Category Archives: Mystery

Fright night at the art house: A top 10 list

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 28, 2017)

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Since Halloween is coming up before my next weekly post, I thought I would do a little early trick-or-treating tonight (wait…you don’t think 61 is too old to trick-or-treat…is it?). Now, I enjoy a good old fashioned creature feature as much as the next person, but tonight’s recommendations largely eschew the vampires, werewolves, axe-murderers and chainsaw-wielders. Okay, we’ve got a few aliens, and (possibly) the odd zombie or ghost; but these are films where the volume knob on the sense of dread is left up the viewer’s discretion. The “horror” is in the eye of the beholder. Alphabetically:

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 Blue Velvet– Any film that begins with the discovery of a severed human ear, roiling with ants amid a dreamy, idealized milieu beneath the blue suburban skies instantly commands your full attention. Writer-director David Lynch not only grabs you with this 1986 mystery thriller, but practically pushes you face-first into the dark and seedy mulch that lurks under all those verdant, freshly mowed lawns and happy smiling faces.

The detached appendage in question is found by an all-American “boy next door” (Kyle MacLachlan), who is about to get a crash course in the evil that men do. He is joined in his sleuthing caper by a Nancy Drew-ish Laura Dern. But they’re not the most interesting characters. That honor goes to the troubled young woman at the center of the mystery (Isabella Rossellini) and her boyfriend (Dennis Hopper).  Hopper is frightening as the 100% pure bat shit crazy Frank Booth, one of the all-time great screen heavies

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Brotherhood of the Wolf– If I told you that the best martial arts film of the 1990s features an 18th-century French libertine/naturalist/philosopher and his enigmatic “blood-brother” (an Iroquois mystic) who are on the prowl for a supernaturally huge, man-eating lupine creature terrorizing the countryside-would you avoid eye contact and scurry to the other side of the street? Christophe Gans’ film defies category; Dangerous Liaisons meets Captain Kronos-Vampire Hunter by way of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the best I can do. Artfully photographed, handsomely mounted and surprising at every turn.

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Don’t Look Now– This is a tough film to describe without risking spoilers, so I’ll be brief. Based on a Daphne du Maurier story, this haunting, one-of-a-kind 1974 psychological thriller from Nicholas Roeg stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as a couple who are coming to grips with the tragic death of their little girl. Roeg slowly percolates an ever-creeping sense of impending doom, drenched in the Gothic atmosphere of Venice.

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In the Realms of the Unreal– Artist Henry Darger is not usually mentioned in the same breath as Picasso, but he is a fascinating study. Darger was a recluse who worked as a janitor for his entire adult life. He had no significant relationships of record and died in obscurity in 1973. While sorting out the contents of the small Chicago apartment he had lived in for years, his landlady discovered a treasury of artwork and writings, including over 300 paintings.

The centerpiece was an epic, 15,000-page illustrated novel, which Darger had meticulously notated in long hand over a period of decades; it was literally his life’s work. The subject at hand: An entire mythic alternate universe populated mostly by young, naked hermaphrodites, whom he dubbed the “Vivian Girls”.

Although it’s tempting to dismiss Darger as a perv, until you have actually seen the astounding breadth of Darger’s imaginary world, spilled out over so many pages and so much canvas, it’s hard to convey how weirdly compelling it all is (especially if you view an actual exhibit, which I had the chance to see). The doc mixes Darger’s bio with animation of his work (actors read excerpts from the tome). Truth is stranger than fiction.

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Liquid Sky– A diminutive, parasitic alien (who seems to have a particular delectation for NYC club kids, models and performance artists) lands on an East Village rooftop and starts mainlining off the limbic systems of junkies and sex addicts…right at the moment that they, you know…reach the maximum peak of pleasure center stimulation (I suppose that makes the alien a dopamine junkie?). Just don’t think about the science too hard. The main attraction here is the inventive photography and the fascinatingly bizarre performance (or non-performance) by (co-screen writer) Anne Carlisle, who tackles two roles-a female fashion model who becomes the alien’s primary host, and a gay male model. Director Slava Zsukerman helped compose the compelling electronic music score.

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Mystery Train-Elvis’ ghost shakes, rattles and rolls (literally and figuratively) all throughout Jim Jarmusch’s culture clash dramedy/love letter to the “Memphis Sound”. In his typically droll and deadpan manner, Jarmusch constructs a series of episodic vignettes that loosely intersect at a seedy hotel. You’ve gotta love any movie that has Screamin’ Jay Hawkins as a night clerk. Also be on the lookout for music legends Rufus Thomas and Joe Strummer, and you will hear the mellifluous voice of Tom Waits on the radio (undoubtedly a call back to his DJ character in Jarmusch’s previous film, Down by Law).

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The Night Porter– Director Liliana Cavani uses a depiction of sadomasochism and sexual politics as an allusion to the horrors of Hitler’s Germany. Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling are broodingly decadent as a former SS officer and a concentration camp survivor, respectively, who become entwined in a twisted, doomed relationship years after WW2. You’d have to search high and low to find two braver performances than Bogarde and Rampling give here. I think the film has been misunderstood over the years; it frequently gets lumped in with (and is dismissed as) Nazi kitsch exploitation fare like Ilsa, SheWolf of the SS or Salon Kitty. Disturbing, repulsive…yet weirdly mesmerizing.

