SHOCKTOBER 2015: THE PACT (Nicholas McCarthy, 2012) & THE CANAL (Ivan Kavanagh, 2014)

When I chose these two films to watch, mostly at random, I didn’t expect there to be so many similarities between them! It’s almost creepy to think about, unless you consider that contemporary haunted house horror films share a lot of the same genetics. Both The Pact and The Canal try to do something new with the haunted house trope, with varying levels of success.



The Pact is the story of Annie, who, after her estranged mother’s death, is cajoled by her older sister to come back home for her mother’s funeral. When she arrives in town, however, she finds her sister has disappeared, leaving her young daughter behind. Annie must figure out the truth about what happened to her sister, and what’s behind the spooky happenings in the house, both of which might be related to Annie and her sister’s harshly abusive upbringing at the hands of their mother.

The Canal is also about a haunted house, but with a much more brutal relationship to the ghosts of the past. David, his wife, and his young son all live happily in a Victorian house by a canal, until David has some suspicions and finds out his wife is cheating on him, and planning to leave him. That same night, his wife is found murdered, her body surfacing in the canal. All signs point to David, but he insists that murderous ghosts in the house have something to do with her murder.



Both films rely on technology to help the characters figure out their relationship with the ghosts – Annie gets a mysterious text with an unknown address, and when she looks it up on Google Maps, she sees the above ghost; while David, a film preservationist by trade, films the house and the canal with a turn-of-the-century camera he believes can capture the ghosts. Both films even have video calls with ghosts in them!

David’s obsession with film, and what it can show him about things that he cannot see with the naked eye (or cannot prove exist to others) reminded me of one of our all-time favorite films, Arrebato– David even holds up his film to the light to try to prove he’s right, in a seeming homage to one of Arrebato‘s most enduring images. The appearance of ghosts after you see David’s film is also reminiscent of The Ring, and The Canal shares that film’s obsession with seeing that which we are most afraid of.



The similarities continue: both films are set at/around Christmas, and characters peeping through holes in the walls and hiding in secret passageways within the house are recurring themes in both. It’s the third-act reveals that separates the good from the mediocre. The Pact finds real heart and redemption in its finale (even as it switches from a haunted house film to more of a slasher thriller), while The Canal is brutal (particularly against women) until the very end. Whereas The Canal director Ivan Kavanagh might have thought he was being shocking, instead it’s just a needlessly depressing parade of horrors, one after the other.

The performances also differentiate the films: The Pact stars Caity Lotz, who I was happy to see, as she’s one of my favorite recurring actors on Mad Men, who brings a tough vulnerability to Annie. This is a woman who has been through a horrifically abusive childhood, yet has the strength to come back to the former house of horrors and solve her family’s ghastly secrets. The Canal, on the other hand, stars Rupert Evans in a relatively thankless role as David. He’s never a nice guy, he has violent fantasies about killing his cheating wife, and is basically threatening and/or frightening to every woman in the film. There’s no one to cheer for, even if we think that David is being falsely accused. At the end of the day, I’ll always take the woman with heart over the man who is filled with impotent rage.


SHOCKTOBER 2015: DEAD CREATURES (Andrew Parkinson, 2001)


Dead Creatures is a cannibal film with brutal kidnapping, cannibalism, and murder, and yet it doesn’t feel like a traditional horror film. The film rolls out its premise slooooowly – the first scenes juxtapose a group of women hanging out, smoking pot, and sleeping in hovels with graphic shots of disembodied arms and legs being dismantled by knife. One of the women is literally falling apart, with chunks of skin missing from her face and hands. There is clearly something wrong – but what, exactly?


The film doesn’t go too  much into the mythology of its disease, which is something I generally appreciate in horror film – too many movies try to over-explain their plot, to the advantage of no one. The women are all afflicted with a vampire-esque cannibalistic disease, and stick together in small groups and share their fresh meat in order to survive. I loved how the film portrays these small societies of women – killing and robbing to get along, helping one another and living in a nonhierarchical structure – even killing members of the “tribe” once their disease progresses too far.


There is a subplot involving an older man who is obsessed with finding these cannibals, one young woman in particular, but it’s thankfully  just used as a sidebar in order to give the film a semblance of narrative structure. With a bit more adventurous cinematography and different choices (soundtrack, for sure), Dead Creatures could have been a remarkable feminist-horror-film-as-parable; instead, it’s not a bad choice for your Shocktober viewing, but nothing extraordinarily memorable.

Dana’s Weekly Roundup!

Better late than never! Last week was brutally hot in NYC, so it was a perfect time to hide inside and watch a lot of movies.


