Musical in which Jessie Matthews (in one of Hitchcock’s least-known movies the same year) plays a stage star who disappears to have a secret daughter, and years later plays the secret daughter, who gets a job onstage impersonating her mother. Intro music hall scene reminds of the beginning of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, not in a good way, but the movie picks up. Jessie’s love interest Barry MacKay played Fred Scrooge in A Christmas Carol a few years later, and I could tell you more about the movie if I hadn’t let 45 quarantine days pass before trying to write about it.
Ford directed at least 25 movies in the 1930’s – this one was made soon after Judge Priest. We watched this for Jean Arthur (a couple years before Easy Living), and a bonus was the really impressive dual acting by Edward G. Robinson and all manner of effects used to make him into two people: a bland office worker, and a bank robber nicknamed Killer. Robinson is turned into the cops by busybody Donald Meek (Stagecoach, etc), so the cops give him a signed letter saying he’s not the killer but a lookalike – of course this gets into the newspapers, since everything back then got into the newspapers, so Killer comes looking for his lookalike, steals the letter and forces the bland Robinson to cover for him. But Bland Robinson’s secret is that he’s a creepy stalker for his lovely coworker Jean Arthur, so when she’s endangered by all this activity, our man steps up and saves the day. I wouldn’t necessarily have thought crime comedies to be in John Ford’s wheelhouse, but dude’s wheelhouse was extremely large.
Rotterdance! Premiered at Cannes 2018, showed up at Rotterdam at the end of its festival run, opened in NYC in May then slid onto video in November.
Cute girl Asako meets shaggy guy Baku. He’s a bit quiet and mysterious, and she hardly says anything, just looks curious. They hang out together with her friend Haruyo and his friend Okazaki. They are sweet and young and that’s all there is. “Six months later, Baku said he was going to buy shoes and never came back”
Two years later Asako works at a coffee place and spots Salaryman Ryohei, who looks just like Baku, but is no Baku, neither quiet not mysterious. They hang out with her actress roommate Maya and his amateur acting critic friend Kushihashi, who just tears her apart after they watch one of her performances. Asako is drawn to this fake Baku but torn about the whole thing, runs away, comes back the night of the March 2011 earthquake. I’ve got nothing but plot description, but it’s unusually gripping for this sort of dramatic film – every scene is good. It’s no wonder Hamaguchi’s Happy Hour popped up on decade-best lists.
Five years later, he’s moved up at work, she’s still at the coffee shop, and they’ve been together since the quake, when Haruyo shows up, and the movie takes a flying leap into melodrama (my notes during this section just say “holy shit this can’t be happening”). Baku comes back for her, the night before she and Ryohei are moving into a house together, in the middle of a farewell dinner, and she goes with him – then changes her mind along the way, but Ryohei might never trust her again. “I always had a feeling this would happen. That guy with the same face keeps haunting me.”
Baku I & II:
Would watch Asako III & IV. Cowritten with one of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s regular screenwriters, and Baku/Ryohei Masahiro Higashide starred in his Creepy (as the detective’s ex-partner) and Foreboding. Haruyo was in Lesson of Evil, and Kushihashi was in some Ju-on and Ring sequels. In competition at Cannes the year of Shoplifters and Burning and Ash Is Purest White – tough crowd.
Hamaguchi summarizes his career to date in a Filmmaker interview.
Lawrence Garcia: (I thought the autotune song was horrendous, but this is still good)
Like Karata’s unexpected performance, the film is opaque in ways both confounding and thrilling, as if internalizing one character’s advice not to over-interpret. Equally adept with subtle, naturalistic sketches (a visit to a seafood festival in a far-flung town) and well-timed bursts of emotion (an offered hand and a rising auto-tuned anthem to stop your heart)…
Josh Cabrita, who compares it to Rohmer’s Winter’s Tale:
Asako I & II sets up and throws out stylistic paradigms faster than you can grab hold of them. As if to maximize the frustration of viewers who prefer to distinguish the fantastic from the “real,” Hamaguchi’s amorphous aesthetic — blending naturalistic and affected performances, unobtrusive and flashy editing — renders inseparable inner and outer and public and private forms of experience.
Hamaguchi, who adds that Baku/Ryohei’s accents were different:
Employing [genre] conventions allowed the film to move a lot faster than usual without losing the audience. Those who don’t really understand those conventions might feel what is happening to be a little strange or even grotesque — or maybe a better expression is absurd, surrealist, or illogical. But one of the things I wanted to do was to have realism and surrealism coexisting: allowing something real to come out of this absurd situation, or to have some absurd quality rooted in the reality that we crafted.
A Three Kingdoms adaptation, but the third kingdom must’ve been cut for time. The Shadow is Deng Chao (star of The Mermaid), trained as a public replacement for the military commander (also Deng Chao) hidden in a Parasite basement. Their boss is Pei king Zheng Kai (The Ex-Files trilogy) and their wife is Sun Li (Chao’s real wife, the blind girl in Fearless) and it’s not always clear who’s fooling who. Anyway, the shadow starts a fight with the next city over, and before the neighbors can strike, Pei launches a sneak attack featuring their new umbrella-based weaponry.
