Tag: 4.5 stars

Movie Review: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

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Seen: At the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline.

Sometimes a movie can intrigue based solely on descriptors used when people talk about it. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is summed up as “the first Iranian vampire western;” it is made by a woman, and it is also shot in black and white, and it is also a sexy romance. Also also rock and roll. So, naturally, I eagerly awaited its release, and finally finally caught a showing at Coolidge Corner, in their ultra-tiny screening room that seats 14 people, and lo, it was good. Written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, the film follows the goings-on of a small, sad town called Bad City, whose denizens are lost and lonely, whose streets harbor a silent killer, a vampire who stalks repugnant men. Played by Sheila Vand, she never reveals her name, nor are her origins or motives ever made clear, but for one reason or another she drops her guard with Arash (Arash Marandi), a shy gardener-turned-drug dealer who is struggling to take care of his junkie father. The two embark on a tentative romance while she continues to secretly slay and he deals with complications of his own.

With a lingering, intimate visual style capitalizing on the deep shadows and ambiguous grays of her black and whit palette, Amirpour imbues her film with a quiet cool reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch. Her characters listen to hip lo-fi rock records, they choose to stare meaningfully instead of fill up the air with too much talk, they are troubled and interesting. The Iranian setting only legitimizes their coolness, as their music and style and dgaf attitudes seem to stand in for a kind of anti-authoritarianism. The two leads are both drop-dead gorgeous, and it would be easy to forgo any illusion of depth and simply focus on the will-they-or-won’t-they conflict of these pretty young people, ignoring culturally-specific trappings and horror undertones, but Amirpour doesn’t quite let us get away so easily. Through the character of The Girl she creates a sly commentary on female stereotypes- on victimhood, sexuality, passivity, and agency. The Girl is formidable but vulnerable, approaching her unsuspecting male targets directly, using their own predatory and presumptuous attitudes against them. She is lonely and a little sad, observing those around her from afar, working to protect women like Atti (Mozhan Marnò), a frustrated but resilient sex worker who in turn sees The Girl as a strange young woman who needs guidance. She is powerful and cryptic, flying down the street on a skateboard with her chador billowing around her like a superhero cape. Her clothes are a uniform, a black chador opened to reveal a chic striped t-shirt, black pants, and sneakers, representing the clash of cultures and influences experienced by Amirpour and other Iranian-Americans. She herself was raised in California, feeling “really Iranian” at home but not anywhere else, and for her the film (which was shot in her home town of Bakersfield, CA) was a chance to make her own Iran “that was as Iranian as we are, which is a mash-up of so many things.

I will not pretend to know a lot about Iranian culture or norms, I’m sure several details and nuances in the film were lost on me as an outsider. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night can likely be enjoyed on multiple levels depending what you bring to it. I brought with me my love of genre films, female protagonists, vampire stories, international cinema, and black and white cinematography, along with my interest women filmmakers and immediate attraction to the two stars. And I walked away supremely satisfied.

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: Easily Only Lovers Left Alive, since we’re keeping it Jarmuschian, and really can’t we just bask in the glow of 2014’s overall vampire cool? Alternatively, if you’re less into romantic vampirism and more into weird mash-up westerns that transcend “foreign film” conventions, there’s Sukiyaki Western Django, an English-language western set in Japan from maverick filmmaker Takashi Miike.

Monstrous Females Double Feature: Ginger Snaps (2000) and American Mary (2012)

Ah, October, a month when talking obsessively about slashers, vampires, haunted houses, killer aliens, werewolves, and dismemberment is generally socially condoned. I have been enormously enjoying my own spooky season, an extension of my personal exploration of horror over the past year. Though I’ve seen many new-to-me horror films recently (most of which I write a little about on my letterboxd), it has been especially heartening to check out a few titles written and/or directed by women, which aren’t exactly common. Two of my favorites so far are the lycanthropy-as-metaphor-for-puberty drama Ginger Snaps, written by Karen Walton, and the body-mod gorefest American Mary, written and directed by the Soska Sisters. As a nice bonus, both happen to star Katharine Isabelle.

