Another well-made, scary horror movie that oughtta make everyone’s decade-in-horror lists. Great cast led by Toni Collette and her son Alex Wolff (he played The Rock in flashback in a Jumanji sequel), with Gabriel Byrne as the only family member with one foot in reality, Milly Shapiro as the creepy daughter, and Ann Dowd (The Leftovers) as Toni’s grief counseling buddy.

I can’t complain about a well-acted horror that ends with the apocalyptic rise of a demon cult – that is one of my very favorite things – but it seemed while watching that the movie’s themes/intentions didn’t come together. Toni’s dollhouse models and the way Aster shoots the proper house as if it were a model are cool… and the ghosts/seances angle is neat… and Toni’s love/hate thing with her own children is fascinating… then Alex is set up to host his little sister’s spirit and/or the spirit of an ancient king, per the cult which Toni’s late mom and Ann Dowd were in together. Presumably the cult left the signs and words scratched onto walls and posts, but there’s no way the cult arranged the little sister’s complicated death (Alex swerves to avoid a dead thing in the road just as she sticks her head out the window, gasping for air because of an allergic reaction, and is beheaded by a telephone pole), and the cult’s final assault on the family makes Toni’s sleepwalk-firestarting and miscarriage attempts and other psychological eccentricities feel like false leads. I’m not extremely clear how the title factors in, since each of the family women seems to have her own unique set of problems, unless they’ve “inherited” the attention from the late gramma’s cult. I turned to letterboxd for answers and instead found Mike D’Angelo calling it “frustratingly muddled,” so we’ll call it a solid debut with script problems.

Besides the dollhouses (actually they are Important Art Projects) and the phone pole, there’s the daughter scissoring the head off a dead bird, Byrne burning, dead relatives who are not dead, nudity and dug-up corpses in the attic, ants, Alex slamming his own face into his school desk Nightmare on Elm Street-style, and most horribly, a possessed Toni floating up in a corner merrily garroting herself to death. I thought someone on twitter saying this movie is derivative of Kill List would be a spoiler – it was not, but the shot in the trailer and promo stills of Toni watching a burning family member sure was.

This would make a good double-feature with Dead Ringers, another 1980’s movie about twin doctors who fall for the same woman. In this one, Oliver and Oswald (twins, separated conjoined, I think Oliver is the blond one) are played by Eric and Brian Oswald (brothers, not twins) – zoologists studying animal behavior when their wives are killed in a car accident while being driven by Alba (Andréa Ferréol of La grande bouffe, The Last Metro, Street of No Return). They become increasingly obsessed with Alba, with each other, and with chaos and decay, freeing zoo animals and shooting time-lapse films of ever-larger dead ones.

These three are surrounded by some suspicious characters: a woman called Venus (Frances Barber of Secret Friends) and a mad surgeon named Van Meegeren, who amputated Alba’s leg after the car crash and now wants to amputate the other leg. She finally turns down the twins in favor of a new man who is also missing his legs – I think she dies at the end but not sure exactly why, and the brothers stage a suicide before the time-lapse camera to add their own decaying images to the collection.

It sounds like a bunch of weirdness from a plot description, but in practice it’s much weirder. Obsessed with Vermeer, decay, snails, symmetry, doubles, the alphabet, fakes and missing limbs – with the great pulsing Nyman music, and always more than one thing happening per shot, each splendidly composed frame full of motion.

After seeing two Deren movies in HD on the Masterworks of Avant-Garde blu-ray, I thought it was time to rewatch the others on the ol’ DVD.


At Land (1944)

Just as cool as Meshes, in a way, but with less sci-fi/thriller genre imagery. Maya washes up on shore, creeps around, climbs into a meeting room, then seeks a missing chess piece, finally stealing a replacement from a couple by the beach. Continuous action across different locations, so Maya will creep forward across the board room and through tree branches, cutting between. It’s already a cool effect, but then the ending recontextualizes everything, as the chess thief Maya runs past each of the other Mayas performing different actions – more of the Meshes-style doubling. Silent, so I played “The Ship” by Brian Eno, a good musical match once I made myself stop focusing on the lyrics.

Deren:

One aspect in which the film is completely successful, it seems to me, is that the techniques, though complicated, are executed with such quiet subtlety that one is unaware of the strangeness of the film while one looks at it. It is only afterwards, as after a dream, that one realizes how strange were the events and is surprised by the seeming normalcy of them while they are occurring.

Deren again:

It presents a relativistic universe … in which the problen of the individual, as the sole continuous element, is to relate herself to a fluid, apparently incoherent, universe. It is in a sense a mythological voyage of the twentieth century.

Much harder than Meshes to get across the greatness of this one through stills, since it’s all about editing and motion:


A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945)

Dancer(s?) in the woods, moving indoors then to an art gallery and back through discontinuous editing, cool and silent and very short. Oh yeah, it was the same dancer appearing four times during a single camera pan in the opening shot, impressive.

Deren:

[The dancer] moved in a world of imagination in which, as in our day or night-dreams, a person is first in one place and then another without traveling between.


Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946)

Rita wanders through different activities, flees each one: Maya knitting, a party featuring Anais Nin, and dancing with some shirtless guy. As she runs from the last one, Rita becomes Maya, wading into the ocean.

Deren was trying “to create a dance film, not only out of filmic time and space relations, but also out of nondance elements … save for a final sequence the actual movements are not dance movements.”