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Upstream Color– Not that my original take on Shane Carruth’s 2013 film was negative (it leaned toward ambivalent), but apparently this is one of those films that grows on you; the more time I’ve had to ponder it, the more I have come to appreciate it (most films I see nowadays are forgotten by the time I get back to my car). To say it’s a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma is understatement. To say that it redefines the meaning of “Wha…?!” is more apt.

A woman (Amy Seimitz) is abducted, then forced to ingest a creepy-crawly whatsit that places her into a docile and suggestible state. Her kidnapper however turns out to be not so much Buffalo Bill, but more Terence McKenna. Long story short, next thing she knows, she’s back behind the wheel of her car, parked near a cornfield, and spends the rest of the movie retrieving memories of her bizarre experience in bits and pieces. As do we. You have been warned.

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Venus in Furs (aka Paroxismus)– Jess Franco’s 1969 Gothic horror-psychedelic sexploitation fest was inspired by a conversation the director once had with trumpeter Chet Baker. Maria Rohm portrays a mysterious siren that pops into a nightclub one foggy night, and stirs the loins of a brooding jazz trumpeter (played with a perpetually puzzled expression by James “Moondoggie” Darren). Darren follows Rohm to the back room of a mansion, just in time to witness her ritualistic demise at the hands of a decadent playboy (Klaus Kinski) and several of his kinky socialite friends.

Sometime later, Darren is playing his trumpet on the beach, where Rohm’s body is seen washing ashore (you following this so far?). Next thing we know, she has “revived” and sets out to wreak revenge on her tormentors, in between torrid love scenes with Darren. Does she (or her “killers”) actually exist, outside of Darren’s mind? This visually arresting mash-up of Carnival of Souls and Blow-up is a bit dubious as to narrative, but heavy on atmosphere.

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Wake in Fright– Considered one of the great lost entries from Australia’s own “new wave” movement back in the 70s, Ted Kotcheff’s unique psychological thriller concerns a burned-out teacher (Gary Bond) who works in a one-room schoolhouse somewhere in the Outback. Headed back to Sydney to visit his girlfriend over the school holiday, he takes the train to Bundanyabba, where he will need to lodge for one night.

“The Yabba” is one of those burgs where the clannish regulars at the local pub take an unhealthy interest in strangers, starting with the “friendly” town cop (Chips Rafferty) who bullies the teacher into getting blotto. This kick starts a lost weekend that lasts for days.

The ensuing booze-soaked debaucheries have to be seen to be believed; particularly an unnerving and surreal sequence involving a drunken nocturnal kangaroo hunt (a lengthy disclaimer in the end credits may not assuage animal lovers’ worst fears, but at least acknowledges their potential sensitivities). The general atmosphere of dread is tempered by blackly comic dialog (Evan Jones adapted from Kenneth Cook’s novel). Splendid performances abound, especially from Donald Pleasance as a boozy MD.

As beautiful as you: Loving Vincent ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 21, 2017)

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If I liken the experience of watching Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s first feature film Loving Vincent as akin to staring at an oil painting for 95 minutes, I could see how that could be misinterpreted as a negative. But I am only making you aware that their Vincent van Gogh biopic is literally a collection of the artist’s paintings, brought to life.

It’s actually an ingenious concept. Utilizing over 120 of van Gogh’s paintings as storyboard and settings, the filmmakers incorporate roto-scoped live action with a meticulously oil-painted frame-by-frame touch-up to fashion a truly unique animated feature. The screenplay (co-written by directors Kobiela and Welchman along with Jacek von Dehnel) was derived from 800 of the artist’s letters. It is essentially a speculative mystery that delves into the circumstances of van Gogh’s last days and untimely demise.

Our “detective” is Armand (Douglas Booth), the son of an Arles postman (Chris O’Dowd). A year after van Gogh’s suspicious death, Armand’s father entrusts his son with an undelivered letter from van Gogh to his brother Theo. Armand sets off to the bucolic countryside of Avers-sur-Oise that inspired many of van Gogh’s best paintings. As he encounters an ever-growing cast of characters ranging from the periphery to the inner circle of van Gogh’s daily life, Armand’s journey becomes a Rashomon-like maze of conflicting accounts and contradictory impressions regarding the artist’s final chapter.

While this is not the definitive van Gogh biopic (Vincente Minnelli’s colorful 1956 effort Lust For Life, featuring an intense and moving performance by Kirk Douglas, takes that honor), it is handily the most visually resplendent one that I have seen. The film represents a 10-year labor of love by the filmmakers, who employed more than 100 artists to help achieve their vision…and it’s all up there on the screen. The narrative, however, is more on the “sketchy” side, if you know what I’m saying (I’m here all week).

Still, the film teasingly offers up some counter-myths to the conventional narrative that van Gogh was another tortured artist who had no choice but to check out early because he was just too damn sensitive for this cruel and unfeeling world. Maybe he wasn’t even the one who pulled the trigger…hmm?

