Sunday, October 2, 2022

STARS AT NOON



Claire Denis has been very unpredictable since Bastards (2013). She seems to have made a point to not repeat her past works but, with the exception of the masterful High Life (2018), maybe it wouldn’t hurt to go back and repeat/revisit/re-examine some of the themes from her earlier films that made her so great (I Can’t Sleep, No Fear No Die, Beau Travail, etc).
I guess she’s in another semi-experimental phase? And to be clear - when I say experimental I don’t mean like Stan Brakhage or Michael Snow. I just mean that she’s constantly trying something different than what we’re used to? Perhaps this is her “playful era”? Maybe that’s a better description. If that doesn’t work for you I guess one could say Claire Denis is in her late-period Francis Ford Coppola stage where she’s just trying out anything. The problem with that is she’s reached a point where her name holds a bit of weight in certain lanes and most people familiar with her work are going to mindlessly praise whatever she does because she’s a living legend.

Coming off the heels of the head-scratching disappointment that was Fire, Claire Denis’ latest film is an adaptation of the 80s novel; Stars At Noon where we follow an American drifter (“Trish”) stuck in Nicaragua in the midst of some vague revolution at the height of the Covid pandemic (Denis added the Covid element to the film version).

In a way - this recent output of Claire Denis’ reminds me of her first few post-Beau Travail films. She makes this critically acclaimed masterpiece (Beau Travail) and follows it up with an off-putting cannibal/Vampire sex thriller (Trouble Every Day), then an incredibly loose & surreal romantic tale in the form of Friday Night followed by an intentionally off-putting & extremely non-linear organ transplant film (The Intruder). I love Trouble Every Day, but there were walkouts when it debuted at Cannes and it took almost a decade for it to reach the cult status it has today. After Beau Travail people were expecting more of that and she intentionally gave folks the opposite. And almost no one talks about Friday Night or The Intruder outside of hardcore fans like myself.
What’s interesting is that Stars At Noon almost plays out like a straightforward remix of The Intruder. Just not as good. It would also make for a perfect double feature with Dee Rees’ The Last Thing He Wanted (there are a lot of similarities between the two ranging from both stories centered around white women stranded in a dangerous foreign land surrounded by intimidating brown men to both movies being quite disappointing).

Recently Claire Denis released one of her best films ever (High Life) only to follow it up with Fire (click here to read my thoughts) and Stars At Noon. It’s almost like Denis has this cat-like instinct where she intentionally avoids the wave of a successful film by making something “strange” immediately afterwards (the same could be said about her post-White Material/Pre-High Life work).

The only difference between this current phase of unexpectable films and the unexpectable films from the early aughts is that Trouble Every Day, Friday Night & The Intruder are great (to me at least). They have style. While Fire does have some style, it’s also kind of an empty exercise. And Stars At Noon has even less style in my opinion and feels a bit more empty than Fire. Sorry to sound so harsh but the last thing I want to do is be a fake/mindless fan praising anything my all-time favorite filmmaker does just because her name is attached to it.

It should be understood that because Denis is my favorite filmmaker I am a bit more critical. I’m sure the casual A24 fan looking for a drony erotic arthouse thriller will be satisfied with Stars At Noon. I just know what Claire Denis is capable of and this isn’t her at her best. Or even at her most entertaining…



I almost appreciate that she leaves behind her regular acting troop and uses a completely new cast of actors ranging from John C Reilly to Benny Safdie (Denis is almost 80 and still willing to step outside of her comfort zone). Joe Alwyn gives the standout performance as the mysterious/potentially dangerous love interest that Trish gets mixed up with. For those of you unfamiliar with Alwyn, check out Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir II where he gives another standout, yet quiet scene-stealing performance.
For me the biggest miscast was the star. Margaret Qualley’s borderline manic pixie dream-girl act just throws everything off (especially the chemistry with the other actors). It also doesn’t help that a good chunk of the supporting cast are clearly non-trained local people. So the combination of non-actors mixed with an unnecessarily schizophrenic performance just spells disaster.

