Last Ten Films: Playing The Part

The Duke Of Burgundy

The Duke Of Burgundy

 

My last ten films seen (in chronological order, between October 26 and November 26, 2015).

The Search For General Tso (Cheney, 2014) 7/10
Anomalisa (Kaufman/Johnson, 2015) 9/10
The Assassin (Hou, 2015) 7/10
The Decline of Western Civilization (Spheeris, 1981) 5/10
Room (Abrahamson, 2015) 8/10
The Duke Of Burgundy (Strickland, 2014) 10/10
Brooklyn (Crowley, 2015) 7/10
The Conversation* (Coppola, 1974) 10/10
Best In Show* (Guest, 2000) 9/10
White God (Mundruczó, 2014) 7/10

(*At least my second viewing)

Peter Strickland hasn’t made a safe follow-up to Berberian Sound Studio; if anything, The Duke of Burgundy is even further out there, paying intricate homage to not one, but two subterranean genres. It reprises the previous film’s Giallo fixation, and pours over it a soupcon of classy sexploitation as its two lead characters are involved in a lesbian love affair. Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), a wealthy, middle-aged lepidopterist and Evelyne (Chiara D’Anna), her younger housemaid, initially appear to have a working relationship with master-and-servant undertones; within the first fifteen minutes, those undertones become explicitly sexual overtones.

However, the film is not just a kinky parade of verbal abuse, face-sitting, being tied and locked up and other unmentionables alluded to behind closed doors; it’s also a profound, intriguing, complicated love story. While Cynthia plays the master role, it’s increasingly apparent that Evelyne is the person leading the whole pas de deux, dictating much of the action, feeding Cynthia many of her lines. Meanwhile, Cynthia feels less and less comfortable in her role as she falls deeper in love. Strickland parses this dynamic carefully via interactions between the two women that often ask what it means for a lover to play or even live up to her role. The slightest shift, the smallest change in routine or crack in a façade can bring a significant, occasionally devastating result.

The Duke of Burgundy is a both an extreme visual and aural feast, from its deliberately lovingly retro opening credits (greatly enhanced, like the rest of the film, by a beguiling psych-folk score from the band Cat’s Eye) to its stunning lighting and cinematography (watch out for Evelyne’s eyes as she repeatedly looks into the microscope) to its overall period design, which heavily suggests late ‘60s/early ‘70s without ever definitively pinpointing it. I could also go on about the Stan Brakhage-like editing, the rich butterfly motifs, the many scenes where the narrative seems to pause and temporarily fade away as if dangerously entering a dream state. Knudsen is also flat-out brilliant in expressing the wide chasm between Cynthia’s assumed role and her actual self. Although not for everyone, Strickland has made a daring, stimulating, one-of-a-kind, as filling as a seven-layer-cake confection that affects the senses in a way only film as an medium can—that he did it with an all-female cast (when’s the last time you saw a film that had one?) is the extra icing on top.

Room

Room

 

I’ll write about Anomalisa in more depth once it’s released nationally in January (and I have a chance to see it again), but I suspect cineaste buzz regarding Charlie Kaufman’s foray into stop-motion animation (co-directed with Duke Johnson) will be off the charts come then—it’s as very much its own thing as Synecdoche, New York (or for that matter, Her) was, and I can’t imagine how Paramount will market it. As for other new titles, Room excels mostly because of Brie Larson’s performance, which will surely nab her the Oscar nomination she deserved two years ago for Short Term 12. I’d tighten up the second half and nix Jacob Tremblay’s so-occasional-it’s-pointless annoying voiceover, but this might be the most challenging film (subject matter-wise) to win the audience award at Toronto. Brooklyn also benefits from a solid, film-carrying lead performance; I hadn’t really noticed Saoirse Ronan in anything since Atonement (never saw Hanna), and here she renders what could’ve been another middle-of-the-road prestige indie quite watchable (Emory Cohen also comes into his own as her affable beau.)