Granted, considering he produced 800 paintings (many considered priceless masterpieces) yet sold only one during his lifetime, and struggled with mental illness, it’s not like he didn’t have reasons to be depressed, but who can say with 100% certainty that there really was no hope left in sight, on that starry, starry night? I’d wager the answer lies on his canvasses; because every picture tells a story…don’t it?

But not to last: Blade Runner 2049 ***½

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 14, 2017)

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Empathy, evidently, existed only within the human community, whereas intelligence to some degree could be found in every phylum and order including the arachnida.

—from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

What truly defines “being human”? Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that “existence precedes and rules essence”. One must assume that he was talking about human beings, because after all, he was one, offering his (“its”?) definition as to what “being human” is.

Which begs this question: what sparks “existence”? To which people usually answer some “thing” or some “one”. I opened my 2015 review of Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie with this quote from mathematician and cryptologist I.J. Good (an associate of Alan Turing):

Let an ultra-intelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man…however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion’, and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus, the first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.

Such questions and suppositions form the core of Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi noir about a dystopian near-future where the presence of commercially manufactured “replicants” (near-humans with specialized functions and a built-in 4-year life span) has become routine.

Should there ever be a need to ascertain whether “someone” is a human or a replicant, a procedure called the Voight-Kampf Test is administered. In essence, this series of questions (in conjunction with careful monitoring of autonomic physical responses like heart rate) determines whether or not the subject has empathy for others.

In one scene, “blade runner” Deckard (Harrison Ford), whose job is to hunt down and “retire” aberrant replicants, reluctantly indulges the creator/CEO of the company that manufactures them by giving the test to the CEO’s assistant (a woman Deckard has no reason to suspect as being anything but human).

When “Rachel” (Sean Young) does turn out to be a replicant, the usually unflappable Deckard is agog; once he’s informed “she” (an advanced prototype) is completely unaware she’s not an employee of the company but rather its “product”, he’s perplexed. “How could it not know what it is?” he demands.

In The Philosophy of Neo-Noir (edited by Mark T. Conard), there is an essay with a unique angle on the film by Judith Barad, called “Blade Runner and Sartre”. She writes:

Although the replicants of Blade Runner are engineered to act and reason as humans, they can’t choose their own essence. This inability is, in Sartre’s view, what differentiates any manufactured being from humans. The replicants fulfill a certain function; as members of a series, they didn’t choose their essence. […]

To be human means to create oneself–the emotions one chooses to feel, the beliefs one chooses to retain, and the actions one chooses to perform. […]

In Sartre’s terms, Deckard thinks of replicants as things that exist only to fulfill the essence, the purpose created for them by human beings. At the same time, he is unaware that he has allowed his society to program this belief, a prejudice, into his mind. […]

Blade Runner and Sartre urge us to escape this programming and become authentically human.

If you are a fan of the film, you are likely aware that the two biggest unanswered questions left hanging in 1982 were 1) Was Rachel’s “authentically human” sense of empathy programmed…or was she truly the breakthrough that her “creator” seemed to infer by his cryptic comment that she was “special”? and 2) the biggie I’ve seen people nearly come to blows over: Was Deckard himself a replicant?

Questions…

I imagine the most burning question you have about Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is: “Are the ‘big’ questions answered?” Don’t ask me. I just do eyes. Which is to say, this is a difficult film to review without risking spoilers, so I am not going into any great detail on plot points (the least I can do for those of you who have made it this far into my “review” and are starting to worry you’ve stumbled into a Philosophy 101 class).

I can assure you that I am not a replicant, because when I heard someone was going to tackle a sequel to an idiosyncratic sci-fi  classic with a rabid cult following like Blade Runner, I was fully prepared to have empathy for whoever ended up at the helm. Ridley Scott was originally slated to do it himself, but for whatever reason or circumstance ended up as producer, with Villeneuve directing. I can’t help but speculate that he felt the same pressure that Peter Hyams surely experienced making 2010: The Year We Make Contact.

As implied in the title, the story is set 30 years after the events in the original film. The protagonist is a blade runner named “K” (Ryan Gosling) who, like Deckard, works for the LAPD. Newer-model replicants are more docile (like electric sheep?). However, there are still enough of the older, buggier models lurking out there in the ether to warrant keeping the blade runners on active duty. This is evidenced right out of the gate, as we watch K being left with no choice but to “retire” a truculent gentleman out in the boonies.

When K detects skeletal remains on the recently retired replicant’s property, it sets off an investigation that catches the keen interest of many parties, from K’s commanding officer at the Department (Robin Wright) to the powerful CEO of the monopolistic android-manufacturing Tyrell Corporation (Jared Leto). And yes, one Rick Deckard as well (Harrison Ford). What ensues actually has less in common with the original Blade Runner…as it does with Children of Men, Logan’s Run, and Angel Heart.

Bad news first? The story line is not as deep or complex as the film makers undoubtedly want you to think. The narrative is essentially a 90 minute script (by original Blade Runner co-screenwriter Hampton Fancher and Michael Green), stretched to a 164-minute run time.