I would suggest that Denis get her cast of regulars back together but she did that with her last film and that didn’t really work out either…




I have no interest in most Covid/Pandemic-related movies (like I said earlier - Denis added in the Covid backdrop for the movie), but I’ll make an exception here. Claire Denis is a master of hints & implications and she applies that to the Covid backdrop in Stars At Noon. We’re made aware that the story takes place in the midst of a pandemic (everyone is wearing masks and there is Covid testing scene), but at the same time it isn’t thrown in our faces (not that it needs to be as we’re still kind of in it today which is why I’m not super interested in watching anything Covid-related).


Ultimately this is another disappointment. Now…disappointment doesn’t necessarily mean “bad” or “terrible” (but if someone where to describe Stars At Noon as either of those things I wouldn’t go out of my way to question that). I admit that there are a handful of quick moments that left me transfixed & totally immersed only to quickly be distracted by Qualley’s weird acting choices of randomly yelling and/or smiling like an unstable person or coming off like a misbehaved cute child in the face of danger). The excellent Tindersticks score is the one non-blemished aspect of the movie and a constant reminder that we actually are watching a Claire Denis film.
Stars At Noon is more of an almost interesting yet ultimately empty misfire (I wish the term interesting didn’t have such a negative/bland stigma attached to it because when used properly it is a helpful term to describe things).

I still don’t want this to discourage any of you. I actually want folks to watch it so you can come back to this review and possibly persuade me to look at it with a different lens. Or just share my disappointment…

Saturday, October 1, 2022

A FEW WORDS ON THE NORTHMAN



Was The Northman an unfortunate case of the film-twitter hive-mind killing something before it even officially came out? I remember there being some “controversy” about the film having subconscious connections to white nationalist ideology and toxic masculinity which couldn’t be fully shaken. White nationalists will find symbology & metaphors in anything. I wouldn’t put too much weight on a group of folks who look up to a cartoon frog. If they don’t hijack The Northman it’ll end up being something else. Why give them the power to essentially ruin a somewhat interesting movie?

Unfortunately that’s kind of what happened…



 
As for the Toxic masculinity - this is a violent Viking tale about revenge (a loose adaptation of the source material for hamlet mixed with a pinch of Conan The Barbarian). We all knew this from the trailer. Vikings were violent. Let’s not rewrite history. Just don’t watch this if it isn’t your thing (there is quite a bit of incoherent yelling & war chanting courtesy of the almost all- male cast). But at the same time there is a bit more to this movie than just violence. It should be noted that Nicole Kidman steals the show in this predominantly male-heavy film.


I had zero expectations going in to this which is probably why I enjoyed it so much. I don’t put Robert Eggers on a pedestal like a lot of today’s blind A24 loyalists do, but I still enjoy his movies for the most part. The Northman is Eggers’ largest scaled project and it strays pretty far from the horror genre like his previous films. Something tells part of the reason this “flopped” is because folks wanted him to stay in horror lane. For the folks that wanted something more like The Witch or The Lighthouse, Eggers still pulls from the same playbook referencing the same types of silent films and painting that he always does…

Witches Sabbath / The Northman

The Hands Of Orlac / The Northman

The Thief Baghad
 / The Northman


And there are elements of horror throughout. It just isn’t a “traditional” horror film like this previous works (and I don’t even know if I would consider those traditional horror movies either). The Northman still feels like a Robert Eggers film. 

Kurosawa was another influence on Eggers…

I think it’s really the Soviet Medieval epics and Kurosawa’s work that I turned to most as cinematic inspiration as well as John Milieus’ Conan - Robert Eggers, Indiewire

Throne Of Blood / The Northman

Conan The Barbarian / The Northman


In addition to the unfair pre-judgement I mentioned earlier, I wonder if The Northman fell short because it wasn’t deemed an immediate masterpiece. It feels like now more than ever when a movie isn’t immediately considered a masterpiece (or meme-worthy), it’s disposable. It’s as if when something is just an entertaining mid-budget popcorn movie it gets tossed aside as soon as the credits roll. It’s ok for movies to be fine. Very few movies are masterpieces. The “good”, “solid” and/or “fine” movies are what keep the lights on.

