Capsule Movie Reviews Vol.2016.2
Published by marco on
These are my notes to remember what I watched and kinda what I thought about it. I’ve recently transferred my reviews to IMDb and made the list of over 900 ratings publicly available. I’ve included the individual ratings with my notes for each movie. These ratings are not absolutely comparable to each other—I rate the film on how well it suited me for the genre and my mood. YMMV.
- L’Arcano Incantatore (1996) — 7/10
This is an Italian horror movie, steeped in Catholic myth and church rituals, about a man who dared approach Satan for help in becoming immortal. The first two conversations we see are with a man shrouded entirely in shadow and with a woman who hides behind a screen covered in pictures of owls—we see her own eyes through the eyes of the largest owl. Spooky.
The story feels similar to that of Dracula, where a young man travels by coach at night to his new employer, who lives alone in a castle, is very eccentric and doesn’t like to be seen. The visuals are surprisingly good once we get to the old monastery where his new master lives. The old building is well-filmed to lend the impression that it’s much bigger than it is. The rooms are small and coarsely finished—they’re entirely believable as 18th-century buildings but also look like a lot of old buildings in Europe in the 21st.
The young man slowly learns about his predecessor and meets his new master. The similarities to Dracula continue: the master seems friendly at first but strange things are afoot. The young man sees two women standing in the field, near his predecessor’s grave, along with a man. This is after the young man found instructions as to what to do with the body to “complete the task”.
Now I’m getting echoes of Umberto Eco (Foucault’s Pendulum or The Name of the Rose) as the master dictates codes from his old books for the young man to note down and take as a missive to a mysterious woman. The young man and the old sorcerer become friends and the young man helps him out in all of his arcane and seemingly occult tasks, communicating with telepaths, covering the sorcerer’s bed in ice and leaves, bleeding him, etc.
He sees an apparition floating through the house and notes that his protective scar (given to him by owl-lady) has begun to bleed. The townsfolk swear that Nerio (his predecessor) isn’t dead and haunts them still. The young man sees an apparition that looks like his master but he suspects it’s Nerio’s ghost. Following the plot of Dracula still, we next head to a disinterment. He carries the body to the church to make them bury it in consecrated ground—but the nun and priest declare that it’s not Nerio. They don’t recognize the body, but it’s missing a hand—and so was the original Monsignore! And no-one has ever been allowed to see the old Monsignore. Has Nerio taken his master’s place?
This was much better than expected—it was actually quite scary in some places. Very occult and pulls in stuff from everywhere. Cool ending. Saw it in Italian with English subtitles.
- Tom Segura: Mostly Stories (2016) — 7/10
- The title indicates his stand-up style: he tells stories, some good, some not so exciting, some with some really good lines and/or insight and a good baseline nastiness and others that meander nowhere. His first ten minutes is very strong, the middle bit was pretty good and then, like so many other comics I’ve watched recently, the final 10 minutes was just not as good as the rest and left me with a less favorable impression than I’d otherwise have had. Decent, but not worth raving about.
- Lilya 4-Ever (2002) — 9/10
We join Lilya (16) on the cusp of a life-changing event. She lives in Estonia in a poor neighborhood, but not the poorest. It’s bleak but bearable. How bleak? We see little Volodja (14) constantly playing basketball with a rolled-up aluminum can. Her joy at the news that her mother and boyfriend are moving to America quickly turns to misery when she realizes that she will not accompany them.
Lilya is remanded to her aunt, who immediately moves her into a smaller, more squalid apartment. She makes the best of it and manages to forget her worries for at least one evening with friends. Her aunt soon puts a stop to that and breaks up their party.
The new level of her existence segues to a scene at a club, where she’s dancing with her friend, both there for the express purpose of prostituting themselves. Much of the film’s emotion and story is delivered via Lilya’s facial expressions. She’s quite a good, young actress. While Lilya, though not without offers, backs out of their mission, her friend Natasha closes the deal. When Natasha’s father finds the money, though, she says that it’s Lilya’s, that Lilya is the whore. The father makes Natasha “return” it to Lilya. Lilya throws it away, though.