However, the “language” of film being two-fold (aural and visual), I must say the visual language of Blade Runner 2049 is mesmerizing. This is due in no small part to the artful eye of cinematographer Roger Deakins (Sid and Nancy, Stormy Monday, Fargo, A Beautiful Mind, Skyfall, et.al), who really knocks it out of the park.

While I alluded to the lengthiness of the film (and you will need to clear some time), I was never bored. In fact, I savored the leisurely pace and immersive visuals; so many sci-fi films these days needlessly assault the eardrums and are so jarringly flash-cut as to induce vertigo (keep in mind that cerebral sci-fi films like Kubrick’s 2001 and Tartovsky’s Solaris were panned upon initial release as being slow-moving or overlong…like this 1000+ word review).

Gosling delivers another one of his Steve McQueen-ish performances (which some might call deadpan…but it works). In addition to Ford (who has 15 minutes or so of screen time), there is a cameo that should delight fans of the original (and his origami skills have not waned). Leto’s choices are…interesting; they may have better served him as a Bond villain; ditto for his “henchwoman” (played with aplomb by Sylvia Hoeks), recalling Famke Janssen’s “Xenia Onatopp” in Goldeneye. Ana de Armas does the best she can as a holographic companion that feels lifted from Steve De Jarnatt’s 1988 film Cherry 2000.

All in all, Villeneuve has made a sequel that faithfully adheres to the ethos and the physical universe of the original film. It doesn’t necessarily add anything to the original; nor on the other hand does it diminish its “stand-alone” status. You may not find answers to all of those questions I discussed earlier, but you could find yourself still thinking about this film long after the credits roll.

After all, as the acrobatic “Pris” declared in the 1982 film (by way of quoting Descartes), “I think, therefore I am.” Isn’t that what makes us human? OK, that character was a replicant, but that’s beside the point. At least she “lived”, right?

But then again, who does?

Forgotten crimes: Memoir of a Murderer **½ & The Sinner ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 9, 2107)

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You know what they say: watch out for the quiet ones. Consider Byung-su (Kyung-gu Sul), a taciturn, 50-something veterinarian who enjoys a quiet, retiring life with his adult daughter Eun-hee (Seol-Hyun Kim). He is the central character of South Korean director Shin-yeon Won’s psychological crime thriller, Memoir of a Murderer (in theaters now).

The single, 20-something Eun-hee is concerned about dad, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. As inevitably occurs in the early stages, Byung-su is becoming forgetful, to the point where he keeps a mini-voice recorder with him so he can dictate reminders to himself. However, Alzheimer’s may be a blessing. There are certain things about his past he would just as soon forget all about-like the “career” he has “retired” from: serial killer.

Eun-hee is blissfully oblivious to her father’s macabre double life, which abruptly ceased 17 years previous, after Byung-su was involved in a serious car wreck. Whether or not the accident literally knocked him back to his senses is not made clear, but he decided then and there to end the killing spree and concentrate on being a loving father to his daughter, who he is raising as a single parent.

First-person flashbacks reveal that Byung-su’s murderous impulses may have been seeded in his childhood; he was frequently beaten senseless by his violently abusive father. Subsequently, when he becomes a serial murderer as a young adult, he targets those who are (to his determination as judge, jury, and executioner) abusers of all stripes. This is his self-justification; like television’s “Dexter” he feels he’s doing society a favor.

At any rate, that was the “old” Byung-su. Now, he wouldn’t harm a fly. Or would he? After several random murders with eerie similarities make local authorities suspect a new serial killer is on the prowl, Byung-su begins to fear that he himself could be the perpetrator (especially when he factors in his constant fuzziness from the Alzheimer’s). As if all of this weren’t enough to send him over the edge, he’s getting a disconcertingly “familiar” vibe from Eun-hee’s mysterious new boyfriend (Kim Nam-gil), a young cop.

Won’s film (adapted by Hwang Jo-yun and Won Shin-yun from Kim Young-ha’s novel A Murderer’s Guide to Memorization) recalls three other crime thrillers: Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), Shohei Imamura’s Vengeance is Mine (1979), and Bong Joon Ho’s Memories of Murder (2003); the former for its amnesiac, morally ambiguous protagonist, and the latter two for finding the humanity in otherwise repugnant characters.

That is not to say that this film is necessarily in the same class as the aforementioned. The premise is clever, leading man Sul has a brooding presence, and Choi Young-hwan’s atmospheric cinematography sustains a suitably nightmarish mood…but it gets bogged down by jarring tonal shifts; attempts at injecting humor become distracting, and you get a feeling Won wasn’t quite sure how to end his film. Still, it’s perfectly serviceable for dedicated fans of twisty crime thrillers…among whose company I can usually be found.

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Speaking of twisty crime thrillers, if you don’t feel up to schlepping to the multiplex this weekend to overspend on a bucket of popcorn, you might have a summer TV sleeper  in your on-demand queue, begging for a “catch-up” binge-watch. It’s USA Network’s limited series The Sinner, currently 6 installments into its 8-episode run.

Starring Jessica Biel (who also serves as an executive producer), it’s a deliriously lurid Zalman King-meets-Stephen King psychological mystery thriller (with a dash of Hitchcock tossed in for giggles). Here, Biel is the “quiet one” you need to watch out for.