Ginger Snaps

Seen: On our projector set-up on blu-ray (borrowed from my friend Ben).

Morbid sisters Brigitte (Emily Perkins) and Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) are inseparable, determined to make it through high school together or possibly die trying, staging elaborate photographs of each others’ deaths as a creative coping mechanism. When the slightly older Ginger gets her period for the first time and is bit by a mysterious wolf-like creature on the same night, Brigitte becomes convinced that she’s turning into a werewolf, even though some of the signs are weirdly similar to puberty. Ginger drifts apart from her sister, suddenly interested in sex and drugs and parties, but her sister can see her rapidly losing control of herself both mentally and physically. Brigitte teams up with a local weed dealer who saw the original wolf and is inclined to believe in what’s happening, but they may not find a cure before Ginger fully wolfs out at the next full moon.

When I first heard the premise of Ginger Snaps I thought it would push the link between the “curse” of menstruation and the “curse” of werewolfism more. Like, get it? Women are MONSTERS when they’re surfing the crimson wave, can we talk about it? Women being emotional, uncontrollable monsters? Eh? But it turns out Ginger Snaps is really mostly about sisterhood and girlhood and growing up and hormones and turning into a werewolf obviously. It is primarily a well-paced supernatural drama, hinging on the mousy Brigitte as she works to save Ginger, a sister she is equally scared of and scared for. Emily Perkins is great in the role, affecting a telltale teenage shoulder hunch and an expression equal parts nervous and tenacious. Katharine Isabelle perfectly balances budding sexuality and over-confidence with an underlying vulnerability and eventual realization that she has lost control of everything she knew.

This movie combines all the confusion and excitement and terror of teenagedom–including fights with parents, personality changes, raging hormones and puberty, the perils of high school socialization, romantic melodrama–while simultaneously remaining a straight-up werewolf movie. I loved the theme of sisterhood and coming-of-age worked so believably into this darkly comic horror. Director John Fawcett’s insistence on practical effects works to everyone’s favor, and the story is original, unpredictable, and honestly quite touching. This is exactly the kind of feminist, femalecentric horror movie I wanted.

4.5/5

american mary

Seen: On our projector set-up, streamed through netflix.

My next foray into women-made horror was American Mary, written and directed by celebrated filmmaker twins Jen and Sylvia Soska. Katharine Isabelle stars again, this time as Mary, a medical student with financial troubles. Unable to make her loan or bill payments, she answers a craigslist ad looking for beautiful women to work at a strip club/bar. After the owner ropes her into an impromptu emergency surgery, she is unexpectedly hired by one of the club’s dancers, Beatress, to perform a body modification surgery on a woman who has been changing her appearance to resemble a Barbie-type doll. Mary is at first unsettled by the procedure, but soon finds herself a go-to surgeon for others in the body-modification community. When a party with her medical professors goes horribly wrong, she uses her newfound skills to enact revenge.

Without knowing too much about it, I imagined this film as a gory, seedy medical thriller with lots of gross operations and maybe body horror. In reality, it’s more a thoughtful take on the rape-revenge subgenre set within a unique subculture. While Mary’s rape is shown in awful, disgusting detail (the one scene I had to look away from during the whole movie), the rest of the story is more about the psychological aftermath than the “revenge” portion usually the focus of other movies with this theme. The body-mod stuff isn’t part of the horror, in face the film mostly offers a sympathetic and compassionate look at that community. The essential horror of the film lies in the lengths Mary finds herself going to as she tries to cope with this terrible experience, as she recognizes her own personality and moral code changing radically. Katharine Isabelle again puts in a memorable performance, at times betraying an uncertainty beneath a hardened, businesslike exterior. Her transformation from confident medical student to somewhat sadistic underground surgeon is a compelling one, and she completely sells it.