Life is spiraling downward. Her reputation is ruined in her neighborhood. Her electricity is cut off because her aunt isn’t paying the bills, so she scrambles out to find the money she threw away. It’s gone. She seeks out her aunt and finds that that she has moved—to Lilya’s old apartment. The woman is uncaring and unfeeling about Lilya’s plight.
Lilya’s mother officially abandons her—although the stilted language makes it seem as if wasn’t she who’d written it, but her boyfriend. At any rate, Lilya spirals further downward. With no other choices, she heads to the club to fulfill the reputation she already has. It’s awful. Well-filmed, not salaciously, but awful. Next, we see her shopping for food with a smile on her face. She still lives in the awful complex—where there is so little to steal that the main entrance flaps open all the time—but occasionally she now has money.
This new, lower equilibrium doesn’t last long, though. Soon after she meets Andrej, who wants to take her to Sweden with him, men from the neighborhood break into her apartment and rape her. There are tiny moments of fleeting happiness: she manages to buy Volodya a basketball, but it’s soon broken by his vindictive father.
Andrej moves forward with his plans, as promised: he finds her a job in Sweden and takes her with him. Andrej is kind, funny, good-looking—and a bigger monster than any of the others because he gives her more hope, then dashes them even more, dropping her to the next level. Volodya is left behind, as her mother left her behind. Lilya still happily says her goodbyes to everyone she’s leaving behind, along the lines of “see ya suckers”.
The weather changes to rain as we hear Andrej introduce a wrinkle in the plan: she’ll be going alone and he’ll follow in a couple of days. She smiles as she takes her first flight, with her first in-flight meal. In reality, Andrej is a recruiter for a pimp in Sweden and she’s on the way to becoming a captive whore, her new passport and identity confiscated, locked in to the apartment to which she’s initially taken. Volodya overdoses on the pills he found in her apartment (belonging to the old man who’d died there) and dies in the stairwell in front of Lilya’s apartment.
The many, many partners she has are shown in a montage, purely from Lilya’s point of view. She rebels by cutting her hair—ruining the product—but the clients power on through and punish her all the more, becoming more rather than less aroused. What sort of uncivilized beast could possibly do that? What incredible power could drive a man to effect such horrors? How do you even get it up? Or does the horror of it help? The message is: humanity is lost, but worry not, neither was it worth saving.
Lilya dreams and is visited by Volodya’s spirit. She tells him that she wants to end it all. To him she says,
Lilya: I’ve had it with this life. It’s complete shit.
Volodya: No, it’s not.
Lilya: Course it is. It’s shit.
Volodya: But it’s the only one you’ve got. This life is the only one you’ve got.
Lilya: I don’t want this life. I’m not interested.
You cannot disagree with her conclusion.
Saw it in Russian with English subtitles.
- Taxidermia (2006) — 8/10
This is a Hungarian semi-surrealist film with a nice visual language and nice pacing. It starts in the countryside, the plot crystallizing out of the mists. There is a young soldier who is quite inventive in his masturbation. There is his commanding officer, who barks at him, ordering him to explain all of his duties, by which we learn more of their situation. There are two lovely women bathing, and all of the chores associated with making sure they can bathe (collecting water, chopping firewood, etc.) Almost every scene is cut off in someway, to allow misinterpretation, almost every sound as well (heavy breathing), to be suggestive, lascivious, salacious, the world as viewed through the soldier’s eyes. A simple and original story, very well-told. A farcical fable in the style of old Grimm, with no happy ending and no morality tale.
The older man, the commanding officer, defines the whole world in terms of the female sex in his initial soliloquy. The younger man can think of nothing but sex, but can’t get any—he is eventually punished by summary execution for his violation of a bathtub of meat from a slaughtered pig that he fantasizes is the commander’s wife. Next, we meet the wife, shortly after having given birth to a little boy. The son’s tail is chopped off with pincers by his father.
The next scene is at a competitive eating contest, where the son, now grown, is competing at a borscht-eating contest. This is followed by an emetic session, in which all contestants vomit rivers into a common bucket. The situation is presented as absolutely normal, as if eating competitions of this severity happen all the time, as if using canned air to force regurgitation is something that makes perfect sense in a world where competitive eating is on the verge of becoming an Olympic sport, where they talk about consistency and lubrication in the food for different stages.
