Jeez, this is the second time in a few months that I’ve watched two current 4:3 movies in a row. I suppose this one justifies it with the VHS tape tie-in (though what can justify the VHS tapes), and The Lighthouse is set on a lighthouse so I’ll allow a taller ratio… Nightingale maybe just for the period setting, overall the weakest 4:3 justification of the bunch, and I just dug the look of The Mountain so it can take whatever ratio it wants. D’Ambrose said that he made each of his shorts to work out a different filmmaking problem, and it seems like he’s still working things out – he’s almost got a movie, but this felt more like an exercise. Of course then I watched the credits and changed my tune; this is obviously the latest high masterpiece from savvy executive producer Brandon Bentley.

Keith (left) with the disappeared David (Bingham Bryant of Spiral Jetty):

Somebody Up There Likes Me star Keith Poulson meets David, who is writing about a late, controversial political theorist, and gives Keith a job itemizing the videotapes from the theorist’s travels and describing their contents. “I rarely saw anyone in any of these recordings. Their importance was unclear.”

There’s a riot and murder or two, but the movie describes these in documents, maintaining its quiet, measured tone in the main action. A wordless art gallery scene worked for me, the talky panel on translation did not. “Do you think this is uninteresting?” was the first line I heard upon resuming the movie, after pausing to see if anything was happening in the news (D’Ambrose told Filmmaker that scene died in Berlin and he hoped the NYC in-crowd would find it funnier). On the plus side: the great Tallie Medel (The Unspeakable Act).

Style quirks: studio-audience applause over the first shots of actors… blackouts between scenes are video-green… small roles are filled out with a bunch of film critics I read… of course lotta close-ups on documents. Phil Coldiron does not appear, but wrote a major Cinema Scope article on D’Ambrose, which I can only partly follow.

Vadim Rizov:

Consistently clipped editing keeps the tone fluid: humor is in the cuts, and the film is never needlessly dour, deliberately refusing to dutifully find its way to a neatly summarizable Statement About The Zeitgeist.

D’Ambrose:

I don’t think of Todd and Karen and most of the characters as “intellectuals” – I can’t take them seriously as thinkers, I think of them as part of a milieu … I’m grateful I didn’t end up calling the movie The Millennials, which was the original title.

Watching The Shallows, I was delighted that Blake Lively and the movie allow their injured seagull to survive to the end, but now I realize this avian assistance was the key to Blake’s survival, because Rob Pattinson’s luck turns bad when he cruelly murders an injured gull, and after a descent into pain and horror and madness, he ends up gull food. Let these sister films be warnings to any who would wish harm to our seagull friends.

Eggers sounds like a delightful interview subject:

My understanding is that they were rescue birds that were injured and rehabilitated, and after that rehabilitation couldn’t really survive back in the wild again. So giving them things to do makes them happy. So they were very eager to learn how to fly on a windowsill, peck a windowpane three times, and jump off, and then get a little food reward. Actually the seagulls were incredibly easy to work with, unlike a certain black goat that, I mean, I have no fond memories of working with.

Set in 1890ish Maine, Rob Pattinson is on the run under another man’s name, spilling his beans to crusty old Willem Dafoe, as the two of them tend a lighthouse for a season. Unclear how much time passes, or what is real vs. hallucinated, but it’s all very beautifully shot, and if this Eggers makes another dark film about witches or lighthouses I will go see it.

Another Zhao Tao movie set in three distinct time periods with multiple aspect ratios, this one with an unusual synth score. Qiao is with small-time gangster Bin (Fan Liao of Black Coal, Thin Ice), and after she does five years in prison for firing a gun to save his life during an attack, Bin hides from her, leaving his new girl to explain his absence.