Lost Souls: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (David Gregory, 2014): The only time I’ve seen the disastrous 90s Island of Dr. Moreau has been with a Rifftrax over it, but I honestly don’t think I’m missing much. This documentary of the failed attempt for Richard Stanley (Dust DevilHardware) to adapt Wells’ novel as faithfully, and gruesomely, as possible is a relatively simple film, but is interesting in its extensive interviews with Stanley himself, as well as the producers, executives, and actors (including Fairuza Balk, forever my 90s girlcrush). The moral of the story: don’t ever  make a movie with Val Kilmer. Oh, and Marlon Brando loved to fuck with people.


Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs, 2015): Covered pretty throughly here, just thought this blog could need another picture from the film.


Faults (Riley Stearns, 2014): It’s hard for me to discuss how I felt about the film without going into some pretty heavy spoilers, so consider yourself warned. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is wonderful, as always, as Claire, a young woman living in a cult named Faults, whose parents hire Ansel Roth (Leland Orser) to deprogram her. Roth is about as down-on-his-luck as a person can get, so even though he admittedly doesn’t give a shit about the job anymore, he’ll do it for the money. Of course, Claire, her parents, and the whole situation is not what it appears.

There’s a few minutes in the film – after Ansel falls under Claire’s spell, and wakes up tied to a chair, watching his old talk show tapes, while Claire and her “father” have sex in the periphery – that really grabbed me, that made me incredibly uneasy. The aftermath of this incident, where Ansel is unsure what is happening, unable to distinguish his broken reality from fantasy, is fascinating, as we watch Ansel try to parse what he’s seen and heard. However, after that, it goes pretty obvious – of course Claire is the leader of Faults, and her “parents” are in on it, and happy to die after helping brainwash Ansel. I wish we had a little more insight into why Claire did what she did – was she getting revenge for Ansel’s past “victims” (which she refers to a little bit), or was it just a trophy to get cult expert Ansel Roth into Faults? The movie doesn’t dig as deep as I’d like, so it’s a pretty boring ride most of the time for a few explosive moments.


Stray Cat Rock: Wild Jumbo (Toshiya Fujita, 1970): We recently bought the (amazing!) Stray Cat Rock box set released by Arrow Films (who I am incredibly excited are finally putting out discs in the US!) and decided to put in one at random. Darren and I are both huge Meiko Kaji fans, so we knew any of the films would scratch that itch; however, Wild Jumbo is….not what we were expecting, to put it lightly. Part delinquent teen shenanigans, part beach movie, and part heist movie, Wild Jumbo is about a small time teen gang on vacation, who decide to steal a lot of money from a church/cult (I likely could have used some cultural context on that part). Kaji isn’t the star, and doesn’t lead the gang – and, as a total shocker for Kaji fans, she smiles and laughs during the movie! This isn’t the scowling, badass Meiko Kaji we’re used to. It’s good! Pretty silly, not a pinky violence title, but worth seeing.

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Alyce Kills (Jay Lee, 2011): This one was a purely random Netflix pick, and I appreciate it for what it is. Alyce is dangerously in love with her best friend Caroll – Caroll had accused Alyce of Single White Female-ing her, but they’re over that now (sort of). After a night of heavy partying, Alyce and Caroll end up on the roof of Alyce’s building, and something happens, and Caroll falls off the roof to the street below. However, she’s not dead. As Alyce tries to come to terms with what she may (or may not) have done, it drives her completely over the edge, and soon she’s giving a sleazy drug dealer sexual favors for cocaine and seducing the men in Caroll’s life. Alyce’s downfall is creepy, and realistic at the same time as it is bombastic. The film reminds me quite a bit of BCMH favorite Starry Eyes – both feature young women at the end of their rope, swayed to extreme violence by the promise of being someone else.

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Secret Things (Jean-Claude Brisseau, 2002): Another Netflix pick, this one I’ve been meaning to watch for ages. Sandrine, a bartender, and Nathalie, a stripper, decide to go into “business” together to improve their financial and social standings. Their plan is simple: attract rich, powerful men, and get them to marry them. It works remarkably well, for a while, until one of the women catches feelings and the whole plan unravels. What’s most interesting about the film to me is its progression; it starts as a 90s-style erotic thriller, and in the final half hour, becomes almost mythological in its storytelling. There’s hints of a trashier Robbe-Grillet aesthetic here, and there’s more going on there than a synopsis makes it seem.


Tom Stathes’ Cartoons on Film (Various): As part of their annual Animation Block Party, BAM in Brooklyn presented an hour-long program of ultra-rare, pre-code cartoon shorts. As with pre-code film, the shorts are on the edge between racy and explicit (except for one silent film, which was incredibly pornographic, shocking even a 2015 audience), and derive much of their humor from suggestive situations. Although some of the films were disappointingly (but predictably, for the era) racist/sexist/fatphobic, most were a delightful view into a lost art. The films included stories from Betty Boop (my favorite as a youngster), Bobby Bumps, and the first Felix the Cat short. It was a real pleasure to check out!


