Camp and Contradiction in The Rocky Horror Picture Show

The Rocky Horror Picture Show Camp Tim CurryThis piece was initially written for a course titled “Revolutionary/Reactionary Hollywood (1963-1976).” The course was taught by Dr. Drew Casper during the spring ’17 semester at USC. It should also be noted that this paper could be expanded considerably and is relatively narrow in its analysis.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not a great film, but it is an interesting one. Parts of it are pretty fun too. Much less fun is that misguided TV remake thing that Fox did, which I’ve written about previously.

Camp and Contradiction in The Rocky Horror Picture Show
1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show (THRPS) was hardly an immediate hit, but thanks to producer Lou Adler, 20th Century Fox advertising exec Tim Deegan, midnight showings, and scores of passionate fans, the cinematic odd duck eventually found a cult following and became something of a “phenomenon” (Thompson 169-81; Casper 262). Though many initial reviews were less-than-favorable, TRHPS has managed to live on well past its initial theatrical run to become part of American pop culture (Thompson 173; Ebert; Variety). In paying homage to 50s late-night B-movies, TRHPS became a midnight sensation itself; and in responding to the tumultuous, “splintered” society around it, the film eventually contributed to that very society (Casper 1-2, 262; Miller xiii). When 20th Century Fox offered director Jim Sharman the chance to turn his and Richard O’Brien’s stage show hit into a film, he could either “cast[] known box office and rock ‘n’ roll stars in the key roles, in which case he would be granted a full blockbuster budget. . . Or he could stick with the cast, crew and design that he knew and bring the whole thing in for a meager million bucks” in just six weeks. Sharman went with the second option: “A B-movie budget for a B-movie film” (Thompson 147). TRHPS is, in many ways, an unpolished, imperfect work, but that isn’t to say that its thoughtless or lacking depth. As Scott Miller writes, “Though many people might laugh at the notion, Rocky Horror is in many ways . . . a serious social document,” and it’s one that has impacted more than enough people to warrant careful consideration (Miller 113).

That said, reading TRHPS carefully reveals a number of potentially confusing, even contradictory complexities. In his 1976 review of the film, a frustrated Roger Ebert writes, “It’s one of those movies you have to use a lot of hyphens to explain. A horror-rock-transvestite-camp-omnisexual-musical parody” (Ebert). Other terms could easily be added to Ebert’s list (“science-fiction,” “gothic,” “nostalgic,” and “absurd” all among them). TRHPS is a mixed bag—not only does it combine a variety of genres, tones, and influences, it also advances numerous ideas, some of which are at odds with one another. This flashy, over-the-top work is hard to pin down. Still, acknowledging its vacillations and inconsistencies is far more worthwhile than disregarding them, and oversimplifying the film to fit a particular narrative does not do it justice. Throughout Hollywood Film 1963-1976: Years of Revolution and Reaction, Drew Casper combats “myopic” readings of American cinema and calls attention to the ways the period is characterized both by nuanced works and by oppositional drives (Casper xv-xvii). Casper’s book seeks to bring both balance and breadth to readings of ‘60s and ‘70s cinema, and he repeatedly shows that more liberal films can support conservative ideas and vice versa. Somewhat similarly, I use much of what follows to widen readings of TRHPS. As rough-around-the-edges as it often is, it’s also infused with subtlety and deserves more delicate handling than may immediately be evident. For all its liberal, radical content—including cross-dressing, explicit bisexuality, and free love—TRHPS still has a tendency to undermine a number of its more progressive ideas, and the resulting tension should not be ignored. Like the mercurial “sweet transvestite” at its center, TRHPS undergoes numerous costume, mood, and identity changes over its running time, all of which contribute to the film’s particular shape. Anchored by Tim Curry’s narcissistic, self-indulgent, unapologetically expressive Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Frank), TRHPS demands the space to be fully itself. Love it or hate it, Sharman’s film is far from timid. And while it may not be as “revolutionary” or as “liberated” as some of its devotees might like to think, TRHPS still has plenty to say (Miller xii, 118). Not unlike the narrator of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” this is a film that “contains multitudes.”

One way of getting to the vacillating heart of TRHPS is by understanding its camp sensibility. Writing about a decade before Sharman’s film debuted, Susan Sontag sought to define camp, and her insights illuminate a number of TRHPS’s internal contradictions. Like queer identities, countercultural free love, and Frank’s garish makeup, camp is in the business of blurring boundaries. As “the triumph of epicene style,” camp rejects clear distinctions between man and woman, and between human and object (Sontag, 275). Thus, camp encourages “going against the grain of one’s own sex,” as well as “the exaggeration of sexual characteristics and personality mannerisms”; campy exaggeration “effaces nature,” thereby moving gender and identity into the realms of the constructed and artificial (Sontag 279-80). Similarly, camp collapses distinctions between substance and artifice. According to Sontag, “the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: or artifice and exaggeration” (Sontag 275). The theatricality of camp calls attention to surface and performance and can distract from meaning and depth, causing “the lens of Camp” to “block[] out content” (Sontag 280-1). But blocking out is not the same as eliminating. In “dethron[ing] the serious,” camp does not rid itself of all significance; rather, it forms “a new, more complex relation” to substance. For, in the world of camp, “One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious” (Sontag 288). Camp leaves room for discrepancy, and “the Camp sensibility is one that is alive to a double sense in which some things can be taken.” Thus, works of camp art—such as TRHPS—are often pulled in two directions, including those “between the thing meaning something, anything, and the thing as pure artifice” (Sontag 281). Camp delights in the “private, zany experience of a thing” lurking beneath “the ‘straight’ public sense” in which it would typically be taken and challenges straightforward understanding. At the same time, camp occupies a liminal space between high and low culture, and it “refuses both harmonies of traditional seriousness, and the risks of fully identifying with extreme states of feeling” (Sontag 287). “The ultimate Camp statement” is “it’s good because it’s awful”—embodiment of camp that he is (more on that later), TRHPS’s Frank would surely appreciate such words (Sontag 292). Camp informs much of TRHPS; thus, reading it without leaving room for it move in multiple directions makes little sense. Camp’s relationship to meaning is complex and unstable, and the same goes for interpretation of Sharman’s film.

Though the topic of genre in TRHPS is quite large, examining it even briefly emphasizes the film’s status as camp object while also complicating efforts to read it as either purely transgressive or as largely conservative. Though often categorized primarily as a musical comedy, TRHPS also draws heavily from horror and science fiction (Miller 126). If one reads Frank as a sort of unusual patriarch and the likes of Riff Raff, Magenta, and Columbia as his (incestuous) children, then Sharman’s film can also be placed within the realm of family melodrama. By dressing itself in so many genre-guises, TRHPS asserts its challenge to limited, straightforward conceptions of identity at a fundamental level. Genre forms the skeleton of a film, and variety and experimentation—like those valued by 60s counterculture—are built into TRHPS’s bones (Casper 15-17; Miller 120). Like Frank’s numerous outfits, each genre gives viewers a different way to experience and to look at TRHPS. To watch a film that hybridizes and reworks as many genres as Sharman’s is to be presented with a cinematic smorgasbord; though some might be overwhelmed by the options, their sheer number runs counter to more traditional cinema a while reflecting countercultural appetites for novelty, surplus experience, and freedom.

