The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

Sweet Hereafter

“We’re all citizens of a different town now. A place with its own special rules and its own special laws. A town of people living in the sweet hereafter.”

The Sweet Hereafter is a somber, reflective film. There are powerful moments, but its power comes mainly from its simmering, what many would call a slow burn. Its characters are in pain, but they press forward with an uncertain but resilient force that makes for truly compelling drama. This is my first encounter with director Atom Egoyan, and I look forward to exploring more of his work, as this was one of the most personal movies I’ve seen in a while.

The film follows a small Canadian town after a gruesome accident leaves fourteen children dead from a school bus run off the road. Lawyer Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm) arrives in the town and starts knocking on doors, gathering support for a class action lawsuit. We see him not as a sleazy ambulance chaser nor as a compassionate advocate of justice. He’s somewhere in the middle, but he’s definitely an outsider to these people. Stephens’ daughter is a drug addict with no hope for recovery, allowing him to connect with the townspeople on a personal level, viewing his own daughter as dead in a sense, uncertain of who she is anymore. The film seems most interested in the town’s mixed feelings over Stephen’s lawsuit and how its residents hope to move forward with their lives following the tragedy.

Sad things happen throughout the movie, but Egoyan is keen on showing us the despair that occurs between these moments of action. The film doesn’t show the car accident until the middle of the film, and it’s not too dramatized in its depiction, because that’s clearly not the point. We spend time with a good number of the town’s residents who have been affected by the accident, and many of them become significant movers in the final outcome of the film. Nicole Burnell (Sarah Polley), a young woman who survived the accident, is perhaps the film’s most dismal character, forcing the story into its conflicted conclusion with what I viewed as a triumphant decision.

The movie’s structure seems effective given its subject matter and muddled narrative. Events are presented non-linearly, but the film doesn’t dwell on this mechanic for any cheap effect. Events flow seamlessly, and the distorted timeline is only there to present character arcs in the most effective fashion. One character stands out as a villain, but he isn’t the antagonist, as Egoyan is far too interested in gray area than to give us a tangible conflict. Much of the movie is about placing blame, but a central problem is that there’s really no blame to place, and this generates frustration for a number of characters.

The structure also works with the visual aesthetic, a well-lit but mundane depiction of a quiet snowy town that could drive a person mad with its emptiness. (I was reminded of The Last Picture Show in this sense.) There are few attempts at humor, although when they land, they are spot on. Sarah Polley has a great line right at the climax of the film that serves as a much-needed release of tension. For the most part, though, The Sweet Hereafter is lulling and deceptively tragic, pelting you with small moments of despair as you search for some good fortune to cling to. Just as the snow seems to weigh down the roofs of cars and houses of the town, it weighs down its residents, only compounding their melancholy and rubbing salt in open wounds.

This movie was a unique, entertaining surprise, although a dark one at that. I probably won’t return to this movie for a while, but it’s a triumph of filmmaking nonetheless. Coupling small town mundanity with stinging personal tragedy, The Sweet Herafter really hits its mark, showing exactly how to handle gray area in narrative cinema, by embracing it uncomfortably and unflinchingly.


Films Left to Watch: 872

(The 1001 List has updated again, setting me back a few more films.)

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Batman (1989)

batman

“Can somebody tell me what kind of a world we live in, where a man dressed up as a *bat* gets all of my press? This town needs an enema!”

Maybe I decided to write about Batman so I could soapbox about Michael Keaton doing Birdman, a movie I really enjoyed, and then going on to play the Vulture in the new Spiderman, a movie I also really enjoyed, fulfilling an art-imitates-life-imitates-art cycle that can make your head spin if you try to find any meaning from it. I’m not sure if Spiderman now undermines the message of Birdman or reinforces it or if they’re just movies and I should be doing something more productive with my time. Anyway.

To my understanding, Batman was a delight to superhero fans who really didn’t have much going for them in 1989 except a downhill Superman franchise. Maybe this explains the explosion of praise for a movie that feels to me like a genuine mess. This isn’t a long movie, but as the run stretched into its second half, I began to see Batman less as a film and more as a social phenomenon. I remember playing the video game on the NES, and I still see the occasional Burger King memorabilia for this thing in various homes across America. Not that this should have any effect on the movie itself, but it’s something you think about when the story starts to lull and you space out wondering what has and hasn’t changed for the comic book genre.