Casque d’Or (Jacques Becker, 1952): A lush black and white drama about a gangster’s moll who falls in love with another man, and the consequences of following one’s heart. Simone Signoret is gorgeous and really empathetic as Marie, who starts out with the terrible brute Roland – however, at a party, she meets ex-con Manda, a friend of one of the gang members. The fireworks are immediately apparent, but Marie has a hard time getting out of Roland’s grasp. A duel, accidental death, and escape from the city ensue, but it’s not enough to escape the past. A tragic tale of love, but especially of male hubris – if any of these men had chilled out, the situation could have been resolved reasonably!


Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014)

With my 2014 Top 10(ish) list basically set in stone, I was pleased to finally be able to see Clouds of Sils Maria, hoping it would be the film to make me rethink my list. Unfortunately, it’s not the bracket-buster I was hoping it would be; it’s full of good ideas, but none of which are pushed far enough to actually break waves on the movie’s smooth, beautiful surface.


Juliette Binoche is Maria, an aging actress who is on her way to Switzerland with her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) to publicly present an award to her notoriously reclusive mentor Wilhelm. While on the journey, Maria and Valentine are hit with the news that Wilhelm has died, turning the celebration into an impromptu wake. While Maria is resistant to the idea, and wants to return home immediately, Valentine convinces her to stay and pay tribute to Wilhelm. While at the accompanying dinner, Maria is introduced to a director, Klaus, who wants to remake Majola Snake, the film that made Maria famous twenty-odd years ago; only this time, Maria would be playing the older, broken woman, while It starlet Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz) will be playing the role that originally made Maria famous.


Much of the film takes place at Wilhelm’s estate in Sils Maria, where Maria and Valentine retreat so Maria can learn her lines, and prepare her psyche, for the stage version of Majola Snake. The scenery is breath-takingly gorgeous; the isolated nature of the place plays into the seemingly isolated lives of both Maria and Valentine. While the play Majola Snake is about a conniving young woman and the pathetic older woman who is in love with her, Maria and Valentine’s relationship doesn’t play as an analogue to that – I’m not sure if that was supposed to be the idea, but Valentine never seems much more than an impressively loyal employee to me. She’s not devoted to Maria – she disagrees with her often (which contributes to the film’s climax) and goes off to party with friends she meets along the way. In the same vein, Maria needs Valentine, and tells her as much, but never takes an unseemly interest in her. They both have secrets that they will not reveal to each other. Both women are an island, which takes away the kind of Persona/3 Women-esque psychological codependency this movie honestly could have used.


The ending (spoilers in this paragraph) is unsatisfying, to say the least; Valentine abandons Maria as they are finally about to see the mythical snake of mist, and then she is never mentioned again. I’m not necessarily a person who needs closure in every film I see, but the final third of the film doesn’t feature, or even mention, Valentine once. Valentine’s presence can be felt in Maria’s decision to go ahead with Majola Snake, and in Maria’s refusal to run lines or discuss the play with her new assistant, but there’s a sense of loss that isn’t even acknowledged. But perhaps, it’s as Moretz’s Jo-Ann tells Maria: once the audience knows something is over, they want to move on. No point in dwelling on the past.


The meta-texual elements of the film are the most interesting to me. I don’t see Binoche in English-speaking films very often, so her accented English and short hair reminded me very much of Asia Argento (who I recently gushed about here), with a softer edge. And it must really have been strange for Kristen Stewart to do this movie, when Jo-Ann Ellis is a weird mashup of Stewart’s public persona/career choices, with a bit of Lindsay Lohan thrown in for good measure. Moretz gives my favorite performance of the film; she’s very young, insecure, in love, sure of herself, blase, scared, and very used to fame, all at once. It’s a difficult balance to get right, and I think she nailed it. Binoche and Stewart are also solid in the film, but their characters have so little depth, ironically enough, that it’s hard to engage with them on a deeper level. I found it very unbelievable that a lauded, experienced actress like Maria would find it so hard to dig into Majola Snake and find the relatable pieces of Helena, even if she is still connected to Sigrid. She’s not a woman who seems stunted in any other way, so why this stubborn resistance of the character of Helena?


The film is unequivocally beautiful, using Sils Maria as a perfect backdrop for the characters’ personal dramas. And I absolutely love seeing a mature film about strong women with great performances – it’s one of my favorite things! I do recommend the movie, but I was really hoping it would knock me out of the park.


Vibrations (Joe Sarno, 1968)



Vibrations is, to put it mildly, a weird trip. Made in the middle of Joe Sarno’s incredibly prolific 1960s output, the film is the story of two sisters, reunited after years, both of whom have acute personal and sexual issues, likely due to a highly dysfunctional childhood. While this may seem like the subject matter for a recent Sundance drama, in Sarno’s hands, it’s mostly sex scenes, interspersed with scenes of actresses walking around. This isn’t a bad thing! If you’re a Sarno fan, it’s what you’ve come to expect. This film stands out from others of this era (like the earlier Flesh and Lace, which I was recently not impressed with) because of its deeply weird subject matter, and its even weirder take on the subject matter.