Moreover a film’s genre isn’t incidental, especially when that film has something to say. As Casper argues, genres can be thought of as “culture’s barometer”; they “are acknowledged and accepted representations of cultural values and disavowals . . . coherences and tensions by which a culture comes to reflect on itself” (Casper 132). In engaging as many genres as it does, TRHPS increases its potential to challenge cultural norms and to rewrite conventions. For example, where earlier B-movie takes on Frankenstein (including those by Hammer) depict Victor as motivated by desire for scientific achievement, TRHPS’s Frank is driven almost exclusively by sexual urges, as the lyrics to both “Sweet Transvestite” and “I Can Make You a Man” make clear (Friedman and Kavey 161). The film also takes the musical—“which had been the studio system’s darling”—and infuses it with sheer exploitation (in the form of murder, skimpy clothing, cannibalism, explicit infidelity, and much more) (Casper 252; Miller 125). However, while TRHPS does puts its own stamp things, its use of genres is not purely progressive.

With its roots in “experimental theater,” and it’s “unfettered” glam rock soul, TRHPS doesn’t play by the book, but it doesn’t throw it out the window either (Thompson 22; Miller 114). For all its oddity and blurring of boundaries, “The relation of Camp taste to the past is extremely sentimental,” which can be felt in the nostalgia underpinning much of Sharman’s film (Sontag 280). Whether it’s invoking more classical musicals or paying tribute to the Hammer and Universal horror films that preceded it, TRHPS’s stance toward the past is more loving than its irreverence might indicate. In fact, THRPS was shot at the same location as many Hammer films and has been characterized as “an affectionate tribute to the old studio,” which was all but dead by the early ‘70s (Thompson 156-7). In a sense, Sharman’s film is a celebratory “farewell” to Hammer and the other “‘30s horror and ‘50s B-movies” it references (Thompson 157). There would be no TRHPS without these previous works—numerous Hammer sets and a tank from The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) even appear in the film (Thompson 158). Moreover, when reworking O’Brien’s stage show for the screen, Sharman deliberately “incorporated glimpses of, and references to, as many favorite old movies as he could”; in doing so, he was motivated much more by affection than anything cynical. As Sontag claims, camp is “a mode of enjoyment, or appreciation . . . It only seems like malice”; Camp is also “a kind of love” that “relishes” all it can (Sontag 291). When Frank sings “Give yourself over to absolute pleasure,” he means it. In his castle (which is also a spaceship), all people (regardless of gender) and all experiences (regardless of morality) are potential sources of indulgence. And while this may get Frank into trouble—he is eventually executed for his “extreme” “lifestyle”—it’s also what makes him him. Camp and TRHPS are at odds with any flat-out rejection of things of the past; they’d rather derive pleasure from them and make them their own instead. Over “good taste” and living respectably, Frank chooses hedonism. Both camp and TRHPS do the same (Sontag 291). In this brash film, there’s nothing wrong with the old-fashioned—not as long as it contributes to something enjoyable.

The film’s nostalgia and (re)use of older forms is also apparent in its score. As Dave Thompson notes, “when playwright Richard O’ Brien first composed the show’s words and music, his blending of fifties rock ‘n’ roll with early seventies glam rock was the ultimate, blinding collision of ancient and modern” (Thompson xiv). The sounds of TRHPS pull the film both forward and backward. More cutting edge songs like “Sweet Transvestite” and Riff Raff’s section of “Over at the Frankenstein Place” are tempered by the, in 1975, less contemporary “Dammit Janet” and “Hot Patootie –Bless My Soul.” Rather than commit to a singular, more unified sound, Sharman and O’Brien widen the scope of their film by allowing it to engage with multiple musical styles and the cultural leanings that they represent. Moreover, the blending of numerous styles enhances TRHPS’s ability to establish character through score. For the most part, Frank is associated with the hardest, most glam rock tunes, tying him to the glam philosophy that “it [is] okay to be strange, or different, or weird” and that “sexuality is not defined by who you fuck” in any simplistic way (Thompson 26). In associating Frank with glam (both aurally and visually), TRHPS also taps into—and often seems to champion the fact—that it was a “period of rock and roll in which gender became both fluid and irrelevant” (Miller 119). Since the “dissolution of gender roles was one of the things straight America feared the most,” glam (like Frank) is a challenge to the “crushing conformity” of mainstream society (Miller 119; Thompson 26).

On the other hand, those characters who are least like Frank are repeatedly associated with styles of music that predate the arrival of glam. TRHPS is a film that uses its score to flesh out the sexuality of its characters (Miller 113). Thus, the relatively naïve (and sexually inexperienced) Brad and Janet begin the film by singing the more conventional, less threatening “Dammit Janet”; only after their sexual awakenings (through scandalous encounters with Frank) do the young couple participate in bolder songs with more of a ‘70s rock influence, such as “Rose Tint My World” (which they perform dressed as Frank is when he first introduces himself). Moreover, Eddie’s “Hot Patootie – Bless My Soul” is a ‘50s rock number that mourns a time past in which things were (or at least, seemed) simpler and when gender roles were much more clearly defined. That the song’s lyrics—which begin with the loaded question, “Whatever happened to Saturday night?”—are in the past tense further underscores their mournful, nostalgic nature. That Frank kills Eddie after he sings the song also calls attention to its place in a bygone era—the cross-dressing master of the house might delight in a repurposing of the past, but he has no interest in actually returning to it. And yet, by consuming Eddie’s corpse at dinner in a later secene, Frank betrays the fact that he is influenced by that which came before him. After all, glam rock “lifted as much from the past as it did from contemporary currents,” but it represents a break with tradition all the same (Thompson 29).

Music and character are intertwined in TRHPS, and its sonic admixture is indicative of a larger concern with cultural conflict. A product of a time when “Exploitation as well as nostalgia coursed through [cinema’s] veins,” TRHPS exhibits both (Casper 29). Through its various characters, the film also stages a conflict between ‘60s and ‘70s counterculture and the more traditional ‘50s. And yet, in keeping with its general embrace of contradiction, the film refuses to fully align itself with either side of that divide.