The best part of The Northman is Eggers’ use of Alexander Skarsgard. He’s an in-demand actor but with the exception of True Blood, no film had utilized his true Viking-like presence prior to The Northman. With all these smaller-framed leading men nowadays I think we should embrace an actor like him in a role like this who can tap in to his primal side.


To reiterate - The Northman doesn’t push the art of cinema forward but very few films actually do. It is a solid movie that was unfairly pre-judged that deserves a reassessment (which insane to even say because we’re still in the same year that it was released).

Monday, September 5, 2022

X



X is the first Ti West film that I didn’t completely dislike. I don’t think he’s a bad filmmaker and I don’t mean to sound so negative but every time I’m done watching one of his films it feels as if I've watched a "sketch" of something that isn’t finished. His work is just boring to me. X was at least fun and had a solid performance from Mia Goth who I am usually a fan of. I guess you can allow X to be just fun if you don’t want to over-analyze things but my brain has a hard time not doing that.

This is one of those projects where the director is clearly paying homage to an obvious specific classic (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) yet downplays it at the same time.

It's funny, because when I framed that up, I wasn't framing that being like, "We're gonna do a [Texas Chainsaw Massacre] - Ti West, btlnews.com


But like - what else would shots like this be in reference to??


The Texas Chainsaw Massacre / X

Or this??


The Texas Chainsaw Massacre / X


Instead of a group of young Texans in a van on a road trip through the backroads of the lone star state (TCM), we follow a group of Texans in a van on their way to make a porn in hopes of capitalizing on the home video market. There’s also a separate-yet-connected subplot that sets us up for the film’s soon to be released prequel; Pearl. For those looking for an elevator pitch type of a headline - X is essentially Boogie Nights meets The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

It’s not like Ti West doesn’t acknowledge The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and it’s influence on the horror genre but there’s this almost cat-like dodging of admitting a direct influence. West’s semi-regular cinematographer Elliot Rocket (who shot X) even worked with Tobe Hooper on Crocodile!! There’s even an incidental homage to that...


Crocodile / X


This has to a troll on some level, right?


To me, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is at the top of the great slasher movies of all time, and X obviously takes place in Texas and they're in a van and whatever - Ti West, ruemorge.makedonuts.ca


I don’t know why directors do this. Perhaps it’s a little inside game they play with themselves. Or maybe the references are so obvious that they’re sick & tired of answering the same obvious questions over & over on their tiring press runs.

Either way, Tobe Hooper’s DNA is all over this film. What’s interesting is that the visual references to TCM aren’t even so much in the gruesome parts but in the more tame moments…


The Texas Chainsaw Massacre / X

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre / X

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre / X



Although there are some more traditional jump-scare homages to TCM as well…


The Texas Chainsaw Massacre /
X


West admits he wanted to capture the essence of 1970s Texas in his latest film.

We we’re trying to get Texas right - Ti West, entertainment weekly

The problem with that is X was was shot in New Zealand (mostly due to Covid). Now…New Zealand does a surprisingly ok job of filling in for Texas but when you watch something like TCM (or any early Tobe Hooper film), you can almost smell it. With X, there is no smell. No grit or dirt or anything else that made low budget films from the 70s authentic. It’s just professional actors intentionally overacting with forced thick southern accents because they think they’re doing a Texas grind house homage. My issue with all of these modern-day grindhouse homages (which Ti West has done before with House Of The Devil & The Sacrament) is that these filmmakers have multi-million dollar budgets which, in my opinion, is almost anti-grindhouse. That doesn’t mean a movie with a nice budget can’t reference smaller/lower budget films, but when you’re Quentin Tarantino saying you’re just making a little grindhouse movie with big budget resources and the final product is something sleek-looking - I don’t fully buy it. And that’s kind of the case with X. I say kind of because, once again, this is the first Ti West film that I didn’t completely dislike (I’m actually looking forward to the prequel). It still has a fun tone and some gruesome kills with an appreciation for the art of movie-making. Maybe Pearl will be a step in an even better direction.

Thursday, September 1, 2022

THE SCHOOL OF CHANTAL AKERMAN: AMAT ESCALANTE - PART ONE


A movie that I rediscovered, because I had seen it when I was sixteen and it was quite difficult for me to see, was Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. When I was sixteen, I was living in Austin, Texas, and every Tuesday the Austin Film Society would show a free film in the university. That was really my film school. I saw this film and I had never seen something like it. I went ahead in my life and kind of forgot about it, and then when I was writing Sangre I came back to it somehow and got obsessed with finding it again and watching it - Amat Escalante, extraextramagazine.com

Jeanne Dielman.../
Sangre


Amat Escalante has always been open about the influence that Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman… has had on his debut feature Sangre

It [Jeanne Dielman] served as inspiration for my feature film Sangre - Amat Escalante, enfilme.com

Jeanne Dielman.../
Sangre


I think there is something there that influenced Sangre especially, but all of my movies. I was happy when Sangre premiered in Festival de Cannes in 2005 because the first headline about it read ‘Jeanne Dielman Makes Tacos. - Amat Escalante, extraextramagazine.com

Jeanne Dielman.../
Sangre


I recently came across a handful of interviews where Escalante cites Jeanne Dielman’s groundbreaking film as an inspiration on his entire filmography yet there were no visual examples in any of the articles (why not just take two screenshots and put them side by side in the article to emphasize the similarity?)

So I took it upon myself to put together a handful of examples (coupled with interview excerpts) of specific moments from Jeanne Dielman that clearly rubbed off on Amat Escalante.


Enjoy…


Whenever we shoot a film, there’s always a shot that we say, ‘oh this is the Jeanne Dielman shot,’ because there’s always someone at the sink washing dishes. It’s a sad anecdote but when we were shooting The Untamed, there’s a scene of a woman washing the dishes and we were filming her from behind. The day after that, I read on the news that Chantal Akerman had died. The day she died, we were shooting and said, ‘this is the Jeanne Dielman shot. - Amat Escalante, extraextramagazine.com

Jeanne Dielman.../
Sangre


I remember for Sangre, one of the most important scenes for me was a very long shot of the guy making his eggs and then eating them. Without wanting to sound pretentious, that part reflected the meaning of the whole movie. That scene was very much about feeling a void – seeing this guy, knowing what he’s going through and the things he’s not able to do as far as loving someone in the proper way, etc. But watching him eating. And in Jeanne Dielman, that movie works with that a lot I feel. It’s not meaningless, it’s not for you to look away, its meaning and its weight have to do with all of those scenes. That’s why I get that they are not such easy movies and they’re not super popular but if you choose to be there and to look at it and live it and experience it, it’s really rewarding. - Amat Escalante, extraextramagazine.com

Jeanne Dielman.../
Sangre


Jeanne Dielman deeply impressed and influenced me - Amat Escalante, BFI

Jeanne Dielman.../
The Untamed

Jeanne Dielman.../
The Untamed

Jeanne Dielman.../
Los Bastardos

Jeanne Dielman.../
Heli

Jeanne Dielman.../
Heli

Jeanne Dielman.../
Los Bastardos

Jeanne Dielman.../
Los Bastardos

Jeanne Dielman.../
Sangre
Jeanne Dielman.../
Heli

Jeanne Dielman.../
Heli

Jeanne Dielman.../
Amarrdos


Thursday, August 11, 2022

EARWIG



Earwig might be Lucile Hadžihalilović’s darkest film. Both in subject matter (a young girl is kept inside of a house and isn’t allowed to leave) and the look (a large majority of the film is darkly lit and just all around murky). And that’s saying something because her previous films aren’t exactly “light” or easy to digest. I think because Innocence (2004) & Evolution (2015) look so beautiful and feature mostly children, we don’t immediately register how heavy those films are. Earwig takes the heaviness from her previous films and adds some additional weight (Hadžihalilović continues her trend of working with mostly child actors as well).
Instead of opening shots of a beautiful forest (Innocence) or the ocean (Evolution), Hadžihalilović throws the audience head-first in to a musty room as a fly on the wall to observe our tortured caretaker (“Albert”) who’s job is to look after a young girl (“Mia”) with teeth made of ice (ice made out of dentures Albert makes from the saliva Mia produces). Their world is eventually interrupted when Albert is forced to finally let Mia outside of her confines.


The surrealism of Earwig is very subdued and matter-of-factly. This makes things all the more disorienting because you kind of forget you’re watching this almost realistic approach to this dark fairytale about a creepy little girl with teeth made of ice.


This is something that will definitely be referred to as "Lynchian" by lazy journalists. While Hadžihalilović herself has admitted in the past to being influenced by Lynch:

I was influenced by Cronenberg and Lynch, because at school, when I was 20, I grew up with their films - Lucile Hadžihalilović, Film Comment


She’s even referenced specific moments from specific Lynch films that influenced her...

What a hyper-moving performance from Jack Nance, playing Henry Spencer as he struggles with a terrifying, inhuman, yet touching baby. The film created mysteries and a fascination that remains intact after almost half of a centuryLucile Hadžihalilović, Vice

Eraserhead /
Evolution


...Earwig is in no way “Lynchian” which has now become the default stock description that everyone uses to describe something mildly “weird”...

I understand why (journalists) do that. Maybe in 20 years they’ll start saying my films are Hadžihalilovićian - Lucile Hadžihalilović, Dazed


To my surprise, the real (cinematic) influence on Earwig is Chantal Akerman’s tediously paced Jeanne Dielman.

One was JEANNE DIELMAN (1975), the Chantal Akerman film, because of all these ordinary actions that Delphine Seyrig carries out in the film and that our protagonist, Albert, also carries out - Lucile Hadžihalilović, BFI


It makes a lot of sense when you compare certain specific moments between the two films:

Jeanne Dielman / Earwig

Jeanne Dielman / Earwig

Jeanne Dielman / Earwig


The emphasis of dentures and fucked up teeth felt like a callback to Francis Dolarhyde in Manhunter:

Manhunter /
Earwig


The Embryo Hunts In Secret was another point of reference/inspiration for Earwig...

The other one was The Embryo Hunts in Secret (1966) by Koji Wakamatsu. It’s a Japanese film from the 60s about a man who kidnaps a woman and keeps her in an empty apartment with no furnitureLucile Hadžihalilović, BFI

The Embryo Hunts In Secret /
Earwig

The Embryo Hunts In Secret /
Earwig


A possible nod to Nicolas Roeg?
Don't Look Now / Earwig


I enjoyed Earwig and I appreciate Lucile Hadžihalilović taking a more traditional approach to the horror/psychological horror genre all while still maintaining her genuinely weird style. Earwig feels like what all those A24/Neon horror films try to do but just end up coming off very surface & heavy-handedly. Unlike a lot of today's horror filmmakers, Hadžihalilović makes it very clear here that she isn't concerned about making a ton of sense (this is a warning for folks who are looking for something totally traditional). She's more focused about creating a feeling. Even with all of her (minor) cinematic influences, not many people are making movies like Hadžihalilović.