Julie and Barbara are sisters who, apparently after some trouble when they lived together on Prince Street, haven’t seen each other in a while when Barbara shows up at Julie’s apartment door. Julie lets her stay, because they’re sisters, but they have a troubled past. Barbara constantly comes on to Julie, getting into bed with her naked “like [they] used to” when they were girls. Julie is, understandably, troubled by this behavior, but it seems like their past has affected her in a different way. While Barbara is compulsively sexual, Julie is introverted and sexually frustrated. She works as a typist and aspiring poet, and it seems like her closest friend is a new male acquaintance who brings in his first short story for her to type.


Not finding any “action” at Julie’s house, Barbara starts to go stir-crazy until one night, she hears action through the paper-thin walls. Lots and lots of action. As Barbara, Marianne Prevost gives an astonishing performance – though Sarno may have been going for sexy with Barbara, Prevost’s performance is troubling. When she hears an orgy through the wall, Barbara masturbates with a compulsive ferocity that is difficult to watch. Barbara doesn’t love having sex, or having orgasms; she needs to. While (unsurprisingly for the film) this isn’t tied to the childhood incest she committed with Julie, it’s likely not unrelated.



Barbara’s visit is in the “visitor that changes everything” mode of Teorema or this year’s The Guest. Once she hears, and sees, Barbara frequenting the house of sin next door – a rich girl’s storehouse! – Julie eventually opens up and attends an orgy with Barbara. Julie has sex with Park (credited on IMDb as “Park – the hairy man,” with good reason) while Barbara is tied to a post and two women use the titular vibrator on her, and while they don’t have sexual contact here, their eye contact is constant, and disturbing. Eventually, Barbara forces herself on Julie, and makes Julie tell her “it’s good” as she performs oral sex on her, in the most upsetting scene in the movie. Interestingly, it’s hard to tell if this is supposed to be titillating or a painful coda on Barbara and Julie’s relationship. It’s likely both.



Vibrations is shot in Sarno’s trademark of the time, rich black and white with deep shadows and light. The beautiful, intense chiaroscuro of Sarno’s 60s films really make me believe that if they were rescored (the film’s score consists of organ noodling) and re-released, they would be seen as sex-art classics. Instead, they’re relegated to Something Weird releases, waiting to be dug up and watched for any number of reasons, prurient or not. The excellent documentary The Sarnos: A Life in Dirty Pictures did a great job of portraying Joe Sarno’s quest to make erotic art, and that’s what Vibrations is: disturbing, erotic art. The film ends with Barbara tied to a post, crucifixion-style, with two women using a vibrator on her, and goading her about how much she can take. It’s a weird, powerful ending for this weird little film.

Bastards (Claire Denis, 2013)



What a better film to mount a comeback to than one of the bleakest, coldest films I’ve seen in a long time! I generally love Claire Denis’ films – Trouble Every Day is in my top films of all time, so I thought I was ready for some delightful Denis brutalism. I wasn’t exactly prepared, it turns out.



(From here on out, be prepared for spoilers)

Vincent Lindon stars as a Marco, man whose brother-in-law, as close to him as a blood brother, commits suicide, and he takes leave from his solitary life as a ship captain in the Navy to help his sister. Not only is his brother-in-law dead, but his niece, his sister’s daughter, has been found wandering naked in the streets of Paris with her wrists slit. Marco theoretically comes to put the pieces back together, but he soon finds himself embroiled, with his emotionally unstable sister (Julie Bataille) in a plot for revenge against Edouard Laporte, the man both see as responsible, through his business dealings, for their loved one’s death. Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni) becomes an unwitting player in the revenge plot as Edouard’s trophy wife, who Marco quickly seduced once he moves into their building. From there, no one, including Edouard and Raphaelle’s son, is left untouched.

While this might seem like an awful lot of plot, it’s revealed slow as molasses. The film begins with intercutting scenes of the suicide crime scene, juxtaposed with Justine’s naked walk down the street. I appreciate this style of story-telling; in fact, when some major plot points come together in the final 15 minutes of the movie, it’s like watching a beautiful, terrible puzzle being finished (although I’d expect nothing less from Denis).




Now, on to those twists. The film surprises twofold in the last few minutes: first, when given the choice between killing her lover Marco and killing her husband, who has taken away her child, Raphaelle chooses to kill Marco, in what was honestly a very surprising turn of events. The willingness (or unwillingness) of a mother to protect her child is a main theme here, and it turns out that Raphaelle was willing to kill a man who may have truly cared for her in order to maintain her status quo life with her son. If Raphaelle had shot her husband, it would have been a totally expected change of heart, but also incredibly satisfying for the audience. Denis denies us both the pleasure of righteousness and that of predictability, and it’s really masterful.

On the other hand, there’s the second twist, which caused a minor uproar at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. (I remember hearing that there is some rough stuff that happens in the film, but thankfully didn’t remember the details.) It turns out Justine was being pimped out by her father to Edouard! Probably for some buisness favors! And not only that, but Justine was also raped by her father on camera with a decorative corn cob! This, I did not care for. I’m actually surprised that Denis, a strong feminist filmmaker, went this route. It seems like a cheap shock; perhaps Denis is making an ill-advised statement that we’re all violated by capitalism and patriarchy? But I really didn’t need to see that point made visual with corn, especially after a doctor describes the brutalized state of Justine’s vagina in an earlier scene. There was nothing in the film that seemed to suggest that Justine’s parents – particularly her mother, who seems to have known about the entire thing – would do this to her; but then again, desperate times call for desperate measures. The most desperate measures, apparently. (NB: A friend informed me that Denis remarked that the end of this film is a response to William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, a book I have not read – but was also the premise for The Story of Temple Drake. I sense a revisitation to these themes soon!)

That’s one of the things that bothered me most about the film – the judgements come down very hard on the mother characters. Justine’s mother at least helps to pimps her daughter out to ensure her family’s business stays afloat, but it literally costs her everything. Raphaelle is shown to be a bourgeoisie housewife who would rather keep her family intact than face what her husband has done. No one in the film comes out smelling like roses, to be certain, but it’s the mothers who have to live with the consequences, while everyone else is dead or gets away with it. But maybe that’s exactly the point – capitalism has changed our ideas of the family (and of right and wrong) that these captains of industry no longer feel responsible for the effects that their actions have on the family unit.




I was much colder on this film before I had a pleasant conversation on Twitter with some cinephile pals. Perhaps instead of a character study, it’s more useful to view the film as a dissection of the film noir, a genre associated with the tough man (Marco) and the femme fatale (Raphaelle? Justine? Both?). This is what choices made in film noir would look like in our times. While the irony didn’t always work for me – Marco is a near-saint, risking everything for a revenge plot that comes to absolutely nothing, in order to avenge a truly terrible man – I appreciate the sentiment, and the craft. Bastards is a searing indictment of capitalism and patriarchy, to be sure, but it never involved me on an emotional level, past gut-level shock. Perhaps that’s the point.

Teenage Girls in Trouble, Pre- and Post-Peaks

Recently, I watched two films that I had no idea would correlate so directly, much less would create a bridge with one of the internet’s favorite TV shows, Twin Peaks. Alberto Negrin’s 1978 Enigma Rosso (also known as Virgin Killer, also known as Red Rings of Fear – it’s one of those films that has a million amazing names, but also is hard to get any information about because everyone calls it something different) and Joel Anderson’s 2008 Lake Mungo both share the conceit of the suspicious death of a teenage girl, whose life, upon further inspection, is less peaches and cream than it looks from the outside. This, of course, is the case with Laura Palmer, Peaks‘ omnipresent murder victim, a homecoming queen turned murder victim, who actually was addicted to cocaine and worked at a local brothel. Enigma Rosso and Lake Mungo, as different as they are on the surface, present an interesting pre- and post-Peaks look at what the girl in trouble movie is.

Engima Rosso is a relatively obscure giallo, starring genre great Fabio Testi as a detective looking into the murder of a local schoolgirl with a very close group of friends. Of course, since nothing is ever as it seems at Catholic girls’ schools, it turns out the group of friends were into some wild stuff, and someone is killing them to keep their mouths shut. Or to get revenge. While not a great film, Enigma Rosso is certainly an enjoyable watch, much of which is because of Testi, a consummate cool guy as always. He forces a suspect onto a roller coaster and chokes him to get answers, for Pete’s sake! But if that was all that was good about the film, I wouldn’t feel compelled to write about it.

The film starts with Testi’s detective being called to the scene of the crime, and finding the bruised, abused naked body of a teenage girl wrapped in plastic. The above image should be familiar to anyone who’s seen even the first episode of Twin Peaks, and makes me pretty sure that David Lynch saw this film before creating his Laura Palmer. The girls in Enigma Rosso aren’t in quite as deep as Laura, but they do also work in a brothel (I think? At least, they have sex with older men regularly – the plot of the film is admittedly a little hard to follow at times), and one girl goes through a traumatic abortion that would not have seemed out of place in Twin Peaks. While Peaks is, clearly, the better product, Enigma Rosso is a different beast, taking the slightly grimy route giallo fans love (the victim’s death – by dildo, I kid you not – is shown in juicy detail), giving the audience the dirt on these girls without really caring about them.

Lake Mungo, by contrast, takes a more contemporary genre look at the death of an unknown bad girl; it’s a found footage horror film about the increasingly supernatural circumstances surrounding the death of teenaged Alice Palmer (already the similarities!). Alice was enjoying a day at the lake with her family, when she simply disappears. After a few agonizing days, her body is dredged from the water, and it’s determined that she drowned while swimming in the dam. Alice’s father identifies the body, leaving her mother without a sense of closure. It’s this lack of closure that leads Alice’s family to a psychic, the information from whom starts to unravel the mystery of who Alice really was.