Thankfully, I think we’ve gotten better at telling these stories. This film concerns Bruce Wayne/Batman already well into his run as a caped crusader. I was glad we didn’t dive into the Bruce Wayne origin story, or so I thought, because I came to find that the movie painfully teases out the origin over the course of the movie with Michael Keaton frequently looking at a newspaper with a conflicted look on his face, coming to find that the Joker is in fact the man who killed his parents. In fact, the movie seems more interested in the Joker than it does in its hero with the two sharing roughly equal screen time, perhaps a testament to Jack Nicholson’s star power or the misguided trust they placed in their vision of the iconic villain.

Maybe my boredom with Batman is more of a “me problem” after seeing 16 near-identical Marvel movies, most of which are pretty entertaining, and having a distorted view of the genre, though I think The Dark Knight topples all of those movies easily so I’m definitely open to experimentation as to what a superhero movie looks like. I’m starting to think I’m over-complicating things and Batman just doesn’t hold up. Superhero movies have gotten better. We’ve learned that we want to laugh at these movies and to carry a sense of wonder and fluidity that a clunky 80s movie can’t faithfully deliver. At least, that’s what I want.

Michael Keaton is fine, though I expected more from him having jumped on his more recent bandwagon. I feel the same way about Nicholson, though I think I knew what I was getting into with a Nicholson joker: a sleazy caricature that shoots for terrifying and comes up short. Neither of these guys are given a great script to work with, but they have their moments and seem faithful enough to the characters, for whatever that’s worth. The rest of the cast seems completely disposable and at times just feels like filler to sell action figures. (All the business with the newspaper and that journalist guy, for instance, has no payoff whatsoever.)

There are a million and one ways this movie is a mess, but I have to give it some credit in that it maintains watchability through some original ideas and clever moments. I’d probably bump the movie up a letter grade simply for the Joker’s “he stole my balloons” line, which made me laugh and rewind the film. I’ve never been a big Tim Burton guy, but the aesthetic is elaborate and consistent throughout the film, with a really great attention to detail that makes the background engaging when the dialogue isn’t.

I don’t think I’ll ever return to this movie because it bored me in a way that doesn’t seem like I missed anything; it’s just not something I want to see again. There are probably a dozen better superhero movies but perhaps a dozen that are worse in its defense, putting it in a unique but deprecated place of being tedious and forgettable (at least for my generation). If you love Batman and just want to see him on screen, this movie might scratch the itch, but there are still better movies for that too. But if you’re a Dark Knight completest or just want to see how far we’ve come, the movie isn’t absolute garbage.


Films Left to Watch: 869

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F For Fake (1973)

F For Fake

“What we professional liars hope to serve is truth. I’m afraid the pompous word for that is ‘art.'”

I first learned about F For Fake in a short video essay by Every Frame a Painting. Video essays are a film buff’s ticket to YouTube fame these days, because these things are popping up everywhere. They typically take a film or a director and put forward some thesis about why things work or don’t work, exploring cinema from this narrow lens. I’ve grown bored with most of them, which meander through the surface of a subject without much in-depth analysis. Tony, however, from Every Frame a Painting, still rings true for me. He doesn’t make a lot of videos these days, but when he does, they always feel natural. It’s like he really treasures the films he discusses, and he has these ideas he’s been dying to explain. There’s a sense of honesty, which brings me to F For Fake, a film about dishonesty.

F For Fake is also a video essay, a feature length exploration about “fraud and trickery.” Orson Welles dissects this theme as it plays out in real life, jumping around a handful of “true life” stories in which people partake in deception, whether on a smaller or larger scale. The most memorable excerpt, and the one that seems to take up the most screen time, is that of Elmyr de Hory, one of the world’s most notorious art forgers. If Welles is to be trusted (which he very well mightn’t be), Elmyr is responsible for millions of dollars in phony paintings which sit in some of the world’s most prestigious art museums. His smug, playful comments seem to confess his guilt, though you can never be too sure due to the lack of concrete details.

