Category: Movies

Movie Review: The Devils (1971)


Seen: In 35mm at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline.

In mid-17th century France, Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu together enforce Catholic dominance across the country. In his fanaticism, Richelieu entreats the king to tear down the walls surrounding the small city of Loudun, which–while Catholic–is basically self-governing and (in his mind) a likely haven for Protestants. Charismatic priest Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), who is beloved by the townspeople despite his known affairs with local women, has been in charge since the governor died, and he resists any orders to destroy his city’s defensive walls. Meanwhile, Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), Mother Superior at Loudun’s Ursuline convent, experiences explicit visions involving Grandier as a sexy Christ figure, and confesses to a suspicious local priest (Murray Melvin). He assumes she is possessed by a demon, while Baron De Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton), who is sent to tear the walls down, sees it as a means to delegitimize Grandier, accusing him of witchcraft. What follows is a sensational series of events involving satanic curses, crazed nuns, illegal marriage, violent exorcism, political trial, and fiery death.

This movie. I find myself suddenly obsessed with this movie. It is bizarre and grandiose and over the top and scathing and sensual and darkly funny, and really quite beautiful. The sets are towering and modern, rendered in sweeping lines and stark tans and greys, matching the overblown grandeur of both the French court and the Catholic Church. Ken Russell takes a true story and blows it up into this truly singular, scandalous piece of cinema. The melodrama is turned all the way up, like past 11, and I love that, especially since the tone is perfect for such a pomp and circumstancey target as Catholicism. Russell eagerly recognizes the strange blend of sexual repression and orgasmic ecstasy, pain and pleasure, guilt and pity, self-aggrandizement and hypocrisy, all so intricately connected within the religion, especially in this time period. Sex and violence–while theoretically discouraged–are unquestionably major elements found within the church’s actions, whether in bloody executions of heretics or the romantic affairs of priests.

the devils

One of the many interesting aspects of The Devils is its protagonist, Urbain Grandier, as played by the devilishly sexual Oliver Reed. He is introduced as a well-liked public figure, then immediately shown to be a philanderer who coldly casts aside his aristocratic fling the moment she reveals she is pregnant. He is certainly a flawed character, both as a priest and as a man, yet in the greater scheme of things (namely Richelieu vs Loudun), he is in the right. He nobly fights for his city, defending it against power-hungry fanatics, and I couldn’t help but root for him even if I found some of his behavior repugnant (to be clear, I don’t care that he was a priest who broke his celibacy, or a priest who got married, but that he abandoned a scared woman whom he impregnated). Reed has this constant look of condescension about him coupled with a palpable charisma, weird sexual energy, and a good head of hair; I admit I fell for him just a little bit. And I liked how in this very moralistic atmosphere the “good guy” was himself not exactly meeting high moral standards, continuing with Russell’s exposure of religious hypocrisy.

This film works on a number of levels. It is a fearless criticism of the Catholic Church as an institution, a playful historical satire, a riveting and romantic drama, an investigation of the sadomasochistic elements of religious fanaticism, and certainly an artistic triumph. Its politics are muddy yet biting, its characters confused yet deliberate. The combined star power of Oliver Reed and captivating/unsettling Vanessa Redgrave is enough to sell it, but it was often the little things that really held my attention: the opening shot of an androgynous Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) performing onstage as Venus; the ridiculous fight between Grandier and two sniveling hack doctors (involving a stuffed crocodile); Sister Jeanne’s mad attack on wide-eyed “fornicator” Madeleine (Gemma Jones) through the bars; hints as to the sexual desires of repressed nuns; the dominant effect of Derek Jarman’s modernist sets; the proto-Girls-Gone-Wild possession sequence; the eye-catching style of Father Barre (Michael Gothard), a no-nonsense exorcist with round sunglasses, long hair, bare arms, and bright white gloves. Everything just worked for me. I loved this movie.


Movie Review: Chanthaly (2013)


Seen: On my laptop with a downloaded HD file, a perk from the Nong Hak indigogo campaign.

Diagnosed with a debilitating heart condition in her childhood, 22-year-old Chanthaly (Amphaiphun Phimmapunya) does not leave her house much. Her mother died in childbirth, and her doting father (Douangmany Soliphanh) raised her as best he could, but she has always felt the absence of a mother in her life. As an adult she lives quietly, running a small laundry service from their home with the help of her cousin, and playing with her adorable dog Moo. She starts experiencing visual and aural disturbances that might be her dead mother’s ghost, or might be a hallucinatory side-effect of her heart medication. Chanthaly becomes convinced her mother is trying to reach her, trying to tell her the truth about her death, and she gradually comes to distrust and resent her well-meaning but overprotective father.

