Five Great Films I Saw in the Month of October 2013, in alphabetical order

Total seen: 13

Carrie (De Palma, 1976)

Drag Me to Hell (Raimi, 2009)

Gravity (Cuarón, 2013)

The Hills Have Eyes (Craven, 1977)

Room 237 (Ascher, 2012)


Five Great Films I Saw in the Month of September 2013, in alphabetical order

Total seen: 11

The Blob (Yeaworth Jr., 1958)

Greed (von Stroheim, 1924)

Only Angels Have Wings (Hawks, 1939)

Three Ages (Cline & Keaton, 1923)

The Wizard of Oz (Fleming, 1939)

Five Great Films I Saw in the Month of August 2013, in alphabetical order

Total seen: 17

Body Double (De Palma, 1984)

Dead Ringer (Henreid, 1964)

Holy Motors (Carax, 2012)

The Killing Fields (Joffé, 1984)

Scream 4 (Craven, 2011)

Hon. mention(s): Dirty Pretty Things (Frears, 2002), Memories of Murder (Bong, 2003)

Five Great Films I Saw in the Month of July 2013, in alphabetical order

Total seen: 15

Au revoir les enfants (Malle, 1987)

Jubal (Daves, 1956)

Punishment Park (Watkins, 1971)

Searching for Sugar Man (Bendjelloul, 2012)

sex, lies, and videotape (Soderbergh, 1989)

Hon. mentions: Cloud Atlas (Tykwer, Wachowski, Wachowski, 2012), Tokyo Twilight (Ozu, 1957)

Five Great Films I Saw in the Month of June 2013, in alphabetical order

Total seen: 13

Man of the West (Mann, 1958)

Some Came Running (Minnelli, 1958)

Two Lovers (Gray, 2008)

The Warped Ones (Kurahara, 1960)

World War Z (Foster, 2013)

Five Great Films I Saw in the Month of May 2013, in alphabetical order

Total seen: 14

Behind the Candelabra (Soderbergh, 2013)

Looking for Richard (Pacino, 1996)

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Meyer, 1982)

Strange Days (Bigelow, 1995)

Zardoz (Boorman, 1974)

Hon. mentions: Samsara (Fricke, 2011), Star Trek Into Darkness (Abrams, 2013)

[REC]³ Génesis (Paco Plaza, 2012)

[REC] is probably one of my favorite horror films of all time (even if its demonic-possession-blood-disease premise is absurd even by zombie movie standards) and one of the few entries in the increasingly maddening found footage sub-genre that I can actually stand.  Its slow build-up of something being very wrong in this quarantined apartment building is downright awesome, leading to one of the most frightening, and earned, endings I’ve ever seen in a movie of this or almost any genre.  [Rec] ², its sequel dealing with the direct aftermath of the first film, in the same apartment building with a new set of emergency responders waiting to be served up to the infected, had its moments but was essentially more of the same, with added emphasis on explaining the, again, ridiculous premise that took away from the what-the-fuck-is-going-on-here air of mystery of the first film.  Apparently the filmmakers heard my complaint, so how do they rectify the second film’s slight stumble?  Why, by completely abandoning the found-footage structure (except for the first few minutes’ wedding reception – needless to say, the best part of the film) and everything that made the first film so incredibly unnerving, creating what I guess is, what, a parody of the two more serious films that came before?  If not, this was nothing more than a typical zombie movie with effects and gore from any “Walking Dead” episode and some extremely strange humor, completely jarring when considering the two films that came before this (alright, I laughed at the character/running gag of SpongeJohn, the children’s entertainer hoping to avoid copyright infringement, but even that was hideously out of place in this series and even this genre).  The premise is a promising one, as amateur footage from a relative and a professional wedding photographer depict a wedding that goes swimmingly, which in this kind of movie only heightens the tension that something, eventually, will go incredibly wrong.  And when it does, the chaos is satisfying, a group of survivors hole up in the kitchen, and…the camera is thrown to the ground, we’re transitioned to a traditional film format for the rest of the duration, and the combination of gore, elaborate kills, and odd humor make this little more than an “Evil Dead” or “Dead Alive” knock-off, with characters doing an awfully good job of taking this downright apocalyptic situation in Ash Williams-style stride, rather than the no-names from the first two films with whom we could nonetheless identify simply due to their collective sense of mutual claustrophobic terror.  Some of the action and gore and kills are fun to watch, sure, but they’re merely images I’ll forget in a day or two, whereas the mere sense of dread I got from the first film, while indescribable as an specific image or sound, is something I still have sensory memories of to this day, years after watching the film.  I suppose the filmmakers had the right idea trying to revive a series that was close to becoming stale.  If only they didn’t do it in a format even more stale than the found-footage format that [REC] pioneered.

