Ten recent reviews

Murder! (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1930) -

A person wrongly accused and condemned to death; another seeking out the guilty party - it's an early prototype of what would become the Hitchcock standard for decades. And with good reason, it's a durable idea and is executed here as enjoyably as many of his later films, if perhaps with less flair in the area of making grand set pieces. However, this comes immediately on the heels of the silent era and set piece or no, Hitch has a total command of how to structure things visually without the heavy reliance on dialogue that became the norm later. It's not a great one, even for the period, but it's totally enjoyable, crisp and well-made and certainly a worthwhile piece of his catalog to check out.

Longtime Companion (dir. Norman René, 1990) -

Way better than the rank and file of gay-themed films I've seen and - ending aside - a good, solid film overall. It's one of the earliest American films to really take on the AIDS crisis as its central theme and I really appreciated the (almost complete) absence of melodrama in favor of serious talk, well-drawn characters, and a realistic look at a particular group of (mostly gay, mostly white, mostly affluent) men and how the crisis impacts on them and their group of friends.

It's helped immeasurably by its episodic structure - following one story through beginning to end would probably be too schmaltzy to tolerate, but checking in with the people periodically is a good way to follow the situation which is, in reality, the central idea of the film more than any individual character. I have to say, I expected the worst and I liked it quite a bit. As films that voluntarily place themselves into the gay-themed section of most video stores, it's top of the heap. As a film-film, pretty good stuff.

The Pianist (dir. Roman Polanski, 2002) -
Of course Roman won the Oscar, because this is the kind of film the Academy loves - serious in intent, well-made on all levels, and nothing that's going to challenge your preconceptions (unless you believe that every single person who was associated with the Nazi party was thoroughly evil and had not a shred of sympathy or humanity, in which case you'll be stunned by one character introduced late in the film). Watching it, I was drawn into the drama, the story, and Brody's excellent work in particular (he's in pretty much every single scene), but I feel like this was a relatively unchallenging film about the Holocaust, bringing nothing new in particular to the table, to the growing body of work of films about the subject. I respect it, it was an interesting story to tell and lest I be read wrong here I don't see any problem with continuing to tell variations on a theme - as long as something unique and new is brought into the world, which is the only place where I think Polanski failed. If you haven't seen a lot of films on the subject of the Holocaust, this one will be a powerful experience. If you have, you may be subject to a feeling of deja vu, in spite of the best intentions of everyone involved.

Detour (dir. Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945) -

I nodded for a moment or two when I first saw this last fall, as I am prone to, so I rented it again to see if it was as fucked-up as I remember and yeah, Ann Savage is absolutely amazing as the femme fatale of the picture. I mean, even by the standards of noir femmes, she's wacko and absolutely carries the energy of the film since Tom Neal's Al character is one step from being a total void - he's not likeable or disagreeable; not handsome, nor is he ugly; he doesn't get too heated over the situation, yet he doesn't totally lie down and go along with things. But with a budget approaching zero dollars and a couple unknowns, Edgar G. Ulmer crafter a fine little thriller long on mood and anxiety, short on all other amenities, and therein lies its charm.

Le Boucher (dir. Claude Chabrol, 1970) -

After seeing Chabrol's latest film and enjoying it without loving it, I decided to jump back and see one more or less agreed upon as a masterpiece - this one - and found that I also liked it without loving it (though Roger Ebert's rave review on his website leads me to believe that this has depths that I haven't begun to get near). I did love the placidity of the French countryside and the mundanity of the events interrupted by the murders of the film - it's almost like they don't really matter much, more like discussion points between the characters than reasons for feeling afraid. And though Hitchcock can be felt in the proceedings, Chabrol never lays too heavily on the suspense until the end, when it seems that Stephane Audran's character actually has moved from her carefree provincial life into real danger. It's certainly not the savage view of the bourgeois that I've heard about Chabrol's films but not yet seen, but it's also certainly interesting enough to keep me going further into the catalog. Oh yeah, and the score is fucking amazing as well.

