American Honey (2016)

American Honey (2016) movie poster

director Andrea Arnold
viewed: 01/10/2017

Andrea Arnold’s American Honey is dauntingly long. Star Sasha Lane, picked out from a crowd at a Florida beach, is striking and solid as Star, a young woman who takes up with a door-to-door magazine-selling crew. The ragtag young people she works and travels with are like herself, also picked out by Arnold from places across America as she scouted and researched the film. They have that natural bearing of actual kids, typical of nonprofessional actors.

The camaraderie that Arnold depicts in the close quarters of these teens and twentysomethings goofing around, singing, dancing, smoking pot is not as troubled as you might think. In fact, in a way, it seems like they’re having pretty good time, not being exploited by a mysterious overseeing entity or a toughened crew leader. That Lane is the only person of color on the crew seemed odd.

Strange to say, but while I kind of enjoyed it while I was watching it, it’s been sitting weird with me ever since. I was brought to mind of Lars Von Trier’s American movies. Von Trier of course never came to America and so his films are entirely constructs of his imagined America. They get a lot of stuff very weird and very wrong but that doesn’t seem to be the point.

Arnold is a Brit who filmed American Honey stateside, so doesn’t have the same complete outside view, but her choice of the title from a 2010 Lady Antebellum song strikes me as an example of this “doesn’t feel right” thing for the film. Would kids from all over America know that song well enough to sing it together like an anthem? Does that song speak to this milieu? My gut tells me no, but I am sure I could be wrong.

Something tells me that these crews may have some good times and provide a nice peer group for some young and disenfranchised, but that there is doubtlessly darker stuff afoot that what happens in Arnold’s film.

I don’t know.

Thirst (1979)

Thirst (1979) movie poster

director Rod Hardy
viewed: 01/09/2017

The first part of Thirst involves the abduction of a young woman named Kate (Chantal Contouri) by a vampire cult. Though she’s been raised as a normal person, she has aristocratic roots in vampire world, and so they try to convert her. What’s weird about it is that the cult operates a commune/farm where human “cows” are kept for their blood, zoned out people.

Kate’s not down with this biz, not by a long shot. Tries to escape. Gets brought back.

Which leads to the film’s second part, a drug-induced extended nightmare, part lolling dream, mostly surreal weirdness with interesting visual effects. In many ways, this is the film’s most interesting segment.

At some point, you kind of wonder if this is at all supernatural. Are these folks just drinking blood and liking it? Or do they actually develop powers like extended lives? Their fangs are just pop-ins. But then their eyes do glow right before they lunge in for the bite.

Not by any means your typical vampire film. In fact, given the food supply angle, farming humans, it may fit more evenly with other science fiction movies about weird societies.

Still, very interesting.

Marnie (1964)

Marnie (1964) movie poster

director Alfred Hitchcock
viewed: 01/08/2017

I rounded out my Hitchcock mini-marathon with his 1964 film, Marnie.

After two of Hitchcock’s top-notch black-and-white film noirs, Marnie is a colorful, intensely sexist failure. Sean Connery is the embodiment of smugness as Mark Rutland, the rich, entitled businessman who falls for the iciest of blondes, Marnie (Tippi Hedren). See, she’s an ice queen but also a klepto-thief, whose frigidity dates back to some childhood horror, relived when she encounters large splotches of RED. The RED is emphasized by Hitchcock with flashes of RED, more William Castle than the “master of suspense.”

It’s Freudian in the worst way, the most oversimplified, obvious way.

Its Mad Men era misogyny is the real deal. It’s not just the male gaze here, but the male cure for the broken female. Of course, Mark is able to solve the riddle of Marnie, but manages to force her into marriage and rape her on the honeymoon (the former part of this sentence is metaphorical but the latter part is amazingly literal). Considering Hitchcock’s rumored cruelties and harassment of Hedren, these narrative tropes of emboldened sexism are even more loathsome.

Where in Vertigo (1958), the cruelties laid out upon the icy blonde reflect the vengeful nature of the male lead, no such protection or redemption is here for Marnie. It’s tone and themes are stark and more than distasteful. And yet it remains a “pretty” picture.