At the center of the film stands its most subversive figure, the flamboyant-alien-scientist-hedonist Frank. However, while he is undoubtedly the star of the show, Frank’s status as possible “protagonist” is fraught with complications, as is the film’s stance toward the cultural attitudes he embodies. Prophet of self-expression and “absolute pleasure” that he is, Frank is largely a product of ‘60s countercultural ideas; as such, he is also monstrous, especially where more conservative sectors of society are concerned. A bisexual who dresses in women’s clothing without totally disguising his masculinity, Frank has no “clear gender” (Miller 119). Moreover, in refusing to conform to heterosexual monogamy, Frank threatens traditional notions not only of identity, but of family as well. But his staying power is limited. That Frank does not survive TRHPS reflects the fact that the Counterculture had burned itself out by 1975 (Casper 15-7). The film’s most constantly inconstant figure, Frank is also its campiest, which calls further attention to the Counterculture’s lack of societal and political efficacy. “Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized—or at least, apolitical” (Sontag 277). Camp may celebrate certain types of pleasure and expression, but that doesn’t enable it to effect change. Similarly, as disruptive as the Counterculture was, “the Age of Aquarius never arrived” (The Washington Times, qtd. Casper 16). In TRHPS, Frank burns brightly, but not for very long.

Furthermore, that Frank can be read both as a martyr to his own cause and as a victim of deviant behavior multiplies the ways in which TRHPS can be understood. Through his campy theatricality and his brazenly countercultural behavior, Frank commands attention, but being at the center of things doesn’t save him. In fact, one of most troubling occurrences in TRHPS is Frank’s death, which, after so much campy exuberance, manages to feel both regressive and inevitable. Shortly before his demise, Frank sings, “Whatever happened to Fay Wray?/ That delicate satin draped frame/ As it clung to her thigh/ how I started to cry/ For I wanted to be dressed just the same./ Give yourself over to absolute pleasure/ . . . / Don’t’ dream it. Be it.” Frank’s reference here is to King Kong (1933), and in this moment, O’Brien’s lyrics simultaneously queer (through association with cross-dressing) and pay homage to cinema’s past. Such tension underscores the ways in which Frank and TRHPS cannot be easily assigned a single mindset or read according to a single set of codes. “Don’t dream it. Be it”—both a mantra of hope for the outsider and the philosophy that gets Frank killed.

By going against the grain of mainstream society as boldly and as thoroughly as he does, Frank positions himself as a monster. As Vivian Sobchack writes, the monster in a genre film “can be a scientist, a gangster, a ‘hero,’ but he is almost always a misfit in the sense that he does not conform with accepted modes of social behavior” (Sobchack 51). The monster can be a figure of sympathy, but that does not necessarily save him from punishment for going his own way. The cinematic monster is also an image of “Otherness,” of “what is repressed” by a culture (Wood 65-6). The blurring of seemingly fundamental boundaries—including that implied by bisexuality and gender-bending—cannot be tolerated by the powers that be; rather it must be repressed if life is to carry on as usual. And so, that which “escapes repression has to be dealt with by oppression” (Wood 64). If Brad and Janet are to ever return to something like normal life, Frank has to be destroyed. as Robin Wood argues, “Otherness represents that which bourgeois ideology cannot recognize or accept but must deal with . . . in one of two ways: either by rejecting and if possible annihilating it, or by rendering it safe and assimilating it” (Wood 65-6). Frank’s death at Riff Raff’s hands ensures that no other young couples will suffer the same fate as Brad and Janet. At the same time, that they end the film not in their own clothes, but in Frank’s can be read as a taming or assimilation of Frank. Brad and Janet in corsets and boas are not nearly as threatening as Frank, for their commitment to “absolute pleasure” is not as all-consuming as his is.

Unlike Frank, Brad and Janet do survive TRHPS. That they do so as the film’s most traditional and nostalgic figures is hardly a coincidence. When viewers first meet the newly engaged couple, they “talk as if they just stepped out of a fifties Doris Day movie and dress like extras in an episode of The Brady Bunch” (Friedman and Kavey 161). Initially, both are completely out of place in Frank’s castle, as is emphasized by Janet’s swooning at the mere sight of Frank and his Transylvanians. Compared to them, Brad and Janet are as wholesome and as ordinary as can be (Miller 122). And while their virginal virtue might not prevent them from “succumb[ing] to the doctor’s sexual advances,” it does enable them to leave his castle alive (Friedman and Kavey 161). By allowing Brad and Janet to live when Frank does not, Sharman positions them as potential protagonists to the transvestite’s villain. Thus, TRHPS seems to undercut all the values and behaviors that Frank supports and to say that sexual experimentation is only acceptable so long as one finds their way back to heterosexuality, normality, and marriage in the end.

And yet, through Brad and Janet, Frank’s influence might live on. With his frequent costume changes—he wears five outfits in an evening—grand entrances, exaggerated gesticulation, and volatile temperament, Frank is constantly shifting and performing. His words are calculated for maximum effect (his long pause when uttering “I see you shiver with antici . . . pation” is but one example), and whenever he’s in a room, he ensures all eyes are on him. He is narcissistic and self-absorbed. He is a violent murderer too. But he is also glam, camp, and counterculture made flesh. TRHPS does celebrate him, but only to point. In killing him, the film acknowledges that the world is not quite ready for the likes of Frank. He’s an alien. A fantasy. A delightful, but dangerous dream. Whether Brad and Janet are better off for having known him is up for debate. They will never be him, but they will never be the same either. The Counterculture may not have realized its aims, and much of it may have been defeated, but its “legacy was manifold” and far-reaching all the same (Casper 16-7).

As outrageous and as strange as it often is, TRHPS isn’t so much incomprehensible as it is multifaceted, and it exhibits both the revolution and the reaction of its day. Rather than reduce the world to nonsense, the film approaches its subject matter from a very particular point of view, one which carves out space for the nostalgic and the progressive alike. The film makes few claims to coherence, and it invites readings from multiple angles. “Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists indeed, a good taste of bad taste”—TRHPS demonstrates this near-paradox repeatedly, which may explain why so many critics where “baffled” by it in 1975 (Sontag 291; Thompson 173). The same film that exudes exploitation and exhibits all sorts of taboo sexual behavior also has an eye firmly fixed on the past, putting it completely out of step with the cinemagoing standards of [its] day” (Thompson 164). Like Frank, Sharman’s film does not mesh well with external standards of acceptability. Rather, it allows the diversity and the confusion of its time to show plainly on its heavily decorated face. And while it may not have the broad, centrist appeal of many popular films from its era, TRHPS still ventures further to the right than Frank’s fishnets would seem to suggest (Casper xvii-xvii).

