This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film prominently featuring the Devil.
Junk, but watchable, if only barely. If you and a couple of friends made this movie and showed it to your other friends, they would likely be amazed that you were able to pull off an actual feature film. But the competition isn't home movies, it's movies like Roger Corman's Creature from the Haunted Sea, with which Devil's Partner was released as part of a double-feature. Devil's Partner is competent, but it completely lacks any of the goofy fun that Corman regularly turned out. This can happen when both of your screenwriters are making their debuts as writers (neither ever wrote another film). Director Charles R. Rondeau was a prolific television director whose five feature films were nondescript.
The plot has an unlikeable old man dying mysteriously in a small town, after which his nephew turns up and insinuates himself into the community. He's up to no good, and soon lots of people are dying in unusual ways (being chased down and stomped by a horse is particularly silly). Rondeau and company do what they can to hold things together ... as I say, it's a competent movie, it just lacks anything beyond that basic competence. The acting is decent, with a couple of recognizable faces (Ed Nelson, Edgar "Uncle Joe" Buchanan). Still, as is often the case with such movies, the best thing is that it's only 73 minutes, so you won't be wasting too much of your time.
Video nasty is a colloquial term popularized by the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association (NVALA) in the United Kingdom to refer to a number of films, typically low-budget horror and exploitation films, distributed on video cassette that were criticized for their violent content by the press, social commentators and various religious organizations in the early 1980s. These video releases were not brought before the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) due to a loophole in film classification laws that allowed videos to bypass the review process. The resulting uncensored video releases led to public debate concerning the availability of these films to children due to the unregulated nature of the market.
Following a campaign led by Mary Whitehouse and the NVALA, prosecutions were commenced against individuals engaged in trades exploiting allegedly obscene videos. To assist local authorities in identifying obscene films, the Director of Public Prosecutions released a list of 72 films the office believed to violate the Obscene Publications Act 1959. This list included films that had either been previously acquitted of obscenity or already obtained BBFC certification. In addition, a second list was released that contained an additional 82 titles which were not believed to lead to obscenity convictions but could nonetheless be confiscated under the Act's forfeiture laws. The resultant confusion regarding the definition of obscene material led to Parliament passing the Video Recordings Act 1984, which required certification of video releases by the BBFC.
This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Video Nasty movie.
I admit I'd never heard of the "Video Nasty" before this. I decided Human Experiments would be a horror movie, but it's closer to the Women in Prison genre. And it's not the best one. The main thing Human Experiments has going for it is Linda Haynes in the lead. Haynes was underused during her time as an actor, but she shows in this film that she could have done more than she was asked.
Some interesting names are scattered throughout the supporting cast. Geoffrey Lewis, who seemed to be in every other Clint Eastwood movie and was the father of Juliette, plays the doctor performing the experiments of the title. He underplays nicely. Ellen Travolta (John's sister) is featured. Radio legend Lurene Tuttle is "Granny". Aldo Ray and Jackie Coogan turn up in the beginning as good-old-boy cops, but they disappear a few minutes into the film, never to be seen again.
Outside of Haynes, there's nothing much to see here, but it's only 82 minutes.
The originators of the form here in American horror, the Universal Monster series offers up...scares? Well, they used to, anyway. For the most part, they're now fun novelties to look back upon and maybe even poke fun at if you're into that sort of thing.
There are a couple of Universal Monster films that are legit classics ... for me, the two James Whale/Boris Karloff pictures Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein top the list. There are other good ones, and at the least, Universal provided a base that ensured even the lesser pictures were OK. The Raven is one of those lesser movies, and to be honest, it's only borderline OK.
The plot is silly, designed solely to stuff the name Edgar Allan Poe into the picture. Bela Lugosi plays a deranged doctor with a Poe obsession, and that's pretty much the extent of Poe's influence on the movie. Lugosi's doctor has recreated some of the torture devices featured in Poe's stories, most notably one from "The Pit and the Pendulum". Boris Karloff plays an escaped murderer who, via silly plot shenanigans, is forced to do Lugosi's billing (the doctor has a name, but face it, the characters are essentially "Lugosi" and "Karloff"). Some of the frights are scary enough, and the movie only lasts a minute longer than one hour, so it's not a burden to watch it. But Lugosi's hammy overacting is worse than usual, overshadowing Karloff's usual touching portrayal of a monstrous person. There is nothing here to excite anyone other than Universal completists.