I was initially interested in Chanthaly because of the story behind its making: director Mattie Do is both the first female filmmaker andfirst  horror filmmaker working in Laos, whose nascent film industry is small and limited. To make this movie she basically got together a small group of friends (plus her adorable dog, Mango) and set everything up at her house and just… made a movie. Which is pretty amazing. The film screened at some festivals but does not currently have any home release, so I was happy for the opportunity to receive a digital copy as a perk of Do’s fundraising campaign for her next project, Nong Hak.

Set entirely within the protagonist’s house, Chanthaly is a compelling, emotionally complex drama that employs horror tropes to emphasize the experiences of a troubled young woman. I’ll admit I was disappointed there wasn’t more actual horror–I was expecting something much scarier, I guess–but that’s just about the only criticism I have. The film plays out as a tense but evenly-paced drama as we watch the title character go about her day, confined to her house, interacting with few others save for family members and her neighbor, convinced her dead mother is trying to communicate with her, yearning for a more active life but also scared to move beyond her familiar surroundings. She is in many ways a product of a patriarchal society, with her illness acting as a metaphor for the quiet, weak role often assigned to women. The moments of horror are quick and sudden, mostly in the form of ghostly apparitions Chanthaly sees briefly in the dark. The story plays out gradually, allowing the viewer to become fully invested in the lead character’s situation and in the mystery of her visions. She believes so strongly that she’s somehow found a connection to her mother–the strong female role model she needs–that we too want to believe that it’s real, and not drug-induced hallucinations.

What really sold me on Chanthaly is the third act, when an unexpected twist completely changes the nature of the tale, but maintains the themes of love and loss. Here, the filmmakers expand upon the vague ancestral-ghost mythology that many cultures subscribe to, introducing a world where spirits reside in intensely bright versions of real homes, can implant memories into the living, and may even kill to maintain a veneer of happiness in the afterlife. The truth about Chanthaly’s ghostly visions is more complex than it seems, and indeed it is never fully explained, so that viewers may come to their own conclusions about our heroine’s troublesome visitor. It’s a fascinating prospect, and turns an already-interesting drama into a thought-provoking spiritual horror. Ultimately I was the most impressed with how moved I was by this film, likely because it reminded me of real loss, of real death, and though the film operates on a paranormal plane its handling of character and suffering felt utterly connected to actual experience.


Pair This Movie With: The use of interiors and general themes reminded me of Kim Jee-woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters, which is totally scary and would make a very cool double feature.

Movie Review: Snowpiercer (2014)


Seen: At the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge.

“Human beings are fucked,” I think to myself, not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, as the opening exposition of Bong Joon-ho’s realistically cynical (but otherwise ridiculously unrealistic) futuristic thriller, Snowpiercer, plays over the speakers. Immediately, we know that an experimental substance was launched into the atmosphere in 2014 with the hope that it would balance the earth’s climate. Instead, it launched a world-wide ice age that killed almost everything living. The last bastion of humanity is found on a train, a self-sustaining technological marvel built to withstand extreme temperatures as it chugs along its year-long circuit. The train is organized according to a strict class hierarchy, with wealthy first-class passengers enjoying all the luxuries of the old world in the first several cars and the poor passengers stuck at the back, forced to give up their skills, their labor, and their children as the front of the train demands them. Many revolts have been attempted over the 18 years they’ve been stuck on the train, but we witness the one led by Curtis (Chris Evans), a rebellion that’s set on making it all the way to the first car, where the miracle engine resides. Control the engine, control the train.

Bong Joon-ho has made a name for himself in Korean cinema with his darkly comic, offbeat thrillers and dramas that blend intense situations with complex characters. His debut English-language feature, Snowpiercer is probably his most ambitious, and easily his most over-the-top. It’s a ridiculous blend of sick comedy and shocking drama, Bioshock-futurism and gory action set-pieces, class warfare and environmentalism, new religion and victorious nihilism. Most of the narrative doesn’t make any sense, but the story, action, and characters are all so enjoyable that it really doesn’t matter. It’s easy to just go with it. Bong’s visual flair lends a certain legitimacy to this strange, unreal future-train, while the real-life relevancy of the central class struggle is keenly felt. To be fair, a class-related rebellion led by a muscular young white dude isn’t very accurate, but Curtis is mostly used as a blank slate for the more interesting characters to influence and play off of, plus I’m assuming making him the protagonist helped sell the idea of this off-kilter movie by a not-famous director.

The script toys with how a completely contained, restricted group of people might forge a new society, combining shitty elements of the old one while thinking of new, shittier elements to incorporate. The establishment of a train-specific religion is fascinating, with its bizarre hand motions and hymns glorifying the train’s creator, Wilford (Ed Harris), because strange as it is it’s totally believable. Of course those in power would use religion to control their underlings, and we see it being passed on to children, to those who don’t remember anything before this train, so we understand that the next generation will take for granted that this is how things are, this is the system and this is their god, this engine that sustains them. The incorporation of religion is made as hilarious as it is unsettling in a brilliant scene set in the train’s school room, with Alison Pill fucking glowing in her brief role.

Beautifully shot and ably paced, the film makes an impact as much in its ludicrous plotting as it does in its pitch-perfect casting. Tilda Swinton shines, as ever, as the toothy spokesperson for Wilford, a slightly gender-ambiguous mouthpiece whose exaggerated features and Southern accent make for a funny, bizarre, and ruthless villain. Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, and Emma Levie effectively round out the supporting cast, and Chris Evans does his gruff leading-man thing well enough, catching the audience off-guard with a weird and terrible monologue at the end that sums up a lot about the character and his struggle. The real stars are of course father-and-daughter drug addicts Namgoong Minsoo and Yona, played by Bong Joon-ho favorites Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-sung. Enlisted by Curtis because of their knowledge of the train’s security, they are along for the ride but not supportive of the rebellion. They look out for one another only, and Namgoong has a radically different idea for changing the status quo. They offer a more nuanced, complicated set of motivations and viewpoints in comparison to the fairly black-and-white positioning of the back of the train and the front. Song Kang-ho has become been one of my favorite actors, and he does not disappoint here, simultaneously hilarious and grizzly and tragic. I was glad they also found a way for him to speak in his native Korean, since that made his performance more natural.

I know that Snowpiercer is at times almost unforgivably ridiculous (like shots exchanged through the windows of a moving train when it went around a bend, what?), but it manages to strike an almost-perfect balance between over-the-top plot developments, compelling characters, apocalyptic pulp, wondrous technology, angsty melodrama, unexpected humor, and gripping action. I see its flaws but they don’t take away from my supreme enjoyment of the film overall. Also that brutal ending really did it for me.


Pair This Movie With: Surprisingly, nothing immediately springs to mind even though I’m sure I’ve seen enough films that would make good double features with this. My first instinct is to say another action-y Song Kang-ho movie? Can’t go wrong with The Host or The Good, The Bad, The Weird.

Movie Review: Queen Christina (1933)

queen christinas

Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, rented from Hollywood Express in Cambridge. Recommended by Andreas.

Inspired by the actual historical figure of Queen Christina, colorful and controversial queen of Sweden from 1633-1654, Queen Christina begins with the title character’s assumption of her throne at the age of 6, after her father is killed in battle during the Thirty Years’ War. She grows up a serious, studious woman (Greta Garbo) who feels more comfortable in men’s clothes and devotes her rare solitary hours to reading classic literature and plays. She dedicates herself fully to being a good ruler, though after years of war over religion in Europe she questions the benefits of it versus the cost. She hopes to see her country move past violent conflict and instead establish itself as a new cultural center. She is eventually pressured into marrying, which she has no plans to do, but accepts visits from various European envoys who hope to convince her to make an alliance. During a casual horseback ride before a snowstorm she is held up at a mountain inn where the Spanish ambassador, Antonio (John Gilbert), also stops, and after mistaking her for a man the two strike up an easy friendship, which leads to a passionate affair when he realizes she is actually a smoking hot babe.

Let me first say that since seeing this movie I’ve been wikipediaing the real Christina and she was a pretty fascinating, unconventional lady, and I’m into that. The movie fictionalizes and adjusts various aspects of her life, but does get some things right, and regardless of fact it’s a really excellent film. The settings and costumes are lavish, the supporting cast is good, the story moves along steadily, there’s a bit of political satire and a lot of sexual undertones, and even a pretty clear lesbian relationship (based on history). But of course it’s really all about the star. Garbo stomps around boldly, looking striking in fancy men’s clothing and cropped hair, confidently making proclamations about the future of her country and generally being a complete and utter badass. She’s just so kingly, so larger than life, and yet still real and complicated and funny. She’s an enormous presence, and the film is entirely about her.

At least halfway into the story, if not more, John Gilbert’s character is introduced, and their romance is pretty sexy (seriously, they have sex for like three days straight after knowing each other for a few hours, and it’s like, damn, medieval rich people could do it). But it’s not really the focus, it’s more an instigation for her to question her own life and experiences. She’s been ruler of Sweden almost her entire life, been at war her entire life, been at the mercy of her courtiers and advisers and military commanders, been restricted to her castle. Meeting the poetic Antonio opens up the world to her, both emotionally and mentally, as she realizes how dissatisfied she is with her life as queen. She wants to see the world, meet different kinds of people, and generally do things for herself instead of for her country. The real Queen Christina felt similarly–though her choices and options were also affected by her conversion to Catholicism–but she is often considered selfish and frivolous by people today. I liked that the film made her so sympathetic, and her actions understandable. My favorite thing, and this is a spoiler, is how the ultimate resolution sees her basically turning into a seafaring solo adventurer! Like, she’s just a woman without a man and without a country but with a shit ton of confidence and some wanderlust. Can I get that sequel?

Basically this movie is fantastic.


Pair This Movie With: I actually still haven’t seen it but a coworker who loves this movie recommended Elizabeth as a pairing, she said they just go together really well as depictions of badass independent queens.

Movie Review: Vi är bäst! (We Are the Best!) (2014)

we are the best!

Seen: At the Kendall Square Landmark Cinema in Cambridge.

Aspiring punks Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin) may only be thirteen years old, but they are ready to take on the world with their newly-formed band. At first trying to teach themselves to play bass and drums, they eventually enlist shy Christian guitarist Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) to join the group, and the three forge a solid but sometimes tempestuous friendship. Politics, class, puberty, and music all intermingle as the girls come of age in early 80s Stockholm- sticking together through first crushes, first DIY haircuts, first hangovers, and their first live performance at a small-town music festival. They must overcome petty squabbles as well as ideological differences if they’re going to make the band work, but luckily they can always come together over their mutual hatred of sports.

With a loose, freeflowing narrative and a strong core cast, We Are the Best! is just straight-up delightful filmmaking. There is a true understanding of teenage experience at its center, especially that of young outsider teen girls, which propels the whole story forward and embraces the audience. Though structured around Bobo and Klara’s formation of a punk band, it’s more a series of episodes depicting their coming of age, with certain seemingly universal factors. They contend with embarrassing parents and crushing self-doubt, fighting back with daring style experiments and a certain overconfidence. Their instinctive reactions against authority, their undeveloped understanding of broad ideological concepts, their brash opinions, their struggle between self-actualization and self-loathing- it all connected so clearly to my own teenage experience. I had an unflattering short haircut when I was 11; I had a sleepover with girlfriends where we attempted to give a friend a mohawk (not to cut it, though, but to dye it and stick it up with Koolaid); I had a crush on a friend’s older brother; I wanted to be a punk rocker. My teenage-dom unfolded on that screen, and I can only assume it did the same for other women (and probably men) in the audience.

Regardless of my intense personal response, We Are the Best! is a really fantastic film in general. Writer/director Lukas Moodysson (adapting his wife’s graphic novel) sets his camera on the small intimate spaces of lower-middle-class apartments and the uncertainty of urban streets, mixing warm colors and dark, wintry weather. There is a focus on small moments, along with the kind of minor victories and tragedies that seem super important at the time. The narrative flits between home and school, band practice and first dates, fights and goofing around and political arguments; the relationship between Bobo and Klara (and later, Hedvig) is gradually established simply through their day-to-day interactions. It’s a really stirring portrait of female friendship, highlighting the importance of that feeling of solidarity among teen girls. It’s also a document of the time, referencing international events, fashion trends, music styles, and social systems. I don’t know how accurate the landscape is since I’m unfamiliar with Stockholm, but the visuals definitely evoke 1980s Europe, at least for me.

The protagonists don’t take shit from anyone, and while they retain various faults of youth (the main thing that bothered me was how they fucked with fast food workers, like don’t mess with customer service people, just don’t do it, that’s so shitty regardless of the company they work for, they have no control over things), they are all so damn cute and smart and talented it’s really easy to root for them. The film as a whole may be categorized as drama, but I’d say it’s equal parts drama and comedy, because it’s really just showing the ups and downs of regular daily life for these girls. With healthy doses of rocking out, of course. So much rocking out!


Pair This Movie With: Of course another movie about teen girl rockers would be a perfect follow-up. Thematically I would recommend Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains or Linda Linda Linda as pairings. Rock n’ Roll High School would be a fun choice as well.