At the very end of the film, The Criminologist solemnly recites the following lyrics: “And crawling on the planet’s face/Some insects called the human race/Lost in time, and lost in space/And meaning.” Following a spinning overhead shot of Brad, Janet, and Dr. Everett Scott shrouded in smoke, dazed in the aftermath of what they’ve experienced, TRHPS returns to its narrator. However, where a conventional film might end with a more definitive, reassuring resolution, Sharman’s Criminologist offers up something darker and more open-ended instead. Viewers of TRHPS are not told what becomes of Brad and Janet once they return to “normal” society. Rather, they are left with words underscoring the sheer difficulty of distilling any coherent message from what they’ve just seen. In its final scenes, TRHPS rejects the notion that it can be read in any straightforward fashion. Like the gender-bending, bisexual Frank-N-Furter, and like the camp sensibility running through so much of it, TRHPS courts uncertainty and contradiction. If its viewers are left disoriented, “lost” and unable to find “meaning” in it, that may just be the point. As Frank and his castle of freakish Transylvanians work to unsettle and confuse the supremely ordinary Brad and Janet, so too does Sharman’s film ask audiences to let go of preconceived notions concerning everything from sex and gender to style, genre, and more. TRHPS may aim to delight and entertain, but it questions and challenges as well. The film consistently refuses to be consistent. It will not limit itself to being only one thing, nor will it pretend that the answers to society’s questions are easy to come by. What viewers—or Brad and Janet—chose to do with that, is up to them.

Until Next Time
Thanks so much for stopping by!

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Bibliography
Casper, Drew. Hollywood Film 1963-1976: Years of Revolution and Reaction. West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2011. Print.

Ebert, Roger. “Reviews: The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” 18 Aug. 1976. http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-rocky-horror-picture-show-1976. Accessed 26 Mar. 2017.

Friedman, Lester D. and Allison B. Kavey. Monstrous Progeny: A History of the Frankenstein Narratives. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2016. Print.

Miller, Scott. “The Rocky Horror Show.” Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll Musicals. Lebanon, NH: UP of New England, 2011. 112-139. Print.

“Review: ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show.’ Variety. 31 Dec. 1974. http://variety.com/1974/film/reviews/the-rocky-horror-picture-show-1200423333/. Accessed 26 Mar 2017.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Dir. Jim Sharman. Perf. Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, and Richard O’Brien.  20th Century Fox, 1975. Blu-ray.

Sobchack, Vivian. “The Limits of Genre: Definitions and Themes.” Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film. 1987. Second, Enlarged Edition. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2004. 17-63. Print.

Sontag, Susan. “Notes on ‘Camp.’” Against Interpretation and Other Essays. Picador Series. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1966. 275-292. Print.

Thompson, Dave. The Rocky Horror Picture Show FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the Campy Cult Classic. Applause Theater and Cinema Books. Milwaukee, WI: Hal Leonard Corporation, 2016. Print.

Wood, Robin. Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. 1986. Expanded and Rev. Ed. Rpt. as Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan . . . and Beyond. New York: Columbia UP, 2003. Print.

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April 2017 Recap: The Best

movies they shoot horses dont they the last picture show two for the roadIt took me a while to get this post up, because the end of the semester was very messy.

I also saw significantly less films in April than in the first few months of the year, but I’m hoping to make up for that a little bit once summer arrives. Less movies = less “The Best” movies. I’ll also be skipping “The Worst” of April, but you can always check out my letterboxd if you want to see what I didn’t like.

Since it’s nearly mid May already, I’m going to keep these pretty clipped.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)
Directed by Sydney Pollack

THIS IS A MOVIE THAT EXISTS

And I love it. Pollack rides that fine, wonderful line right between greatness and trash. He rides it hard. The ride is wild.

This is a bizarre, dark film. It commits fully to its primary metaphor. It isn’t really subtle. It’s exploitation, but it’s also the best of exploitation kind there is.

I hate even bringing The Hunger Games into contact with this (which is miles ahead of anything Gary Ross has ever done), but imagine, if you will, a world in which that film is cinema for adults (rather than pseudo-cinema for teens). That world exists! We are living in it! Just watch this Pollack movie from 1969! (I don’t even hate THG, so don’t come at me).

Immense balls, intense central conceit, and sheer wackiness aside, I also thoroughly enjoyed Jane Fonda’s performance in this. Bruce Dern’s intense stare (which is featured in the background of numerous scenes) is also very fun.

I knew next to nothing about this before seeing it, and I feel like it changed my life forever. It certainly had me emotionally off-kilter for a good week at least. Never before have I seen such a pure, accurate depiction of my own soul. I am so tired! Being poor is like that! (So is grad school!) Capitalism and spectacle are that crazy!

Yeah, it’s all sort of obvious, but obvious can be good (my “proof “of this is that I like this movie).

I want to own this movie on Blu-ray right this instant, and the fact that I can’t is a tragedy! If you haven’t seen it, try to find a way to do so.

They do shoot horses. Yes, yes they do.

The Last Picture Show (1971)
Directed by Peter Bogdanovich

This is the second film in this post that HITS WAY TOO CLOSE TO HOME. #tooreal

Interestingly, there are several thematic connections between this and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, but for the most part, Bogdanovich and Pollack’s respective approaches are quite different. There’s plenty of exploitation here too, but The Last Picture Show is less overtly stylized, more realistic, and more contemplative than Pollack’s film. It’s quieter, gentler, and a good deal sadder too.

This film boasts a lot of well-etched, multi-dimensional, believable characters and benefits from a noticeably strong sense of place.

This has quite the ensemble cast, but Ellen Burstyn is definitely the standout for me.

I was also quite taken with the use of sound here (which ties into that “strong sense of place” I mentioned just a second ago).

An elegy for small-town America (and for a kind of place that hasn’t gone away).

I’ll certainly be revisiting this one when I get a chance.

Two for the Road (1967)
Directed by Stanley Donen

Full disclosure: I’m a bitter, bitter woman who almost never enjoys movies about two people who are in love at some point. I tend to resent them. Sometimes I scoff at them and comfort myself by deciding that they’re too “unrealistic” to be good (as if realism has anything to do with a film’s quality! lol).

For me, Two for the Road is an exception. In fact, I enjoyed it so much, that I may even make an effort to seek out other such exceptions.

Somehow, this is the first film I’ve seen staring Audrey Hepburn, and (spoiler alert) she is an absolute delight. She’s adorable in this, and she has such charm and presence that one’s eyes are constantly drawn to her. Her outfits are amazing (and rather amusing) as well. I also enjoyed Finney. He and Hepburn work beautifully together and have more than enough energy to support Donen’s project.

Donen’s overlapping storytelling is executed beautifully and works to add considerable depth and emotional heft to the film. With its episodic form, its numerous timelines, and its many shifts from comedy to drama, Two for the Road could have been a train wreck; it’s an elegant, beautifully crafted balancing act instead. Good stuff.

