I don’t know what to say, but mental health is really hard. The way that my depression shows itself is by making me unable to participate in the things that I love. And I love film. Today I set out to start getting back in the habit by sitting down and forcing myself to watch something. It felt like more of a chore than I would have liked but getting back in the habit is worth it.
The Night of the Hunter (1955, Dir. Charles Laughton)
I return to this project by checking off a huge blind spot. While The Night of the Hunter may not have been released to immediate critical acclaim – the film received zero Oscar nominations – in the 65 years that have followed Charles Laughton’s only directorial outing has become revered as one of cinema’s all-time greats. The morbid story of two children whose parents are both killed over a large sum of money and the crazed priest who stocks had a lasting impact. The tension that was built is all encompassing.
Much of that tension comes from the performance of Robert Mitchum as the priest and former convict Harry Powell. He builds a convincing argument as a stable preacher who can be trusted with the raising of two children. The second he is alone with the kids he turns his performance into a man to be feared. This dual faced performance is the clear highlight of the film, and his hymnal singing in the middle of the night is a lasting, haunting moment.
It was difficult to choose a film to watch today that would work with the soundtrack from yesterday’s film still ringing in my ears. While I couldn’t think of anything to watch that would match the eccentricity of Annette, one film did stick out in my mind as an apt follow up for different reasons. After two and a half hours highlighted by some of Marion Cotillard’s singing, I decided to visit the acting, and singing, performance for which she has her Oscar.
La Vie En Rose (2007, Dir. Olivier Dahan)
I am going to be honest; I do not have much to say about this movie. I have spent many of these daily entries talking about the pitfalls of the standard Biopic. La Vie En Rose falls for each and every one of them. By attempting to tell the entire life story of Édith Piaf, the film is an unwieldy 140 minutes, yet no part of the signer’s life is given adequate screen time. The film is left feeling both bloated and slight at the same time. Jumping back and forth between eras doesn’t do the film any benefits and leads to more confusion. This is a technique that can work well for Biopics that choose to focus on exactly two times in the character’s life, but since La Vien En Rose is all encompassing, this technique just muddles plot points, especially as the age difference between Ediths diminishes.
For all my misgivings about La Vie En Rose, I can not begrudge it the Oscars that it won. Marion Cotillard is brilliant in the lead performance, and her voice carries the film through its many musical moments. Similarly, the makeup department winning makes a lot of sense. Cotillard plays Piaf from the young age of 19 (Cotillard was 32 at the time) to age 47 where Piaf suffering from serious liver damage looked twice as old. The makeup department was responsible for this range to be possible.
Sorry for missing a few days again. I had to deal with a personal emergency of which the details I will keep to myself. I’m doing my best to distract myself by returning to normal with these reviews, but I may miss a day or two when the pain is stronger. Sad news aside, today I returned to 2021 releases for one of the films that I’ve been looking forward to the most.
Annette (2021, Dir. Leos Carax)
9 years after creating the masterpiece Holy Motors, Leos Carax returns to the world of cinema to create Annette, a similarly ambitious film that’s slightly more grounded in plot with significantly more singing. Carax once again leans much more into spectacle than substance, and while that made for a masterpiece in his prior film, the slightly more conventional Annette gets occasionally lost in the outrageous style.
Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard star as Henry and Ann two highly successful artists working in very different mediums – Henry a comedian and Ann an opera singer – who are in love. They eventually marry and give birth to Annette, a very peculiar child. Not long after, disaster strikes, and Annette is bestowed a gift/curse. The plot of Annette is rather basic and not deserving of the 140-minute runtime, but the plot is not really the point. Annette lives and dies by its near constant musical pieces written by the Sparks brothers. These pieces fill in the holes in the film’s plot and create a cohesive whole worthy of the extended length.
It is easy to get lost in the simplicity of the story being told in Annette but doing so would be a disservice to the film. The Sparks brothers’ musical talents are on full display throughout the film starting with ‘So May We Start’ the opening song which also happens to be the film’s catchiest. While no other song lives up to that first number, the music is appropriate considering the rest of the film and still appealing enough to put the soundtrack on repeat for this reviewer.
In addition to the musical elements, Carax creates a unique viewing experience through creative editing, heightened production design, and uncompromised vision. The film has an almost enchanting quality to it as one is easily sucked up into the world that Carax is spinning. It leaves a viewer with a haunting afterglow that lasts well into the next day.
In continuance of my Spencer hype, today I watched another recent Kristen Stewart vehicle. I never really need an excuse to visit her filmography – something which many of my friends who only know her for the Twilight films find baffling – but having the reason allows me to visit some of her less critically acclaimed films.
Underwater (2020, Dir. William Eubank)
Underwater is another in a long line of films paying heavy homage – some might say ripping off – Ridley Scott’s masterpiece Alien (1979). It is a tried-and-true formula for a reason as the dimly lit corridors combined with terrifying monster design preys heavily on the psyche of viewers. Even as the archetype is copied into the ground, a strong execution of the Alien setup will deliver a satisfactory horror film and Underwater is just that.