Lake Mungo is less sleazy than Enigma Rosso about its protagonist’s double life, but Alice’s family finds out secrets that differ only a little from the Italian girls’: Alice had been sleeping with the couple for whom she had been babysitting, and possibly doing drugs with them (or, being drugged by them). Alice’s family finds grainy videotapes of one rendezvous, and even though the action is not explicitly portrayed, Alice’s slurred, druggy flirtations is enough to be painful to her family, and the audience as well. Lake Mungo takes a slow, supernatural approach to what is a very physical revelation; in that way, we can see the influence Twin Peaks had on the story. Alice’s ghost haunts the family (and the film), just as Laura’s apparition haunts the characters in Twin Peaks.

For two films that I had no idea would have anything in common, I found a pretty interesting bridge from the giallo to the found footage supernatural horror film: Twin Peaks. Lynch’s masterpiece ties together the two genres, exemplified by these two films, through that eternal trope of the undercover bad girl, and her murder.

Francois Truffaut at 80

“Ideas are less interesting than the human beings who have them.”

Francois Truffaut (February 6, 1932-October 21, 1984)

This Monday would have marked Francois Truffaut’s 80th birthday. I thought this would obviously be the best time to take a minute to reflect and appreciate the work of my favorite director, and what his films have meant to me.

My first exposure to Truffaut’s work was, as many others’ must have been, The 400 Blows, which I rented on VHS from the library while I was in high school – I couldn’t have been more than 14 years old at the time, a girl pretending to be a sophisticated woman. I remember I rented it in the summer, while school was out, and I watched it in my parents’ room (the only place in the house with a VCR other than the living room), sprawled out on their bed with the windows open, a breeze coming in. I’ve probably romanticized that moment in my head since then, but the fact is, I didn’t like the movie that much. It bored me, which makes sense for my age – I thought I was worldlier than I actually was. (One of my favorite Truffaut anecdotes is about how Harvey Weinstein saw The 400 Blows in the theater only because he thought it was a porno, and it set him on his cinephile path.)

I revisited Truffaut again in college, when I got Netflix and finally realized that film was my true passion (too late to study it, of course). I devoured the Antoine Doinel series, Jules and Jim, Shoot the Piano Player. I was in love. After I graduated from college and went back home, I took a film class at a local community college, where I was able to analyze Shoot the Piano Player and, of course, The 400 Blows, along with Psycho (Truffaut was a Hitchcock devotee – I was recently able to pick up a copy of Hitchcock by Truffaut for a song at a rummage sale, and it’s delightful reading – along with The Films of My Life, an incredibly engaging volume of essays on films, filmmakers, and criticism).

Born in 1932 to an unwed teenage mother who resented him her entire life (the subtext, and just plain text, of which is visible in almost all his films), Francois Truffaut didn’t live an easy life. He was raised by his grandmother, and then by himself and the cinema, sneaking in and getting kicked out all the time. He joined the army in 1950, even after he had started writing film criticism – he spent his entire two year service term trying to escape, and tried to kill himself while in army prison. In 1954, he invented auteur theory for Cahiers du Cinema, in his essay “A Certain Trend of French Cinema.” That essay got him banned from the Cannes Film Festival, which he then came back and won its Best Director award for the 400 Blows at the 1959 festival. From there, his career was a veritable roller coaster – he made good films that were critical and financial successes, and lots of films, good and bad, that were neither. He died in 1984 of a brain tumor.

I think I somehow knew, even from that first lackluster viewing of The 400 Blows, that Truffaut was a man who didn’t have it easy, who didn’t come from privilege and instead taught himself filmmaking by watching (and falling in love with) thousands of films, long before Tarantino became a video store director. It’s that pure, undiluted love of film, and the sense that film can save us from ourselves, that I got from Truffaut’s work, long before I knew any biographical details about the man. It’s the people, not the ideas, indeed.

If I had to choose one of Truffaut’s films I like above all others (and I do, because I’m obsessed with listing and ranking things – thus how I am certain Truffaut is my favorite director ever), Bed and Board would be on top. Though I cannot say it’s the best film in the Doinel series – clearly that has to be 400 Blows – it is my favorite. We see Antoine and Christine together, and falling apart; falling out of love and, reluctantly, back in. We see the charming side of Antoine, of course, but we also see how he can be a total asshole, particularly to Christine. We see how much Truffaut loves Claude Jade. We see how much Truffaut loves Jean-Pierre Leaud, for that matter! It’s funny and painful and real and just fucking wonderful.