Until Next Time
I’ll be travelling a good bit in May and June, and I’ll be taking a class in July, but I still plan to watch a lot more movies and to post more things to this blog over the summer. I bought a number of Criterions and inherited a sizable assortment of DVDs recently, and I’m eager to start making my way through them. If FilmStruck ever gets their act together and releases a Roku app, I’ll start meeting some of the films on that platform as well.

I also picked up Five Came Back at a bookstore the other day, so maybe I’ll read that too…

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March 2017 Recap: The Best

movie reviews march 2017I saw some pretty nice movies in March, and this is just a quick post on the 6 I liked the most.

worst of march 2017
my letterboxd (for everything in between)

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)
Directed by Robert Altman

The best movie I saw in February was The Searchers, and my very favorite in March was McCabe and Mrs. Miller . . . Everyone rec me westerns now.

Anyway, I can’t wait to watch this one again relatively soon (I even already bought the Criterion). I’d also really, really love to watch this on 35mm, largely because it’s visuals are so textured and beautiful.

I knew almost nothing about this going in, and I was continually taken aback by it. I was surprised by the sound. Surprised by the images. Surprised by the strangeness and the sadness and the Leonard Cohen songs. What a memorable, distinct, engrossing experience. I’ll remember it fondly for quite some time. . .

The leads in this (Julie Christie and Warren Beatty) are tragic and feel incredibly human. They don’t hover anywhere above or beyond the ordinary, and they are all the more affecting for it. They are trapped. The film is pervaded by an almost tangible sense of hopelessness, and its displays a marked interest in the difficult, fraught nature of human connection.

There’s also a weirdness and boldness to this that is absolutely fascinating. And it all just works so well (vague!). The climactic sequence is mesmerizing. The way the dialogue is written forces viewers to listen closely only to  make them realize that efforts to communicate are all in vain. The snow is this looks absolutely stunning.

I love it.

Most importantly, the coat Beatty wears in this is now my favorite coat in all of cinema.

Five Easy Pieces (1970)
Directed by Bob Rafelson

Class conflicts, the abundance of crap, and a surplus of rage.

A lack of commitment and direction.

And a wonderful character study too.

This film moves with energy and is edited quickly. Like the man at its center, Five Easy Pieces seems anxious about staying in anyone place too long. I’ll admit, it took me about half an hour to adjust to the film’s rhythms and to really “get into it.” Once I did, I had a great time, and any patience Rafelson initially asked of me was duly rewarded.

Nicholson is great (as are his sideburns). For what it’s worth, Karen Black’s Rayette feels a little like a trailer park interpretation of Lana Del (which isn’t a criticism). More importantly, both leads feel extremely real; these are people I know and have lived with and around. Like Robert’s life, the film doesn’t feel overly planned or constructed (which isn’t to say that it didn’t take plenty of thought and skill to put it together). It flows. It envelops as life does. If viewers find that it leaves a scar or ends in a manner that’s less-than-satisfying, they might consider why.

The Tammy Wynnette songs are fantastic too.

Another one I’m excited to revisit . . .

Song to Song (2017)
Directed by Terrence Malick

This one is a lot better than the internet seems to think, and everyone needs to chill. There were quite a few walkouts when I watched this, and I’m still wondering what it is those people were expecting when they bought their tickets. I also wonder what specifically it was about the film that convinced them not to stay.

Because, for all it’s imperfections, Song to Song remains a truly lovely piece of cinema.

The film is self-indulgent, porous, and slow. It’s hypnotic, affecting, and beautiful too. The world is a complicated place, and perfection is a lie after all. Life is unpredictable. Relationships are messy. A little piece of me resents those who wouldn’t even finish the film, who wouldn’t simply let Song to Song be what it is.

This is a tender, sincere work of art. It’s about love, loneliness, and wandering. It’s not without it’s moments of pretentiousness, but I can forgive those for the most part. I was both uplifted and devastated by Song to Song, and I left the theater feeling soothed and rejuvenated. A little Malick can be good for the soul.

Some of Lubezki’s flourishes are a little ridiculous, but the sense of movement and fluidity that he brings to the work overall works nicely. His images also help the film to feel grand and intimate all at once.

Song to Song also benefits from a strong ensemble cast, all of who perform at a volume in tune with the rest of the film. Rooney Mara is particularly good, and her ability to draw the viewer’s eye is really quite remarkable.

This is the only Malick I’ve seen other than The Tree of Life, because nothing is real and I’m fake af . . . That said, I am hoping to check out much more of his work over the summer.

Personal Shopper (2016/7)
Directed by Olivier Assayas

I still don’t know what to make of this. But I enjoyed watching it, I remember how it felt, and I’m itching to see it again. Surely that’s something, right?

Personal Shopper is a beautiful, odd, slippery thing. It also represents my first foray into Assayas. I was caught off guard by this film, and I have a strong feeling that revisiting it would reveal a good deal. That promise alone is a sign of a certain kind of quality. This isn’t a shallow, lazy, or empty work. It’s something all together different.

At one level, it’s “about” grief, loss, identity, celebrity, and maybe even incest. It’s “about” ghosts, technology, and isolation too. It’s even “about” Kristen Stewart.

Personal Shopper is bold, beautiful, and hypnotic. It takes twists and turns that go all over the map. It does not follow any well worn paths. It defies categories. Even if all of Assayas’s choices don’t work the whole here, is more than the sum of its parts. For instance, while the shots of pixelated Skype calls are sort of bad, the use of technology to mediate connection still works…

There’s also some really lovely camerawork here, and the film sets itself apart with its use of mood. It’s almost as if the whole film takes place in some other dimension, somewhere halfway between this mundane world and the next. In fact, Personal Shopper is the most “dreamlike” film I’ve seen in some time.

Kristen Stewart is fascinating and gorgeous, and she more than holds her own here. The way she’s styled is also very important to me (tomboyish piece of trash that I so often am).

Get Out (2017)
Directed by Jordan Peele

Get Out is a smart, well-crafted genre film, and a represents a very exciting, undeniably promising directorial debut from Peele.

The film is both hilarious and deeply disturbing, and it achieves impressive tonal balance over all. In addition to Peele’s sharp writing, the careful set design gives the film a distinct personality. The film isn’t a second too long either, and it has a much stronger ending than a lot of today’s mainstream horror.

A lot more intelligence too.

Not only is Get Out bold and unapologetic, it’s also a really good time at the movies. Sure, it’s unsettling and is all about racism, but that doesn’t stop it from being fun. Therein lies a good deal of Peele’s brilliance. (That bingo scene is iconic btw.)

Take Shelter (2011)
Directed by Jeff Nichols

I don’t have a whole lot to say about this one at the moment except that I love Michael Shannon.

Actually, I love Michael Shannon AND Jessica Chastain, and getting to see them both at the heart of a movie was a real treat. Both are beautiful and give solid individual performances here. The pair of them work well together too.

