Capsules: May 2019

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Capsules is a monthly diary of older movies either seen for the first time or revisited after many years. This month, avant-garde and difficult films laced with some sweetener.

Wavelength (Michael Snow, 1967)

In the yes-but-is-it-art? game that accompanies avant-garde experiments, the metric of gut reactions from fresh meat is still paramount. I was instantly hooked: a compression/elongation of time with just enough faint traces of narrative material to extrapolate. Is it a story of urban alienation? A more inward psychodrama, in which female space is invaded by a man? Either way, as it transitions from Strawberry Fields to a migraine drone to a photographic escape, it makes you want to guess.

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*****

1941 (Steven Spielberg, 1979)

Spielberg’s notorious and underrated misfire can’t even get many laughs from John Belushi, but somewhere between the unmistakeable Spielberg craft and the Animal House idiom lies a mesmerizing idea: the way the inherently juvenile nature of the film’s approach—historical turning point as Mad Magazine tableau—falls into meaningful harmony with a view of America as a land of rowdy, horny, childish, movie-crazed, trigger-happy yokels and toy soldiers. Sarcasm? More like patriotism. “Why we fight” indeed.

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*****

The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke, 2001)

Sure, it’s a study of a bourgeoisie that’ll talk Schubert but watch porn, but I usually prefer this sort of Freudian potboiler when it’s pretending to be trash instead of the good taste version of bad taste. That said, the biggest twist is how it reveals its kinks with a tenderness and even a chance for hope. Both of which are dashed, leaving the disturbed confusion of love/sex/intimacy gone wrong when it reels from theory to practice. Isabelle Huppert is enormously moving.

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*****

Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008)

As self-reflexive visual metaphors go, a shot of perfectly geometric protest art made from smeared shit sums up Hunger nicely. Steve McQueen’s (12 Years a Slave) acclaimed debut is perhaps the most nauseating film I’ve ever seen, and what he chooses to show and not show speaks to both his vision and limitations as a cinematic thinker. But the film’s jagged structural approach—picking up and dropping characters, switching from wordlessness to eloquence and back—is genuinely provocative. It suggests that a cinema of pain might escape, or at least contextualize, its own myopia.

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*****

Les Mistons (Francois Truffaut, 1957)

Reasons to watch this early short? Truffaut completism. Bernadette Lafont on a bicycle. The director dreaming of Renoir and Tati but already developing his own visual energy. Because it’s 18 minutes long and streaming on the Criterion Channel. Because you just watched Steve McQueen’s Hunger and need something to wash it away. Because you were that age once, and this will convince you that you learned more than you did.

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*****

Capsules: April 2019 (Nine Palmes Edition)

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Capsules is a monthly diary of older movies either seen for the first time or revisited after many years. This month, in honor of forthcoming Cannes Film Festival hype, goes to nine winners of the top prize.

The Wages of Fear (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953)

Forever in the arthouse starter kit, does Clouzot’s international hit of misanthropy and nitroglycerin hold up? It takes far too long and that ending is fatalism at its most unnecessary, but his toxic sense of character still stings. “Pure suspense” nothing—this is a bitter, textured fuck-you to the world of 1953. Its setting isn’t South America so much as a post-WWII purgatory, as different languages and accents mingle in a corporate-controlled desert where everyone wants to escape. Key exchange: “What’s beyond it?” “Nothing.”

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*****

Friendly Persuasion (William Wyler, 1956)

A slice of pacifism during the Cold War blacklist, and interesting only in how it slips that into America’s rosy self-image. It’s also mostly boring, and at first I worried that’s because peace itself is boring before I realized that Wyler and company just do shockingly little with the film’s ideas and characters for a two-plus hour film. Comedy was never Wyler’s strong suit, nor Cooper’s. But moments of fraught emotion and rolling charm lie within.

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*****

The Knack …and How to Get It (Richard Lester, 1965)

Whether you find Richard Lester’s Swinging London sex comedy deceptively smart or utterly reprehensible will come down to how you interpret its last twenty minutes. To that end, I’d note that a heretofore timid and sheltered heroine asserts control over her own body; that the hero doesn’t get “the knack” for casual hook-ups, but a proper girlfriend instead; that the film’s actual playboy is discarded into the corner with the reactionaries; and that the most erotic contact the hero and heroine make on screen is a final, tender kiss on the cheek as they hold hands. The mania is fine, sure. But I remember the afterglow.

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*****

If…. (Lindsay Anderson, 1968)

One year after the spirit of ’68 shut down the festival, Lindsay Anderson showed up with a film that both embodied and examined it. There’s Malcolm McDowell, yes—this is the film that unleashed him into a world of stifling hierarchies and traditions, thus making his screen persona feel like an inevitability. But don’t shortchange the nuances, the hurt, and the tenderness around the entire ensemble. That Anderson sees their violence as somehow both understandable and chillingly psychotic is one reason this “of its time” movie transcends the sixties. That their sense of anarchy methodically infects the storytelling itself is another.

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*****

All That Jazz (Bob Fosse, 1979)

Bob Fosse remakes 8 1/2, reclaiming rich-and-famous visually grandiose celebrity navel-gazing in the name of America, where it belongs. The film’s triumph, aside from the style of every shot, is how it can portray show business as so rough and unsentimental yet so seductive at the same time. It’s always a bad sign when the songs in a musical get in the way, but Jessica Lange can be my angel of death.

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*****

The Ballad of Narayama (Shohei Imamura, 1983)

The promise of spirituality to transcend the violence and the filth. This was also a great subject of Kenji Mizoguchi’s classics in the 1950s, but Imamura approaches it from a much more godless angle. This is a stunning vision of the world, spasming with brutality and animal urges, certainly dark but ultimately not cheap or hopeless. The combination of beauty and ugliness in the final half hour is masterful—and indeed, transcendent.

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*****

Wild at Heart (David Lynch, 1990)

At its core, Wild at Heart smashes different kinds of pop culture iconography together to tell the story of what happens to euphoric puppy love when it runs into the sour, fucked up adult world. On that level, it’s some kind of brilliant. But it’s also Lynch’s most tasteless film, practically offensive or at least tone deaf in what it tries to play or shrug off as camp. Hip newcomers to Lynch can enjoy the source of Nicolas Cage memes—but one thing hip newcomers should learn about Lynch is just how little of his film’s shameless hokum is ironic.

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*****

Blue is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)

Three hours offers a lot of time to succeed or fail, so it’s fair enough that this cause celebre (still attended?) does a bit of both. It has two great leads and moments of mesmerizing beauty. But the second half can’t make its cliches come alive, and while controversies should usually be ignored, it’s impossible to look at the sex scenes and shake the idea that this is a vision of lesbianism made by a straight man to be palatable for straight audiences.

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*****

Dheepan (Jacques Audiard, 2015)

I still remember the mixture of confusion and annoyance from critics when Dheepan won a surprise Palme d’Or from the Coen brothers’ jury. And while it’s a functional film, it’s most certainly an ordinary one. Jacques Audiard knows how to point the camera, but Dheepan shows how easy it is for a director (or a festival—any festival) to give in to the most irksome trend of what passes for serious social realism these days: movies that scream “I’m the stuff of life!” but feel like the stuff of fiction.

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*****

Capsules: March 2019

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Capsules is a monthly diary of older movies either seen for the first time or revisited after many years. This month: Hitchcock, Truffaut, and Visconti at the Aero, Tsai Ming-Liang at home.

The 39 Steps (Alfred Hitchcok, 1935)

Nothing if not a string of wild, glorious implausibilities. But find it in a theater, and any logic-obsessed spoilsport will get drowned out by laughter and gasps. If you want to understand the trick, it’s there in the framing device: we open on an audience handing in their tickets for a show, and close on a line of chorus girls photobombing the secret everyone’s been after. A tribute to escapism in jittery times, as smart and pure as anything in cinema.

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*****

Marnie (Alfred Hitchcock, 1964)

Hitchcock’s divisive “sex mystery”. The final psychoanalysis has aged so much that it can be easy to shortchange the thoughtful touches along the way, and if the classical Hollywood style looked old even in the 1960s, it also shows us what we lost. But seeing his most argued-about movie for the first time in its natural habitat (dark room, big screen, full audience), I emerged more conflicted than ever. Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery are mishandled; they’re fine as figurines, but spotty as complex humans, and the sticking point remains that the film sees a need to “cure” her but not him. Still, watching it with a crowd, which laughed at the initial Hitchcock banter and then got stifled after that scene, makes the divisive nature clear. It aims to be a crowdpleaser and an open sewer of its creator’s sexual impulses at the same time.

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*****

Mississippi Mermaid (Francois Truffaut, 1969)

When I was 19, I found Truffaut’s own “sex mystery” boring and silly whenever it strayed from its thriller hook. Now, having caught a 35mm print, I think it’s among Truffaut’s richest romances. Is it just a matter of refining taste, of 10-plus years in the dark with Truffaut’s influences? Or does something happen between 19 and 31 to make its arc of intimacy—dangerous, sexy, funny, sad, reflective, sincere, complex—resonate enough to overwhelm any concerns about plot?

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*****

Sandra (Luchino Visconti, 1965)

Where is that piano music coming from? Is it just the soundtrack? Is it in its heroine’s head? Or is it coming through the wall, somewhere inside the most secret-filled mansion this side of a horror film? Here, Visconti’s taste for drawing-room melodrama finds one of its most loaded contexts and darkly mesmerizing styles: a family scandal played off Europe’s own sordid history, with old piety and new money built on top of it, and America floating at the edge.

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*****

Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-Liang, 2003)

If you’re satisfied by Tsai’s melancholic arthouse reverie—and you should be—it means that nothing gets cinephiles off quite like movies about how cinema is dying. At an undetermined time of night, in a theater showing a martial arts classic to an audience that’s mysteriously vanishing, the desires of different characters criss-cross. A handicapped ticket-taker tends the eternal flame, a young gay man cruises for sex, the projectionist goes missing, and the aging stars watch themselves. Key line: “This theater is haunted.” What good one isn’t?

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*****

Capsules: February 2019

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Capsules is a monthly diary of older movies either seen for the first time or revisited after many years. This month: Taiwanese action, later films of old arthouse staples, and goodbye to a Monkee.

Dragon Inn (King Hu, 1967)

An ideal intro to vintage wuxia, from before the age of wires and computer enhancements, when trick editing and choreography could provide all the kinetic energy a sword fight would need. There are a string of minor story hiccups, but in the face of such tautness, such instantly epic widescreen imagery, I couldn’t care less. A grand adventure that, placed alongside its descendants, feels plucky, not bombastic.

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*****

Intervista (Federico Fellini, 1987)

Allow that Fellini is solipsistic enough to conceptualize, write, and direct an interview with himself, and there is generosity to be found here. At times, this nesting doll of films-within-films is a victory lap in a half-empty stadium. At its best, it’s a love letter to immersion in cinema so deep that an old filmmaker can lose track of which parts of life he lived, which he saw, and which he made up. Meandering, certainly. But all of this is not baroquely staged but deftly conjured out of thin air—a magic act that was always essential to his appeal, and whose lower budget suits him better than being on top of the world.

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*****

The Man Who Loved Women (Francois Truffaut, 1977)

In which Truffaut’s are-women-magic? act reaches peak naval-gaze. Part wish-fulfillment and part self-effacement, this string of romantic and sexual mishaps plays surprising, awkward, even downright mortified games with itself and its subject. The needle it has to thread is showing at least half as much interest in understanding the women as understanding the man. To its credit, it tries—far short of greatness in the attempt, but maybe that’s because “funny” and “interesting” are the best we men can do.

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*****

Autumn Sonata (Ingmar Bergman, 1978)

Autumn Sonata is sometimes pitched, in a somewhat gimmicky way, as the collaboration between Bergmans Ingmar and Ingrid, and it helps to have an artist on the level of Bergman (both of them) for a film about the regrets of perfecting your art versus nurturing your life. I do think, however, that a tendency to fall back on monologs over dramatic action holds Ingmar back—it makes emotions feel both overly controlled and arbitrary, as if the character has disappeared and been replaced by a brilliant actor. More intriguing are the slippery cinematic devices, where an unhappy childhood can be instantly evoked in a single frame.

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*****

Head (Bob Rafelson, 1968)

Cult value galore! The Monkees frantically searching for reality but never finding it. Jack Nicholson outlining the movie on LSD. The rubble of a fourth wall. Its bad-trip logic can be tiresome, but enough moments work, be they funny, provocative, or totally nightmarish, to register and demand notice. I’m not sure I want to join the cult, but a girl in middle school told me this was her all-time favorite movie, and I definitely should’ve asked her out when I had the chance.

Capsules: December 2018

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Capsules is a monthly diary of older movies either seen for the first time or revisited after many years.

Small Change (François Truffaut, 1976)

Truffaut mixes Zero For Conduct and M. Hulot’s Holiday into his own child’s-eye-view microcosm: not a plot, per se, but a real community. It’s a world where falling children bounce back up and even poverty looks slightly whimsical (just when Godard was exploring the Marxist wilderness, too). There’s definitely meat to the argument that Truffaut gives children too much credit, but the attentiveness to the joys and pains of how children and adults view themselves and each other is a tender treasure. A lovely place to visit, even or especially when it hurts.

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*****

Howl’s Moving Castle (Hayao Mizayaki, 2004)

A fable about youth, beauty, and power, and what you choose to do with them. As is so often the case with Miyazaki, I find his all-out fantasias bloated by the kind of caprice and excess that would make more sense to me if I were young enough not to expect sense. There are tangents, narrative loops, setpieces of visual design for their own sake, and an ending that feels beholden to fairy tales rather than transcending them. But in the moments when the scale is intimate, or the mood contemplative, or the visuals scaled back from trippy sensationalism, it finds such warm storybook wisdom.

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*****

One, Two, Three (Billy Wilder, 1961)

Billy Wilder’s follow-up to The Apartment goes full manic for a Cold War comedy closer to the loud-and-proud schtick of Mel Brooks than Wilder’s hero Lubitsch. The East-West satire is mostly limited to glib one-liners, but the pace and sustained energy astound. This is a masterclass in staging comedy in a CinemaScope frame, a juggling act with circus music to go along with it. And all the farce dials down just long enough to deliver a key line for disillusioned radicals: “Any civilization that produced William Shakespeare, the Taj Mahal, and striped toothpaste can’t be all bad.”

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*****

Stromboli (Roberto Rossellini, 1950)

A Rossellini crisis of faith—not just in god, though there’s plenty of that, but in whether desperate people, places, and situations should be abandoned or clung to in hope of salvage. Thus an impulsive marriage and a poor, barren volcanic island stand in for post-war Italy, with a 1940s movie queen dropped into rough quasi-documentary realism. I’ll happily watch Ingrid Bergman wander infernal landscapes—especially if it signifies, and refuses to easily settle.

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*****

The Housemaid (Kim Ki-Young, 1960)

Say what you will about sexual repression, it’s made for some good movies. A man afraid of his desires. A young woman punished for her crush. A crazed villainess who is literally unleashed from inside a respectable girl’s closet. And all of it unfolding down a rabbit hole in a bizarrely designed house with the open question of who’s got the rat poison. It’s a bit drawn out, but insane enough to get away with a structure that would sink a tamer movie. Long live tonal whiplash.

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*****

Christmas in Connecticut (Peter Godfrey, 1945)

Thank god for Barbara Stanwyck—mediocre scripts are as old as Hollywood, and they’ve always needed stars. This one, a big hit in its day, played at the Aero in Santa Monica as part of a series of holiday screwball comedies. It has a premise worth mining: that the most famous all-American homemaker (think 1940s Martha Stewart) is actually a front for a modern career gal whose food is cooked by an Eastern European immigrant. But the emotional deceptions cry out for the finesse of Lubitsch (who played right before), just as the satirical opportunities need a dedicated cynic like Preston Sturges (who played after). It’s certainly interesting, however, to see a time capsule of when my home state was mythologized as the ideal of American class. Reminds me of why I look back on it romantically. And why I bolted for California when I was 18.

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*****

Capsules: November 2018

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Capsules is a monthly diary of older movies either seen for the first time or revisited after many years.

The Tree of Life: The Extended Cut (Terrence Malick, 2011/2018)

No one who didn’t like The Tree of Life wishes it were 45 minutes longer, but moviegoers pay heed. This official alternate edit is not better, per se—it sacrifices focus in a movie that already toyed a lot with scatter. But it improves the ratio of cosmic dabbling to dramatic incidents, adds scope and details, and even alters the meaning to become a more deeply optimistic film. It gives a sense of what the idea must have looked like on paper, and how the theatrical cut was bare essentials even if it didn’t feel like it. You might say these two cuts illuminate each other—and that the idea is too big to ever be perfected. It makes me want to see what else could be conjured in the editing room for all the flawed, frustratingly beautiful collages Malick has done since.

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*****

The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (Ernst Lubitsch, 1927)

It wouldn’t do to see the “Lubitsch touch” as purely a matter of comedy. His films are keenly aware of sadness and happiness—who gets to have fun, and on what terms—which the visual maestro establishes with both immediacy and delicacy. This non-fairy tale is a move towards melancholia, not without some melodramatic dopiness and difficulty in filling 106 minutes. But its imagined beauty should resonate with anyone who’s starting to feel time. Hail and farewell to FilmStruck, where it was the last film I watched.

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*****

Malcolm X (Spike Lee, 1992)

Spike Lee is more dialectical than he gets credit for. His public persona may be an obstinate provocateur, ready to take or dangle any bait, but his best political work also has an open quality: it asks you to understand why people respond the way they do in the face of problems without easy answers. Hence why I, a white man who doesn’t consider himself a devil, can feel edified by passages of “white devil” rhetoric. And why the chief constant trait of the film’s subject is his forthright passion—his view of the world keeps evolving, and one gets the sense that if he hadn’t been cut down, it never would have stopped.

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*****

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956)

Much more of a wonky kiddie matinee than I remembered. But then, a good kiddie matinee (wonky or no) should make kids feel like adults, and any kid who watches this and responds to its ideas, imagery, and paranoia is a moviegoer destined for adventure. It still works: fast, lean, iconic, better FX than modern cynicism would expect, and the groundwork of a concept that every generation must make their own. You’re next, indeed.

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*****

The Snowman (Tomas Alfredson, 2017)

How a thriller can have so many familiar plot beats and still be incomprehensible is a mystery of filmmaking voodoo. With Michael Fassbender more lifeless than his character’s valium use can explain, and little narrative tissue between A and B, this attempt to import another mystery from Scandinavia is a painful slog enjoyable only to rifftrackers prurient enough to laugh at the misguidedly-Anglicized name “Harry Hole.” And the murky editing is signed by (say it ain’t so!) Thelma Schoonmaker.

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*****

Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)

My heresy, for the month of Welles back in the spotlight: no matter how many times I revisit Touch of Evil, I don’t place it near the top of the man’s work. The opening and closing set-pieces are perfect, but the middle is a narrative hazard that neither the studio nor Welles reconstructionists could quite solve. (I’d prefer The Lady From Shanghai, if only because it’s able to abandon all but the faintest pretense of tidiness). Still, one can’t deny the cinematic virtues on display. Sequences seem to be directed by god, and the atmosphere is positively toxic. To see it in a theater is to feel like you’re suffocating.

Capsules: October 2018 (Halloween Edition)

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Capsules is a monthly diary of older movies either seen for the first time or revisited after many years. This month is superseded by a playlist of horror classics, hits, misses, and cult objects in honor of Halloween.

*****

The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963)

Netflix’s adaptation, with “Hill House” restored to the title, is getting enough play that I hear chatter about it in the office kitchen. But the 1963 version by Hollywood polymath Robert Wise is still the one to beat—not only an old-dark-house classic, but one of those films where Old Hollywood itself seems to be dying and getting reborn in real time. The scientist and the playboy are stock characters from ages past, but the warped, wide-angle terrors look to the future. There are moments here of creepy atmosphere, frames composed for both beauty and shocks, and some impressive FX. But what remains most fresh is the psychology of repression, including a lesbian subtext that’s barely sub.

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*****

The Fog (John Carpenter, 1980)

With The Fog popping back up in rep theaters in a new restoration, its worth revisiting this follow-up to Halloween (itself enjoying a zeitgeist bump) to appraise what John Carpenter’s cult classic does well and why. The 11th hour inspiration—to add a literal “campfire story” opening scene to set the mood—turns out to make a world of difference, turning the appealing slightness of this ghost story into a feature, not a bug. Other pros: the lively interconnected cast, the pacing, the eerie atmosphere, and a tough lead heroine who proves just how much Carpenter understood Howard Hawks. Drag your friends.

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*****

Vampires (John Carpenter, 1998)

By the end of the 90s, a lot of what felt punk about Carpenter films started to feel trashy, a trend not helped here by a charmless James Woods and the other, other, other Baldwin brother you forgot existed. Yet there’s still some interesting things in Vampires: the acid western/giallo genre hybrid that informs the style, plus the leather-clad fuck-you spirit of Escape From New York redirected from the government to the church. And for those happy to glean what they may, it’s always nice when Cheryl Lee (Laura Palmer herself) has license to go freaky.

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*****

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)

Young people in a remote place just looking for a good time—enjoy the relative boredom while it lasts, because it gets intense. I generally loathe horror movies that use extreme grisliness to get a rise out of you. But I can’t help but admire how Hooper and company can freak you the hell out with grainy film stock, off-kilter compositions, and psychedelic lens flares alone. This is truly inventive sensory cinema, all but empty on any other level. American independent cinema begat torture porn; try not to hold that against it.

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*****

The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez, 1999)

I was 12 when this came out, and all my friends told me it either creeped them out, bored them, or made them throw up. Neither was appealing, so I skipped it. But seeing it for the first time now, with the simple setup and payoff, Blair Witch seems mostly a triumph of creating a fake document, its pleasures as close to a self-reflexive po-mo exercise like Medium Cool as they are to the run-like-hell dread of a Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And I dig the conceit that, in 1999, the most doomed hubris you could show in the face of the terrifying unknown was deciding to make a student film.

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*****

American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000)

Presenting, for your neo-camp horror comedy delectation, a version of the 1980s so disaffected and materialist that no one can remember anyone else’s name and the closest they come to real human empathy is when they listen to Phil Collins. It’s a fiendishly witty joke, which is good, because for much of its runtime, it’s practically all American Psycho has got—apart, of course, from a killing spree. Maybe it’s impossible to do a deep satire of a shallow worldview. But Mary Harron comes damn close, and the red-white-and-black color scheme and eye for male insecurity register when they most need to. Shout-out to Chloe Sevigny for giving the movie the extra bit of soul it needs.

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*****

It: Chapter One (Andres Muschietti, 2017)

In a way, it makes sense that last year’s It is now the highest grossing horror film of all time in the United States, and not just because inflation isn’t on The Exorcist‘s side. It: Chapter One is by design more silly/fun/friendly than scary—a crossover hit for slumber parties instead of audacious deviants. When it’s vague with its mythos and mostly shallow in tying the horror to psychologically resonant ideas, that’s a problem. When some of the 13-year-olds are annoying, that may just be verisimilitude. Curious to see if lightning strikes again for chapter two, when they’ll no longer have 13-year-olds or 80s nostalgia to lean on.

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*****

Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)

Now this is for deviants, or at least in the deviant starter pack. There isn’t exactly a lot of attention to plot or character, and I’m always skeptical when a horror film relies on shock-gore. But then there’s the total craft: the acid colors; the demented sets; the prog-rock score played as either warning or tease; the editing that synthesizes all the above; and Jessica Harper as the perfect wide-eyed lamb. It can indeed be said that Suspiria is About Something—namely vicious competition between women and the uselessness of men in their world, though even typing that sentence is meeting the film halfway. The remake that’s opening this weekend needn’t be something to fear; there are ways to embellish Suspiria‘s gaps.

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*****

Frenzy (Alfred Hitchcock, 1972)

This was the time when people were talking about “the new freedom of the screen”, which poses a question for Hitchcock: when someone was so adept at sneaking around or challenging the restraints of the screen, what do they do in the age of X-ratings? The result is his most viscerally shocking movie, containing moments so clammy and morbid that don’t seem to have been filmed so much as heaved onto celluloid by a remarkably frank subconscious. With all that, it’s a smart look at British repression—and a tight, twisty plot that only falters near the end. The last Hitchcock film worth making a fuss about, with all due respect to 1976’s Family Plot.

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*****

Isle of the Dead (Mark Robson, 1945)

What would a cinephile Halloween be without mastermind B-movie producer Val Lewton? Isle of the Dead is one of the gems he cranked out in the 1940s, nowhere near his team’s best or most famous, but indicative of their poetic ambition. The island setting, the battle between reason and faith, the angsty and cruel main character—hell, this is essentially Bergman territory, just shot on the cheap on an RKO backlot and laced with some spooky faux-mythology. Boris Karloff does terrific work with a complicated character, but the second half strays too far from logic or causality. Martin Scorsese picked this to represent Lewton on his list of scariest films ever made, which says less about the film, I think, than that the young Marty was the right kind of sensitive viewer.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