Strangers on a Train (1951)


Strangers on a Train (1951) movie posterdirector Alfred Hitchcock
viewed: 01/08/2017

Another personal favorite Hitchcock was our second film in our mini-marathon. Strangers on a Train features one of my favorite Hitchcock sequences and shots, the tracking to the murder and the murder itself, reflected in the fallen glasses of the victim.

Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers on a Train moves a somewhat gimmicky set-up, two strangers who meet on a train and exchange murder plots, and elevates it to fascinating stuff. Though the movie breaks with the novel in significant ways, it’s hard not to think that its influence did not play out in Highsmith’s other work at times, elevating the sense of duality and doppelgangers, things that play out in other works of hers as well.

Robert Walker really steals the show. His callow, creepy Bruno is a disturbing villain. I also think Kasey Rogers/Laura Elliott who plays Miriam, the murder victim, is terrific in her small role. She’s the bespectacled bad girl, who cheated on her husband and goes through the Tunnel of Love with two, count ’em, two guys, only to get strangled by the stalker with whom she is flirting. At least she is executed in one of the finest Expressionistic images of murder Hitchcock (or anyone) ever created.

Every scene at the fairground is amazing. Bruno popping the boy’s balloon. The carousel gone crazy. That little guy, who crawls under the speeding carousel only to cause it to go flying to bits, is hilarious and cool.

Classic, classic stuff.

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Shadow of a Doubt (1943) movie poster

director Alfred Hitchcock
viewed: 01/08/2017

My son and I had a mini-Hitchcock festival, hunkering down indoors while a big storm blew and pelted outside. We began chronologically with a film that I have long considered a personal favorite, though one I hadn’t seen in some years.

Shadow of a Doubt stars Joseph Cotten as “Uncle” Charlie, who we know from the opening scenes to be a criminal, how bad we will only find out. He sneaks back to Santa Rosa, California to his sister and his favorite niece, his namesake Charlie (Teresa Wright), who goes from elation to sheer horror as she comes aware of the real nature of her uncle.

And really this is was this war-time noir is all about, the idyllic small town America and the dark and twisted elements lurking therein. Shadow of a Doubt was co-written in part by Thornton Wilder (“Our Town”) and Sally Bensen (“Meet Me in St. Louis”), bringing knowledge of the cheerier sides of Smalltown USA. The darkness isn’t just entirely in Uncle Charlie’s worldview of widows leeching off the world, a true misanthropy, brought on perhaps by a childhood head injury.

We also see a glimpse of the seedy side of things in the ‘Til-Two Bar which Uncle Charlie forces the younger Charlie into. Niece Charlie has never set foot in such a place (though it’s right in the downtown.) The town’s dark ends are right there, if you look for them, and in the ‘Til-Two, there is listless barmaid, a former schoolmate of young Charlie, as young but beaten down by life, a glimpse of an alternate reality.

The film also features prime examples of Hitchcock’s black humor. Henry Travers and Hume Cronyn are hilarious as the murder-obsessed friends, planning endlessly the end of one another in a harmless game.

Cotten, Wright, the whole cast are terrific. While it doesn’t feature any one particular signature Hitchcockian moment or shot, it’s a very dark musing upon the reality behind the facade of Americana.

Repo Man (1984)

Repo Man (1984) movie poster

director Alex Cox
viewed: 01/07/2017

Hey, National Film Preservation Board, how about Repo Man for the National Film Registry? I think it absolutely meets the “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films” criteria.

This is a movie that only gets better and better with time and viewings. The Criterion Collection gets it.

My kids (ages 12 and 15) thought it was “weird” but liked it. I guess I was hoping for more enthusiasm, but it’s not a big laughs sort of comedy but slyly insinuating degrees of humor radiation burns, to which one ultimately succumbs along the way. I’m sure. I didn’t appreciate it as much back in the 1980’s, but I was young (what can I say?) It’s pure brilliance.

Dead Ringers (1988)

Dead Ringers (1988) movie poster

director David Cronenberg
viewed: 01/06/2017

Dead Ringers and its predecessor 1986’s The Fly have struck me on rewatching as two of David Cronenberg’s most emotionally evocative films. That is far from the most common epithet thrown his way, and my weekend watch of Dead Ringers quite surprised me.

