it. By its design, because it is literally showing years and years and years in only 105 minutes, the film does jump around a little bit, from one subplot to another – ones that are often abandoned in those jumps, as people have moved on in the interim. A tighter focus may have provided more details – but you would have missed the larger picture. It’s a tradeoff you have to be willing to accept – and if you do, you will be rewarded by Aniara – which like High Life is a sci-fi film of ideas, not special effects, and shows just what the genre can attain when it doesn’t reign in its ambitions.

Movie Review: Ruben Brandt, Collector

Ruben Brandt, Collector **** / *****
Directed by: Milorad Krstic.
Written by: Milorad Krstic and Radmila Roczkov.
Starring: Iván Kamarás (Ruben Brandt), Gabriella Hámori (Mimi), Zalán Makranczi (Mike Kowalsky), Csaba Márton (Mike Kowalski), Paul Bellantoni (John Cooper), Matt Devere (Bye-Bye Joe), Katalin Dombi (Marina), Henry Grant (Membrano Bruno), Peter Linka (George), Máté Mészáros (Membrano Bruno), Gábor Nagypál (Bye-Bye Joe), Virginia Proud (Margaret). 
 
The beautiful animated film Ruben Brandy, Collector contains something amazing to look at in every frame of the film. It is a film enamored with art – and all the characters look like they came out of different paintings, in different styles. It is also enamored with the art of filmmaking – you will see a lot of Alfred Hitchcock in the framing of the shots in the films, and explicit references to the Master of Suspense in other ways – a shadow on the wall, an ice cube shaped like Hitch, etc. As a story, the film is kind of silly, basically just there to string together all these amazing looking sequences, and the characters are paper thin (in one case, literally). But director Milorad Krstic is most interested in the visuals of the film – and how we, as the audience, relates to and processes art.
 
The title character is a psychologist, whose specialty is “art therapy” – who is currently working with four clients on their various issues, while also dealing with his own art based nightmares. Those nightmares – all of which involve a different famous painting – are threatening to drive him insane. His ever loyal patients decide to repay their debt to him by stealing each of those invaluable pieces of art – if he can possess his demons, perhaps he can overcome them. The other major character is American Mike Kowalsky – a cop of some sort (I think), who grows obsessed with one of Brandt’s client – Mimi – an acrobat and kleptomaniac, who he chases through the streets of Paris in an early, amazing action sequence, after she steals a valuable fan. There are a lot of other characters – various people who want to catch whoever is stealing the paintings, or want to get their hands on Mimi, etc. They really aren’t necessary.
 
Then again, perhaps they are. Krstic’s primary focus here is the visuals of the film – the character design of all these different characters, who people far more aware of classic paintings will probably be able to understand immediately. And all of these characters look amazing. And they interact with in these amazing environments, and in these amazing action set pieces. Krstic is amazing at shaping visually everything in the frame.
 
Yes, the plot is silly – and tries to shock you with some twists and turns throughout. You may even argue that some of the tenuous connections he makes between the paintings and the dreams, etc. are stretched too thin. Krstic presents some interesting ideas and themes throughout – about art, about violence, and America’s obsession with guns, but he doesn’t underline them.
 
What he has done, is craft an amazing looking film. You can either claim his themes are either subtle or non-existent, but you cannot deny that this thing looks amazing – and is another example of how outside of America, lots of artists are using animation in brilliant ways – not just in terms of the visuals, but in terms of its themes and subject matter. Ruben Brandt, Collector kind of came and went rather quickly – it was one of the film eligible for last year’s animated film Oscar, that held back its release to the new year hoping a nomination would boost the box office, and when that didn’t happen, it just kind of vanished. It shouldn’t have – it’s stunning.