Also there is ballroom dancing – that’s Bin with the mustache wearing all black:

Interesting sidetrack where she spontaneously runs off with a man running a UFO tourism company. On the train he confesses he only runs a convenience store, then she abandons him while he sleeps. Back where she started a decade later, she has internalized the gangster ethos and runs a mahjong parlor, while a pathetic, stroke-crippled Bin has slinked back into her life, only to walk out again after she helps him back on his feet. The final shot of Qiao searching for him as seen through her security system has got nothing on Zhao dancing alone in the snow, but what does? I haven’t loved any of Jia’s pre-2010 films so far, but I’m glad I stuck with him, because A Touch of Sin and Mountains May Depart and Ash Is Purest White have made him one of my favorites of this decade.

James Lattimer in Cinema Scope:

Alongside settings and structural conceits, many of these moods and registers seem to have wandered in from Jia’s other works: the rapid-fire martial-arts stylings of A Touch of Sin; the backdrop of Datong familiar from Unknown Pleasures; the three-part structure and repeated pop songs from Mountains May Depart; or the exquisite melancholy of 24 City, to name just a few, while the presence of Zhao Tao, whose wonderfully understated acting style reaches new heights here, equally conjures up all the other characters she’s played over the years. Of all the references to Jia’s cinematic past, the most explicit ones come from Still Life, as Qiao takes the same ferry down the Yangtze as in the previous film, wearing the same shade of yellow and carrying the same water bottle her spiritual cousin Shen Hong did all those years ago, with the same UFO later passing overhead. Despite these similarities, though, everything is different, as what used to be the present has now become the past. This change is visible both in Zhao Tao’s face and in one of the images shared by both films, a shot of a sign on the river bank showing the projected level of the reservoir. One points to a future yet to happen, the other to a past that only exists in memory, the original now buried under so much water.

Geography: they start in Datong in Shanxi, some four hours west of the center of Beijing. After prison, she travels to Fengjie in Hubei province – this makes nearly a right angle south of Xian and east of Chengdu – crossing the Yangtze halfway there. The man on the train is headed for Karamay in Xinjiang, way the hell in the northwest.

Fengjie:

Maria flees her town and moves into a house in the woods along with two pigs that she transforms into children and names Pedro and Ana. I think they’re hiding from a wolf outside, and after they almost die in a house fire Pedro drinks honey and turns white, and Ana swallows a songbird and gets a golden voice, then Maria is rescued after they try eating her… I dunno, I was too busy marveling at the look of this thing.

Smeary, drippy painting inside a real (model?) house, with doorways and props. But painted scenes will overwhelm doors and props as if they weren’t there, then form free-standing stop-motion models within the room, 2D artworks interacting with 3D objects, the wall art constantly shifting and the models always making and unmaking themselves, styles of the characters changing. Rustling and rubbing sounds accompany all the visual shifting, wires and cellophane hold the models in place, and I think it’s all fluid transitions with no traditional editing.

I’d forgotten about the brief TV-footage framing story, but did wonder why Maria sometimes spoke German. Apparently this is a fairy-tale reference to a notorious German-led cult and Pinochet torture compound, active in Chile for decades.

Cartoon Brew:

During the research process, the filmmakers discovered that the German members of the community used to call their Chilean neighbors ‘schweine’. This led them to conceive of the two children in the story as piglets, and depict their progressive transformation into Aryan humans as an ironic joke aping the community’s racial ideology.

Walker has an interview with the directors, including some amazing production details, and their self-set rules for animation and sound design:

We had a literary script, with the dialogues of the film, a really simple storyboard, basically with one image per scene … Our day-to-day work was to find a way to connect one image with the other … The specific actions of each scene were improvised.

“You’re pretty, but alone.” Marlina’s husband is freshly dead and sitting upright in the living room when a man comes to inform her that seven men are coming soon for her and her money and livestock, to settle the husband’s debts. They turn out to be very matter-of-fact criminals, discussing logically who should rape her first as others take the animals away. This is all just business as usual, which is why they don’t see it coming when she poisons most of them with chicken soup and beheads another, then goes on the run.

Marlina takes the severed head, teams up with pregnant friend Novi, hijacks a truck, and dodges two head-hunting motorcycle men, while being stalked by a decapitated ghost. After an anticlimactic visit to a police station, there’s a machete showdown back at the house, the women victorious.