"The Romanian New Wave is a genre of realist and often minimalist films made in Romania since the mid-aughts...
Aesthetically, Romanian New Wave films share an austere, realist and often minimalist approach. Furthermore, black humour tends to feature prominently. While several of them are set in the late 1980s, near the end of Nicolae Ceaușescu's totalitarian rule over communist Romania, exploring themes of freedom and resilience, others, however, unfold in modern-day Romania, and delve into the ways the transition to democracy and free-market capitalism has shaped Romanian society after the fall of communism in late 1989."
In 1971, Ken Russell released The Devils. If you've seen any of his films (Tommy), you won't be surprised to know that The Devils was over the top, telling the "true" story of sexual possessions of nuns that result in exorcisms. Russell got the story from a book by Aldous Huxley. Russell includes scenes of torture, forced enemas, self-mutilations, and lots and lots of naked women. The film received an "X" rating in both the U.K. and the U.S., and was banned in several other countries.
That's one way to tell a story.
Cristian Mungiu is a Romanian director who takes his time releasing movies. His first feature came out in 2002, and he's only directed four films since then, one as a co-director. Among those films are 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which is a favorite of mine, and Graduation, about which I wrote, "Mungiu likes to plant his camera in one place for long takes. Often in Graduation, those takes are conversations between two people. There is an intimacy to this approach, although the characters often seem to lack that intimacy between each other." This was similar to 4 Months, where I described Mungiu's tendency to find "a place to put his camera that he thinks is appropriate for a scene," and leave it there for extended periods of time, letting the movie emerge from the stationary camera." Mungiu's film are not over the top ... he is the anti-Ken Russell.
Which makes Beyond the Hills particularly interesting, in that it, too, tells the "true" story of an exorcism. And those scenes are terrifying, but not due to the excesses of the director. We are shocked by those scenes because we see them through the eyes of a young woman whose friend is the victim of the ritual. Beyond the Hills isn't a story of an entire city gone mad, but instead is the story of a woman who doesn't fit properly into the life of a Romanian Orthodox convent. There are sexual undertones ... the two women have been in love ... but as with so much else in Mungiu's work, the undertones rise slowly to the surface. He doesn't need forced enemas to make his points.
Mungiu gives us two outstanding performances by the lead actresses, both of whom were making their film debuts, although they were not amateurs. Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur were co-winners of the Best Actress award at Cannes. Flutur has the showier role, but Stratan is the one who really draws us into the story. I said about Graduation that "Mungiu doesn't judge his characters, but neither does he let them off the hook." This is very true for Beyond the Hills. The priest (Valeriu Andriuta) is not a crazed fundamentalist, and we are led to believe he actually wants to break the woman free of possession. The results are sadly inevitable, despite the priest's intentions.
Three top-level films, with one true classic. Mungiu may take his time releasing movies, but they are worth the wait. #392 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. (Among the other films chosen for the challenge were 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.)
(This will be the last Geezer Cinema for a while ... we'll get back to it in November.)
Worth tells the based-on-a-true-story of the attempt to assign dollar figures to compensation payouts for victims of 9/11. The head of the compensation fund, Kenneth Feinberg, (Michael Keaton), takes a big picture approach, but the film doesn't just buy into this. Over the course of the film we learn about several of the individuals due compensation ... not a lot, but enough to remind us we're talking lots of people, not just one big group of people. One or two victims are singled out for more extensive examination. It's a well-structured film, starting with the view from the top and then showing the effects on those who aren't there.
The cast is impressive. Besides Keaton, there's Amy Ryan, Stanley Tucci, and plenty of "hey, it's that guys". And they do more than show up ... each delivers a solid performance.
There are a couple of flaws, though. First, the legal situation is never clearly explained. We know that the airlines want to cut a deal. We know there are concerns about the effect of everything on the economy. We know that some people feel they are being screwed over. But most of it whooshed over my head. I fell back on rooting for the victims, and that was good enough, but I still can't really tell you about the inner workings of the Victims Compensation Fund.
Also, Feinberg was a consultant on the film, which may explain why Worth is about him far more than it is about the victims. It's not that Feinberg's character is whitewashed ... he comes across as a decent guy who doesn't always get "It". But the central theme of Worth is how damaging the process is to people like Feinberg, not to the victims. Given that theme, Worth is fine, but I wanted more.