Only a pretty good royal-intrigue movie, for the most part – too many stabbings with exaggerated SHINNNNG-SPLORT! sound effects – but with a couple of inimitable Zhang touches. The assault on the rival kingdom begins with Pei fighters skating down a hill inside twin bladed umbrellas, deflecting enemy fire and shooting crossbows from inside their spinning shields, and continues with their new dueling technique: dodging enemy blows with a feminine umbrella sway. Then there’s the visual design, with complex black and white patterns and explicit yin-yang effects.
“There’s a problem with your films. I don’t understand it. It’s not clear at all.”
A Belgian movie, watched for the Shadowplay thing, but I opted to cover Ferat Vampire instead because this one seemed… more difficult. As the red curtains open and the film begins, diorama-like, full of seared memories and dream logic, I tell myself “don’t call it Lynchian, that’s what everyone has said about it,” but Goodreads tell me that Smolders wrote a book about Eraserhead and Vimeo says he made a video called Lynch Empire, so nevermind, it’s Lynchian. This is his only feature to date, in a 35-year career of shorts.
Kids walk towards the camera, a bug is pinned to the wall, twin Poltergeist II preachers are flashback-puppeteers, causing a wolfman to kill the girl to big choral music, like hymns with some Thin Red Line mixed in. The girl lives again, only to be killed with scissors. Then the doctor, who is viewing these memory-plays by peering into our suit-wearing protagonist’s ear, says he’s fantasizing and he never had a sister, let alone a murdered one, and he needs to chill out.
Our man has an a static Crispin Glovery intensity, and a facial birthmark so we can conveniently tell who plays him in flashback, living in a city under near-permanent eclipse (the second time in 24 hours I’ve thought of Dark City). He works as the bug guy in a museum – a zoo worker in a room full of film cans – and we’ve seen multiple sets of identical twins at this point, making this the second movie this year after the Mandico short to be strongly reminiscent of A Zed & Two Noughts.
Enough with all the comparisons to other films – we go into overdrive when a black woman (the museum security guard) appears, sick and naked and pregnant, in his bed. We hear her thoughts, untranslated (at least on my DVD), while he deals with his stress by watching anthropological films of a beardy colonialist white man (his father, and the museum director). She make him promise not to leave, he immediately runs into the hallway while she gets killed by the ghost of his dead sister, then turns into a cocoon that births a white woman who goes to the museum, naked but for a leopard-skin coat, and murders a taxidermist, the sun comes out and everyone gets annoyed, and now the allusions/symbolism are out of my league.
Anyway, the closeup of leaf insects are great. This would seem to be a cult movie in need of a cult. Smolders was reportedly born in Kinshasa, says in the extras that his film’s vision of Africa is “a fantasized territory based on stories written by … large museums which … fanatically classified a universe that they didn’t understand.” He also says that the story’s logic is based on the rule that “what happens to a character is exactly what he most fears, yet desires at the same time.”
It has been over a year since I’ve watched the last ten minutes of a bunch of mediocre horror movies on streaming sites, and the temptation to properly watch some of these has been building, so it’s time to knock out a bunch and save myself some time.
Bird Box (2018, Susanne Bier)
Sandra Bullock regains consciousness and calls out “boy! girl!” when searching for the boy and girl, while phantoms are trying to trick the kids into removing their blindfolds. Is avoiding names a Pontypool sorta thing? “I have so much I want you to see” sounds like a sideways Hellraiser reference? The oppressive sound design is meant to distract the characters from locating the birds they seek. Once they get indoors, where the monsters cannot reach, there are no birds, annoyingly, it’s just a school for the blind – the last survivors of the suicide-sight monster-pocalypse. Blinds are like normals, now. She DOES have a box full of birds, pretty blue-green guys, then she names her “son” after the guy from Moonlight, presumably deceased. This was part of that wave of netflix movies that everyone thought they had to watch just because they had netflix, so I’m probably the last person in the world who hasn’t seen it. Bier made After The Wedding, which I saw a very long time ago, Bullock hasn’t been prolific since Gravity.
The Silence (2019, John Leonetti)
Netflix knows you want to watch this after Bird Box. This is obviously where Bird Box and A Quiet Place meet. From the fast-forward it looks Tucci-centric and monotonously beige. Stanley Tucci’s family encounters a traumatized lost girl who was sent with a noisemaker-rigged suicide vest to attract the murder-bats that killed the world, while masked dudes kidnap family members in slow-mo, and mom does that Quiet Place thing where she suicide-screams so the kids can escape. Tucci-gang and kidnap-gang brawl under a swarm of murder-bats, then an unwelcome voiceover catches us up. The director made Mortal Kombat 2, the writers worked on Transmorphers and a C. Thomas Howell movie,
Velvet Buzzsaw (2019, Dan Gilroy)
Zawe Ashton wanders into a haunted art gallery alone at night, the artworks all streaming paint onto the floor and into her body, while in a storage facility, Jake Gyllenhaal encounters a killer android on crutches, and at home Rene Russo gets assaulted by sculptures. Russo survives the night and tries to stay safe by divesting herself of all paintings and sculptures, but her tattoo counts as art, and kills her via shady CG. As in Bird Box, Malkovich had been killed off in the previous 90 minutes, damn it. Gilroy made Nightcrawler, but more importantly, he cowrote Freejack.