We see two guys vying for the charms of the same woman. One wins her hand while the other plants his seed in her outside of their wedding reception. Once again, this family has a generation of uncertain, illegitimate provenance. The world of competitive eating is continuously expanded to make it seem so realistic that I’m almost ready to ask Wikipedia if it’s real. What a terrible concept, but so wonderfully and ironically realized—they really sell it.
Years later and the latest illegitimate son is a taxidermist, responsible for purchasing food for his father, who is gigantically bloated and training competitive-eating cats. You read that correctly. The satire really goes off the rails. They argue and the son abandons the father to his fate. The fate turns out to be getting partially eaten by his cats. The son stuffs them all. I’m not even sure what’s going on in the son’s lab, but there are long minutes of really well-filmed machines and organs and needles and contraptions and preparations of some sort. It appears that the son eviscerates and stuffs himself, despair-ridden for having killed his father? Hard to recommend, but a well-made film about an entirely original idea. Saw it in Hungarian with English subtitles.
- The Tenant (1976) — 7/10
Roman Polanski wrote, directed and starred in this movie about a mysterious man who applies for an apartment recently vacated by a woman who attempted suicide by jumping out a window from it. He visits her in the hospital—presumably to get an idea of how likely she is to survive her wounds—where he meets her friend Stella, played by the lovely Isabelle Adjani. They hit it off more or less, going to a Bruce Lee movie (Enter the Dragon) and started to make out before being stared down by another mysterious man. He gets the apartment and moves in. It is a furnished apartment and still has the previous tenant’s stuff in it. The apartment has a lovely view through the window of the common toilet at the other end of the two-winged building.
His housewarming party is far too noisy for his neighbors and they aren’t shy about letting him know it. When takes out the trash, his bag leaks fruit rinds all the way down the steps—quite comically, actually—but when he immediately returns with a garbage can to clean up, it’s already all gone. His friends are not very sympathetic to his neighbor’s wishes, nor are they very sympathetic in general. I saw this in English, and in a badly synced version, but I’m almost certain the original was in English. That means that his American-sounding friends really were such assholes. Well, at the time, we may have called them “boorish”—but they’re just assholes.
Things continue to get stranger and stranger, just a bit, well, off. When he is robbed, the neighbors chastise him for the noise. But his landlord tells him not to go to the police, which is also odd. This also starts to take a toll on Trelkovsky. He descends into madness, seeing murderers everywhere, even seeing himself in the wing across the way, spying on himself. He sees his predecessor, all swaddled like a mummy in the bathroom—she was in a full-body cast when he last saw her in the hospital plus she was an Egyptologist.
He becomes quite delusional and makes up theories about what his neighbors really want. They claim they want quiet, but he knows better: they want to turn him into his predecessor and make him kill himself. He sees plots and conspirators everywhere. he dresses up as his predecessor. Is he channeling a ghost? Or perhaps just Anthony Perkins from Psycho. At any rate, he’s mystified as to his appearance when he wakes. He discovers that he’s torn out his own tooth to match the one he found in a hole in the wall in an earlier scene and which he surmises came from his predecessor, but he blames the extraction on “them” (his neighbors).
He finally breaks down completely, tearing apart his apartment and fleeing to Stella’s apartment. She comforts him and lets him sleep over, but leaves him to go to work. He sees his neighbors everywhere, still, seeing his landlord in a random visitor who knocks on her door, seeing them in her photo albums. In a fit of pique, he destroys her apartment, then flees.
It’s an interesting thriller, if a bit meandering and long in the buildup and Polasnki is alone in many scenes that feel like repeats, but without meaning. The end is quite good, with him repeating his predecessor’s swan dive while still firmly in the grips of his delusions. Who jumps twice?!? A satire on how neighbors can drive you crazy. Echoes of the disintegration of psyche undergone by Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Saw it in English.
- Straw Dogs (1971) — 5/10
This is the original film, starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George, not the remake from 2011 starring James Marsden and Kate Sumner. This one was directed by Sam Peckinpah and actually feels like a Western set in England.