Spirits of the Dead (Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, Federico Fellini, 1968)

From the golden age of anthology films comes a triptych that adapts Edgar Allan Poe for the modish 60s and has the rare good taste to tell its stories in order of ascending director talent. Roger Vadim’s Jane Fonda psychodrama is mild Euro-kink (naturellement). Louis Malle delivers solid work with a mesmerizing doppelganger tale. And Fellini’s 40 minutes are one of his best kept secrets, a fantasia of half-past-dead celebrity that’s enough to make you wish he ever made a real horror flick. This one goes out to FilmStruck, whose own departure from our mortal plane was suddenly announced today. After being unable to track down a copy of the film, I was pleased to see it pop up in their library, where they even offer Fellini’s short separately for the convenience of cinephiles in a rush. Watch it while you can. RIP.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)

2018 gave me the occasion to revisit this for the first time since my teens, when it looked to budding millennial movie buffs like a model of serious cinema for grown-ups. Looking back, I had two realizations. First, it’s not at all as serious-minded as I remember—in fact, in the shameless goosing, the cartoon villains, and the sexual subtext of every advance Jodie Foster deflects, its heart is the sort of smart B-movie prized by Roger Corman (who gets a cameo). Second, all of that makes me like it just as much—if craft can convince the Academy that a cheeky thriller is prestigious, god bless.

✬✬✬✬✬

*****

Capsules: September 2018

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Capsules is a monthly diary of older movies either seen for the first time or revisited after many years.

A Touch of Zen (King Hu, 1971)

Such an expansive, disorienting, mesmerizing blend of elements that I had to sleep on its ending before concluding that yes, this is indeed some kind of masterpiece. The martial arts plot at the center is familiar intrigue and superheroics. But framing it from the point of view of a definitive non-superhero and finishing it on acid turn this action film into a haunting spiritual journey. Tidy? God no. But its elemental, mysterious nature is forever.

✬✬✬✬✬

*****

The Murderer Lives at Number 21 (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1942)

Clouzot’s debut is a charming whodunnit with a morbid sense of humor and only the frivolity of its genre to quell a nagging dissatisfaction at how the plot wraps up. But already you can see signs of a pungent cynicism, a distrust of people both as individuals and as groups, coloring the caper and pointing the way to his future hits Diabolique and The Wages of Fear and his masterpiece Le Corbeau. So much fun that when he stopped being charming, it was clearly a choice.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Symphony For a Massacre (Jacques Deray, 1963)

Cheers to Pathé for restoring this gem and to the Aero for showing it! You know the racket: a plan, a gang of thieves, and the mistakes and chaotic X factors that can foul up any “perfect crime”. But this one does everything right, giving the double-crosses and misunderstandings the ironic wit they deserve. Essential for people who’ve exhausted Melville, so hopefully it will get more play. Don’t discount the women, and remember to use the hidden exit.

✬✬✬✬✩

State and Main (David Mamet, 2000)

Mamet-the-writer is more distinctive than Mamet-the-director, but he manages a fine comic juggling act whose appeal isn’t so much an attack on Hollywood but a failed breakup with it. Pointing out that the Hollywood system produces immoral out-of-touch assholes is old hat and easy—more intriguing are the twists, nuances, ambiguities, and self-reflexive contrivances that allow the film’s Mamet surrogate to enter the Hollywood system, get everything he wants, and somehow stay clean.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

Bull Durham (Ron Shelton, 1988)

I was once asked by a European to explain the appeal of baseball. I failed, naturally, because baseball is as much a part of the quintessentially American mythos as George Washington and the cherry tree, only a lot more fun. The further down the rungs you get from the majors, the closer you are to the heart of it. Which is why this perspective from the minor leagues is so meaningful, and executed with such bittersweet, humorous regard for what it means to be a success.

✬✬✬✬✩

2046 (Wong Kar-Wai, 2004)

The immortally suppressed desire of In the Mood For Love erupts into a dangerously seductive erotic fantasia—and though this B-side to that 21st century arthouse staple takes a different, even opposing approach, it lets you realize that the two stories can’t exist without the other. As a fable about failed attempts to replace impossibly idealized love, it couldn’t be simpler. But it luxuriates in details, characters, and meta games, as if Wong’s ambitions ballooned to where reality alone couldn’t contain them.

✬✬✬✬✬