Apostle (2018, Gareth Evans)
Since we’ve watched the Downton Abbey movie, let’s see what old too-good-for-TV Dan Stevens is up to… ah, burning swamp witches in direct-to-video films. Dan rescues two women from a sexist cultist, whom they strenuously murder, while the cult compound burns, the camera bouncing here and there, recalling Evans’s V/H/S/2 segment. A mountainside explodes in fire and blood, the women escape, and the cult beardo watches a dying Dan embrace the grasses and become the new swamp-witch. Evans made The Raid movies… oh jeez, I watched one of those just three years ago and have forgotten all about it.
The Hole in the Ground (2019, Lee Cronin)
Seána Kerslake is in a hole in the ground. I hoped from the description that this would be a modern The Gate, but it looks like another The Descent. After an eternity of crawling, she rescues her unconscious son but awakens the blind beasties who can transform into people who probably died earlier in the movie. Back home, how can she know who’s real and who’s a beastie? Movie characters do not care about what is knowable, so she burns down her house with one son inside, and drives off with her “real” son, then we wait for the inevitable reveal that she got it wrong – there it is! Lee is presumably Mikal Cronin’s brother, his cowriter did a series called Zombie Bashers.
Cabin Fever Remake (2016, Travis Z)
Oh no, sad Matt (Daddario, of the Buffy-looking series Shadowhunters) is burning down the cabin with his feverish girlfriend inside, then his feverish buddy gets shot by rednecks and Gage blows them away. I see this is going the horror-comedy route, with the ever-popular overbearing sound design. He comes across Louise Linton of The Midnight Man, calls her a bitch, then I guess he walks into the woods and is killed by the editing and the too-loud music. Our director Mr. Z worked on Hatchet III and Behind the Mask, and screenwriter Randy cowrote the original with Eli Roth, who made not one but two poorly-reviewed films last year, plus a History of Horror doc series.
Day of the Dead: Bloodline (2018, Hèctor Hernández Vicens)
Ooh the zombie can talk and kidnap children in this second remake of the Romero sequel. Some bellowing army dudes are extremely good shots with their pistols as a horde approaches, but they all suffer the fate that army dudes in zombie movies must, while Sophie Skelton (Outlander) runs right past the horde to rescue her kid, beheads the talking zombie (Johnathon Schaech of The Scare Hole) with typical action-movie kissoff dialogue, then reads some science narration in as bored a voice as possible. The director’s follow-up to The Corpse of Anna Fritz, which itself got a remake, perpetuating some sorta horror sequel-remake super-cycle.
Await Further Instructions (2018, Johnny Kevorkian)
I skipped back an extra couple minutes because I noticed the movie’s blue-gray palette suddenly bloom into full color. It’s nothing though, and back in the blue-gray house the TV is telling the family members to kill each other, and dad complies with a hatchet before he’s taken down. I hope this all turns out to be a gag by the neighbor kids at the end. Nope, when smashed, the TV comes to Cronenbergian life and Tetsuos the dead dad. Sam Gittins (this year’s Ray & Liz) appears to win, then the whole family is murdered by cables except the newborn who I guess grows up with cables as parents. The director made family thriller The Disappeared a decade ago, the writer has a short about deadly colors called Chromophobia.
Cargo (2017, Ben Howling & Yolanda Ramke)
Oh, Martin Freeman is not gonna survive this pandemic apocalypse. After he goes blind and hungry, a kid takes his baby and rides undead-Martin to the zombie-hunter tribal lands in painful, wordless slow-motion. A remake of their 2013 short, but 98 minutes longer.
Veronica (2017, Paco Plaza)
The Spanish Ouija horror – kids are fleeing a demon-infested apartment building, Vero goes back for the youngest, then realizes the demon was inside her all along and tries to stop herself. Inventive effects, a cool look, and kickass post-punk song over the credits – one of the rare Last Ten Minutes entries that seems like a good movie. From the director of the original [Rec] plus two of its sequels.
Life After Beth (2014, Jeff Baena)
It’s killing me that the Zombie Aubrey movie was deemed not good enough to watch, but hey, my time is valuable. Dane DeHaan (Valerian himself) has strapped a fullsize oven to Aubrey’s back to slow her down, and they go for a romantic canyon hike before he shoots her. “I am sorry the whole world went to shit, but it was totally worth it.” John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon must be dead, but Anna Kendrick is here. The movie’s best original detail is that zombie gravestones have two death dates. Our writer/director specializes in little-loved Aubrey Plaza movies, also made The Little Hours.
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.
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.
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.
[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.