Everyone in the town is a criminal bordering on insane and can only think of rape (more or less). The setup is not subtle. “Where do you want it, Amy? … Put it wherever you want.” Soooo suggestive. All the ladies walking lasciviously—I think one is a minor? This script has no subtlety whatsoever. For example, the main couple go from making sweet love one night—observed salaciously by a young couple, looking through the window—to her crying desperately for attention while he’s trying to finish his work, leading to her bursting into tears. Did Tolstoy write this? All of the other men are characterized as rutting idiots. The Country Boys are utterly blithering.
The husband, on the other hand, is constantly portrayed as effiminate or soft: he wears the same shoes she does, he wears sweaters, sometimes draped over his shoulders, he sits in a child’s swing to work, he doesn’t know which side of the car to drive from, he’s got glasses. They all know how weak he is, they want the pretty girl he has. They will take her from his soft, weak hands. Peckinpah clearly thinks he’s being subtle, but he’s not.
When David and Amy find their cat strangled and swinging from a noose in their closet, she wants to flee, knowing it was the workers that did it to “prove that they can get into [his] bedroom at any time”. He doesn’t want to leave but is also reluctant to accuse them of having killed the cat. He tries, but it kind of backfires and they take advantage of his lack of self-confidence. They invite him to go hunting, but that means that they won’t be working on the garage nor have they been accused of killing the cat. Amy loses confidence in him as the men go back outside, giggling and laughing and hooting like idiots.
They end up taking him on a snipe hunt, holding a sack, waiting for game to run into it as the “flush it out, sir”. Hoot, hoot, hoot. Charlie circles around and goes to visit Amy while David is in the field. She lets him in, knowing he killed her cat, then kisses him and asks him to leave while kissing him again, then he takes what he’s wanted the whole movie.
But WTF why did she let him in? It’s like the movie wants to make it her own damned fault for answering the door in a bathrobe—and then liking her own rape, at least kinda. This is super-creepy. “Amy, I don’t want to reave you, but I will.” I have no idea what Peckinpah is trying to say about sexuality, but it can’t be anything good. After the rape, he says “Sorry, Amy” and she says “Hold me.” I cannot believe for a second that this is based on anything other than rutting male fantasy.
While they’re lying on the couch, entwined, Charlie and Amy are interrupted by his compatriot, who, of course, wants a taste. And a taste he will have, as Charlie holds her down for him. Now its’s rape, I guess? Or maybe with the next guy? Is it ever rape?
So anyway there’s a church party with the whole town and Henry Niles (apparently a molester of some sort?) is tempted off by a young girl, Janice, daughter of the alcoholic town patriarch. The gang gives chase but can’t find him. He seems to choke her to death, perhaps by accident. The posse ends up at the pub, downing one shot of whiskey after another. David and Amy drive home and hit Henry on the way home. They take him to their house and call the pub for a doctor. The posse ends up at their house—ton of rape-y elephants in the room here—all remain unaddressed.
They try to get David to leave to find a doctor so they can have another go at Amy. Amy stands mute. David tries to stand his ground: “This is my house”. It seems to work, at least temporarily. Then the patriarch tries to break into their house with his gang. He tries all the doors and surprise, surprise, the windows are next. It’s kind of farcical…I’m not getting the sense of menace I would have expected. The story is pretty muddled and it’s not clear where everyone’s motivation comes from. They seem so passionate and angry but it’s not clear why they hate him so much. Maybe no reason? Maybe the point is that it could happen to anyone? Because such violence is utterly unpredictable?
Somewhere during the attack, Amy switches sides and wants to throw Henry to the dogs to save her own skin. David still wants to defend the home. To do so, he becomes the same kind of animal as they. He threatens her with death to make him help her. She’s still kind of confused about who she wants to defend. She kind of hates him? The rape is seemingly forgotten (even though there’s almost a repeat). Minus one star for being unconvincing. Plus one star for the last twenty minutes and Hoffman’s plucky performance as an action star.
- Du rififi chez les hommes (1955) — 8/10
Three Parisians plan and execute a jewel heist. Tony is fresh out of prison and his old friends Jo and Mario barely wait a day to invite him to do a smash-and-grab on a jewelry store. He turns them down but, after discovering his former lover (Mado) has taken up with a local gangster (Grutter)—and after proudly having made her strip and then beaten her brutally for it—he raises their offer to take the whole contents of the safe rather than just grabbing what they can from a window.