Hooray for an original script, and for an inspired, intelligent premise.

I liked Midnight Special, but this one better, partially because it’s more intimate and contained. I haven’t yet seen Loving, but from what I can tell, Nichols has a knack for portraying loving (but struggling) couples in a controlled, affecting, and very human way. He doesn’t go straight for the loud or the overly dramatic. And I’ve got to tell you, it’s kind of nice. . .

Until Next Time
Movies that just missed the cut this month include The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Logan. I’m also one of like 5 people who (generally) liked Ghost in the Shell apparently. It’s flawed to high heaven… but it’s also too interesting to just write off entirely.

As always, thanks for stopping by! I’m up to my ears in school junk right now, so see ya next month!
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March 2017 Recap: The Worst

worst movies march 2017I met 20 movies in March, 4 of which were very much not good.

Burning Sands (2017)
Directed by Gerard McMurray

What we have here is a clumsily crafted film with a muddled, unintelligent script. I saw this at a screening, and it was a complete slog to get through. So much so, that I can’t imagine actually finishing it if I were to watch t on Netflix (which is where/how it was released).

The rather green cast is the least of this film’s problems. In fact, the performers aren’t really a problem at all, but there’s also no way they can save it either.

After hearing co-writers Berg and McMurray speak at a Q & A, it’s clear that they were trying to do far too much with this script. Sadly, the film they  think they wrote and the one that plays out on screen are so far apart that it seems fair to blame them for the majority of the movie’s problems.

Burning Sands lacks direction and winds up feeling diluted and confused. Even worse, some of the messages it tries to convey don’t come across as particularly well thought out either (combining Frederick Douglass quotes with a fraternity hazing narrative feels suspect at best). Lack of clear or coherent direction aside, the film is also cliched, boring, and terribly predictable.

For what it’s worth, this often feels like a knock off version of last year’s Goat, a film that doesn’t deserve to inspire copycats.

The only good thing here are the shots of Trevante Rhodes shirtless.

Wilson (2017)
Directed by Craig Johnson

Though I don’t know much about Daniel Clowes (sorry), I was initially intrigued by Wilson, as it represents Johnson’s followup to The Skeleton Twins. Unfortunately, it’s not a good follow up, and I have a feeling that the fact that Clowes (and not Johnson) wrote the script might have something to do with that.

There are some chuckle-inducing moments here, and both Woody Harrelson and Laura Dern do some solid work here. That said, the vignettes and stops and starts don’t cohere into anything substantial, and the whole thing makes for a long, unfulfilling 100 minutes.

Wilson‘s narrative tries to cover too much ground, and has a number of wasted moments and holes alike. Perhaps the script was too large and a number of things got lost in the editing. Or maybe Clowes doesn’t have enough experience with screenplays.

Hopefully this doesn’t damage Johnson too much. His last film had a much narrower scope and felt more complete. It was also funny and more touching than this one.

Wilson wants to be quirky and offbeat; instead, it’s just off. And it doesn’t warrant much more than a disinterested shrug.

Life (2017)
Directed by Daniel Espinosa

The murderous alien in this film is named “Calvin,” and all of the characters insist on calling it that even though it’s completely ridiculous omg.

Life is the sort of empty, intellectually lazy, bloated, uninspired bull shit that pisses me off. Especially since nearly $60 million dollars were spent creating it.

I also hate Life because sci-fi is great, and it very much isn’t.

It’s as if someone put Alien and Gravity into a blender and then sucked all the depth, character, craft, and good ideas out of them. The resulting concoction can easily be sipped through a straw, but it’s so bland that I can’t imagine why anyone would want to consume it.

Monster/creature movies don’t work if the monster/creature can ONLY be read literally…

After the first 20-30 minutes or so, it becomes insufferably repetitive and predictable. One exception to this is the very end (which is savage and hilarious), but by the time it rolls around, it’s far too late.

There’s also an alien-pov sequence in this that is so laughably bad, pointless, and out-of-left-field that I’m still confused by it. . .

A boring, frustrating thing.

The Ugly Truth (2009)
Directed by Robert Luketic

I would never choose to watch this movie. But, as a grad student, choice isn’t something I seem to have much of.

The class I watched this in presented it as an example of a “bad movie,” which it is. Unfortunately, it’s not the kind of bad that can be enjoyable. Sure, I may have laughed a few times while watching this, but I only did so as a way of coping with just how unintelligent, clunky, boring, and offensive so much of it is.

This “romantic comedy” is neither romantic nor comedic. It is sexist, cringe-inducing, and inane though.

Heigl and Butler and both off, and Butler’s accent slips every five minutes or so.

Cheryl Hines is the only bright spot here, but she only has a couple of scenes. (For what its worth, she shows up in Wilson too).

Until Next Time
April will be my busiest month this semester, so my movie-watching may slow down in the coming weeks. I’m also hoping to post some more developed writing here over the summer though.

Best of March coming soon.

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February 2017 Recap: The Best

movie reviews best movies february 2017Now that you know which films did the least for me last month, here are the ones I’m most eager to visit again.

John Wick (and John Wick: Chapter 2) (2014/7)
Directed by Chad Stahelski

I put off watching John Wick for a while, simply because I didn’t expect too much from it. As it turns out, that was rather silly of me.

John Wick = A DAMN GOOD TIME AT THE MOVIES. Of the two, I have a slight preference for the first one, largely because I was so pleasantly (and repeatedly) surprised while watching it. The action is fun, intense, and well-choreographed. Keanu is Keanu. The films have guns, great suits, and a sexy night club aesthetic. There’s no forced romance. No time to fuck around. Just well-crafted and supremely entertaining action film-making.

Another aspect of John Wick that sets it apart is its world-building. The universe that the films occupy is somewhere between fantasy and reality and is both distinct (to an extent) and rule-bound (so that it’s coherent). Additionally, Stahelski  and the films don’t fall into the trap of taking themselves too seriously. John Wick would be outright ridiculous (and a lot less fun) without a sense of humor; luckily, we don’t have to worry about that.

Bond who?

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Directed by Roman Polanski

I dig this movie. I dig the various levels it works on. I dig it as a horror film, as a cynical mediation on society, as an exposé of the struggles of women, as a witch-mystery… take your pick.

For all the suffering that Rosemary endures, Polanski continually infuses (black) humor into this. And where today’s worst horror films lack characters entirely, Rosemary’s Baby is brimming with them. Not only does this enhance the “reality” (and thus, the horror) of it, it also renders it much more entertaining than some of its genre counterparts. Characters or no characters, it certainly delivers on craft and sheer intelligence as well…

It wouldn’t be unfair to call this one “slow-burning,” but it’s engrossing for majority of its substantial run time and, more importantly, its final pay off is far better than most. In fact, the final scene stands out as among one of the best endings I’ve experienced in quite a while. It’s tonally disarming, and it’s all the more unsettling precisely because of just how much Polanski withholds.

My god, are Mia Farrow’s cheekbones something else…

The Searchers (1956)
Directed by John Ford

SUCH A GOOD TIME AT THE MOVIES

The Searchers is neither perfect nor beyond reproach, but it is great.

There are so many wonderful, precisely-etched characters in this. So many memorable moments. So many lovely shots. The Searchers is his is a whole lot of movie for 2 hours. At times, it seems to overflow its own bounds (in a good way!).

Also, why didn’t anyone ever tell me just how funny this is? For all the serious drama and the heavier issues (you know, like murder and racism), there is a great deal of clever, downright hilarious writing here. There’s also a good deal of nuance, some of which may have been effaced by misreadings over the years.

While watching this, I experienced quite a few moments where I felt like I’d seen the film before. Surely this speaks to just how much influence it has had on subsequent works.

The Searchers is one of two films I’ve recently watched starring John Wayne, and it’s nice to finally see what all the fuss is about. He reminds me a bit of some of my older relatives; and so far, I have found it hard not to enjoy his onscreen presence…

Lol this is my first John Ford

The Hidden Fortress (1958)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa

This is only the second Kurosawa I’ve seen, and while it didn’t shake me nearly as much as as Rashomon, I still enjoyed it a great deal.

Overall, this feels much more contemporary than one might expect. Even if the two comedic-relief-peasants don’t hold up especially well, The Hidden Fortress remains undeniably impressive. Plus, Toshirô Mifune is A++.

A big visual feast, but one that exists on a smaller, more personal scale than its setting and images might indicate.

It is,—here I go again—A GOOD TIME AT THE MOVIES.

Time to watch more Kurosawa…

I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore (2017)
Directed by Macon Blair

While it doesn’t boast the same level of sheer craft as the other films included here  Macon Blair’s directorial debut still deserves a shout-out. As a fan of both Blue Ruin and Green Room, I was  excited to watch this after hearing about its premiere at Sundance, and it did not disappoint.

There are a lot of really great, really hilarious lines in this. Laugh-out-loud stuff. A lot of fun. Elijah Wood and Melanie Lynskey are both delightful and they each play their quirky, offbeat, down-to-earth characters well, and with just enough humor for Blair’s script. They also provide this quick, crazy film with a much-needed emotional center.

You can see and feel traces of what appear to be Jeremy Saulnier’s influence here, but there’s also a wild abandon and an outlandish humor that’s not nearly as present in Blue Ruin or Green Room. Blair plays with tone and viewer expectations a great deal. Not only does he appreciate both black humor and explicit violence, but he also leaves room for affecting interpersonal drama. The films takes a number of hard turns, but it never goes completely off the rails.

There’s a lot going on in I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore, and some of it is a bit too rough around the edges; at times, clumsiness creeps in, and it’s all too easy remember that Blair is new to this kind of directing. That said, the film remains a great deal of fun, and it’s a bold, promising first feature.

Until Next Time
March is well  underway, and I’ve already met a number of films. So far, my personal favorite are  Five Easy Pieces (1970) and Logan (2017). Stay tuned to see if that changes….

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Worst of February
Best of January
Worst of January

February 2017 Recap: The Worst

movie reviews death wish, aeon flux, imperial dreams“Worst” seems to harsh, and I don’t really like that, but oh well…

I met 22 movies in February, many of which were quite good. 3 however, proved rather frustrating.

Here are the least satisfying films I watched last month:

Death Wish (1974)
Directed by Michael Winner

My main problem with Death Wish is that it’s both fascist AND dull.

It simply didn’t do anything for me. No characters to care about. No style to sink my teeth into. No message I cared to pick apart… Maybe it’s just not for me.

The most compelling thing about Winner’s vision here is just how ugly it is. I’m being sincere. The world of this film is cold, derelict, and completely void of beautiful images. There’s something to that; too bad I don’t care enough about the rest of the film to spend any time figuring it out.

It’s also potentially relevant as a precursor to films like Taken I guess….

But it’s still pretty tedious and unengaging, and it leans way too far to the right for my taste.

Aeon Flux (2005)
Directed by Karyn Kusama

I watched Aeon Flux as “research” for a larger (science-fiction-related) project that I’m working on, not because I expected it to be a good movie. That said, I still found it disappointing. There’s the beginning of a good film buried away here somewhere, but poor execution wins out.

There are glimmers of good ideas all throughout Aeon Flux, but the film as a whole still ends up feeling uninspired. At times, it’s almost as if someone took a bunch of common science-fiction  motifs, but them in a blender, and then sucked all the life out of the resulting amalgam. I managed to stay interested for about half the running time, but I was all but checked-out by the end.

Some pretty images, but it lacks substance…

My take: this would be better if it were gayer and more focused. (Then again, what wouldn’t?)

Imperial Dreams (2014/7)
Directed by Malik Vitthal

Though it initially premiered in 2014, Malik Vitthal’s feature debut wasn’t released until Netflix made it available early last month. One assumes that John Boyega’s recent (and massive) increase in visibility thanks to Star Wars has something to do with this…

While I appreciate a number of Vitthal’s aims, the final product feels far too much like a first feature, and it lacks any distinctive style or vision. If Vitthal directs another film, Imperial Dreams provides little insight into what it might look like. I attended a Q & A with the director; based on his own accounts, the script for Imperial Dreams went through quite a number of revisions and was touched by many, many hands. Perhaps this is why the film is fine, but feels so unremarkable. An early cut of the film was also much longer, and the final version seems to be missing a few pieces, especially late in its narrative.

There is a sincerity to Imperial Dreams that I admire, but it doesn’t convey any of its messages with enough clarity, volume, or distinction.

That said, Boyega is quite good in this. He fully commits to Vitthal’s script, and his presence elevates the entire piece. He keeps the film watchable, even when the pieces around him feel a bit tired.

Still, why this has a 91% on RT at the moment is beyond me.

Until Next Time
As I indicated last month, I can’t write on all of the films I’m watching at the moment. For the time being, I’ll posting very brief reactions to everything on twitter and letterboxd; those reactions will then be supplemented by recaps of the best and worst films I watch (for the first time) each month.

Best of February coming soon.

Worst of January
Best of January

January 2017 Recap: The Best

janbestAnd so, now that you know what didn’t do it for me last month, here are the films I watched that stood out the most, and for the best reasons.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966)
Directed by Mike Nichols

I tend to not be too fond of movies that feel like ‘filmed plays,’ but this one is so lively, so biting, so clever, and just so damn much that I never found it lacking. Where some adaptations of theater are flat on the screen, Nichols’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is overflowing with energy and character (not to mention yelling).