If I were rating The Assassin on technique and style alone, it would get a higher mark. The narrative begins and ends strongly but sags in the middle—a problem I’ve often had with Hou’s work (in particular, his historical epics). But if you have a chance to see it on a big screen, by all means go. On that note, I think I might’ve gotten a little more out of White God had I seen it in a theatre, especially for the film’s already-famous wide shots of dogs running through Budapest’s streets. Sort of a gloss on The Birds but told from both perspectives, it’s interesting in how it shows/contrasts processes of learned behavior for both canines and humans. However, I can only recommend it with the caveat that it does contain many scenes of animal cruelty—all humanely staged, as the credits take great pains to point out, but I couldn’t sit through them again. Although far from the best new doc I’ve seen this year, I have no qualms recommending The Search For General Tso, a thoughtful, fizzy think-piece on Chinese-American food and the secret history behind the titular, seemingly omnipresent take-out staple.

As for older titles: Best In Show remains the funniest Guest-related mockumentary, though not the one with the most heart (or the one with the most soul)… The Decline of Western Civilization has value as a cultural artifact, a decent record of Los Angeles punk circa-1980, but the scene itself simply isn’t as intriguing or as good as its New York/London progenitors. I have higher expectations for the sequel (AKA The Metal Years), currently sitting in my DVR queue… I have yet to watch The Godfather Part II (someday, I promise), but I’ll bet The Conversation is Coppola’s best work, made at a smaller scale he’s tried to recapture in recent years and probably never will post-Apocalypse Now. A big name star (Gene Hackman) playing a rather prudish (but brilliant) character, a crisis of conscience, intricate sound design and camera work, a plot twist that remains startling 15+ years since the last time I saw it: is there, or could there possibly be any modern analogue to all of this?

’78 Network Promos!

Proud As A Turkey!

Proud As A Turkey!

 

Continuing a fine Kriofske Mix tradition, this year’s Turkey Day post was inspired first and foremost by this clip:

Behold, the Fall TV Season Promo! Back in the day, the Big Three networks advertised their lineups via a series of commercials centered around a theme or slogan, often in song. In their ’70s/’80s heyday, they were inescapable every September. Although they never entirely went away, in an age of the internet, streaming platforms and 1,000+ channels, they’re obviously far less necessary. Still, if you once wanted to learn anything about the new fall season which constituted a crushing majority of what you could watch on TV, well, these promos and TV Guide were your best bets.

NBC had some catchy, memorable slogans; their 1978 effort was not one of them. Of course, considering that year’s slate of new shows, perhaps the excruciating pun of “NB Seeeee Us” was the least of their problems. Not one of those shows lasted beyond one season–only Diff’rent Strokes survived (it’s absent here because it was actually a mid-season replacement that premiered in November.) In fact, the 1978-79 season might be NBC at their pre-Comcast nadir, with only three shows rated in the entire top 25 (Little House on the Prairie, NBC’s Monday Night Movie and CHiPS)! I haven’t even mentioned Supertrain.

CBS looked only slightly less desperate that season, despite their somewhat silly (though less clunky than NBC’s) slogan–do you really want to “be turned on” by the likes of Archie Bunker, Lou Grant and Weezie Jefferson? Sure, they had the great WKRP In Cincinnati on their schedule, but have you even heard of Flying High or American Girls? Why feature Bob Newhart when his show ended the previous season? That they led off by stumping for Mary Tyler Moore’s spectacularly ill-advised variety show Mary suggests they were lazily resting on star power rather than quality. I haven’t even mentioned the Star Wars Holiday Special.

In the late ’70s, ABC was by far the most popular of the Big Three (their ’78 season alone had Mork and Mindy and Taxi), but this wasn’t always the case. Prior to those halcyon days of Happy Days and Charlie’s Angels, ABC was usually a distant third place. Concerning promos, this worked in their favor, for there’s a treasure trove of stylistically daring ABC material on YouTube from the late ’60s and early ’70s–just look at this Fall ’72 extravaganza, whose opening graphics nearly emulate the trippy vortex sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Alas, by ’78 the network toned down the visuals, although those bright colors violently swirling around the ABC logo are quite something. The most interesting thing about that fall’s “We’re The One” campaign is how the network gathered any of its stars who were willing (or maybe contractually obliged–remember, this is also the time of Battle of the Network Stars) to appear in a rousing, strained musical number (this being ’78, it has more than a hint of disco in it.) The first few scenes in the above clip are reasonably entertaining, with various stars toting ginormous, gaudy lightbulb-dotted letters around L.A, hamming it up as some stars do (Hi, Rerun!). Naturally, they all converge on a charmless, cramped soundstage in order for the letters to spell out the slogan, and passionately sing about their employer. They just don’t make ’em like this anymore; despite their unintentional charms, I’m mostly thankful for that.