Pretty perfect-looking specimen of International Art Cinema, with wonderful Western-movie music, sparely used. Seemed unsatisfying though – guess I was expecting the ghost to be more prominent when watching this at the tail end of SHOCKtober. As far as 2019 rape/revenge movies go, I enjoyed it much more than The Nightingale.

Opens in flashback with our laughing boy’s rebel father being executed by the king, with the weirdly powerful court jester Barkilphedro (literary-horror regular Brandon Hurst) in attendance. The kid’s face was carved by the “Comprachico” clan headed by Dr. Hardquanonne (George Siegmann of the 1921 Three Musketeers, dead of anemia before this movie’s release). As they’re sailing away, banned from England for various crimes and/or xenophobia, the boy runs off, rescues a blind infant from the arms of her frozen mother, and stumbles into door of Ursus The Philosopher (Cesare Gravina, would appear in The Wedding March the same year and retire a few months later).

Years later, he is Laughing Man Conrad Veidt (practically a silent horror superstar, having starred in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Hands of Orlac), on sideshow tours with the beautiful blind Dea (Phantom of the Opera star Mary Philbin) and their father-figure Ursus (this must’ve proven more lucrative than philosophy). But when they run into Hardquanonne, he uses the laughing man’s existence to blackmail a duchess who lives on the land that Conrad rightfully owns. I would’ve thought if you’re a rebel who is personally murdered by the king, your property is forfeited, but I guess not!

The plot gets silly here – Conrad gets an invitation from hot young party girl Duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova, wicked star of Freaks), hopes she’ll be in love with him, because that would prove he’s worthy to marry his true love Dea, but as Josiana gets him alone, she receives a note from the queen saying she must marry the Laughing Man in order to keep her land and title, and Josiana reacts by laughing hysterically then hugging her monkey. Conrad is arrested, then instated in the House of Lords the next day – meanwhile his circus family is banished. I can’t tell if the royals are toying with Conrad or if they’re just dense, because everyone throws a fit that he won’t stop smiling, so he flees the castle and makes it to the boat to join Dea and Ursus.

Based on a Victor Hugo novel, remade by Sergio Corbucci in the 1960’s, and again this decade with Depardieu as Ursus. Leni was apparently a talent, followed this with The Last Warning then died of an infected tooth. Conrad, who spoke no english at the time of filming, is terrific. Watched in the dying days of SHOCKtober in honor of this year’s Golden Lion winner at Venice.

“To die so that the god may live is a privilege, Kevin”

British dude casually finds some 1700-year-old coins in the backyard, and an elongated skull – I thought this was Hugh Grant for a while until the real Hugh Grant appears a couple minutes later and I realized I had no idea what Peter Capaldi looked like prior to The Thick of It. They meet at a white worm party – with a white worm costume and a band playing a rowdy white worm folk song – along with the Trent sisters. Grant is out with Sammi Davis of Hope and Glory, and her sister Eve is Catherine Oxenberg of the Yugoslavian royal family, who started her career playing princess Diana on a TV movie, and most recently appeared in Ratpocalypse and Sharktopus vs. Whalewolf.

Our fearless foursome:

Everyone is talking like they’re on a sitcom, but a few short minutes later, Lady Sylvia Marsh is introduced sucking on the leg of constable Ernie (Return of the Jedi‘s rancor keeper) and the movie gets good ‘n’ crazy, and stays that way. It’s cool that Grant and Capaldi are here, but Amanda Donohoe is the movie. Looks like I can see her with Sammi Davis and Glenda Jackson in Russell’s The Rainbow, and I probably should.

Lady Marsh takes a boy scout home and feeds him to the worm-god in her basement, and Eve is taken captive next. Sylvia is excessively horny during these scenes, while the others are eating damp sandwiches, searching for signs of the long-missing Trent parents. Grant gets the Stendhal Syndrome and climbs inside a painting. Snake imagery abounds, the script is all entendres, and the visuals flit between ace makeup/lighting and insane greenscreen dream-mayhem. Most horror filmmakers are content to make normal-looking movies with a few crazy visual bits – Russell isn’t happy unless the crazy bits completely overwhelm the normal stuff.