Deren on her films up to now:

Meshes is, one might say, almost expressionist; it externalizes an inner world to the point where it is confounded with the external one. At Land has little to do with the inner world of the protagonist, it externalizes the hidden dynamics of the external world, and here the drama results from the activity of the external world. It is as if I had moved from a concern with the life of a fish to a concern with the sea which accounts for the character of the fish and its life. And Ritual pulls back even further, to a point of view from which the external world itself is but an element in the entire structure and scheme of metamorphosis: the sea itself changes because of the larger changes of the earth. Ritual is about the nature and process of change. And just as Choreography was an effort to isolate and celebrate the principle of the power of movement, which was contained in At Land, so I made, after Ritual, the film Meditation on Violence, which tried to abstract the principle of ongoing metamorphosis and change which was in Ritual.

Anais Nin is unimpressed by the dancers:


The Very Eye of Night (1958)

Dancers superimposed twirling against a cheap black starscape. Woodwind music by Teiji Ito (later Maya’s husband) with some tinkling, chattering sections that got my birds riled up. “Her concern was with plastic development, conflict of scale, and dimensional illusion rather than with total structure,” per P. Adams Sitney.

I’ve watched this before, and both times I knew the general idea (documentary footage is being faked, people involved in real events are restaging them for the camera), but I was noticing this time how in some movies Kiarostami never tips his metafictional hand. We know from interviews and DVD extras that the movie theater (and the movie) never existed in Shirin, that the drivers and riders of Ten were never in the car at the same time, and that everyone in Close-Up is performing the role of themselves, but you can’t necessarily tell these things when watching the films.

Farazmand is a reporter who hears about a man (Sabzian) impersonating Mohsen Makhmalbaf, receiving money from a middle-class family while acting like he’s prepping a film shoot. He arranges to get Zabzian arrested for this, after which AK visits the man in jail and records his court date, discussing his intentions in pretending to be a filmmaker.

When Sabzian is interviewed by Kiarostami, realizing AK knows the real Makhmalbaf:

In the commentary, Rosenbaum calls it “a film about impersonation” right as Farazmand is telling the taxi driver and policemen that he aspires to be a famous journalist while he’s clearly unprepared (can’t find the house, not enough cash for the cab, didn’t bring a tape recorder). They discuss how the film is called Close-Up when Kiarostami loves to film in long-shot.

Asking directions from turkey man while looking for the Ahankhah house:

They also discuss the dead time and story distractions, how the film spends time in turn with almost every character.

JR: “Most people would agree that the members of the family come off overall less sympathetically than Sabzian does … they’re more defensive.” His co-commentarian Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa says the rumor is the family originally did not withdraw their complaint against Sabzian, but later agreed to do so for the film. She also says that Sabzian points out that because of Close-Up, the family did in fact get to be in a film as he promised them. Even these experts don’t know whether the filmed trial is real or staged.

The Complainants:

I get the two sons confused, but can you blame me?

JR: Many of Kiarostami’s films from here on are “about the unequal relationship between filmmakers and the people they’re filming who are much poorer and are relatively powerless”.

Two Makhmalbafs:

JR: “I think the real subject of this film … is not impersonation or fraud, it’s the social importance of cinema and how it affects everything – how it affects things socially, how it affects people’s sense of power, their sense of ethics, their sense of identity … and their sense of truth, and perhaps truth is the thing that gets the most severe unpacking in this film.”

Third screening of Sundance Week, though the posts have been broken up and delayed. I guess if this blog was my real job, I’d have watched the Sundance movies in advance and posted ’em on the week itself, but it’s not, so here we are in mid-March. And with the delays I’ve forgotten what I wanted to say about this, if anything, except that J MASCIS plays a janitor for some reason. Also it’s a remarkably good movie, with an excellent balance between comedy/amusement and mystery/terror, all with super camerawork. Jesse “Social Network” Eisenberg plays a pathetic drip so well that when his confident double (also Eisenberg) shows up they seem like different actors. The drip is obsessed with meeting neighbor Mia “Stoker” Wasikowska, tries to please boss Wallace Shawn and get noticed by head company man James Fox. The double does all this and more with ease, leading the drip to finally assert himself and destroy the other man by attempting suicide (since their bodies are linked). Feels a bit like The Tenant at the end. Three of Ayoade’s Submarine stars also appear.

Kind of your standard family-secret homicidal-maniac twist-ending thriller, but Park makes it great. Every scene is amazing looking, not just well-shot but with attention-drawing effects like seamlessly transitioning Nicole Kidman’s hair into a field of grass.

Mia W. is our vaguely Rogue-looking heroine whose dad died the day she turned 18 – killed by his maniac brother, it turns out, who killed their youngest brother as a boy, then kills Mia’s would-be-rapist school acquaintance (Alden Ehrenreich, Bennie in Tetro), then almost kills her mom until finally Mia pulls out the hunting rifle that the movie has taken care to mention and blows him away. Then she drives off, killing a sheriff on the way out of town, having inherited her uncle’s taste for murder.

Other victims include family maid Mrs. McG (hidden in the freezer) and Auntie Jen (Jacki Weaver of Picnic at Hanging Rock) – great discovery scene as Mia calls auntie’s cell and hears it ringing underground. The shooting (by Park’s usual guy Chung-hoon Chung) and editing (by Nicolas de Toth, son of the House of Wax director) are thrilling. Matthew Goode (Firth’s dead boyfriend in A Single Man, kinda has a George Clooney voice) is crazy uncle Charlie, Mia Wasikowska is currently starring in Only Lovers Left Alive, and this is the first Nicole Kidman movie I’ve seen since Birth. Shoot, Harmony Korine was in this and I didn’t notice him.