One of the most eagerly anticipated offerings at Cannes this year, Shadow of the Vampire is the first feature in a decade from E. Elias Merhige, whose only previous effort was the one-of-a-kind avant-garde feature Begotten (1990). That amazing film visualized a timeless cycle of birth, death, and regeneration, in Druidic images at once primeval and postapocalyptic, that seem to have been developed on protoplasmic stock and projected with a flickering bioluminescence. What more appropriate directorial casting, then, for an imaginary (?) account of how F.W. Murnau, the cinema’s first poet of the supernatural, might have made Nosferatu, the first, albeit unofficial, screen version of Dracula.
Portland’s resident filmmaking genius, Gus Van Sant, can go either way. Sometimes he’s mainstream (lest we forget Good Will Hunting) and sometimes he’s experimental (in the remarkable Elephant and Gerry). For his latest film, he wears both hats.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is Van Sant’s tribute to fellow Portland legend John Callahan. You may remember Callahan: the carrot-haired quadriplegic cartoonist whose squiggly-lined drawings repeatedly crossed the borderline of good taste. The title refers to the caption of one of his most famous panels, a picture of some cowboys pondering an abandoned wheelchair in the middle of the desert. Before his death in 2010, Callahan worked with Van Sant on developing this biopic.
Suspiria (Synapse, Blu-ray) The Cat O’ Nine Tails (Arrow, Blu-ray+DVD Combo) Deep Red (Arrow, Blu-ray) Opera (Scorpion, Blu-ray) The Church (Scorpion, Blu-ray)
Dario Argento was the master choreographer of the distinctly Italian art of horror known as giallo, was a baroque, often sadistic kind of slasher movie that favors intricately-designed murder sequences and aesthetic beauty over logic. Call him the pop-art fabulist of the slasher movie set. Combining Hitchcockian camerawork, lush, over-saturated colors, rollercoaster-like thrills, and at times surreal situations, Argento could overcome the sadism and misogyny in his gallery of sliced and diced beauties with the sheer cinematic bravura and beauty of the sequences. In his best films Argento delivered murder as spectacle with razor-sharp execution and turned horror cinema into a dream-like spectacle with a dash of sexual perversity. Which may be why his films have a cult following but little popular interest in the U.S., where audiences are more interested in literal explanations.
Suspiria (Italy, 1977) was his only American hit, a stylish, surreal, downright puzzling piece of seventies Grand Guignol weirdness. Jessica Harper is an American ballet student in a creepy European dance academy run by Joan Bennett and Alida Valli, who seem to preside over a series of bizarre murders as well. The story has something to do with witchcraft and a coven that has made its home in the sinister school, but then plot was never Argento’s strength. Suspiria’s fame comes from operatic set pieces of lovingly choreographed violence—one young woman dropped through a stained glass ceiling until a rope around her neck breaks her fall (among other things), another swimming through a room filled (for no explicable reason) with razor wire (the first Saw borrowed this idea)—and Argento’s dreamy cinematography and vivid, full blooded imagery. He never really made sense, but in an era filled with masked brutes hacking up kids and co-eds, Argento brought a grace to the vicious business of murder and a dream logic to terror. Watch for Udo Kier in a supporting role.
Alexander Payne has become known for directing bittersweet comedies rooted in recognizable—you might say warts and all—humanity. Movies like Nebraska, About Schmidt, and Sideways are not always easy on their characters, but they sometimes crackle with lightning bolts of insight. Payne’s latest, written with his frequent writing partner Jim Taylor, adds a sci-fi framing device to his work. But ultimately Downsizing looks a lot like his previous films—and I think that’s a good thing.
The gimmick here is that Norwegian scientists have discovered a way to shrink people, a breakthrough that will lead to enormous environmental and financial benefits for the planet.
The Big Short (Paramount, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – Adam McKay is not necessarily the guy you look to for dramatic outrage at the greed and failure behind the economic collapse of the last decade. He is, after all, the director who guided Will Ferrell through such comedies as Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and The Other Guys. Yet here he is, adapting Michael Lewis’ nonfiction book on the reasons behind the financial collapse and coming away with a hit movie, five Academy Award nominations, and an Oscar win for Best Adapted Screenplay (shared with Charles Randolph).
The Big Short is serious and angry. It’s also very funny, which is its secret weapon. What’s a subprime mortgage? Here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain it to you. Need to explain what a CBO is without driving audiences away? How about Selena Gomez at a casino?
In the hands of McKay and his co-conspirators, the financial fraud of the 2000s is nothing short of a criminal farce with dire consequences. For us, that is, not the folks who perpetrated the crisis out of greed, criminal neglect, and reckless abandon. In this company of thieves and accomplices, the heroes of this story are a few men who saw through the façade and proceeded to bet against the house. They are, of course, outliers with idiosyncrasies.
In a recent Film Comment interview, the madcap Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin describes the different movie genres he’s re-creating in The Forbidden Room. There’s the “virgin sacrifice volcano movie,” a submarine picture, a Western, the “Japanese shamed-father genre,” and of course “a lot of different vampire films, because they’re radically different from culture to culture.” Even this sampling—there are more—doesn’t hint at this gleeful mishmash, which presents a series of fever-dream glimpses of Maddin’s imagined world of old movies. This thing is either for straight-up surrealists or fans of long-gone movie styles. That’s a narrow margin, but within it, Maddin thrives.
Vice & Virtue(Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) is the titillating title that Roger Vadim gave to his 1963 take on two Marquis de Sade stories, “Justine” and “Juliette,” which he reframed as a morality play set in Nazi-occupied France. Annie Girardot and Catherine Deneuve star as sisters representing diametrically opposed responses to the occupation. Girardot’s Juliette, aka “le vice,” turns collaborator and becomes the willing mistress to a ruthless and equally opportunistic SS colonel (Robert Hossein), while the idealistic young Justine, aka “le vertu,” defies the Nazis and is sent to “The Commandery,” the brothel clubhouse of a particularly sadistic brotherhood of officers in a country castle. Vadim revels in decadence and suggestions of sadism and sexual enslavement, attempting a kind of arthouse version of sexploitation by way of high melodrama and gothic horror, but it’s a weird confusion of bland elegance and tastelessness, a perverse fairy tale of innocence under assault and corruption punished in the end. It was the first major role for Deneuve but her part is small next to the power games and sensual distractions of her high-living sister and her calculating lover. They’re a natural couple with no allegiance to anything but their own power and pleasure.
[Originally published in Movietone News 56, November 1977]
As the credits of Suspiria roll, a voice, disembodied as any of the English-language ghosts who dub foreign pictures for U.S. release, supplies us with a little background information. It seems this American girl (Jessica Harper) is an American, and she’s decided to go to Europe to study dance at some strange academy in Germany; to get there, she takes a plane, and when the plane lands at a German airport, she gets off it and then she’s there in Germany. Well, yes: watch about thirty seconds of the movie proper and you learn all that for yourself. Why the helpful hints straining to be heard under the aural barrage of what will continue to be almost nonstop musical accompaniment by some group called The Goblins? Well, probably somebody at Twentieth Century Fox, after buying the film, noticed that it rarely made much sense on a scenario level and so hoped to start the audience off on redundantly sure footing before everything started going really haywire.