Blu-Ray Review: Certain Women – Criterion Collection

Director: Kelly Reichardt
Screenplay: Kelly Reichardt
Based on short stories by: Maile Meloy
Starring: Lily Gladstone, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, Jared Harris, James Le Gros
Country: USA
Running Time: 107 min
Year: 2016
BBFC Certificate: 12


Kelly Reichardt enjoys much acclaim for her films among mainstream critics, but she can be an acquired taste among bloggers and general audiences. You only have to compare the quotes and ratings from critics reviewing her work to her IMDb or Amazon star ratings to see there’s a bit of a gulf between intellectual appreciation and public opinion. Being what I’d consider part of the ‘slow cinema’ movement (which isn’t clearly defined, but includes similar films that are low on plot and action), her work isn’t particularly exciting or as attention-grabbing as more digestible auteurs making films in the 21st Century. Knowing this, I don’t rush to watch Reichardt’s films as I worry I’ll be in for a tedious slog, not helped by some less than enthusiastic opinions of her films I’ve heard expressed by a couple of friends. I did see Meek’s Cutoff a couple of years ago though and was very impressed, so my apprehension has dampened somewhat since then and strong reviews lead me to accept an offer of reviewing her latest film, Certain Women. Whilst I’m happy to watch the film now though, I’m still rather apprehensive about critiquing it. I consider myself quite a ‘nuts and bolts’ reviewer, who likes to list clear elements of the film that work or don’t work rather than waffle on about what a filmmaker is trying to ‘say’. So I find slow, quiet, thoughtful films like this difficult to analyse in my usual fashion. I’ll give it my best shot though.

Certain Women takes several short stories by Maile Meloy and uses them to create three only very loosely connected narratives, which are presented one by one through the bulk of the film, before revisiting them all briefly in the finale. The first story features Laura Dern as Laura, a lawyer troubled by a client (Jared Harris) that won’t accept the fact he doesn’t have a case. He seems to have a fondness for Laura too and won’t leave her alone, asking for her help when he cracks and takes someone hostage at gunpoint.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Wonderful Worlds Of Ray Harryhausen, Volume One: 1955-1960

Indicator continue their Blu-Ray re-releases of the great Ray Harryhausen’s work with this volume containing three of the films he made between 1955 and 1960. It includes glorious HD prints of It Came From Beneath the Sea, 20 Million Miles to Earth and The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, curiously skipping Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (which has previously been made available on DVD in a set with the first two titles). In my earlier review of the Sinbad Trilogy, I professed my love for Harryhausen’s stop motion creations and how they played a key part in my cinematic upbringing, so I was thrilled to be offered another set of his films to review, particularly since I’d only seen one of them previously (It Came From Beneath the Sea). My thoughts on the three films are below:

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Review: Mother!

Director: Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream, Pi, The Fountain, Noah, Black Swan)
Writer: Darren Aronofsky
Producers: Scott Franklin, Ari Handel
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 121 min.

 

 

My original posting of this review can be found on LetterBoxd

 


If you love your very on-the-nose religious allegories aggressively shoved down your throat for an excruciating two hours, then Mother! is the movie for you! Darren Aronofsky’s latest is a big ol’ parable that’s pretty impossible to miss since instead of wrapping its deeper ideas inside of anything resembling a plot of its own he instead throws it right there on the surface with giant sign posts indicating every little thing that anyone needs for even the most basic viewer to “get it”. Of course it’s also just the kind of obnoxiously “ambitious”, “auteur-driven”, “provocative” feature that will ignite a heavily divisive response with its lovers insisting that the detractors somehow “didn’t get it” even though there’s literally nothing else to it. That’s a big part of the problem. Aronofsky just drowns this beast in his giant allegory (which, yes, could also be an interpretation of the creative process, but isn’t that essentially the same thing? And really there’s too much religion here for it not to be that more than anything), leaving no room for anything else.