As much fun as this film is—and it is a lot of fun—its remarkable ability to blend darkness with intelligence and humor is what I’ll remember most. As many have said before me, the two lead performances are also fantastic, with Taylor and Burton portraying their characters with nuance without ever sacrificing their incredible intensity.

Videodrome (1983)
Directed by David Cronenberg

Until last month, the only Cronenbergs I’d seen were Eastern Promises and A Dangerous MethodVideodrome represents the first step in my efforts to remedy this situation.

As someone who grew up without venturing into the horror genre, I’ve been a little wary of Cronenberg’s earlier work. As it turns out, I’m an adult, and watching Videodrome was no problem at all. In fact, it was absolutely delightful (in a dark, grotesque sort of way).

Videodrome is stylish, excessive, creepy, and—most importantly—thoughtful. Cronenberg’s picture of a world in which the barriers between man, media, and weapon have all but crumbled is fascinating in part, because it doesn’t feel that far-fetched. In Videodrome, an “enthusiastic global corporate citizen” seeks to turn us all inside out, to dissolve whatever holds us together and use us for its own ends…

Oh, and Debbie Harry is lovely.

Cabaret (1972)
Directed by Bob Fosse

Cabaret is A LOT. For all its decadence, playfulness, and exuberance, it never shakes lose a palpable sense of despair. I don’t typically like musicals, but I love this one. There is a grit and a realism to Cabaret, and though its got plenty of style, it never sacrifices substance in the name of spectacle.

For what its worth, I really love The Master of Ceremonies, a character  as endearing as he is strange and as unsettling as he is delightful…

I watched Fosse’s film two days before the Orange Beast was inaugurated, and that context may have heightened my sensitivity to its impact. The last shot in particular left me reeling; that reflection of all the Nazi’s in the club’s audience has burned itself into my brain. If you’ve never seen it, let it do the same to you too.

Alien (1979)
Directed by Ridley Scott

Ignoring the fact that it took me this long to watch it, Alien is a damn good movie. It’s enveloping, revolting, intelligent, and precisely calculated. The film uses its sci-fi and horror elements with purpose, and it’s an impressive exercise in sustaining cinematic tension. Where lighter science-fiction fare (like Star Wars) is expansive, Alien swallows up everything in its path. Alien is a film of dark, slippery, nasty surfaces; the imagery may not be subtle, but it is effective.

And who needs villains when the body and reproduction are both absolutely terrifying all on their own?

For what it’s worth, I also watched Aliens this month and, while it’s very good, Alien is definitely the one I prefer. Narratively, its more tightly wound and less loose around the edges than its sequel. It’s also more atmospheric and leaves more room for rich, potentially radical thematic interpretation.

Anyway, Ripley and Jones the Cat are the heroes we need right now.

Margaret (2011)
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

I watched the theatrical cut of this film, and after learning what the extended cut adds, I’m more than content with that choice.

As with Manchester by the Sea, Lonergan uses Margaret to plumb the depths of trauma and guilt. This sprawling, somewhat unruly film doesn’t make the mistake of trying to oversimplify its subject matter for narrative convenience either. The film is messy, but so is everything it cares about, and it’s better of Lonergan’s last two works. The film is also haunted by the specter of 9/11 and serves as a meditation on the difficulties of integrating such an event into one’s understanding of the world (particularly as a young person).

There is a lot to love about Margaret, Anna Paquin’s performance very much included. She feels real in this film, and that fact is absolutely essential to its success. Lonergan’s script is layered and includes some of the most authentic-sounding mother-daughter interactions I’ve heard. Lonergan also embraces the awkwardness of his high-school-aged characters. Such a script would have trouble accommodating an overly polished figure at its center, but Paquin never allows that to become an issue. Her work here is controlled chaos at its best.

Mad Max: Fury Road, Black & Chrome Edition (2015/6)
Directed by George Miller

I’ve seen Mad Max: Fury Road numerous times. It’s my favorite movie (full stop). I know it well. And yet, the Black & Chrome Edition still managed to surprise me. Which is all to say that I’m so glad that George Miller invented cinema in the year 2015, and that he and Warner Bros. later decided to bless the masses even further by releasing this alternate version.

None of the energy or the glorious excess of the color version of Fury Road is lost in black and white. In fact, the images in this version are charged with even more power. I felt this film more intensely than just about any other. Swapping color for black and white highlights the incredible composition of the film’s images and lends them a strange, new beauty. There is a sense of timelessness conveyed by black and white that melds seamlessly with Miller’s tale. More importantly, the emotional element of the film is undoubtedly intensified in this edition. I don’t know how to describe it (I am, after all, in the realm of the abstract here), but I experienced itthe color version of the film packs a wallop, but this one left me reeling in a way I won’t forget.

I was lucky enough to watch the Black & Chrome Fury Road on a big screen. If you get a chance to do the same, don’t let it pass you by.

20th Century Women
Directed by Mike Mills

20th Century Women features a solid, nuanced, sensitive, and well-timed script from Mills and is bolstered by an exceptional lead performance by Annette Bening. Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning are also quite good.

Mills and his cast respect all of the film’s characters, and the result is a tender, emotionally intelligent work of art. 20th Century Women also excels at interweaving its different narratives with different moments in history. The film just feels good. And its now crystal clear that Beginners (2010) wasn’t a fluke.

Silence (2016)
Directed by Martin Scorsese

ALL HAIL, MARTIN SCORSESE.

Even if the last 15 minutes of the film don’t work for me (they don’t), it’s clear that only a master could have made this film.

So much of Silence is sublime (I know what the word means, and I mean it). This is especially true of Rodrigo Prieto’s cold, elegant, and overwhelming cinematography.

The film is also (appropriately) more ideologically ambivalent than some are giving it credit for. Silence presents. It does not judge.

The subjects that Scorsese tackles herereligion, sacrifice, morality, self-preservation, and much more besidesare complex in the extreme, and to oversimplfy them by opting for easy answers is work for much lesser films.

I’ve never really been a “fan” of Andrew Garfield’s acting, but Silence makes it clear that he is capable of giving a performance that is intense, layered, heavy, and controlled all at once. I’m sure Scorsese deserves some of the credit here, but Garfield’s performance here is one of the best of 2016 (that he was nominated for the hot mess that is Hacksaw Ridge instead is absolutely baffling). Though he’s not in the film all that much, Adam Driver also does impressive work here, and he’s quickly become an actor to keep an eye onhis range is impressive, and he has more sheer presence than most.

Silence left me rattled in that no other film has for a while, and I have little doubt that it will endure far longer than La La Land (or just about anything else from 2016). Silence is a brave and beautiful film, and Scorsese refuses to underestimate his viewers.

Until Next Time
Thanks for stopping by! I’d love to know what the best films you’ve watched recently are, so feel free to share in a comment below!

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