From start to finish, I really loved the movie. At first, I was tempted to call it a big juicy layer cake for all its levels of storytelling and wonderful depth of analysis, but it feels even better than that. F For Fake is like a marble cake. It has distinctive layers, but they mesh into each other in a messy, wonderful construction that Welles’ has carefully crafted beat for beat. Thematic ideas connect every story in the film, with Welles himself serving as your dark, mysterious guide. Dressed in a slick black cloak with his mature, captivating baritone voice, Welles tempts you to trust him as he explores distrust itself. He never lets his audience get too comfortable, but it serves the themes of the film perfectly, and it never drags once.

In one pivotal scene towards the end, Welles himself plays a trick on his audience. There’s a give-away at the beginning of the film that I was able to pick up on that lets you know something is coming at the end (Welles promises complete honesty to his audience “for the next hour,” but the film is 90 minutes long), but by the time the trickery actually happened, I had forgotten all about the introduction and was really pleased with how everything wrapped up, no matter how fabricated it was. Proving himself once again to be a master storyteller, Welles meshes philosophy with actuality, fiction with fact, and even life with death, all in a concise piece of cinema that holds its focus.

Maybe I should have worked my way through Welles’s work chronologically instead of jumping from start to end, but I haven’t adhered to much structure up to this point, and F For Fake has been towards the top of my list for a while now. It seems a fitting film for Welles’s final project. It serves as a curtain speech in a lot of ways. From the powerful monologue about the permanence of man’s creations to the deep dive into the merits of fictional storytelling through a look at his own professional career, there’s a lot of passion in this movie that makes it feel personal. When Welles bids his audience a good evening in the final scene, he book-ends an exciting life of adventure and artistry through film, and I thank him for his service.


Films Left to Watch: 870

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Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Boris Karloff and Elsa Lanchester in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, 1935.

“Woman… Friend… Wife…”

Brevity was the word that kept crossing my mind as I watched Bride of Frankenstein for the first time. As with the original film, and so many other Universal classics, storytelling is stripped to the bare essentials. This strategy always seems appropriate for a horror film, sneaking a few key themes into its quick and scary premise, and it’s thankfully a lesson that horror still holds onto today. Bride of Frankenstein, like all great horror movies, has some things to say, and it makes a point of saying them without hesitation, which is why I found it so effective.

The film features the return of Boris Karloff to his iconic portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster, with Colin Clive reprising his role as Dr. Frankenstein, both characters who are written back to life for convenience sake at the start of the story. And what a strange start it is: Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester), author of the original Frankenstein tale, tells fellow authors Lord Byron and Percy Shelley that she has devised a sequel for her story and wishes to share it with them. It’s a strange framing device that is never brought up again, and it wasn’t present in the original movie, leaving me puzzled about its function in the movie, but I press on.

If Frankstein was about creating life, Bride of Frankstein is about sustaining it with meaning. In what I thought was the most integral scene, Frankenstein’s creature stumbles into a cabin in the woods, the home of a blind man. Desperate for a companion, the hermit (O. P. Heggie) teaches the creature about friendship.  This drives the monster to desire a mate, and he is manipulated by the sinister Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) to force Frankenstein to create yet another creature. Horror ensues.

I think the movie’s pacing is perfect, even better than the original film’s, and it balances philosophy with horror at a ratio that I can really get behind. While the original film was about Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, this movie feels more like the monster’s journey alone, with Frankenstein as a side character. Universal was clearly milking the star power of Boris Karloff, even allowing him to speak and develop complex human traits over the course of the film. The “Bride” isn’t shown until the end, making the movie the 1935 equivalent of clickbait, but it’s a beautiful film if you can separate the movie from the marketing, and its story is more thoughtful and deliberate than an equivalent monster flick of today.

I’ve heard high praise for Bride of Frankenstein from some critics that I respect, many of whom call it the greatest of the Universal monster films or even the greatest horror film. I wouldn’t put it in the discussion for greatest horror film, but I was once again delighted to take on an original Universal monster movie, and this is among the upper tier of the lot that I’ve seen so far. In their own unique way, each movie has been satisfying and thought-provoking without overstaying their welcome, and they’re all better than the new Mummy movie, though that’s not saying much.


Films Left to Watch: 871

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Suspiria (1977)

Suspiria2

“Bad luck isn’t brought by broken mirrors, but by broken minds.”