I don’t think this is as strong as her previous works but Innocence & Evolution are almost “perfect” as far as I’m concerned. She’s allowed to make an “8 out of 10” which isn’t too shabby.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

NOPE



I’m surprised PeTA hasn’t tried to hijack Jordan Peele’s Nope as the unofficial movie for their sometimes warped mission statement. This movie is new so I don’t want to get in to any spoilers but at the end of the day the film is mostly about the potential dangers of trying to “tame the beast” (horses, monkeys, mysterious lifeforms, etc). I promise I haven’t checked yet but I’m sure there’s already an assessment or two on Nope that has to do with animal abuse.
Not only does this movie play off of the famous phrase; “tame the beast”, but it also takes the phrase; “belly of the beast” quite literally at one point in a scene reminiscent of the climax in Pinocchio…

I enjoyed Nope overall but if easter egg-y/reference-heavy movies aren’t your thing (a Jordan Peele staple some folks aren’t too crazy about despite his immense overall popularity as a filmmaker), you might want to avoid this. That almost feels like a pointless statement because, like I just mentioned, Jordan Peele is very popular and I imagine most folks will see this without much coaxing.
Nope falls in line perfectly with the rest of Peele’s filmography. The basic plot is different from Get Out & Us, but it still touches on some of the same broad topics (social commentary & subtle nods to somewhat vague issues concerning race, the importance of family and tons of obvious movie references). Peele’s latest is a major improvement from Us (Nope is, in my opinion, his best paced movie thus far). I’m sorry but Us made no sense. I don’t care if I’m in the minority on this. And for folks who think that’s a weak excuse to dislike a movie, I call bullshit in this specific case because Jordan Peele clearly tried to connect the dots and have the film make (some) sense and I don’t think he succeeded. I understand Jordan Peele is a fan-favorite but it’s ok to admit when something didn’t work. You won’t lose any made-up film twitter or letterboxd points for giving a fair critique of something that’s popular.


Anyway, from the scissors on Jupe’s desk (an obvious nod to the scissors in Us) to the visual homages to folks like Spielberg & James Cameron, Jordan Peele does the Tarantino thing in a not-so obnoxious way…

The Forgotten /
Nope

Close Encounters Of The Third Kind / Nope

The War Of The Worlds /
Nope

A similarity pointed out to me by Toronto Film review:
 10 Cloverfield Lane /
Nope


This movie is new so I don’t have the images or gifs to show yet but the final act of Nope is essentially a slightly reworked final showdown from Jaws meets The Abyss (click here & here to read my thoughts on Get Out & Us and to see more of Peele’s movie references).

The Abyss / Nope

Peele even throws in a pinch of Pinocchio 
Pinocchio / Nope


If you keep your eye open (maybe on the second viewing) you’ll catch a nod to Buck and the Preacher.
I’m also convinced the casting of Keith David was a specific nod to his appearances in sci-fi classics like The Thing and They Live (I don’t want to give too much away but there are some similarities between the mysterious organism in The Thing and the entity in Nope). Black people as background players in Hollywood seems to be an underlying theme in Nope…

The Horse In Motion

It should be pointed out that Jordan Peele makes a few incorrect claims about the history of The Horse In Motion short film that he prominently features in Nope but it is still an important early artifact, and the technology used to make the short kind of comes in to play towards the end of the movie.


I guess I should also mention the most obvious homage…

The Wizard Of Oz /
Nope


What stood out the most to me in Nope was the “Gordy’s Home” subplot concerning Steven Yeun’s Jupe character. The way these flashback segments are shot are a bit different from the rest of the movie and is the kind of lane that I think I’ve always wanted Jordan Peele to follow as a director (darkly comical with an emphasis on the dark part). The “Gordy’s Home” section is the closest thing anyone has directed for folks like me that were brought up on Clifford (1994) & Bob Balaban’s Parents with pinches of the unspoken twisted side to sitcoms like Different Stokes & Small Wonder (with an obvious nod to Alf as well). 

Jupe’s backstory ties in heavily to the main plot of Nope in that he felt he could tame the beast in his adult life the same way he thought he tamed the beast from his childhood (I have to credit my wife for that point). 

Something about “Gordy’s Home” reminded me of the good sketches from Key & Peele (I wish Peele embraced more of his comedic roots). 
Nope is a success in my book that shows growth as a filmmaker. I just worry the more “prestigious” folks make Jordan Peele out to be, the more pretentious he may become.

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