Certainly not for even the slightest modicum of character development or dimension, as a talented cast led by Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem is criminally underserved by a script that treats their characters as props rather than actual people with inner lives who the audience are supposed to care for. And yet as the deliriously, infuriatingly chaotic final act rages on there’s this odd pull that the movie suddenly wants us to have an investment in these people, but it did absolutely zero groundwork to get us to that point. Ultimately it did zero work to establish practically anything. It’s well and good to work an allegory like this into something, but you have to actually have something there in the first place to work it into and Aronofsky missed the boat on that one. Even more than that he missed the concept of having it all actually mean anything on a grander scheme. Sure, it’s all about religion, but for what purpose? Why does this movie exist? Beats me.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Red Turtle

Director: Michael Dudok de Wit
Screenplay: Michael Dudok de Wit, Pascale Ferran
Starring: Emmanuel Garijo, Tom Hudson, Baptiste Goy
Country: France, Belgium, Japan
Running Time: 80 min
Year: 2016
BBFC Certificate: 12


I‘m an absolute sucker for animated films, so watch and enjoy a great deal of them. My favourite director has long been Hayao Miyazaki and the work he does, as well as that of Studio Ghibli, the production company he co-founded, is always classed as ‘must see’ in my household as I consider their output some of the best of the format. Michael Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle is only partly produced by Studio Ghibli, but its strong reviews have kept it firmly at the top of my ‘to watch’ list ever since I became aware of it. I frustratingly missed a couple of opportunities to see it on the big screen, but finally my chance came to watch the film when I was offered a screener to review, so I cranked up my projector and settled down, trying but failing to dampen my expectations in case of disappointment.

The Red Turtle opens with a nameless man struggling to keep hold of a capsized boat during a terrible storm, before later waking up on a desert island, the shattered remnants of his boat largely washed away. He survives as best he can and soon attempts to leave the island, stringing bamboo trunks together to form a small raft. This gets smashed by an unknown force under the water, so he swims back to shore and later tries again. His second raft gets destroyed again by a similar unseen underwater attacker. Then, on his third attempt, he catches his assailant in the act. It’s a large red turtle, who follows the man back to the island. In his anger and frustration, the man takes a large piece of wood and beats the turtle, then flips it on its back to die in the baking sunlight. After a while, the man realises what he’s done though and tries to nurse the animal back to life. Instead what happens takes the film in a fantastical direction, as the turtle turns into a woman. She can’t speak and still has some turtle-like characteristics, but the man falls in love with her and the pair decide to stay put, prompting the film to shift forward in time a couple of years to reveal they now have a young son. We then follow their lives as a family and watch the development of the boy into a man, who sets his sights beyond the island.

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Harry Dean Stanton: 1926 – 2017

Possibly the greatest character actor of the past 40 years, the cantankerous stalwart for the smoking, drinking working fellow, Harry Dean Stanton passed on at the venerable age of 91. The actor has approximately 200 film and television credits dating all the way back to the 1950s, so obviously you might fit into one or more of several camps of HDS. There is the dopey working class performances in Red Dawn, and Alien (Rieeeght). There is the creepy, creepy villain rolls in TV’s Big Love series, Seven Psychopaths, and Wild At Heart. The existential drifter, in Paris Texas, and his last major film to come out, 2017’s Lucky. The mentor and father figure, in Pretty in Pink, Repo Man. As a seedy sidekick in Escape From New York and Cockfighter. Or the witness to events in The Straight Story, The Green Mile, The Avengers, Twin Peaks Fire Walk With Me, and The Last Temptation of Christ. Or mood-setting troubadour strumming his six string in Cool Hand Luke, Access All Areas and recently in Twin Peaks: The Return.

His lanky frame and ‘I don’t give a fuck’ posture, which was meticulously achieved with committed performances in even the tiniest of parts, made him one of the recognizable faces in film, and he will deeply missed. Of course, Stanton worked right up to the moment of his death and can be seen acting alongside one of his regular collaborators, David Lynch (he is in the bulk of Lynch’s filmography), in John Carroll Lynch’s Lucky as well as in Michael Oblowitz’s Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner picture, Frank & Ava.

Variety has more.