They certainly know how to grab your attention in the series opener. Hot young mom Cora (Biel), her handsome hubby (Christopher Abbott, who you may recognize from HBO’s Girls) and their toddler son are enjoying a lovely sunny day at a crowded beach, when Cora espies a nearby group of young singles who are cranking the tunes and having a grand old time. When Cora suddenly leaps up without a word, purposely strides into their midst, and proceeds to brutally stab one of the young men to death, no one is more surprised than she. Turns out this ain’t exactly a typical day at the beach after all.

With hundreds of witnesses to this shocking and grisly crime (committed in broad daylight), it seems an open-and-shut case. But that would be too easy (and besides, 7 episodes still remain). Cora isn’t helping her own case by essentially shrugging and saying “dunno” every time someone asks her the obvious question. While the D.A., police, and the public are already chanting “Lock her up! Lock her up!”…there is one soul intrigued enough by the fact that Cora has no previous criminal record to dive into her psyche and discover the trigger for this seemingly inexplicable act of violence.

He is detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman, in an oddly mannered performance that grows on you). Socially-challenged Harry is a hot mess; he is on the outs with his wife, pursuing a passionless affair with a dominatrix,and  fancies himself as a world-class arborist (he seems to doing a bit of a reprise of the eccentric detective character he played in Jake Kasdan’s 1998 mystery dramedy, The Zero Effect).

Not unlike the protagonist in Memoir of a Murderer, Cora gives us a glimpse, via first-person flashbacks, of a twisted family upbringing; including a perennially moribund, voyeuristic young sister (obsessed with pushing Cora to lose her virginity) and a creepy, bible-thumping mother (straight out of Carrie) who goes out of her way to make Cora feel that any of her misbehavior (real or imagined) is somehow responsible for fueling her sister’s chronic illness.

There are also elements of Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie; particularly in the dynamics that develop between Cora and Harry as they team up to unlock the repressed memories that are feeding her P.T.S.D. symptoms. Toss in some Red Shoe Diaries-worthy soft-core titillation, and you’ve got yourself some must-see TV. Pass the popcorn.

Blu-ray reissue: Man Facing Southeast ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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Man Facing Southeast – Kino-Lorber Blu-ray

I originally caught this 1986 sleeper from Argentina on Cinemax 30 years ago and have been seeking it ever since. Kino-Lorber’s Blu-ray edition signals the film’s first domestic availability in a digital format.

Writer-director Eliseo Subiela’s drama is a deceptively simple tale of a mysterious mental patient (Hugo Soto) who no one on staff at the facility he is housed in can remember admitting. Yet, there he is; a soft-spoken yet oddly charismatic young man who claims to be an extra-terrestrial, sent to Earth to save humanity from themselves. He develops a complex relationship with the head psychiatrist (Lorenzo Quinteros) who becomes fascinated with his case.

While sold as a “sci-fi” tale, it’s hard to pigeonhole; the film is equal parts fable,  family drama, and Christ allegory (think King of Hearts meets The Day the Earth Stood Still). Powerful and touching. Extras include interviews with Subiela, Soto, and DP Ricardo de Angelis.

Who am I this time: Buster’s Mal Heart ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 7, 2017)

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My favorite bit of dialog from the 1965 film A Thousand Clowns goes thus:

Murray: Nick, in a moment you are going to see a horrible thing.

Nick: What’s that?

Murray: People going to work.

Yes, it is a horrible thing. Drudgery, that is. And unless you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, work, sleep, eat, reproduce, die is pretty much the plan. Okay, that came off sounding a little grimmer than I intended. Let’s say it’s the human condition. Lives of quiet desperation, and all that entails. Oh, dear. That doesn’t help either, does it?

I’m sure most wage slaves, if asked, still dream of flouting convention (like Murray) and dropping out of the rat race altogether. But it’s usually academic; pragmatism dictates that it’s best to sigh wistfully and leave the daydreaming to Walter Mitty. Just accept your lot, enjoy your 2 or 3 weeks a year of vacation time and remain chained to that desk.

Besides, an idle mind is the devil’s playground, right?

You could say that writer-director Sarah Adina Smith’s enigmatic thriller Buster’s Mal Heart takes place in the devil’s playground of an idle mind. Or does it? We’re fairly sure we know “who” the protagonist is. Or do we? You see, my dilemma here is that this is one of those films that is very difficult to synopsize at any length without risking spoilers.

I can tell you this much: Rami Malek (star of USA’s Mr. Robot) plays the eponymous character. Buster is one of those wage slaves I was talking about, holding down the midnight shift as a hotel concierge. He appears sleep-deprived, but it’s a living. Besides, he has his loving wife (Kate Lyn Sheil) and toddler daughter to take care of. He seems “happy” enough with his life…in the same way a monkey in a cage seems “happy”, as long as he has a tire to play with and a supply of bananas. But Buster has his dreams, too.

Or does he? Because that’s only one “version” of Buster. I could tell you more, but…

Suffice it to say that what ensues is sort of a hybrid of The Shining and Lost Highway, with a dash of Fight Club and a smidgen of Dark City (i.e., file under ‘mind fuck’). This is the sophomore effort from Smith; and while her film is (obviously) not 100% original in conception, it is impressively stylish and atmospheric in execution. Malek and Sheil give good performances, with a quirky supporting turn by DJ Qualls as ‘The Last Free Man’ (don’t ask, don’t tell). If you’re in a mood to expect the unexpected, give this one a peek.