Friday, 17 May 2019

Movie Review: My Name is Julia Ross (1945)

My Name Is Julia Ross (1945) 
Directed by: Joseph H. Lewis.
Written by: Muriel Roy Bolton based on the novel by Anthony Gilbert.
Starring: Nina Foch (Julia Ross), Dame May Whitty (Mrs. Hughes), George Macready (Ralph Hughes), Roland Varno (Dennis Bruce), Anita Sharp-Bolster (Sparkes), Doris Lloyd (Mrs. Mackie).
 
My Name is Julia Ross is a brisk little noir thriller – it clocks in at just over 65 minutes, and that’s just about the perfect length for this film. Any longer or more drawn out and the silliness of the plot may well have become too apparent and easier to roll your eyes at. And yet, at this length, My Name is Julia Ross doesn’t waste a second of time, and becomes a stylish and entertaining noir thriller. Also, there is something underneath the surface level that makes this thriller perhaps a little scarier than it otherwise would be. This is a film not unlike Gaslight in terms of its outlook on male/female relationships.
 
Nina Foch plays the title character – young Julia living by herself in London, currently unemployed and single – one of the other boarders living in the house, Dennis Bruce (Roland Varno) had just left to get married, making her wonder what could have been. At the same time, she gets offered a new job – being the secretary to an elderly lady, and Dennis moves back into the boarding house – the marriage, apparently, having been called off. Things are looking up. That is, until she falls asleep at the house of her new job, and wakes up miles away in a large house on the coast, where everyone acts as if she is the crazy wife of Ralph Hughes (George Macready). The kindly old woman she thought she would be employed by is now saying she is her mother in law – Mrs. Hughes (the wonderful Dame May Whitty) – and that the whole family is here for her, and just want her to get better. We know this is all an elaborate ruse – the details of which we will only get slowly over time.
 
The film was directed by Joseph H. Lewis – one of those talented craftsman of the studio era who didn’t really get the attention he deserved during his career. He is probably best known for the noir Gun Crazy (1950) – a crime spree thriller that was a forerunner of Bonnie & Clyde (1967) and films of that kind. He made a few dozen films in his time – a lot of Westerns, a lot of film noir – and he spent the last decade of his career directing TV episodes – before retiring, and not directing anything for the last three decades of his life.
 
In My Name is Julia Ross he kind of directs like Hitchcock on a budget – as if the master of suspense had been hired by Val Lewton. Yes, there are a lot of clichés directorial tricks trotted out throughout the film – but all of them are used to great effect, to keep the plot moving. Lewis just keeps up the tricks – and delivers what on the surface is a highly entertaining film. The ending is probably too upbeat – but then again, that was fairly common in that era.
 
But there is an undercurrent to My Name is Julia Ross that makes it scarier – and even timelier – than it is at first glance. This really is a female nightmare of a film – a story about a woman who is told she is crazy, whose identity is stolen from her, and who can be controlled and abused, and no one will believe her. Gaslighting has become a term for a type of abuse in intimate relationships – because of the play/movie of that name. My Name is Julia Ross is somewhat in the same vein – and just because its wrapped up in such a stylish, entertaining package, doesn’t make it less terrifying.

Movie Review: Long Day's Journey Into Night

Long Day's Journey Into Night **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Gan Bi.
Written by: Gan Bi.
Starring: Wei Tang (Wan Qiwen / Kaizhen), Jue Huang (Luo Hongwu), Sylvia Chang (Wildcat's Mom / Red-hair Woman), Hong-Chi Lee (Wildcat), Yongzhong Chen (Zuo Hongyuan), Feiyang Luo Wildcat - Childhood), Meihuizi Zeng (Pager), Chun-hao Tuan (Ex-husband of Wan Qiwen), Yanmin Bi (Woman Prisoner). 
 
Chinese filmmaker Bi Gan’s brilliant Long Day’s Journey Into Night is clear a noir film – it is such a noir film, that it even rains sometimes when it’s indoors. The visuals are pure noir – and the setup seems to be as well. It follows Luo (Jue Huang) on a journey to find the woman he loves – he thinks her name is Wan Qiwen, and perhaps later it’s Kaizhen, he’s not too sure. He knew her once, they were lovers, they went to the movies. There is a gun involved, perhaps a murder, and then she disappeared. He has been searching for her ever since – and he keeps meeting people who knew her too – or maybe they did – but she’s gone now, where they aren’t quite sure.
 
For 70 minutes or so, we wander alongside Luo as he searches for her, or remembers her. Like his stunning debut film Kaili Blues, Long Day’s Journey Into Night is part memory, part fantasy, part reality – and Bi Gan doesn’t have the normal signposts to delineate which is which. You just have to kind of figure out which is which – or perhaps not. It’s not always clear that Luo knows which is which either. And then after those 70 minutes, Luo sits down in a dilapidated movie theater that seems to about to fall down, in a town where everything looks like that, and puts on a pair of glasses – and finally the title of the movie splashes across the screen. This is our indication that it’s now time to put on the 3-D glasses we were given when we walked into the theater. What follows is a mesmerizing 59-minute single take shot in stunning 3-D. It continues to follow Luo – who has to make his way up from a mine to the town in order to see that night’s karaoke competition – where he thinks Wan Qiwen will be playing. First, he has to beat a 12-year-old at Ping Pong, the take a scooter journey to a large pulley system, which he will ride to descend into town. He gets sidetracked though at the local pool hall by Kaizhen (who, like Wan Qiwen is played by Wei Tang, and may be the same person – or may not – she has certainly been made to look different). He will spend most of the rest of the movie with her – trying to convince her to sing a song for him, even though she says she has a boyfriend. But they seem to have some sort of connection, don’t they?
 
So, yes, Long Day Journey’s Into Night (an odd title to be sure, given the famed Eugene O’Neal play of the same name that has absolutely nothing to do with this movie) is a noir film, but not a typical one. In his mind, Luo has made out this woman he searches for to be everything – the thing that could make his world make sense again. We get a few details of his life – he used to run a casino, but he doesn’t work anymore, he returns home to have who we assume is his stepmother say that his father left her the family restaurant – and Luo the beat up old van. He doesn’t fight her over it – just asks her not to change the name of the place, which was his mother’s - and takes the van. He needs the van anyway to slowly creep around Kaili – to follow the woman around when he sees her.
 
The majority of the attention the movie has received is because of that dazzling, brilliant 59-minute shot that ends the movie. That attention is deserved – it is such a meticulously planned shot, that has to cover a lot of ground, and always seems perfectly timed. Bi Gan didn’t shoot it in 3-D, but converted it afterwards – but it’s still the best use of 3-D I’ve seen in a film in years. It gives depth to the image, doesn’t use it for a gimmick. There are only a few filmmakers – Jean-Luc Godard probably the last one with Goodbye to Language 3-D – who seem to be trying to do something with 3-D technology which isn’t just a way to charge audiences another couple of bucks at the box office to see a film that simply ends up being darker than if you just watched it projected in 2-D (seriously, how many 3-D films have who seen where it actually mattered? Avatar, Hugo, Life of Pi, Goodbye to Language 3-D and now this are the only live action films I can think of). The 59-minute take is mesmerizing and brilliant – and far more ambitious than the already awe-inspiring 40 minute take near the end of Bi Gan’s Kaili Blues.
 
But the rest of the film is as brilliant visually as that shot – just in a different way. Bi Gan embraces those noir visual clichés, but takes them to a different level. This is a dark film about memory, love and loss –and visually, one of the most distinctive films of the year. Kaili Blues felt like the bastard love child of Lynch, Tarkovsky and Weerasethakul – all filtered through a unique sensibility. This is the next logical step for him – and it’s a mesmerizing film. See it on the big screen, no matter what you have to do to see it. That last shot will lose some of its power if you don’t. Regardless though, the film certainly confirms Bi Gan as one of the best young filmmakers in the world right now.