After my second reference this month to a christian order building atop pagan grounds, Grant steps up to his destiny, and plays snake-charming music on a PA system while the team attacks the castle with help from a worm-hunting mongoose. Mary is accosted by her undead mum, then by the possessed cop, but Capaldi saves the day with snake-luring bagpipes and drops a hand grenade down the worm-god’s throat. This plan obviously took some prep, but it’s also an emergency rescue mission, so was it necessary to change into the kilt?

There’s an Oscar Wilde quote – Russell made a Wilde movie the same year. Grant appears here the year after starring in a James Ivory film, Capaldi five years after Local Hero. Partly based on a Bram Stoker novel, partly on the legend of the Lambton Worm, and I guess largely made up by Russell.

Never seen this, and I’d steeled myself for a first half of boring scientist buildup, but nope, he arrives at an inn, already invisible and in a terrible mood. This was a good pick, excellent and humorous, as I should’ve expected, coming between The Old Dark House and Bride of Frankenstein.

While the voice of Claude Rains is off being invisible and trying to complete his studies if only the other residents would leave him alone, his mustachey coworker Kemp (William Harrigan of Flying Leathernecks) takes the opportunity to mack on Claude’s girl Gloria Stuart.

The innkeepers curse their luck:

At the inn, the highlight is Una O’Connor, who has a terrific scream. Claude’s only special powers are to beat people up while invisible, and fuck with their heads – the news reports the so-called invisible man as a group delusion, a bumpkin madness, but things escalate when he kills a cop halfway through the movie.

Clarence and Gloria hear the bad news:

Kemp and Gloria arrive along with her scientist dad Clarence, who says the chemicals in Claude’s invisibility formula can cause madness. Proving his point, Claude kills 100+ innocents by wrecking a train and tearing through his own search party, then murders Kemp, sending his car off a cliff. Since neither science nor the love of Gloria Stuart can tame him, the townsfolk hunt the guy down.

Played at the second Venice Film Festival, with Little Women, Twentieth Century, It Happened One Night, and Golden Lion Mussolini Cup winner Man of Aran. One of the five classic Universal monster movies, all of which got multiple sequels. Joe May would direct Invisible Vincent Price in 1940, and the same year Virginia Bruce would play The Invisible Woman, though of course she doesn’t get to be a scientist, she just answered a newspaper ad placed by Dr. John Barrymore. Jon Hall fought nazis as The Invisible Agent, returned for his Revenge two years later, then Arthur Franz got invisible with Abbott and Costello. There have been plenty more invisible (and Hollow) men and women, and it looks like the guy who made Upgrade is rebooting the original next year with Elisabeth Moss.

Linda comes to run an inherited old folks’ home after the death of her mum. Linda’s got a hot boy in town (John Jarratt, villain of Wolf Creek and its many sequels), the family doctor (Alex Scott of Romper Stomper) and a faithful employee who runs everything (Gerda Nicolson of The Devil’s Playground), so everything is green, but an old man dies in the tub, and someone has been sneaking around leaving the taps running and cutting the power, and Linda has flashbacks to her childhood unease with this place, while trying to make sense from her mom’s diary and the home’s patient records.

Flashback-Linda:

Present-Linda:

A family-secrets thriller with red herrings, people admonishing her not to dig into the past instead of helping makes them all seem suspicious. TV’s Jacki Kerin is very good in the lead role, but the night everyone above gets murdered and one of the patients turns out to be Linda’s insane long-lost aunt with her hammer-murderer son in tow, it’s going for Halloween but feels more Scooby Doo.

Suspicious doctor:

Appreciated the crazy angles and slow-mo screams after Linda stabs her aunt in the eye (this was shot by Gary Hansen, who died the same year) more than the crappy 1980’s synth music by Dead Can Dance collaborator and huge Richard Wagner fan Klaus Schulze. Cowritten by Michael Heath (My Grandpa Is a Vampire). Tony Williams has one other feature, the imdb description of which calls it “a story that doesn’t really go anywhere.”

Mad aunt: