Guillermo del Toro directs Bradley Cooper, Rooney Mara and Willem Dafoe in this noir nightmare where an amoral carnival worker learns the grift of cold reading people and puts it to nefarious use.
All seeing eyes. Intricate period production design. Beautiful freaks. Monstrous humanity. Portentous monologues. Noses punched off faces. Massive circles looping around to meet their fate. I prefer del Toro’s doomed nightmares rather than his sentimental fairytales. Give me the ornate bleakness of The Devil’s Backbone and Crimson Peak over the slightly sickly sweet and naive Pan’s Labyrinth or The Shape Of Water. People losing their souls and revealing the beast inside… yum! This is probably his most erotic and adult work. There’s no virgin child here. Mara’s fragile Molly might have a sad innocence to her but she’s a more sexualised figure than Sally Hawkins or Spanish tweens ever could or should be. Toni Collette and Cate Blanchett are framed and lit sensually, their immaculate costumes poured onto them like glue. This was greenlit with Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead and as much as I love him I’m kinda glad the lumbering Cooper picked up the role instead. Stanton Carlisle needs to be a blank space, a jar with no contents. He barely talks in the first act, anything he says later on is cribbed and rehearsed. It is role for a bulk, not a brain. And Leo already trod similar waters in Shutter Island anyway, an oblivious man being pulled towards an ultimate truth he will not like the weight or look of. There probably should be more circus sideshow stuff throughout but the second half shifts to an urban con that is equally as fascinating. That massive circle motif ain’t playing, it overwhelms. We take a long, unpredictable route back to the start but we know exactly how this will end from the earliest moments, just not how exactly we will get there. Rian Johnson’s house composer Nathan Johnson jumps ship and does a perfect Carter Burwell pastiche which suits del Toro’s mournful vision to a tee. Masterful, elegiac, nasty.
I think I’m not overstating it when I say the film fan community was a little surprised when Quentin Tarantino proclaimed this solid actioner as one of his Top 3 movies of the last decade recently. I mean there’s the Tony Scott connection… there’s the Rosario Dawson connection… and we know he is a self declared fan of both Pine and Speed. Yet most people wouldn’t remember Unstoppable if they were asked to list the best movies of its own release year, let alone for an entire decade. Suddenly Tarantino acolytes were scanning every frame, checking to see if we missed out on subtle shots of ladies bare feet. But… no… this is nothing more and nothing less than a good efficient action movie. The old / young buddy movie arc between Washington and Pine works nicely. The anti-corporate America attitude is not too heavy handed and well played. The whole thing unsurprisingly has a relentless pace. The stunts are decent. It is quite rewatchable. The only negative beyond a lack of ambition and originality is some of the set pieces emerge from left of field with zero set-up. In all honesty, there are far more wanky movies that have been over praised. So why shouldn’t the nippy and utilitarian Unstoppable be part of the “Cinema’s Finest” conversation?
Alain Resnais directs Emmanuelle Riva, Eiji Okada and Bernard Fresson in this French New Wave romance set in a rebuilt Hiroshima.
Full of gorgeous, unforgettable shots. The first twenty minutes are hard going as we are shown documentary footage of the scarred survivors of the nuclear fallout intercut with a pair of naked bodies intertwined. It would be an injustice to say the movie settles after that, it keeps playing with time and memory, but it becomes more palatable. Two handsome lovers, with different lingering but fading traumas from World War II, walk the streets of a city only recently levelled. It is knowingly pretentious for long swathes but the beauty and the psychological grit of it wins out. I’m struggling to think of any other New Wave movie that engages with world history quite so confidently. Some solid stray cat action also occurs between the angst and yearning.
Perfect Double Bill: Last Year at Marienbad (1961)
Samuel Fuller directs Constance Towers, Anthony Eisley and Michael Grant in this melodrama where a prostitute tries to lead a decent life in a hypocritical town.
A shock every 30 minutes. This has a tabloid frankness and mode. It can be a little histrionic and obvious at times. Towers is a class act and the good girls and bad women who orbit her all look knockout. The darker themes are pure exploitation. Fuller conjures up some fantastic compositions (one involving Kelly’s shadow as she talks about her past is perfect) yet there’s little spoken here that rings true. I reckon David Lynch loves this, it feels very very Twin Peaks / Blue Velvet adjacent.
Gregory Hoblit directs Denzel Washington, John Goodman and Embeth Davidtz in this supernatural thriller where an executed serial killer turns out to be a body hopping demon.
Better than I remember. The visuals are very Se7en inspired, the fantastic hook leads to an alright twist. It feels very mid to late Nineties. Maybe that of-its-era twist ending is what let’s this down slightly. It means the last act is happier moving towards a relatively guessable outcome rather than milking all the tension that the villain’s powers gift it. We only get one inspired chase where Davidtz is imperilled as a conga line of swaps chases her down a busy street. The one second watch bonus is trying to guess when certain characters are possessed. On first watch one assumes the body hopping happens just once to each host but once you know that “Azazel” can move back and forth, and does so playfully, the fun is working in what scenes are we less obviously in the company of the killer. The Rolling Stones “Time Is On My Side” is put to memorable use and there’s a rollicking support cast that includes Donald Sutherland, Elias Koteas and James Gandolfini.
Tony Richardson directs Rob Lowe, Jodie Foster and Nastassja Kinski in this adaptation of John Irving’s coming of age novel about an American family’s encounters with sex, death, bears and hotel owning.
There’s a few ways to adapt a story dense novel into a two hour movie. One is to cut and condense as much as possible while retaining as much of the mood and qualities of the original. Another is to make the movie a separate work inspired by the source material but not beholden to it. Then there’s this way… which is to rush through every narrative moment of the book giving no incident any extra emphasis or greater context. Democratic, brute force, boilerplate adaptation. People who haven’t read the novel must find this borderline incomprehensible. There’s no chance to get your bearings or savour the meaning of anything until the second half. The cast look sexy, it makes for a good York Notes reminder for those of us already initiated.
Edward Dmytryk directs Robert Young, Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan in this noir where a police detective investigates an anti-Semitic murder where a set of soldiers are the prime suspects.
Quite heavy handed and doesn’t really work as a thriller. The killer is obvious from the start and the movie cannot settle on a protagonist. There are two really neat monologues about prejudice in America. The source material was about homosexuality rather than anti-semitism and it isn’t a stretch to see all the characters as closeted. Not enough Mitchum for my liking, Gloria Grahame excels in a small role as a fallen woman.
Takeshi Kitano directs Miho Kanno, Hidetoshi Nishijima and Tatsuya Mihashi in this Japanese arthouse anthology movie exploring how we are all puppets to love, death and faith.
Very beautiful. The stories move through the seasons and each shift in environment opens up a new visual gallery which dominates the screen. The three tale of doomed romance are quite simple and unsubtle but maybe that benefits the magical realism of them.
Eckhart Schmidt directs Désirée Nosbusch, Bodo Staiger and Simone Brahmann in this German arthouse horror where an obsessed teenager abandons her suburban life to meet a New Wave pop star.
All slow build to a violent, yet strangely sterile, finale. If you’ve seen images of Der Fan then you’ve no doubt seen a fully nude Désirée Nosbusch getting up to no good with a serrated blade. That kind of behaviour makes up so little of the movie and is handled so clinically that it probably is not going to satisfy either gorehounds or dirty macs. What the movie does really well is get into this girl’s unhinged but sympathetic head space. At one point the camera is literally swallowed by the vulnerable teen. We understand her yearning, and her delusion. We can barely believe it when it seems her dreams are coming true. Though we are not shocked to discover that the dream cannot last forever and there are plenty of men who want to ignore, belittle or exploit her. So it’s satisfying she gets the last laugh. And as a fully committed artefact of post-punk fashions and the slightly naff pretensions of the manufactured European pop scene, Der Fan is quite the treat.
Zhangke Jia directs Hongwei Wang, Hongjian Hao and Baitao Zuo in this Chinese drama where a small time provincial thief realises all his friends have become “respectable” and toys with the idea of a normal life.
Solid slice of life drama with unprofessional actors who look authentic because they are. Meanders pleasantly, giving you a better idea of what life in a Chinese town is like away from the glamour of Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. Some street scenes have an incongruous soundtrack of “other” media including, amusingly, John Woo’s The Killer.
Perfect Double Bill: Pickup on South Street (1953)