I’ve begun a new policy when watching movies: no trailers (to the best of my ability), and no Rotten Tomatoes. So far, it’s been great. I felt something I haven’t felt in a long time seeing Baby Driver yesterday, completely in the dark about the movie, only knowing the director and a couple associated actors. There’s a sort of curse that goes along with being “in the know” about upcoming releases, and over the last several years, it seems that every frame of a movie has started floating around someone’s website before the movie is even released. I’d really recommend trying this policy for yourself, if only for one movie, because I truly believe that the fewer expectations you have, the better you’ll enjoy a film.

How, then, could I implement this policy while watching 1001 of the most important movies ever made? Well, I don’t think I can. By the very nature of the list, a high Rotten Tomatoes score can be assumed. I do keep away from trailers, but it’s a bit saddening that I won’t really “discover” many of these movies. They’ve been curated for me, heaped upon a pedestal by brave pioneers of audiences past. While it comforts me that I can be one of those pioneers for newer or more obscure movies moving forward, expectations are rampant with a beast like the 1001. This brings me to Suspiria. 

Dario Argento’s horror masterpiece, so goes everyone I’ve heard talk about the film. Suspiria has come up on countless podcasts and “most underrated horror” articles. It seems anyone who knows a little bit about horror will hail it as a masterpiece. When there’s no part of my brain signaling “Hey, maybe this will suck,” it’s hard to watch the movie on even terms. Is Suspiria among the greatest horror movies ever made? Eh, I don’t know.

Already on paragraph four and I’m still soapboxing. I think I’ve been meaning to have this talk for a while now, and any number of movies could fit the mold. Suspiria just feels like the perfect example. I really liked this movie, but in another universe, I think I could have loved it. A universe where I didn’t watch “the greatest movies of all time” religiously and simple stumbled upon it at an obscure theater in the middle of the night, spending the rest of my life hailing its greatness from rooftops, fighting the good fight. There are no blogs in this universe, you see. No podcasts. No Rotten Tomatoes.

I’m glad that movies are curated for me, and I stand by the purpose of this blog. And there are movies that rise above expectations and blow me away despite expectations. Suspiria didn’t quite hit the mark, but that’s not to say it’s a bad movie. In fact, I’ll probably enjoy it more with future viewings. Patrick Bromley, a critic that I enjoy reading, claims that you see a movie for what you want it to be on the first viewing. The second viewing, he claims, is when you see it for what it is. I don’t have the time to watch 1001 movies to begin with, let alone watch them all twice. But I hope to return to Suspiria one day because I think it deserves it.

Because I still owe the movie many praises for the delightful moments it brought to me, I’ll give the following notes in its favor: This is a beautiful movie. Some movies are hailed for their color palette, but I don’t think I’ve seen an actual color palette of such rigid adherence to visual flair in any movie before. The story is thrilling and suspenseful, but it plays out with enough absurdity that nothing really hinges on its somewhat underwhelming twist.

Jessica Harper brings a powerful performance as the protagonist Suzy Harper, an American ballet student who travels to Germany to attend a prestigious dance academy, uncovering dark secrets upon her arrival. Her voice is deep and powerful, and she commands your attention whenever in the frame, reminiscent of Sigourney Weaver in the Alien films. The supporting cast is in tune with Argento’s twisted vision, and the film works as an unconventional, deeply resonant work of horror.

While I hijacked this review to lay down some thoughts, I believe those thoughts were critical to my viewing of Suspiria and will linger throughout the rest of my film Odyssey. Coincidentally, they’re remaking Suspiria later this year, so perhaps a wider audience will revisit this original film. When they do, I hope they steer clear of any hype that may befall it. Though they probably won’t.


Films Left to Watch: 872

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Being There (1979)

Being There.png

“Life is a state of mind.”

In today’s political climate, begins so many articles these days. I asked myself while watching Being There, a slow 1979 film with poignant political commentary, is this a movie for today’s political climate? Will I begin this review with the phrase “in today’s political climate”? It appears the answer is yes in both cases. As with almost all great films, Being There isn’t bound to its time, for it takes aim at not only the tiring aspects of American politics that will never change, but the film swings wider and has a few things to say about how one should live their life in such a system.

Comedic legend Peter Sellers takes on a quiet, fascinating role as Chance (or Chauncey, as he is later called), a gardener who is left to wander aimlessly after his housekeeper dies. With no formal education and poor social skills, life seems dismal for Chance in the cold streets of Washington, D.C. By a stroke of luck, he is struck by the car of wealthy businessman Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas). Though Chance is far from a smart man, Rand perceives his humble manner as intelligence as the two form a friendship of sorts. Rand eventually introduces Chance to the President of the United States, and “Chauncey” becomes a public figure for his simple, very simple, sense of wisdom that others find admirable about him.