Friday One Sheet: The Shape of Charcoal

Fresh off its big Golden Lion win at Venice, its hot-ticket premiere at TIFF, and Opening Film slot announcement at the upcoming at Sitges, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape Of Water gets this handsome charcoal-sketch poster that is a variant of sorts from the water-colour teaser design. Clearly articulating the ‘Creature From The Black Lagoon’-as-a-love-story angle of the film and wearing its festival laurels in the corner, this one will be an eye catcher when it is hung (hopefully on paper, not on a screen) in multiplex lobbies in December. Me, I will be standing in the rush line in Toronto (hey, I’ve been here all week!) at TIFF hoping to see if the film lives up to its praise, or I will be waiting until December like the rest of you.

Trailer: The Shape of Water

Guillermo del Toro is certainly an auteur at this point in the game. I went to his private collection of memorabilia and childhood influences exhibit last year at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (aptly titled “At Home with Monsters”) and you could see the very distinct flavor of both his inspirations as well as his output.

All that said, this has a little more of “the feels” to it. Almost like Jean-Pierre Jeunet had a hand in production. In fact, if this trailer is anything to go by, it feels a little safe to me. A misunderstood or “different” person/creature is able to find themselves with another who is “different.” Meanwhile the evil scientists do evil stuff. I feel like I’ve seen this story a million times. I mean shit, Doug Jones as the guy in the water tank? Really?

Still, it’s del Toro and slew of great actors (Hawkins, Shannon, Stuhlbarg, Spencer, Jenkins, et. al), so this is still very definitely on the must see list later this year. Have a look below; am I way off base here?

Alexander Payne is “Downsizing”

I am not sure why I never come up with Alexander Payne’s name wehen asked who my favorite directors are. The usual names pop up such as The Coens or Tarantino or Kubrick. But Payne has for years, consistently created wonderful and intimate character pieces that are always fresh and exciting. Even a simple road trip movie between an old man and his son or a land dispute between brothers in contemporary Hawaii or just a guy who likes to wine and whine or a girl looking to become class president. The man doesn’t have the largets filmography out there, but his stories are 5/5 efforts every single time. And funny enough, Downsizing looks like it will be one of his larger pictures – in terms of scope and effects work… yet it still remains intimate.

Matt Damon and Kristin Wiig are a couple of the best working in the quirky dramedies of today. Hell, Damon’s best work is Soderbergh’s The Informant and he appears to be harnessing a little bit of that character here. This is Honey I Shrunk the Kids for adults – a comparison I’m positive I’m not the first to make. And while I’m often turned off by iconic pop-rock songs in my trailers of today, I can’t think of a better use of The Talking Heads. Yeah – I’m seriously looking forward to this “little” Christmas present in late December.

Blu-Ray Review: Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)

Director: Henry Levin
Screenplay: Walter Reisch, Charles Brackett
Based on a Novel by: Jules Verne
Starring: James Mason, Pat Boone, Arlene Dahl, Diane Baker, Thayer David, Peter Ronson
Country: USA
Running Time: 129 min
Year: 1959
BBFC Certificate: U


Some films, like some music, work best or sometimes only work when watched in certain situations. ‘Bad’ movies for instance, are only fun when watched with a group of like minded friends and helped by the consumption of alcohol. Horror movies, with few exceptions, need to be watched at night when it’s nice and dark and you feel isolated and vulnerable. Comedies are best in a packed cinema or at home with a group of people willing to laugh along at the jokes. These are fairly obvious examples, but another genre (if you can call it that) I’d add to the list are old family-friendly adventure movies. Maybe it’s just me, but lightly enjoyable romps made back in the 40s or 50s work so much better when watched on a lazy, preferably rainy Sunday afternoon when you’ve got nothing better to do. The looser pace and dated elements don’t trouble you like they might when watched before bed on a weekday, when the troubles of the day are still on your mind and you need a bit more excitement or food for thought to keep you awake. Journey to the Center of the Earth (the 1959 version) is such a film and I watched it under near perfect circumstances. Last Saturday, my youngest daughter was a bit under the weather, my wife was at work, my dad was looking after my eldest daughter, and it was chucking it down. So I settled down on the sofa that afternoon, put out some toys for the little ‘un and took a charming journey through Jules Verne’s imagination without a care in the world (other than taking notes for this review).