Worth is the first film I have seen directed by Sara Colangelo, and she does OK. I wouldn't be surprised if I never heard from her again, but it's just as likely she's got some great movies in her future.
Julia Hart has had an interesting beginning to her career. Fast Color was her second movie as writer/director, working with her husband Jordan Horowitz, a writer/producer. She was already in her mid-30s when she started. They released two more films in 2020, and they are supposedly working on turning Fast Color into a television series, which makes sense, since it plays a bit like a series pilot.
Fast Color is a superhero movie, although a very low-key one that can be approached as just a mysterious fantasy. It features three women (Ruth, her mother Boo, and her daughter Lila) who have special powers. The powers aren't really explained, and they are used mostly to demonstrate how the family of women are outsiders. It takes place in a near-future where climate change is running rampant. We gradually come to know the three characters and learn something of their powers (which differ from each other's), before and ending that sets up future stories (hence the feel of a TV pilot). It's a low-budget affair, and the special effects are more arty than they are action-packed, but that works well here, and when the "fast color" effects turn up near the end, they are impressive and emotional. (I was reminded of the final scenes of Gareth Edwards' Monsters, which were also moving.)
The film is helped immensely by the lead actors, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lorraine Toussaint, and Saniyya Sidney, who plays Lila with a believable expertise that belies her age. David Strathairn, who seems to be in half the movies made in the last 40 years, is also good.
Fast Color isn't really a movie for fans of superheroes, although they might benefit from a viewing. And non-fans shouldn't be scared away by the premise. But in its own way, Fast Color really is about superheroes. The TV series should be engaging, if it ever happens.
With the Season Challenge, not only should we expand our horizons through watching new films, but viewing them in a whole new light. And the podcast Two Old Queens does just that with their search for the "Gayest Movie Ever Made". Though the way they determine this can get quite silly, comedians Mark Rennie and John Flynn always offer great insight and hilarious quips on how gay (or not) each film is. Definitely give the podcast a try once this week's film has been watched, you won't be disappointed.
This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film discussed on the podcast Two Old Queens.
Terms of Endearment won five Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Screenplay from Another Medium. This isn't one of those oddities where it's hard to imagine why a movie won Best Picture (think The Greatest Show on Earth or Driving Miss Daisy). Terms of Endearment is a good movie ... I'd probably call Under Fire the best picture of the year, but I know that's a quirky choice. Maybe The Right Stuff of the other Best Picture nominees. But I wouldn't watch Terms of Endearment thinking I was about to take in an all-time classic ... it's good-not-great. It's a bit too long, and your tolerance for heart-tugging moments might affect your appreciation of the film. Roger Ebert wrote that it "feels as much like life as any movie I can think of....This is a movie with bold emotional scenes and big laughs, and at the same time it's so firmly in control of its tone that we believe we are seeing real people," while Pauline Kael said "What's infuriating about it is its calculated humanity." I'm with Kael, as usual, but really, it's not that bad.
Brooks bounces back and forth between the stories of a mother (Shirley MacLaine) and daughter (Debra Winger), and it's not always the best way to tell their tales. The movie improves in the later stages, when the two narratives come together. The acting is excellent ... MacLaine and Jack Nicholson won Oscars, but Winger and John Lithgow also got nominations. The film's emotions may be calculated, but the actors make it feel real.
I'm not sure what made Terms of Endearment a topic for the Two Old Queens. I tried to listen to the podcast episode but couldn't get it to work. The description on the website says that "Its got the power of Shirley MacLaine and undeniable lesbian energy from Debra Winger, but is that enough to place TERMS OF ENDEARMENT amongst the top five of gayest movies ever?"
Shiva Baby grew out of a short student film created by Emma Seligman and starring Rachel Sennott. At 78 minutes, it still feels a bit like a short, but it's so packed with eventful scenes you could imagine it running for another half an hour. The film takes place in a 24-hour period, most of which occurs at a shiva. Seligman and cinematographer Maria Rusche do a great job of simultaneously giving the feel of claustrophobia while still finding plenty of space for intimate conversations. People are regularly leaving one crowded room for a less-crowded room where they can talk things out.