Five Great Films I Saw in the Month of April 2013, in alphabetical order

Total seen: 17

Fantastic Mr. Fox (Anderson, 2009)

Kes (Loach, 1969)

Manon of the Spring (Berri, 1986)

Theatre of Blood (Hickox, 1973)

Young Adult (Reitman, 2011)

Theatre of Blood (Douglas Hickox, 1973)

Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price), a famed Shakespearean (and only Shakespearean) stage actor, is unexpectedly (to him, at least) passed over for his coveted Critic’s Circle Award by unanimous vote from a fraternity of London’s finest theater critics. Following a failed suicide attempt and subsequent faking of his death, Lionheart strives to put on his greatest performance – a performance of revenge involving some of the most grisly and over-the-top acts of revenge imaginable on said critics, all based directly on the very Shakespearean performances he was so mercilessly panned for. This all arguably inspired many films years afterward, from the concept (“Se7en” famously involved serial killings based, creatively and gruesomely, on the seven deadly sins) to the execution (i.e. all those god-awful “Final Destination” films that were little more than a showcase for deaths whose brutality and depravity knew no bounds). Admittedly, the tone of “Theatre of Blood” is closer to the shameless, carefree exploitation of the latter than the atmosphere of suffocatingly pervasive depression of the former (case-in-point, the downright comical degree to which both Lionheart’s victims and the police are slow on the uptick to figure out what the hell is going on). You can’t feature a delighted, cackling Vincent Price serving “Titus Andronicus”-inspired dog pot pies and a “Cymbeline”-inspired beheading without at least acknowledging the utter over-the-top absurdity of the entire proceedings. Yet, there is a certain degree of satire, of thought-provoking criticism of, well, criticism, that ascend all this nonsense above the mere mindless and depraved. Amongst all the crazed monologuing of Lionheart as he walks his journey of over-the-top vengeance, one line actually stuck with me as he engaged in a “Romeo & Juliet”-inspired fencing duel with one of his potential victims, when he angrily exclaims,

How many actors have you destroyed as you destroyed me? How many talented lives have you cut down with your glib attacks? What do you know of the blood, sweat and toil of a theatrical production? Of the dedication of the men and the women in the noblest profession of them all? How could you know you talentless fools who spew vitriol on the creative efforts of others because because you lack the ability to create yourselves!

Never mind the fact that Lionheart perhaps has far too lofty an opinion of his acting skill, he’s saying what countless actors must have been thinking for centuries. Indeed, with hardly an exception, the critics to whom Lionheart directs his theatrical revenge are old, white, pretentious, stuffy, flamboyant assholes, the very stereotypes invading the minds of those claiming (and celebrating) the increasing irrelevance of criticism, film, theater or otherwise, making this film oddly satirical and predictive of today’s society. That, combined with a Vincent Price who seems like he’s having an absolute blast in this performance, relishing his overacting and his increasingly absurd disguises, almost put you in Lionheart’s camp, make you identify more with him and his obsessive devotion to his craft than with his snobbish victims. Of course, Lionheart is a madman who must himself be punished in a genre film such as this lest this be nothing more than a 2-hour argument for and defense of straight-up vigilantism and no-questions-asked revenge, but pardon me if I don’t exactly mourn the line of victims who have to feel his wrath before everything is set “right.” And, if nothing else, this all got me in a major mood to read Shakespeare, to see what could so inspire such creative brutality. All in all, I had as much shameless fun watching this as Vincent Price clearly had starring in it, even if I’m willfully missing Lionheart’s entire point by writing about it.

Jean de Florette / Manon of the Spring (Claude Berri, 1986)