I first watched Being There in high school in a United States government class. My teacher claimed that he loved showing the movie to his students because of how slow it was, and how it forced us to reflect on its ideas with its deliberate pace. I didn’t know much about slow cinema at the time, but I still found myself captivated by the film’s strange, simple reality. Peter Sellers portrays a man who has no business deserving any attention but finds it anyway, and that’s more than enough to keep this movie exciting in its middling scenes. I’ve always thought the film played like Forrest Gump without the fanfare. There are some outrageous moments, but it finds its grounding in its slow conversations and endlessly watchable protagonist.

Being There could have been something I rolled my eyes at, and on paper it seems like a preachy movie. But this is a film with nothing to hide, one that opens a window into a story and offers us its view on the world: a view that we can accept or not accept, though there’s a strong case to accept it. With its wonderful screenplay by Jerzy Kosiński, the movie puts you in a trance that helps you soak in its ideas and laugh a lot along the way. The film’s final image is a bit on the nose, but on a second viewing I think I’ve been sold on its importance. When you think about it, the whole movie is on the nose, so I think the ending is a fitting conclusion. It’s also hilariously beautiful; I’m smiling just thinking about it.

This movie is a solemn lesson wrapped around a silly story. Its structure is unique, its camerawork engaging, and it’s an important triumph of artistry for what it has to say about America. Every ounce of it holds up in “our current political climate,” and in many ways, it’s more current than it’s every been.


Films Left to Watch: 873

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An American Werewolf in London (1981)

an-american-werewolf-in-london.jpg

“Beware the moon, lads.”

The werewolf movie dates back to 1935, surprisingly enough with a film called Werewolf of London. This movie would go on to be overshadowed by the 1941 classic The Wolf Man, a film that is not only referenced but revitalized with an 80s retelling in John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London. The greatest success of this film is not that it breaks any new ground but rather how it revives old material in a new way. The metaphor of the man-turned-beast reflecting the primal nature of humanity is still played out to perfection, but this time it has a smile on its face, letting you laugh along the way.

David Kessler and Jack Goodman are two American friends on a backpacking tour of England. The film plays like a buddy comedy for just a few minutes until the pair stumble into the mysterious Slaughtered Lamb pub where the locals give a strange impression. Forced out into the night under a full moon, the friends are attacked by a werewolf with only David surviving the encounter, but at a grave cost. He recovers at a hospital in the city but soon finds that he is, you guessed it, an American werewolf in London.

From the outset, American Werewolf has some things to say about sex, and it never hits the brakes. The first victim, Jack (Griffin Dunne), spends a good deal of time discussing how the girl in which he’s interested is going to have sex with him, and he dies shortly after. The protagonist, David (David Naughton), finds his own transformation approaching once he becomes sexually involved with a young nurse, his caretaker Alex (Jenny Agutter). The titular werewolf becomes a reflection of these primitive desires in the young men. It’s a pillar of thematic truth that keeps this zany horror-comedy grounded in something deeper than its surface.

Where the film most succeeds, however, is through its zany surface. American Werewolf takes the tropes of the werewolf genre and relishes in them to the point of laughter. The casual tone of the two male leads, particularly later in the film when the stakes are high, undercuts the tension in a nice, relaxing way. There’s a lot of thrills to be had in the movie, but it’s a fairly breezy watch due to its tone. John Landis has been known for his keen comedic presence, and this is a movie that delivers just the right amount for a balanced story.

I also find that this is a movie with a real affinity for the details. The practical special effects look incredible, even today, and they sell the tone beautifully in a way that modern special effects would take away from. This is a film of its time, and the effects solidify that. There are also story details, such as the Mickey Mouse decorations around Alex’s home that help convey theme and character development in the background of the lightning-paced story.

I had a lot of fun with An American Werewolf in London. It feels ahead of its time in a lot of ways for a film from 1981, paving the way for the best films of its decade with its lighter stab at familiar themes and its smart attention to detail. John Landis has created a brief but beautiful film that hits all its notes and its them quickly, making this a really fun watch.


Films Left to Watch: 874

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