Acadia and Elsewhere

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On the first Sunday in October, we visited Acadia National Park on Maine’s Mount Desert Island. It’s the furthest East I’ve been.

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I found a temporary artifact left behind on the aptly-named Sand Beach.

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Sand Beach is one of the park’s most popular attractions, for obvious reasons.

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A cove along the park’s stunning coastline.

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Triumphant waterfowl as seen from the Ocean Trail.

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A typical stretch of Park Loop Road.

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The view from Otter Cove, facing South.

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Along Otter Cove, looking North.

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Cadillac Mountain, a trip up which we decided to save for our next visit.

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Pines along Jordan Pond.

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After leaving the park, we spent a few hours in nearby Bar Harbor, a port popular with tourists. Above, a juxtaposing of two very different types of ships that often frequent it.

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CJ’s Big Dipper on Main Street, across from the Village Green (I always thought the latter only existed in England.)

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Swatches of Bar Harbor remain gloriously un-gentrified, like this vintage stained-glass sign, complete with Rexall logo.

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Another blast from the past. What could this be?

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It’s the underside to this classic marquee, which predates the movie theater I work at by one year.

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We actually stayed near Boothbay Harbor that weekend, taking an easy day trip from there to Acadia. Above, a Boothbay Harbor business I always visit when in town.

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Spotted at another bookshop in nearby Damariscotta (sadly, it was too late in the day for browsing.)

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My husband and I have spent considerable time in Boothbay Harbor (even getting married near there), but not so much in Wiscasset, which once has to pass through in order to get there if coming from Portland or any point South. In Wiscasset, this combination of old lettering, filmsy white curtains and christmas lights (in October!) intrigued me to no end.

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Wiscasset is tiny but full of charming signage for businesses new and old.

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Perhaps Wiscasset’s most famous, iconic eating establishment (in summer, there’s usually a long line of people leading up to that window), and one I hope to try someday.

She Never Thought She’d Fall In Love

Over at 100 Albums, I attempt to describe the enigmatic beauty of Saint Etienne’s Tiger Bay, and why you should avoid the American edition of it.

Will We Catch Your Eye?

Pet Shop Boys get Very theatrical on their masterpiece, now up over at 100 Albums.

Pumpkin Season

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Upon returning to Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, we found it overrun with pumpkins.

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Piles and mounds of pumpkins all over the grounds, suffusing clear blue October skies with more than just a hint of orange.

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There was also a row of pumpkins.

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An endless procession of pumpkins, in fact.

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However, the gardens also had room for a variety of gourds, those less-loved pumpkin cousins.

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Some miniature gourds adorned window boxes…

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…while others hung from the rose arbor on strings.

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Swaying happily in the sunshine… or HANGING FROM THEIR DEATHS?

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Not a pumpkin, although wouldn’t it be great if they came in this exact color?

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Also not a pumpkin, but after seeing so many I couldn’t help but notice all the other pumpkin-shaped plants at the gardens.

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Also also not a pumpkin, but… (you get the idea).

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Again, not a pumpkin (though you can spot some in the background), but one of a few new steel sculptures currently on display.

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Those pumpkins do often seem to be lurking in the background.

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In addition to naturally orange pumpkins, there were a few painted pumpkins scattered throughout: some in bright colors…

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…others cloaked in silver or gold.

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Still, nothing beats the autumnal glow of an orange pumpkin patch.

Last Ten Films: What Happened, Movies?

What Happened, Miss Simone?

What Happened, Miss Simone?

My last ten films seen (in chronological order, between August 24 and October 23, 2015):

My Winnipeg* (Maddin, 2007) 10/10
Phoenix (Petzold, 2014) 7/10
Harold and Maude* (Ashby, 1971) 10/10
Sicario (Villenueve, 2015) 8/10
Freeheld (Sollett, 2015) 5/10
The Master* (Anderson, 2012) 9/10
What Happened, Miss Simone? (Garbus, 2015) 8/10
Portrait of Jason (Clarke, 1967) 6/10
Back to the Future* (Zemeckis, 1985) 9/10
Steve Jobs (Boyle, 2015) 7/10

(*At least my second viewing)

I do not normally take sixty days to watch ten films; I could blame this drop in moviegoing on a deficit of interesting new titles (also, I already saw Grandma at PIFF and 99 Homes at TIFF), family commitments, and, of course, television. Can any recent indieplex title match Mr. Robot for style, originality and occasional batshit insanity? If David Simon’s six-hour HBO miniseries Show Me A Hero was released theatricality, it would place in my top ten films of the year. So, in all of September, I only saw Harold and Maude—one of my all-time favorites. This was my first viewing on a big screen with a large audience, whose reactions only further enhanced my appreciation of this singular cult romantic comedy.