Wake up and dream: The Red Turtle *** & Your Name ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 15, 2017)

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In my 2010 review of a lovely, little-seen film from Mexico called Alamar, I wrote:

To say that “nothing happens” in Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio’s leisurely paced cinematic tone-poem, set against the backdrop of Mexico’s intoxicating Banco Chinchorro, is to deny that the rhythm of life has a pulse. […]. If you can’t wait for it to end so you can turn your phone back on and check all those “important” messages, I suspect that the film’s message, telegraphed in the sunlit shimmer of a crystalline coral reef, or in the light of love on a father’s face as he watches his son slowly drift off to sleep, is destined to never get through to you anyway.

I had a similar takeaway from The Red Turtle, the latest offering by Japan’s renowned Studio Ghibli. Writer-director Michael Dudok de Wit and co-writer Pascale Ferran’s gorgeously rendered anime is a minimally-scripted paella made from equal parts Robinson Crusoe, Irish selkie/Venus-Aphrodite mythology, and, uh, the Book of Genesis.

Set in an indeterminate time period (educated guess: early-to-mid 19th Century), the tale centers on a shipwrecked (sailor? explorer? pirate? adventurer?) who gets washed up onto the beach of a tiny (Pacific?) island. An exploration of his new environs quickly gives indication that, save the birds, crabs, and baby sea turtles, he is completely, utterly, alone.

Whether or not he is destined to remain by his lonesome in a cruel and unfeeling universe will be revealed to you by the second act; in the interest of avoiding spoilers, all I am prepared to divulge beyond this point of the narrative is that yes – a red turtle is involved.

As I inferred earlier, de Wit’s film has a dearth of narrative and/or character development, but the stunning visuals help make up the deficit (in my experience, Studio Ghibli never fails to deliver the eye candy). Still, some viewers may find it tough going by the time the story enters its more conventional 3rd act, which does lean toward cliché.

The key to enjoying this film (should that be your wont) is to go in with no expectations, and get lost in its beauty; because (if I may again paraphrase from my Alamar review) “…analogous to the complex and delicate eco-system that sustains the reef, there is more going on just beneath the surface than meets the eye.” Because after all, as the great Jacques Cousteau cautioned… “We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one.”

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I have sat through more than my fair share of “body swap” movies over the years (OK, “decades” may be more apropos), but it’s been quite a while since I have experienced one as original and entertaining as Makoto Shinkai’s animated fantasy, Your Name.  Adapted by the director from his own novel, Shinkai’s film has the distinction of being Japan’s most popular and largest-grossing anime (in-country) to not originate from the Studio Ghibli hit factory (the film’s limited U.S. run is being distributed by Funimation Films).

The story concerns a teenage girl named Mitsuha, (voiced by Mone Kamishiraishi) who lives in a bucolic mountain village, and a teenage boy named Taki (voiced by Ryunosuke Kamiki), who resides in bustling Tokyo. They are separated by geography and blissfully unaware of each other’s existence, but they both share the heady roller coaster ride of hormone-fueled late adolescence, replete with all its attendant anxieties and insecurities.

Mitsuha, who was raised to be a modest country girl with traditional Japanese values, is consumed by a kind of urban wanderlust; eager to finish high school so she can escape her small town and break out on her own to seek adventure and excitement in Tokyo. Taki, on the other hand, takes his metropolitan lifestyle for granted, and plans on becoming an architect, or perhaps an artist. Mitsuha and Taki are both socially awkward.

You know where this is going, don’t you? There’s something else that Mitsuha and Taki are sharing. They’ve both been having very strange dreams as of late; Taki wakes up one morning, and it seems he’s still dreaming…because his physiology is decidedly female, and he’s living in a rural mountain village where people insist on calling him “Mitsuha” through the course of an eventful day at an unfamiliar high school. “She” goes to bed.

The next time Taki awakens, he’s Taki again (anatomy checks out correctly, much to his relief). However, everyone is giving him funny looks at school. His friends are asking him if he’s OK…and wondering why he was acting so weird the day before.

Once we next get to watch Mitsuha having a similar experience (she “dreams” she is a boy named Taki, lives in Tokyo, and spends an equally unsettling day at an unfamiliar high school), we start to put 2 + 2 together. These two are together…but not altogether. Together apart?

WTF is going on with these two? I could tell you, but then I would have to kill you.

So I won’t. Because, a). I can’t afford to lose a reader, and b). It might spoil your fun. Sinkai’s film is a perfect blend of fantasy, metaphysical sci-fi, mystery, coming-of-age tale, humor, and even old-fashioned tear-jerker (yes…I laughed, and I cried). It’s a visual feast as well; the animation is outstanding. It’s not playing at a lot of theaters, so if it pops up in your neck of the woods, do not pass up an opportunity to catch it on the big screen.