Both films deal with a love affair between and man and a woman that is brought to ultimate tragedy by the dissolution of the male lead. The devolution of Jeff Goldblum in The Fly is mostly physical and resultingly psychological. For Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers, it’s a deep psychosis released through a drug-induced mental dissolution, complicated by the fractured selfs that Irons plays in the roles of twins Beverly and Elliot Mantle. The tragedy is doubled.

Back when I first saw this, on cable, probably a year after it came out, I remember wondering if this was at all a true story or where the idea had come from. In the pre-internet, knowledge was not a click away. Interestingly it was adapted from a novel titled Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland which was inspired by the strange deaths of Stewart and Cyril Marcus, with a lot of artistic license employed, especially since it seems very little was known about their deaths.

Geneviève Bujold is herself very evocative, a somewhat tortured soul used to personal pleasures and pain. It’s her openness that initially frees Beverly from the constraints of his fraternal prison, but as she turns him on to drugs, he has no strength to fight against the downrush of addiction or the vast ruptures in his psyche.

Though I’d seen it before, I found the final scene amazingly effective and emotionally gutting, as the twins are dead in a grotesque Pietà, with one eviscerated and the other collapsed upon him.

Cronenberg’s films, if anything, are often cold to the touch. Is it strange that these two from the late 1980’s are so strikingly emotional?

De Palma (2015)

De Palma (2015) movie poster

directors Noah Baumbach, Jake Paltrow
viewed: 01/05/2017

This De Palma documentary is the kind of artifact that fans would wish for of any of their revered directors. It’s just Brian De Palma himself talking at length about his life, career, and specific films, as interviewed and filmed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow offscreen. Copious shots of his films highlight his commentary.

At best, it’s insight to the career and workings of a significant filmmaker, one who has made a number of significant films (that number probably depends on the intensity of your De Palma fandom.) It certainly gave voice to a very different person than I had perceived De Palma from his work, humble, easy-going, friendly.

As I said, you’d love to have one of these made about any number of directors. De Palma is deserving, but the film sort of underscores a criticism thrown his way: that he’s not the sort of highest tier of auteur, but a strong stylist, whose best work makes the most of said style. Hitchcock is his god and eternal cinematic touchstone, homage after homage after homage. He’s a maestro with the split screen.

The greater auteurs typically bring more to the table, whether it’s innovation, invention, social or cultural commentary, a consistent world view, greater works of art. This documentary which offers consideration and study doesn’t necessarily make a case beyond De Palma’s strengths and shortcomings. Still, very worthwhile.

New Rose Hotel (1998)

New Rose Hotel (1998) movie poster

director Abel Ferrara
viewed: 01/04/2017

Cinema has not been kind to the works of William Gibson. To be fair, I only know of Johnny Mnemonic (1995) by reputation, not first-hand experience. But I can now claim to have seen New Rose Hotel.

It seems that the film has some fans. Fair enough.

When you’ve got Christopher Walken and Willem Dafoe, you’re not hurting for interesting stars. Throw in a young and comely Asia Argento and some notable and hip folks to fill out the picture, you should at least make something interesting. Even on a super-meager budget.

I’m guessing at the budget. It “looks” super-meager. Even in a cheaply shot film, some of the scenes are nice, like in the colored hues of a bar. But a lot of the rest of is not so hot.

The story is listless, uncharged. And at times it seems like Walken is just making up all his dialogue on the spot. He’s almost always fun at the very least, but this film verges heavily on terrible. Dafoe is less hammy. Argento less challenged.

Is this Abel Ferrara’s worst?

The Embalmer (1965)

The Embalmer (1965) movie poster

director Dino Tavella
viewed: 01/03/2016

Marketed in the States as a horror film, The Embalmer is better seen through the lens of what it is: a mash-up of sorts of crime and giallo, set in the canals of Venice.

Though it features a scuba-diving killer abducting women and then embalming them in a collection, a killer who is a rock-n-roller by day, who dons a robe and skull mask for his embalming, the setting may actually be the film’s greatest asset. Venice is an almost inherently intriguing and mysterious place, especially by night. I have to wonder what kind of gunk that scuba diver was encountering on his missions.

It’s an oddity, not entirely lacking merit.