A surprisingly deep and poignant, and even more surprisingly brisk-feeling, 2-film, 4-hour epic about…carnation-farming and water displacement. Two farmers, Cesar (Yves Montand) and his ne’er-do-well nephew Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil) (names borrowed for similar characters in the Simpsons episode “The Crepes of Wrath”), fresh off of Ugolin’s idea to grow and sell carnations and in need of fertile land to do so, conspire to block off the water supply to the neighboring land belonging to a newcomer, the hunchback Jean (Gérard Depardieu), hoping to drive away the formerly city-dwelling tax collector in despair and acquire the land on the cheap. What follows in the first film is Jean’s charmingly stubborn and hopelessly oblivious attempt to grow crops and breed rabbits relying on water from miles away while the two conspirators next door play friendly, while in the second film, Jean’s now-grown daughter, Manon (Emmanuelle Béart), avenges her unknowingly victimized father. As the plot progresses and soon other people in the town become aware of it but do nothing to tip off Jean, it’s clear the main motive for the plot, especially for the townspeople but even for Cesar and Ugolin, in addition to their precious carnations, is an inherent disdain towards the outsider, any stranger who would dare invade their carefully-insulated world (although for the older Cesar, the motive is revealed late to be decades in the making and personal). This alienation of the outsider and a critique of isolationism seem to be one of the film’s main focuses. True, it may be a bit too on-the-nose to make the outsider in question a hunchback, so physically separate from everyone else that his status as an “other” couldn’t be more symbolically obvious, and indeed their constantly referring to him as “the hunchback” gets old after a while, but this isn’t exactly the pinnacle of realism, as both films are peppered with moments of melodrama and humor that humanizes both victim and victimizer. As hopeless as his plight is and as obstinate as he may be, you can’t help but admire Jean’s persistence, often carrying gallons of water miles on his (hunch)back to keep his fledgling farm going (an image that reminded me of, of all things, Setsuko Hara in Kurosawa’s “No Regrets for Our Youth”). His persistence and innocent optimism serves as a refreshing contrast to the slimy corruption of his two scheming neighbors. Which isn’t to say, though, that he’s a flawless hero, as his steadfastness is basically, in the end, not worth it, and indeed rather stupid, to the point where that persistence even makes you roll your eyes…as surely it must make Cesar and Ugolin’s. Many scenes focus on Jean and his supportive wife and daughter, true, but the film does a brave thing by putting as much, if not more, of the point of view on Cesar and Ugolin, the supposed villains. As Cesar is seemingly obsessed with continuing the lineage and wealth of his precious Soubeyran name and Ugolin feigns helpful friendship with Jean, even their vile scheme to drive out / ruin an honest man becomes shaded with humanity, with Ugolin arguably developing a genuine affection for the man while ruining him and the viewer is challenged to split his or her allegiance between two shameless crooks and a well-meaning but ignorant newcomer – not exactly easy, storybook choices.

The wildcard amongst this cast of characters is Jean’s daughter, Manon (Ernestine Mazurowna in the first film, Béart in the second). To call her precocious would probably be an understatement, as she silently observes her father’s mostly fruitless toiling with sad curiosity, and the suspiciously doting Ugolin with clear distrust and disdain. Her quiet observations and expressive eyes say more about her than much of the film’s actual dialogue says about its other characters. It’s as if she’s not only wise beyond her years, but downright prescient, plotting justice for her wronged father before the extent of his being wronged even becomes clear. In the second film, that penchant for quiet hyper-observation and even quieter plotting remains in the now-teenage Manon, with an added degree of willful isolation. She almost seems autistic in her persistent lack of communication with anyone, her obsessive tending of her goats, and her joyfully dancing naked out in broad daylight. She’s incredibly enigmatic, perhaps too much so, but that enigma provides one of the more fascinating aspects of the second film, as Ugolin falls hopelessly in love with her. True, any heterosexual male with eyes could easily fall in love with a young woman as beautiful as Emmanuele Béart, but you get the sense that Ugolin’s obsessive, tragic infatuation arises chiefly from his guilt over what he did to the girl’s father years before. You can’t help but pity the poor man as he falls all over himself trying to woo the silent woman who is planning his destruction, precisely because we’ve spent a full film and a half seeing things through his seedy, tragically flawed perspective, unlike with the town’s young, handsome (and bland) schoolteacher in his own wooing of Manon, in one major subplot that falls majorly flat.

While Ugolin is clearly a tragic figure, he’s cartoonish and buffoonish in bringing about his own downfall. His uncle, Cesar, experiences a much more subtle downfall that will stick with me for some time. Not once does he interact with Jean the hunchback, in trying to wash his hands of guilt. His goal, of continuing the Soubeyran line and supposed fortune, is admirable, and indeed his attempts to coax his pitiful nephew and heir into child-bearing marriage is even endearing, as his curmudgeonly interactions with the stunningly immature Ugolin are among the more charming and likable scenes across both films. It’s just his way of going about it that is reprehensible, and ultimately unforgivable. That this story is wrapped up neater than a soap opera, complete with a last moment plot twist, cannot be ignored and is quite disappointing for a 4-hour epic that otherwise unfolds at an otherwise wonderfully leisurly pace, the excellent cinematography of the farmlands and sounds of cicadas and footsteps on arid dirt putting you right in the midst of an agriculturally devastating heat wave. But if that conclusion is abrupt and unsubtle, the wordless facial acting of the great Yves Montand in the town cemetery is anything but. In the end, Cesar gets exactly what he wants. And it destroys him.