The Body Snatcher (dir. Robert Wise, 1945) -

Boris Karloff again turns in a terrific performance for this Val Lewton vehicle as the title character (or is Henry Daniell's Dr. MacFarlane the title character?) in which a doctor sanctions grave robbing and possibly murder in the name of furthering medicine and science. It's no place we haven't been elsewhere and better, but it's still an enjoyable slice of the macabre, directed by the fine, steady hand of Robert Wise, thus ensuring a skillful way with both visual aspects and actors, though even he has a hard time making Russell Wade as the spineless intern anything to get excited for or about. And though Bela Lugosi is second-billed, his role is small. It's fine, pivotal even, but both Wade and Daniell have heaps more screen time and more to do with the plot. Central plot could move along a little faster for my tastes, but it's still fun and when Karloff's purely sinister John Gray stalks one of his victims down a dark alley, it's a truly effective moment of suspense in a film that I feel could've been pushed further into the realms of the creepy and nerve-wracking, but still makes for some engaging entertainment.

Motel Hell (dir. Kevin Cooper, 1980) -

Pure fun that intimates more serious matters without throwing them in your face. All the leads - excepting our female heroine (and assuming of course that your heroine is not Nancy Parsons as Ida) - have a great time chewing the scenes and camping it up and making this about as funny-yet-disturbing as they possibly can. And like the best satires, it succeeds as the (scary) thing it's making fun of while givng chuckles a-plenty, such as watching John Ratzenberger as a member of a punk outfit called "Ivan and the Terribles." I'd love to hear the record. Anyway, smoked meats made of human quarry are the norm in the innocuously named "Motel Hello" and Farmer Vince lives a simple, quiet life, recycling people into food and thereby reducing waste - that's how he sees it anyway. He is also living with Ida, and when the nature of their relationship is casually dropped into the story, it adds just another whole creepy level to the proceedings. The film takes a central premise but keeps throwing in ideas from way out in left field to keep you intrigued, keep things off-balance, and keep you involved. I can't say it ever really wraps up into a coherent statement (they seem to be avoiding going too heavily with anything serious here), but as a good slice of the weird, the funny, and the creepy, it does me just right.

Diabolique (dir. Henri-Georges Clouzout, 1955) -

Superb thriller from Clouzout brimming with the usual group of completely sour human beings, pessimism about mankind's motives in dealing with other humans, and a cold touch of realism brought to bear on some grisly proceedings. A school headmaster openly holds a mistress whom he contemptuously showers with affection in front of his wife. The wife and mistress plan to kill him while the school is on a break and that's whee it starts to get interesting. Things build slowly - perhaps a touch too slowly, though it didn't really bother me - up to the stunning finale, as good a ten minutes of screen time as Clouzout ever filmed. There is, of course, the comeuppance in the end that I think takes the picture down a tiny bit, where in other films of his sinister deeds would - or could, anyway - go unpunished. The film has greatness in it that it doesn't quite achieve (except in the closing scenes, which are absolutely brilliant), but it's pretty damned effective regardless and a fine addition to his catalog nonetheless.

Cure (dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 1997) -

I got about 25 minutes into this film before I realized that I'd already seen it. Fitting, I suppose for a film about an amnesiac who may or may not be responsible for motivating people to murder, but it didn't speak well for the film that I didn't remember it. This time though, I've got total recall of the scenes and the way the film works its effective and scary premise right up to the showdown between the two main characters. A good thing, strangely paced by American standards, but really effective in the way it draws you slowly and inexorably into the world it's created - something not too far off from the real world maybe (nothing here that's gonna dazzle you with shocks or special effects), but just "off" enough to be really unsettling. A sleeper, yes, but no pun intended.

Porcile (dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1969) -

Worst transfer ever! Bad print, reel changes are apparent every single time, and unless Pasolini's up to some sort of tricks, two reels are even switched late in the film, jumbling the chronology of this obscure film even more - but that's not really his style so much, even if indirectness is. So this one was evocative, despite my issues with the transfer, and the roughly contemporary interview with Pasolini in the bonus features offered up this nugget that helps explain not just this film, but his whole approach:

Pasolini: "I've never wanted to make a conclusive statement. I've always posed various problems and left them open to consideration."

Makes a hell of a lot more sense in watching this film that alternates between a historical story of a cannibalistic warrior and a that of a contemporary bourgeois family torn by political beliefs, neither of which lay their intentions on their sleeve or move in any sort of normal or predictable way (especially when suddenly you've moved ten minutes ahead in things and have to jump back later due to a reel switch). I finished the film wondering just what and why I had watched, but the comment above frames the whole thing - and other more obscure works of his - quite well, giving a key perhaps as to how to view them next time I want to make the effort. It's evocative and interesting, sure, but don't come to this one looking for any easy answers. Only Teorema and Salo are more inscrutible in his catalog, and maybe not even quite as much as this one.

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