The main issue many viewers seem to have had with American Mary is the ending, and I definitely would consider that the film’s weak point. The climax is a bloody, murdery mess that suddenly introduces a new character who was barely mentioned halfway through, and it’s just not satisfying. I think the Soskas were trying to work in a commentary about male possessiveness of their female partners and the general idea that men often think they have control over women’s bodies, which is a very fair point and totally appropriate to raise in a film about body modification surgery. But the way it is introduced and haphazardly worked into the narrative does not fit, and instead a barely-there subplot jarringly becomes the deciding factor in Mary’s story in the last five minutes of the movie. Which is too bad, because up until that point I was very involved with her tale, and hoped for a more fitting conclusion.

4/5

Movie Review: Borgman (2014)

Borgman

Seen: On our projector set-up at home.

A trio of unkempt men living in hidden underground rooms in the forest are forced to flee when a gang of armed men (including a priest) raid their home. Their leader, Camiel (Jan Bijvoet), runs to a large, isolated estate and begs its owner–self-interested businessman Richard (Jeroen Perceval)–to allow him to use their shower. He refuses, and soon physically beats Camiel when he claims to have known Richard’s wife, Marina (Hadewych Minis). She takes pity on him and secretly invites him to use their bathroom, going so far as to make him dinner and agreeing to put him up in their guest house for a few nights as long as he keeps himself hidden. He soon ingratiates himself into her and her young children’s lives, and facilitates the dissolution of her marriage by sending her nightmares about Richard. Several friends join him at the house and things soon spiral out into weirder and weirder territory.

Borgman is the type of film during which I was never quite sure what was going on, but I was always utterly captivated. Writer/director/co-star (and poster designer) Alex van Warmerdam throws his audience into the action immediately, opening with a wordless hunt through the woods as three unidentified armed men tear through the protagonists’ underground homes. These men are never seen again, and their violent raid is never mentioned nor given reason. Camiel and his friends are immediately sympathetic because to our eyes they are victims, perhaps persecuted for living an alternative lifestyle. As the story progresses we come to realize the manipulative, vaguely paranormal power Camiel exerts over Marina and her family, and the brutal lengths he will go to for whatever his mysterious goal may be. The film rests in a cloud of uncertainty and ambiguity but the answer always feels like it’s lying just out of reach, perhaps just out of frame, so that as a viewer I was set on seeing things through and perhaps figuring things out. At times it’s almost intoxicatingly obtuse.

Of course, this isn’t just some hodge-podge of random scenes, there is narrative and character development and theme. This movie hates rich people, for example, and even though Camiel is shown to be fairly ruthless I couldn’t help but root for him since his target (the abusive, possessive, materialistic Richard) is so terrible. There is also a kind of mythology established, whether completely new or drawing from Dutch tradition I couldn’t say, but I did find it fascinating. Camiel sends dreams to Marina, has some kind of supernatural hold on the people around him, he and his friends can apparently turn into dogs (?), they all sport mysterious scars on their backs, and they can hypnotize/brainwash young people. They fluidly change identities and mercilessly murder and manipulate, but their actions are more interesting than dastardly. With unreadable motivations and impressive efficiency, Camiel and his followers bring a wonderful level of weirdness to this idyllic modern home and its unsuspecting inhabitants.

Van Warmerdam crafts this intriguing oddity superbly, with pitch-perfect camerawork and a gorgeous, deep color palette. Shots move throughout the large, stylized household with thoughtful tension, revealing and hiding in equal amounts. While the family feels real enough, it’s easy to assume the events of the film take place in a dream, given the slightly surreal tinge falling over every scene. The sets are too stagey, the action too contained, the characters too nestled in their own performances: the divide between real and unreal is inescapably blurred and even that is commented upon in a conceptual performance shown just before the climax. But the occasional intrusion of the world outside the main family’s home reminds us that this is taking place in the realm of reality (at least that of the film) and the surprisingly matter-of-fact ending jolts us out of the strange hold Camiel and his story had on us. Imaginative, unpredictable, and wholly singular, Borgman is not a film I’m likely to forget.

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: Who the fuck knows. Lots of people compare this to Dogtooth, which I still haven’t seen (I know), so I guess that.

Movie Review: The Devils (1971)

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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.

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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.

4.5/5

Movie Review: Snowpiercer (2014)

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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.

4.5/5

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.