Set miles below the surface, Underwater stars Kristen Stewart as a mechanical engineer working on a deep-sea drilling rig. When the drilling results in an earthquake critically damaging the rig and forcing a small group of survivors to make the trek via ocean floor to another facility with working rescue pods. Unfortunately, the earthquake brought something up from the depths which gets in their way.
Underwater is a fully adequate Alien clone with a great lead performance at its center. The film does very little special but still delivers an effective albeit conventional horror film. The monsters are horrific, and the film knows to keep them mostly hidden for greatest effect. Keeping Kristen Stewart front and center always helps the film succeed as she elevates the Ripley proxy into similarly captivating protagonist. While the film does not live up to the more experimental takes on the horror genre that A24 has been putting out in recent years, Underwater is still a solid watch for the horror connoisseur.
Today, hopefully, marks the return to this project. I have graduated from my PHP program and am back to spending my days largely at home. In full disclosure I did watch The Green Knight (2021, Dir. David Lowery) which I genuinely loved, but I found very difficult to write about. I recommend it, if you go in expecting a Lowery film and not a classic work of Arthurian legend. Instead of writing about that film from a few days ago, I’m taking inspiration from the Spencer teaser which just dropped and watching another Kristen Stewart helmed biopic.
Seberg (2019, Dir. Benedict Andrews)
Seberg had the pieces to be a success. It avoids the common pitfall of most biopics by focusing on a specific moment in Jean Seberg’s life rather than the entirety of it, and it is headlined by a performance from the always amazing Kristen Stewart. Yet despite these strengths the film does not cohere into a film befitting of Stewart’s performance.
The film’s flaws are most apparent when examining the message that the filmmakers want to share, and the supporting cast around Stewart. Second billing is Jack O’Connell as FBI agent Jack Solomon. This character creates a level of dissonance throughout the rest of the film. He is ostensibly cast as the good cop in the otherwise corrupt FBI. By having a good cop, it completely diminishes Jean’s story. The film loses it’s power by taking the focus away from Seberg’s story and Stewart’s performance
Yes, I missed yesterday, but I’m not worried about what it says. I may have not written anything yesterday but that wasn’t because I didn’t watch anything. On the contrary over the last two days, I watched an entire trilogy and wanted to wait until seeing all three before putting down my thoughts on any one of them specifically.
Fear Street: Part One – 1994 (2021, Dir. Leigh Janiak)
The first of the Fear Street trilogy is also the most conventional. 1994 is Janiak’s take on the high school slasher, a genre filled with hundreds of entries. The film accompanies this well-trodden subject matter with the post Scream (1996, Dir. Wes Craven) trope of self-aware humor to create a film that is largely derivative of the movies that have come before it. Derivative in this case doesn’t mean bad. The scares work well in the film, and the setup of an ancient witch’s curse has some novelty to it. The film also delivers well on the self-aware humor. This comes through no clearer than with the ridiculously on the nose needle drops peppered throughout the film. Each song more obvious than the last becomes a running fourth wall breaking joke that is never addressed directly but instead left as an Easter egg for the viewer. These smaller pieces show a film maker with a lot of skill that was held down somewhat by a lackluster script.
Fear Street: Part Two – 1978 (2021, Dir. Leigh Janiak)
A slight change of setting makes a world of difference, and 1978 stands out as a highlight among the trilogy. Instead of simply remaking Scream with less novelty, Janiak flexes her muscles by blending different horror subgenres. While the 1980s camp slasher films (think the early Friday the 13ths or Sleepaway Camps) eventually became a parody of themselves, applying the tongue in cheek humor of the first film to a style of film which lacked that levity creates a wonderful blend. The two leads, Ziggy (Sadie Sink) and Cindy (Emily Rudd) Berman have wonderful sisterly chemistry with each other, and they both know when to play up some of the cheesier elements of their film while maintaining the necessary seriousness for the emotional moments to hit home. The film is extremely tight and delivers on the promise of the first film.
Fear Street: Part Three – 1666 (2021, Dir. Leigh Janiak)
The third film in the trilogy is the hardest to talk about because while it is delivered in a single package, the first hour and the last 40 minutes are completely different movies. The first hour is a 1600s period piece about satanism and witchcraft and is the strongest part of the entire trilogy. The section builds wonderful tension, and the supernatural are implemented discreetly yet definitively. At the hour mark though, the film cuts back to 1994 to finish the underlying story. While it makes sense that the film would need to close out the underlying story, it feels it could either have been condensed down from 40 minutes or given its own fourth entry to allow the period thriller room to breathe.
Today was the first official day that I was at my program half time, and the time off in the afternoon left me with ample time. While despite the free time, today only has one film, I have a couple of multifilm days in planning for the rest of the week. Today’s viewing was continuing with my 2021 movie catchup, and it took me to the near top of the Metacritic list for the year.
Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021, Dir. Questlove)
When tasked with naming a music festival from 1969, most people will answer Woodstock without a second thought; Summer of Soul attempts to expand the zeitgeist to include the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival at the same time. The film does that by blending traditional concert documentary footage with the cultural context necessary to understand the festival’s importance.