Blu-ray reissue: The Man Who Fell to Earth ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 3, 2016)

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The Man Who Fell to Earth: 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition                  Studio Canal Region “B” Blu-ray*

 If there was ever a film and a star that were made for each other, it was director Nicolas Roeg’s mind-blowing 1976 adaptation of Walter Tevis’ novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, and the late great David Bowie.

Several years after retiring his “Ziggy Stardust” persona, Bowie was coaxed back to the outer limits of the galaxy to play Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien from a drought-stricken planet who crash-lands on Earth. Gleaning Earth as a water source, Newton formulates a long-range plan for transporting the precious resource back to his home world. In the interim, he becomes an enigmatic hi-tech magnate (makes you wonder where Bill Gates really came from).

A one-of-a-kind film, with excellent supporting performances from Candy Clark, Rip Torn and Buck Henry. The Studio Canal Edition has a gorgeous new 4K transfer, a second disc packed with extras, and a bonus CD of “Papa” John Phillips’ soundtrack.  Lionsgate will be releasing the domestic version of this set in January 2017.

*Note: Region “B” requires a region-free player (they’re getting cheaper!).

Hitch by ten best

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 13, 2016)

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Today is Alfred Hitchcock’s 117th birthday (well, would have been). It’s a good enough excuse for me to share my picks for the top 10 from the Master’s catalogue of 50+ films:

The Lady Vanishes – This 1938 gem is my favorite Hitchcock film from his “British period”. A young Englishwoman (Margaret Lockwood) boards a train in the fictitious European country of Bandrika. She strikes up a friendly conversation with a kindly older woman seated next to her named Mrs. Froy, who invites her to tea in the dining car. The young woman takes a nap, and when she awakes, Mrs. Froy has strangely disappeared. Oddly, the other people in her compartment deny ever having seen anyone matching Mrs. Froy’s description. The mystery is afoot, with only one fellow passenger (Michael Redgrave) volunteering to help the young woman sort it out. Full of great twists and turns, and the Master keeps you guessing until the very end. The production design may be creaky, but it’s clever, witty and suspenseful, with delightful performances all around.

Lifeboat – This taut, suspenseful 1944 Hitchcock classic (adapted from a John Steinbeck story by screenwriter Jo Swerling) is essentially a chamber piece at sea, centering on a small group of passengers who survive the sinking of their vessel by a German U-boat, which also goes down in the skirmish. A floundering survivor who is later pulled aboard the already overcrowded lifeboat turns out to be a member of the U-boat crew, which profoundly shifts the dynamics of the group. A sharply observed microcosm of the human condition, with superb direction, great cinematography (by Glen MacWilliams), imaginative staging (especially considering the claustrophobic setting) and outstanding performances by the entire ensemble, which includes Tallulah Bankhead, William Bendix, Walter Slezak, John Hodiak, Mary Anderson,  Canada Lee, and Hume Cronyn.

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog – Mrs. Bunting is a pleasant landlady, but we’re not so sure about her latest boarder. There’s a possibility he’s “The Avenger”, a brutal serial killer who is stalking London. Ivor Novello plays the gentleman in question, an intense, brooding fellow with a vaguely menacing demeanor. Is he or isn’t he? This suspense thriller has been remade umpteen times over the last eight decades, but for my money, none of them can touch this 1927 Hitchcock silent for atmosphere and mood. Novello later reprised the role of the mysterious lodger in Maurice Elvey’s 1932 version.

Marnie – I know it’s de rigueur to tout the (dizzyingly overpraised) Vertigo as Hitchcock’s best “psychological thriller”, but my vote goes to this  underappreciated 1964 entry, which I view as a slightly ahead-of-it’s-time pre-cursor to dark, psychosexual character studies along the lines of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Robert Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park. Tippi Hedren plays the eponymous character, an oddly insular young woman who appears to suffer from kleptomania (which turns out to be the least of her “issues”). Sean Connery plays a well-to-do widower who hires Marnie to work for his company, despite his prior knowledge (by pure chance) of her tendency to steal from her employers. Okay, he’s not blind to the fact that she happens to be a knockout, but he also finds himself drawn to her as a kind of clinical study, due to her bizarre behavioral tics. His own behaviors begin to slip as he tries to maintain roles as Marnie’s employer, friend, lover, and armchair psychoanalyst all at once. One of Hitchcock’s most unusual entries, bolstered by Jay Presson Allen’s intelligent screenplay.

North by Northwest – I’m hard-pressed to name a more perfect blend of suspense, intrigue, romance, action, comedy and visual artifice than Hitchcock’s 1959 masterpiece. Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason and Martin Landau head a great cast in this outstanding “wrong man” thriller (a Hitchcock specialty). Almost every set piece in the film has become iconic (and emulated again and again by Hitchcock wannabes). Although I never tire of the exciting crop dusting sequence or the (literally) cliff-hanging chase up Mt. Rushmore, I’d have to say my hands down favorite is the dining car seduction scene. Armed solely with Ernest Lehman’s clever repartee and their acting chemistry, Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint engage in the most erotic sex scene ever filmed wherein the participants remain fully clothed (and keep hands where we can see them!). Frequent Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann’s score is one of his finest.