The film is steeped in Jewish culture (ironically, Dianna Agron, who plays a shiksa princess, is Jewish, while Rachel Sennott, who plays the lead, Danielle, is not), but it feels universal, a coming of age story with well-meaning but intrusive family and plenty of "experimenting" for Danielle. At times, Seligman inches close to stereotype, but never dives completely in, in part because Danielle is at the center of everything that happens, and we get to know her as an actual person. The cast is good across the board, although for the most part I never figured out exactly who was who (as I say, close to stereotype). Polly Draper and Fred Melamed are on target as Danielle's parents, who want the best for their daughter but don't always know what "the best" might be. Molly Gordon is a standout as Maya, Danielle's ex-lover ... there's a bite to her personality, yet in some ways I found her the most likeable character in the film.
Shiva Baby is relentless in locking Danielle into uncomfortable situations. And there is a baby that cries pretty much every time it turns up on screen, eventually making the soundtrack feel a bit like a horror film. Which Shiva Baby is, in an odd sort of way. At least until what I found to be a semi-happy ending.
Canada's own Guy Maddin offers up a unique lens in which to view life throughout all of his films. If nothing else, you're sure to see something wholly unique this week.
This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film directed by Guy Maddin.
This film is my introduction to Guy Maddin, who is one of the most idiosyncratic of directors. My Winnipeg is an odd movie, hard to describe, and apparently it is very much like many of Maddin's films. Sometimes a filmmaker will create something so insular, its meanings are clear only to the people who made the movie. That's not the case with My Winnipeg. You always know what is going on in an individual scene, it's just that as the film progresses, you begin to doubt what you think you know, gradually realizing that this documentary is in fact an extremely subjective memoir of Maddin's home town.
And then it becomes clear that "subjective" doesn't really get it. Maddin is inventing things out of icicles, and nothing he shows us can be trusted. Which doesn't mean the film is aimless. In fact, you could argue that Maddin's inventions get closer to "his Winnipeg" than would a more straightforward, "realistic" representation of "facts".
Even if the results can be frustrating, Maddin is expert at giving us the movie he has in his head. He frequently uses techniques we think of as belonging to silent cinema, and he mixes authentic-looking recreations with ... well, actually, I'm not sure anything in My Winnipeg is presented as it happened. The film is narrated by Maddin, and Maddin is a character in what we see, but he's played by an actor, Darcy Fehr. His mother is played by the legendary Ann Savage (Detour). We learn that Winnipeg is the sleepwalking capital of the world. We learn about a television series, LedgeMan, with a character who is always threatening to jump off a ledge to his death. We learn about a general strike in 1919. This last actually happened ... I don't think any of the others ever happened except in Maddin's imagination.
It's all very intriguing, forcing us to confront the ways our memories override actual occurrences. #135 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century, and #603 on the TSPDT users poll of our favorite films.
The long, stuffed-to-the-brim original novel begs for the kind of multiple-episode series that has room for the kitchen sink, and in fact there are at least five attempts at that kind of serializing. In reducing David Copperfield to a two-hour running time, Armando Iannucci, the director-producer-cowriter, necessarily admits in advance that he intends to truncate. Nonetheless, Iannucci manages to squeeze in a very large cast of characters. Only a few are truly fleshed out, and casting does a lot of the work here. Actors like Tilda Swinton (Betsey Trotwood), Hugh Laurie (Mr. Dick), and Peter Capaldi (Micawber) are able to blend their skills with our perceptions of their past work to make the characters feel welcomed. Opposite to this, Ben Whishaw has been good in a variety of roles over the years, but he climbs into the unctuous Uriah Heep so completely that I forget Whishaw was in the movie until the closing credits. Gwendoline Christie (Game of Thrones) is probably always going to be recognized because of her height, but she makes the most of her limited screen time. Finally, Iannucci manages to give us diverse casting that doesn't just feel like pandering (Benedict Wong and Rosalind Eleazer are a perfect father and daughter, and the best example of how this casting works). Of course, Dev Patel as David is the most obviously diverse piece of casting, but what matters is that Patel is a fine actor who gets all of the various aspects of David as the character grows older.
Things do move too quickly at times ... again, it would be nice to see this as a mini-series. But each scene in its moment is solid, and rarely does Iannucci leave us scratching our heads and wondering what we missed. The Personal History of David Copperfield is as good of a two-hour version of Dickens' novel as you are likely to encounter.