While billed as a blend between the musical and the political, Summer of Soul sets the music center stage and builds the cultural significance around each performance. This focus works well to capture the essence of the festival and save it for prosperity even if it leaves the civil rights portion of the documentary a little thin. A balance like this would need to be made to tell a coherent story, and the numerous powerful musical performances – highlighted by the amazing Nina Simone – are the strongest and most unique parts of the film.
The context applied to the extended music scenes is done through the use of talking heads, a style that I am known for not being the biggest fan. Thankfully, Summer of Soul leans heavily on the musical performances to provide extended reprieves from the stylistic monotony of the talking heads. While the film is still rooted in traditional documentary filmmaking, the balance between technical choices provides a lot more enjoyment than a stylistically safer film would have been resulting in an overall enjoyable watch.
Second day back working on this project, and I am endeavoring to make this stick once again. Having missed most of the last two months, I feel very behind in watching new releases, so that is what I am going to be focusing on these next few weeks. And while I doubt that I will catch up with Black Widow or The Suicide Squad, there are plenty of other recent releases that I have on my list.
Shiva Baby (2021, Dir. Emma Seligman)
If severe social anxiety were a movie, it would be the wonderful debut by Emma Seligman Shiva Baby. Outside of a short prologue, the entire film takes place in a house during a Shiva for someone the protagonist Danielle (Rachel Sennott) doesn’t even know. Seligman uses the heightened setting to create a film which is at times utterly terrifying.
Danielle is a college senior who gets by with a financial help from her parents and her sugar daddy, a fact which she keeps secret from everyone and accredits this money to babysitting. This insecurity with where she is in life creates the perfect breeding ground for anxieties to rise as countless extended family members pester her with the same questions ad infinitum. The film hinges on the performance of the relatively new actress Sennott, and she delivers on the ask in spades. Each additional stressor compounds Danielle’s anxiety, and Sennott captures the nuanced changes miraculously.
As good as the acting and direction are in Shiva Baby, the unsung hero of the film is composer Ariel Marx. The squeaking strings that highlight the musical moments help create the tension that is the highlight of the film. The pair of Seligman and Marx create a uniquely memorable depiction of the anxiety and insecurities that can only be brought out through interactions with one’s family.
Sorry for the prolonged disappearance once again. Maintaining this project while simultaneously taking care of myself via partial hospitalization was more than I could maintain. As of today though, I’ve officially graduated down to the less intense (though awkwardly titled) intensive outpatient program and should be able to restart this again. More than just having the time and energy with this less intensive program, taking the time to do this is something that should help me heal.
Zola (2021, Dir. Janicza Bravo)
The darling of Sundance 2020 (it continues to be baffling how much COVID pushed movie releases) Zola attempts to channel Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (2013) but to tell a story adapted from a series of tweets. While Zola is an enjoyable watch and one I would ultimately recommend these two observations/ comparisons result in a film that ultimately feels a little slight.
When the real life Aziah “Zola” Wells tweeted “Okay listen up. This story long. So I met this white bitch at Hooters…”, the beginning to her masterpiece, she had no idea that her story would one day become a feature film. The popularity of the thread may have made it inevitable, but while the truth may in fact be stranger than fiction, screenplays are normally more flushed out than a series of tweets. Things just happen in the plot without a lot of rhyme or reason.
I mention the comparison to Spring Breakers above because it is what ends up saving Zola. Neither film are blessed with particularly strong screenplays but they use the grimy glitz of Florida to implement a memorable style enhancing the lackluster story. Spring Breakers does so with an avant-garde sweeping style, Zola keeps its style more grounded in the truth with forth wall breaking references to the tweet storm that would follow. This choice adds some much needed levity and intrigue to the film and is what ultimately makes it a positive watch.
I am allowing myself to slowly ease myself back in to watching and writing movies. This means that I will be putting up posts every few days as I feel up to it for at least as long as I am in recovery. What it apparently does not mean is that I will be choosing any easier material for my viewings.
No.7 Cherry Lane (2019, Dir. Yonfan)
When Ziming (Alex Tak-Shun Lam) starts proclaiming the values of reading Proust to Mrs. Yu (Sylvia Chang) the preceding 30 minutes come into full context. Director Yonfan turns the animated medium on its head by showing all movements in painfully slow detail as opposed to the more frantic pace for which his contemporaries use the medium. This plodding pace creates a bit of an uncanny valley, but as the meditative nature of the film becomes more apparent, the lethargic character movements become a selling point rather than a hinderance.
While the overall meditative feel of the film may be No7. Cherry Lane’s biggest success, the film’s story is less successful. Much of the film centers around a love triangle between Ziming, Mrs. Yu, and her daughter Meiling (Wei Zhao). This triangle deprives Ziming of any sympathy from the audience as he flirts with narcissistic behavior. What is on the screen becomes too distracting and takes away from mood piece the film otherwise excelled at.