The title to Journey to the Center of the Earth makes its plot pretty clear, although there are further details I can describe here, many of which were added by the screenwriters Walter Reisch and Charles Brackett to add some more contemporary excitement to the original story.

Respected professor Sir Oliver S. Lindenbrook (James Mason) is given the gift of an unusual piece of volcanic rock from a student, Alec McEwan (Pat Boone), to celebrate his being knighted. Finding some unusual properties to the rock, he runs some tests on it and discovers it contains a message from an Icelandic scientist named Arne Saknussemm, who went missing on a quest to reach the centre of the Earth. The rock is proof that Saknussemm had discovered something close to it, so Lindenbrook becomes obsessed with picking up where Saknussemm left off. When he treks up to Iceland to do so however, he finds himself in a race for the prize against two other scientists, the Swedish Professor Göteborg (Ivan Triesault) and Count Saknussemm (Thayer David), a descendant of the scientist who wants the glory for himself. When the Count kills off Göteborg, the Swede’s wife Carla (Arlene Dahl) joins Lindenbrook, McEwan, a giant local Icelander called Hans (Pétur Ronson), and his pet duck Gertrud, on the titular trip down a rather convenient passage to the city of Atlantis, near the Earth’s core.

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Blu-Ray Review: Don’t Torture a Duckling

Director: Lucio Fulci
Screenplay: Lucio Fulci, Roberto Gianviti, Gianfranco Clerici
Starring: Florinda Bolkan, Barbara Bouchet, Tomas Milian, Marc Porel
Country: Italy
Running Time: 105min
Year: 1972
BBFC Certificate: 18


The Italian genre movie writer/director Lucio Fulci is probably best known for his ultra-gory horror movies, such as Zombie Flesh Eaters (a.k.a. Zombie), The Beyond and City of the Living Dead, so he’s often considered a rather trashy director by more mainstream critics. However, he actually wrote and directed a range of material over his long and prolific career (largely earlier on in it), including a number of comedies. His most well respected films touch on the horror genre, but fall more accurately into that of the giallo (Italian murder mystery thrillers, basically). The most acclaimed of these, and the one Fulci named as his personal favourite, is 1972’s Don’t Torture a Duckling, which Arrow Video have brought out on Blu-Ray in the UK.

Don’t Torture a Duckling is set in the rural Italian town of Accendura (which is fictional as far as I know) where young boys are being killed off one by one. After the first murder, a local ‘simpleton’ known as Barra (Vito Passeri) is arrested and thought to be the killer after he is caught trying to ask for a ransom from the boy’s parents, pretending he is alive and hiding the body. The police aren’t too sure he’s the right man though, despite this evidence, and after the second child is killed they know for certain they’re barking up the wrong tree. From then on a couple of oddball characters are suspected, including a local ‘witch’, Maciara (Florinda Bolkan), and a young attractive woman, Patrizia (Barbara Bouchet), who is believed to have moved here to recover from a drug problem. Whilst the police struggle to find the culprit, a journalist from the city, Andrea Martelli (Tomas Milian), makes his own investigation. As each new suspect is made public, the locals react in vicious outrage before the truth eventually comes out.

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Friday One Sheet: Valley of Shadows

The Toronto International Film Festival has gotten underway as of yesterday, and I would be remiss if I didn’t offer one of my favourite posters, for one of my favourite films playing the festival. Valley of Shadows is a gorgeous modern version of a classic fairy tale. The story is basically simple: A boy goes into the deep dark woods to look for his lost dog, but discovers unexpected things in his journey. But the construction is impressively formal in how it conveys its images and tone.

The poster emphasizes what much of the film-making language tries tries to impart. Namely, is the lead character dreaming or is this wandering quest a reality? The large moon, and the long winding river both converge on the sleeping form of the lead character, Aslak. The boy, the dog and a boat offer the beginning of the journey at the bottom of the poster. The colours and texture is all gloomy fog, and imposing wilderness. But what is the most eye-catching is how of a piece, the sleeping body of the boy integrates with the horizon. It’s evocative, and original, like the film.

The trailer for the film is tucked under the fold.

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