We see them planning it out, figuring out how to get around the vibration-sensitive alarm system, how to get into the store, how to get to the safe, etc. The execution is largely in near-silence because they have to be careful not to trigger the alarm before they can empty a fire extinguisher in it to keep it silent. They carefully widen a hole in the ceiling of the jewelry store while catching detritus in an umbrella, all the while staying painfully silent.
The minutes tick by. The hours tick by.
It takes them three hours to get through the ceiling, get to the safe and tip it down on its face (quite cleverly by using different-sized chocks until it’s been levered nearly to the ground). They drill from the back, ignoring the lock on the front, but it takes 3 hours to drill the holes in the back on which they mount a sort of manual router that lets them dig a circle in the metal, which takes another hour. Finally, they take their jewelry through the hole and make off seemingly scot-free.
However, someone discovers that Cesar has given his girl a ring that he swiped and Grutter gets wind of it, quickly concluding that Tony and his gang were involved. They get Cesar and Mario (and his wife, Ida) and pressure them into getting the gang to give up the jewels. Mario and Ida are martyred for the cause. Jo, however, was already in London and had arranged to fence them. Tony goes to Mado—who has since left Grutter but who is definitely not going to back to Tony, not surprising considering the scars he left her with—and asks her to help him find Grutter. She tells him to go piss up a rope and hopes that all the rest of his friends would be killed as well. Tony finds Cesar and kills him for having ratted out Mario and the gang.
They get their money from the fence—FF120 million—and Tony takes off to get Jo’s kidnapped kid back before Jo can cave in and give Grutter the money. Tony rescues Jo’s son, but Jo panics first and takes off with all of the money (not just his share). Poor Tony is left to clean up yet another mess. But he’s too late: Grutter takes the money and kills Jo for good measure, then gut-shoots Tony from cover. Tony recovers quickly enough to kill Grutter before he can escape with the loot, but he’s grievously wounded.
It’s a nice heist film, with good acting, good music, a good story and lovely, lovely sets (apparently filmed on-site). It’s a movie of its time and its not timeless—the dialogue is a bit slow and the shots are very static. It’s black and white, which is OK, but the print isn’t very clean. Paris in the 50s, though, … looks exactly the same as now. The ensemble shots are nice, but also tend to be straight on. Saw it in French and Italian with spotty English subtitles.
- Shame (2011) — 7/10
Brandon (Michael Fassbender) lives alone in New York City. He hates clothes. No, wait, he’s addicted to sex. He doesn’t wear clothes in his apartment. He hires prostitutes to sate himself. The first few scenes are bleak and repetitive, to highlight his addiction. The sound of the blinds going up signals a new, bleak day and reminds me of the sounds of drugs being taken in Requiem for a Dream, where the effect was similar.
Brandon flirts with a woman on the train and we’re sad for both of them: he does it because he has to and she does it because she’s interested in distraction. When she stands, we see she’s married and, from the new angle, older than we initially thought. He gives chase, because his addiction doesn’t care. He’s compelled to masturbate whenever he can: in the shower, even at work. He obsessively watches porn on his laptop.
After a night out with his boss, who’s also on the prowl but not as obsessively, and after taking the girl his boss was pursuing up against a sculpture, he gets home to discover that his sister has moved in with him. She’s not at all uncomfortable with nudity in front of him, is very touchy-feely and hangs around the house in a skimpy large T-shirt/nightgown. The juxtaposition with his lifestyle is jarring, because you wonder whether he’s capable of turning it off for her or if he’s constantly suppressing horrific thoughts. This whole situation gets more complicated when she hooks up with his boss in his own bedroom, then tries to join him in bed much later, claiming that she’s cold.
Next we see Brandon on a date with a coworker, but he’s terrible at it. He’s a hollow man with no opinions and little personality—emphasized by how he just takes every single suggestion that the waiter makes. The date goes nowhere, he goes home to take care of business himself, gets caught by his sister, attacks her, spirals downward, realizes he has a problem and disposes of an unholy crap-ton of pornography. It’s an utter miracle/not really believable that his roommate/sister hadn’t discovered any of it. It’s not like she isn’t a snooper.