Notorious – It’s a tough call to name my “favorite” Hitchcock movie (it’s like being forced to pick your favorite child). I would narrow it down to three: North by Northwest, To Catch a Thief, and this superb 1946 espionage thriller (no, I don’t have a man-crush on Cary Grant…not that there would be anything wrong with that). To be sure, Grant makes for a suave American agent, and Claude Rains a fabulous villain you love to hate, but it’s Ingrid Bergman who really, erm, holds my interest in this story of love, betrayal and international intrigue, set in exotic Rio. Bergman plays her character with a worldly cynicism and sexy vulnerability that to this day, few actors would be able to sell so well.

Psycho – Bad, bad Norman. Such a disappointment to his mother. “MOTHERRRR!!!” Poor, poor Janet Leigh. No sooner had she recovered from her bad motel experience in Touch of Evil than she found herself checking in to the Bates and having a late dinner in a dimly lit office, surrounded by Norman’s unsettling taxidermy collection. And this is only the warm up to what Alfred Hitchcock has in store for her later that evening. This brilliant thriller from the Master has spawned so many imitations, I long ago lost count. While tame by today’s standards, several key scenes still have the power to shock. Twitchy Tony Perkins sets the bar for future movie psycho killers. Anyone for a shower?

Strangers on a Train – There’s something that Wim Wenders’ The American Friend, Rene Clement’s Purple Noon (and Anthony Minghella’s 1999 remake, The Talented Mr. Ripley) all share in common with this 1951 Hitchcock entry (aside from all being memorable thrillers). They are all based on novels by the late Patricia Highsmith. If I had to choose the best of the aforementioned quartet, it would be Strangers on a Train. Robert Walker gives his finest performance as tortured, creepy stalker Bruno Antony, who “just happens” to bump into his sports idol, ex-tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) on a commuter train. For a “stranger”, Bruno has a lot of knowledge regarding Guy’s spiraling career; and most significantly, his acrimonious marriage. As for Bruno, well, he kind of hates his father. A lot. The sociopathic yet silver-tongued Bruno is soon regaling Guy with a hypothetical scenario demonstrating how simple it would be for two “strangers” with nearly identical “problems” to make those problems vanish…by swapping murders. The perfect crime! Of course, the louder you yell at your screen for Guy to get as far away from Bruno as possible, the more inexorably Bruno pulls him in. It’s full of great twists and turns, with one of Hitchcock’s most heart-pounding finales.

The 39 Steps – Many of the tropes that would come to be so identifiably “Hitchcockian” are fomenting in this 1935 entry: an icy blonde love interest, a meticulously constructed, edge-of-your-seat finale, and most notably, the “wrong man” scenario. Robert Donat stars as a Canadian tourist in London who is approached by a jittery woman after a music hall show. She begs refuge in his flat for the night, but won’t tell him why. Intrigued, he offers her his hospitality. He awakens the next morning, just in time to watch her collapse on the floor, with a knife in her back and a map in her hand. Before he knows it, he’s on the run from the police and embroiled with shady assassins, foreign spies and people who are not who they seem to be. Fate and circumstance throw him in with a reluctant female “accomplice” (Madeleine Carroll). A suspenseful, funny, and rapid-paced entertainment.

To Catch a Thief – This is one of the Hitchcock films that are more about the romance, scenery and clever repartee than the chills and thrills, but that makes it no less entertaining. Cary Grant is “retired” cat burglar John Robie, an American ex-pat and former Resistance fighter living on the French Riviera. A string of high-end jewel thefts (resembling his M.O.) put the police on Robie’s back and raise the ire of some of his old war buddies. As Robie tries to clear his name and find the real culprit, a love interest enters the picture to further complicate his situation (an achingly beautiful Grace Kelly). To be sure, it’s fairly lightweight Hitchcock, but holds up well to repeated viewings, thanks to the  chemistry between Grant and Kelly, intoxicating location filming (courtesy of Robert Burks’ colorful, Oscar-winning cinematography), and the delightful supporting performances (particularly Jessie Royce Landis, as Kelly’s mother). The witty, urbane screenplay is by John Michael Hayes (he also scripted Hitchcock’s Rear Window, The Trouble with Harry, and the director’s 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much).

Blu-ray reissue: Mulholland Drive ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 5, 2015)

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Mulholland Drive – The Criterion Collection Blu-ray

David Lynch’s nightmarish, yet mordantly droll twist on the Hollywood dream makes The Day of the Locust seem like an upbeat romp. Naomi Watts stars as a fresh-faced ingénue with high hopes who blows into Hollywood from Somewhere in Middle America to (wait for it) become a star. Those plans get, shall we say, put on hold…once she crosses paths with a voluptuous and mysterious amnesiac (Laura Harring).

What ensues is the usual Lynch mindfuck, and if you buy the ticket, you better be ready to take the ride, because this is one of his more fun ones (or as close as one gets to having “fun” watching a Lynch film). This one grew on me; by the third (or was it fourth?) time I’d seen it I decided that it’s one of the iconoclastic director’s finest efforts. Criterion’s sparkling transfer brings new depth to the light and shadow of Peter Deming’s cinematography. Extras include new interviews with Deming, Lynch, Watts and Harring.