For Truffaut’s birthday, I rewatched Day for Night, one of my favorite films, but one I hadn’t seen for a while. The films I love can generally be classified as either Very Serious and/or Depressing, or trash (not in a pejorative sense – anyone reading this blog should know how seriously I take trash), so it has surprised some of my friends how much I love Truffaut’s work. But Day for Night, as so many of his films (Small Change in particular), just make me smile. It is, as the director set out to do, about people, about the people behind the great ideas and the great films we see projected larger-than-life in front of us. It humanizes the movies. Like a magician, he gives away his tricks (I laughed with childlike wonder at the candle with the lighted hole that points at the face!), if only to share with us how much he loves them.

I think, of all the great directors I love who have passed away, we lost the most when we lost Truffaut. Unlike Fassbinder, who left us about 500 films in his short lifetime, or Antonioni, Bergman, or Rollin, who left full careers-worth of movies, Truffaut died well before his time. Godard is still going strong; we could only assume that Truffaut would be, too (although he did say he would retire at 30 films – he made 25 by his death – and write books, but I think his love of filmmaking was too great to be restrained by an arbitrary number). But we’ll never know – his final, strongly Hitchcockian phase just teases at what could have been.

So thanks, Mr. Truffaut – the humanist, the director who chips away at life’s everyday hardships, just to give us a glimpse of the pure joy that thrives within – thanks for the films.


(All scans by me! From the Taschen book Francois Truffaut: The Complete Films)

The most anticipated film of 2012?

Over at Ion Cinema, there’s been a fun list of the 100 most anticipated films of 2012, and while I don’t agree with all of them (Michael Haneke at number two??? No thanks.), there are some amazing gems in the top ten! In particular, I think they really hit the nail on the head with their number one pick: Carlos Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux. I am a HUGE Reygadas fan – he hasn’t yet made a film that’s anything less than breathtaking, and from PTL‘s plot description, that’s not going to change anytime soon:

Childhood and adolescence memories, dreams of life, emotions and thoughts of the present existence. It’s a feature film with a loose plot link in its discourse but really clear in its poetics. It is not united by the plot but by the harmony in the expression of the feelings. It works like this: at a superficial level, by the stylistic coherence; at a deep level, making sense through the identity of the personal vision.

Reygadas is again using non-traditional actors, which has worked incredibly well for him in the past. I’m looking forward to an exquisitely beautiful, moving film from him. Maybe we’ll even do a Reygadas spotlight here in celebration! (Darren has never seen any of his films, I’m determined to change that.)

Dana’s “Not-terrible of 2011” list

Maybe that’s a little harsh. But I was pretty unimpressed with the theatrical offerings this year, for reasons which Darren and I will get into soon (a BCMH manifesto for the new year, if you will). So, my list:

10. Contagion (Steven Soderbergh) and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher)

Two of my favorite contemporary directors (Soderbergh, don’t leave us!) brought it this year. Contagion is a study in paradoxes: a brisk yet grim, star-studded movie about the end of the world where most of the stars die. It definitely made me wary of human contact for a while, particularly in a place as often disgusting as New York. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is Fincher at his iciest, figuratively and visually; the characters never seem to not be freezing cold, and Fincher’s trademark distance works really well here (although it makes the characters hard to care about other than archetypes). Rooney Mara is animalistic and surprisingly empathetic as Lisbeth – it’s one of my favorite performances of the year. Plus, the cyberpunk opening credits are worth the price of admission alone.

9. Tabloid (Errol Morris)

Tabloid starts entertaining, gets crazy, and then proceeds to get crazier. Morris tells the story of Joyce McKinney, former beauty queen who kidnapped her Mormon boyfriend in England, and became a brief celebrity because of it. Joyce is amazingly open about the whole thing, revealing details that seem, well, crazy, but she is so forthright and earnest that you almost believe her side of things. Almost. Morris continues his run as one of the finest documentarians out there, as he tells this story without judgement.

8. Hugo (Martin Scorsese)

Maybe it was that we saw it on Thanksgiving, so I was predisposed to feeling super-sentimental, but I absolutely loved Hugo. What starts as a cute story about a Parisian orphan in a turn of the century train station turns into an out-and-out love letter to the cinema, with the sprightly orphan (re)discovering Georges Melies, of all people. The best scenes are those that recreate the utter magic that Melies created with his early films; Marty gets a nice little cameo, and we get to see the explosions, mermaids, and dragons that Melies brought to life so ingeniously. There’s a sweet love story in there, too, and great performances all around. Plus, it uses 3D (a technology that threatens, through mediocre overuse, to become a mere gimmick) in brilliant, eye-popping ways. See it in the theater!

7. Hanna (Joe Wright)

2011 was the year that I discovered how profoundly inspired and enchanted by fairy tales I am; Hanna was the best modern interpretation of a fairy tale I’ve seen in some time. It’s sparse and then visually overwhelming, sweet and then devastating, moral and then amoral. Saoirse Ronan is an absolutely beautiful creature in the film, all blonde hair and blue eyes and naiveté about the world (as she kills guys, of course). This mixture of blood and innocence is pure catnip to me. I’m making Darren watch this one soon.

6. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)

If I were to offer up a brief list of things I really like in a movie, it would include the following: great car chases, long periods of (badass) silence, blood, a nameless main character, Albert Brooks, a lot of blood, a protagonist who seems like a good guy but who is actually at best simply amoral, and tons of blood. Drive has all these things, and more.

5. Bridesmaids (Paul Feig)

While I definitely wasn’t enamored with the “Finally! Women are funny!” press that came along with this movie, it took two of my favorite comedians (Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph) and gave them something to do other than wacky sidekick. Sure, it’s achingly (as in gut-busting and awkwardly) hilarious; sure, it’s as gross as any fratty movie could hope to be (street diarrhea!); but most of all, it’s one of the most relatable movies I’ve ever seen. Every woman I’ve spoken to about the movie has related to at least one of the characters, and not in a Sex and the City way. It portrays the modern female friendship in a way I’ve never seen on screen, as well as the uncertainty of the postmodern, college-educated female. I mean, if I’m not a fuckup who moves back in with her Midwestern parents in about ten years, I’ll be shocked. It’s a hilarious movie with a real core, two things that are rare on their own, and near-impossible to find together. Plus, Jon Hamm is the best.

4. Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)

There were a lot of apocalypse films this year; this is one that did it best. Nichols, working with Michael Shannon again, balances the world-ending (or is it?) elements with the intensely personal story of a family being torn apart by its patriarch’s visions. Is he crazy? Is he right? I don’t think it really matters (although there is that issue of the film’s ending, the only part of it I didn’t completely love). Shannon gives another amazing performance; he really has the market on “quiet, insane men” roles. Jessica Chastain is also near-perfect as his wife, who is dealing with a deaf child and her husband’s instability, which threatens more than their marriage. She’s having a great year, and I’m rooting for her to be a huge star.

3. Incendies (Denis Villeneuve)

Part historio-social drama, part family quest, part Greek myth, Incendies is the most underrated film of the year. The gorgeous photography spans intimate moments and huge desert fires, bomb sites and military prisons, all with the same precise eye. It often feels operatic in its scope, but still intensely personal. I can get a little antsy at movies, but I was engrossed for Incendies‘ entire 130 minutes, and left the theater feeling like I had been punched in the gut. Highly recommended – it’s on DVD and an assuredly beautiful Blu-Ray now.

2. House of Tolerance (Bertrand Bonello)

One of the main themes I recognized in film this year was a tendency for a director to ask the audience to look at a film, rather than experience it. House of Tolerance, on the surface, seems like one of these films that I generally wasn’t impressed with; but it got under my skin and stayed there. I was definitely predisposed to loving the film; I like Bonello’s other work (which always expertly bridge that strange gap between impenetrable and empathetic), and I’m absolutely fascinated with turn-of-the-century prostitutes and isolated communities of women. If you’ve read anything about the film at all, it’s probably about the semen tears, or the use of The Moody Blues in a film set in 1900. Those things are the standouts of the movie, for sure, but it’s so much more than the idiosyncratic parts suggest. The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” is used perfectly in a funeral scene, and the semen tears the main character cries ties the film together. There is intense violence, but we see it in pieces, long after we see the results of said violence, which makes it more devastating. The women are a true ensemble cast, giving and taking to one another as you assume the characters do. It’s confounding, absolutely gorgeous and lush, and experimental in an almost mainstream way. I loved it.

1. Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)

The obvious choice! But I really don’t think there’s any other choice to be made. Everything about this movie is damn near perfect: the performances are amazing – Jessica Chastain and her awesome year again, and especially Brad Pitt as the Malick-stand-in’s rough yet oddly sentimental father, – the visuals are (predictably) amazing, and I didn’t even hate the 20 minute “history of the world” section. The audience in my theater was getting a little restless, which I understand, but I was totally hypnotized; the flowing, erupting lava is a breath-taking stand-in for the human experience. I don’t think anything I could say would convince someone to like or dislike it, but it most certainly was the must-see film of the year. Tree of Life is both an experience, and a journey inside the viewer. That’s not something many films can say anymore.

Things that almost made the cut: The Skin I Live In, Cedar Rapids, Into the Abyss/Cave of Forgotten Dreams, I Saw the Devil, Submarine

Things that I still haven’t seen that might have made the list: The ArtistWe Need to Talk About Kevin, Mysteries of Lisbon, The Turin Horse, Meek’s Cutoff, Certified Copy, The Muppets, A Separation, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Attack the Block, Margaret, Insidious (I guess I missed a lot of stuff after all…)

Things I was not impressed with; or, not as impressed as most other people seem to be: A Dangerous Method (natch), Melancholia, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Shame

Things I am excited about in the coming months: Haywire, The Divide, Miss Bala, Rampart, The Innkeepers, Jeff Who Lives at Home, Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, Silent House, and Casa de Mi Padre