He has an argument with his sister when he tries to throw her out, storms out and gets self-destructive, hitting on a girl hard, then telling her boyfriend about it. Boyfriend plays his role perfectly and beats him up outside the bar. Brandon ends up at a gay bar/hookup joint for a quick, anonymous beej. He drifts from there to a three-way with two prostitutes, where we see him as a the addict he is, mechanically pursuing his high with no real joy evident in his face. Empty. He goes through a come-to-Jesus moment when his sister attempts suicide, but the ending leaves it unclear as to whether this has saved him.
Nice to see Steve McQueen (director) not shy away from showing Fassbender in full frontal nudity, because it’s totally appropriate for this film. Fassbender is a very versatile actor and is really good in this role (as usual).
- Vier Minuten (2006) — 7/10
We see an older woman having a piano delivered to the prison where she will give lessons, where she has apparently worked for years. We see flashbacks of her involvement over the decades, from when she was a young girl during WWII.
She interviews potential students, all save one of whom are terrible. The last is very talented, but an absolute loose cannon. She is told she cannot even interview and she flips out, beating the guard into the hospital and then playing some highly improvisational jazz before the other guards can break the door down and take her into custody.
The piano teacher visits her in the asylum and tells her that she finds her despicable but that she will help her become a better piano player because she has a gift. There is a price, though. The old lady is a hard-ass, a control freak. A talented and immensely knowledgeable teacher, but still a very non-sympathetic person. And she gives absolutely zero fucks for Jenny’s back story, why she’s so angry or why she went so wrong. Plus, she only allows classical because everything with a bit more of a modern feel to it is “Neggermusik”.
They come to an agreement, with Krüger (the teacher) in charge and Jenny following all of her rules, playing absolutely beautifully. She damages her hand punching a mirror before her first contest. They take Jenny to a hospital, where she tries to escape, then kill herself by jumping through a 3rd-floor window, but it’s safety glass and it comically knocks her out instead.
Jenny confides details of her life to Krüger and we see a montage of them seeming to come to terms and even laughing. The man she beat (Mütze), though, he’s to be on a TV show answering questions about music—a game he’s played with Krüger for years. He’s disappointed though as its not really about the music—more about superficial musical trivia—so he loses, though he was ready like no other. He still seeks revenge for the brutal beating Jenny gave him. He arranges to have her transferred to a cell with her three greatest enemies, where she can hardly sleep.
Despite all these obstacles, Jenny wins her way to the final round. Her friendship with Krüger deepens. Frau Krüger demands to see her file, then digs it out of the archive herself. She doesn’t show up for the next lesson. Mütze does, but won’t unlock the piano for Jenny to practice. We hear more about Krüger’s past, She describes an American air attack on a German hospital as a “terror attack”, which it most certainly was. Krüger talks to Jenny’s father, who tells her about the whole sordid story: the murder for which Jenny was convicted was committed by the loser who got her pregnant and Jenny was protecting him. She confessed to the court that her father had raped her and that was why she did it, but her father lied and buried his own crime, condemning her to prison for life.
Next Jenny’s attacked by her cellmates, who set her hands on fire, all deliberately ignored by Mütze, who set it up as revenge against her. Jenny gets free and beats one of the other girls bloody with a candlestick. The warden decides to cancel Jenny’s furlough for the contest. Krüger confronts Mütze, who admits his involvement but can’t admit it because he’ll lose his job. Everyone in this movie is flawed and selfish, each in their own ways and to varying degrees. Mütze helps Jenny escape with Krüger so that she can play in the contest. The people and relationships are complicated and the presentation poignant. Saw it in German.
But French would have felt less forced (also the original soundtrack was in mono, so that detracted somewhat). After writing this, I found the following in the production notes (Wikipedia), which explained the soundtrack issue.
↩“The film was shot part in English, part in French, going by whatever the actors present felt more comfortable with. […] the rest of the French characters were notably dubbed by actors with audibly US American accents. […] Especially the English version is notorious for poor audio quality where during both the initial shoot and the dubbing, voices were recorded at vastly different levels. Even the bare-bones 2004 DVD release […] has monaural sound for both the English and the French version. Modern reviews differ as to whether the audible American accents and the poor audio quality in the English version distract from the French setting and destroy the illusion, or add to the film’s creepy surreal atmosphere.”