Fortunately, as the weather worsens and Oscar season kicks in, I have more reasons to spend a few hours indoors in front of a movie screen. While Sicario is probably too violent and relentlessly bleak to gain much awards traction, it’s a near-great film featuring two very good performances that end up in a yin/yang symbiosis before the credits roll, with supposed lead Emily Blunt simply becoming less and less integral to the story which Benicio del Toro increasingly, effectively dominates. Still too bleak for me to want to sit through again, it’s the rare issue film that excels at establishing and sticking to its thesis until a logical, if harrowing conclusion.

Steve Jobs is the most guilelessly entertaining new film on this list; chalk up its rating to a trio of good, sure-to-be-feted performances: Michael Fassbender, steely and charismatic as Jobs; Seth Rogen, his near-tragic, Fozzie-bear-like Steve Wozniak a role he was born to play, and Kate Winslet, mesmerizing (although submerged in wigs and accents) as Jobs’ longtime marketing executive Joanna Hoffman. As someone repeatedly disappointed by Boyle’s post-Trainspotting oeurve, this is one of his better efforts; the tension between his cinematic flourishes and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s talky interludes is even sublime at times. Still, it loses points for being an emphatic crowd pleaser (read: more than a little corny and calculated).

Phoenix is an equally accomplished film with a different problem. Painstakingly constructed and beautifully written, this novel adaptation and post-World War II German gloss on Vertigo is Petzold’s solid follow-up to Barbara, with the song standard “Speak Low” cannily providing running commentary. However, it all hinges upon what you make of a rather implausible plot point. I enjoyed the film despite it, even if I couldn’t believe it. Still, it’s not implausible as to why Phoenix was made; I can’t say the same for Freeheld, a dramatization of an 2007 Academy Award-winning documentary short. Detailing the fight of a dying police detective to leave her pension to her female romantic partner, the short was timely and sobering; this film, on the other hand, seems little more than an excuse to give a few talented actors juicy parts. Julianne Moore, Ellen Page and Michael Shannon (as Moore’s professional partner) are all terrific, but you’d expect them to be, and what surrounds them is superfluous if not stale, regrettably never fully coming to life.

The Netflix-only What Happened, Miss Simone? surely would’ve received some theatrical distribution in another time. Opening with footage from a scintillating 1976 concert (later released as Nina Simone, Love Sorceress), it then proceeds like your standard (if impassioned) film biography, but what a story (and what archival footage)! Garbus gives meaning to all of Simone’s contradictions and quirks and also emphasizes how underappreciated a talent she was in her lifetime. I wonder what Simone would’ve made of Jason Holliday, the gay, black prostitute/aspiring nightclub performer who is sole subject of Shirley Clarke’s long-hard-to-find avant garde classic. Simply placing the camera on him for a few hours and plying him with endless cocktails, Clarke certainly anticipated the “look-at-me-and-I’ll-(hopefully)-show-you-what-you-don’t-expect” notion that drives a lot of today’s reality TV; however, while intermittently fascinating, I found Portrait of Jason overall to be a slog—perhaps seeing it within a theater’s confines (as opposed to home DVR) would’ve made for a more effective setting.

As for the three rewatches here (not counting Harold and Maude), Maddin’s “docu-fantasia” holds up the best and is perhaps his most successful effort to gradually, beguilingly draw the viewer into his strange world (seeing it also stoked my anticipation for The Forbidden Room). Maybe The Master is not the game-changer I remember it being (certainly not on the level of There Will Be Blood), but I can imagine returning to it every few years without boredom. Back To The Future was seen in a theater on October 21, of course; influence of childhood nostalgia aside, it’s still the best blockbuster of its era, and now looks like one of the more audacious ones, too—would the oedipal stuff between Marty and his mother even be thinkable in a studio film today?