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One can’t help but wonder what might have happened if John Carpenter had filmed his own script of Eyes of Laura Mars. It is a rather silly question as he did not film his own script. Instead that duty was assigned to the skilled filmmaker, Irvin Kershner. The only director bold enough to stand his ground against the likes of George Lucas while shooting his film for the Star Wars franchise and the director who was able to assist Barbra Streisand tone it all down to play a very believable housewife in a very surreal experimental film of the early 1970’s, Up The Sandbox.

"And your eyes say everything. You wanna keep me here forever I can't escape. One minute's so sincere. Then you completely turn against me. And I'm afraid..." An Iconic Movie Poster Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978

“And your eyes say everything. You wanna keep me here forever
I can’t escape. One minute’s so sincere.
Then you completely turn against me. And I’m afraid…”
An Iconic Movie Poster
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978

Up until 1977 he had never directed a horror film. It is clear that the under-appreciated film artist was less interested in the terror aspects of Carpenter’s script than in using it to focus on the problematic trend of mixing sex with violence as a form of subversion or perverse eroticism. One merely has to glance at only one of Rebecca Blake’s photographs taken for the film to understand that she is carefully constructing slick photographs in the vein of Helmut Newton or Guy Bourdin. Interestingly, these provocative and aggressively misogynistic photographs point toward where Karl Lagerfeld would be headed later on.

Is Laura Mars really only selling shampoo here? Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph | Rebecca Blake

Is Laura Mars really only selling shampoo here?
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph | Rebecca Blake

John Carpenter’s original screenplay is fairly simple: A Post-Feminist (???) fashion photographer takes controversial photographs which capture not only the erotic elements of the female form in stylish clothing, but acts of brutal violence and murder. Violence and murder usually aimed at women.  Her work is highly profitable and has made her a bit of a celebrity. As a coffee table book collecting some of her most infamous photographs hits the stores, people close to her begin to be murdered in horrible ways that always culminate with their eyes being gouged out.

Even more disturbing, the photographer begins to lose her own vision only to be replaced with the POV of the killer for the duration of each murder. Amping up the horror is the fact that the pop culture princess of fashion photography discovers that all of her photographs mimic a number of brutal and confidential police shots of actual murders. Hence, it would appear that Ms. Mars is somehow psychically linked to a serial killer. It is the psychotic madness of a killer who has been inspiring her art. Art that many are eager to purchase and admire.

Eventually, the killer sets his sites on Laura Mars herself. As the killer tries to kill her she is put in the chilling position of POV limitation — she can only see herself as the killer goes after her. Essentially blind with only disorienting and panicked visions of her own body as target, she is a prisoner of the killer’s eyes ...and her own.

Taking aim... Faye Dunaway Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Taking aim…
Faye Dunaway
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

John Carpenter deserves a great deal of credit with coming up with an original and scary concept. It is unlikely he viewed as any sort of cultural or pop art commentary, but the circumstance of the imagined situation opens that door. Enter the decision to hire Irvin Kershner as the director. By securing the respected film director, the already infamous producer of the project was able to seal a deal with Faye Dunaway to play the lead character. In 1977, this was a casting coup. Dunaway was at the height of her cinematic power in the mid to late 1970’s. A beautiful and respected Academy Award winning actress, Ms. Dunaway was sought after.

Initially Jon Peters was rumored to have wanted to talk his then Life Partner, Barbra Streisand, into taking the role. The script was too violent and dark for Streisand’s taste. She did agree to sing a theme song which turned out to be a surprisingly rock-driven song. The esteemed Conrad Hall was rumored to be first choice to serve as the film’s cinematographer, but Kershner wanted Victor J. Kemper. He got him.

Several gorgeous models were hired to serve as models and actors. Tommy Lee Jones was secured for the leading male love interest. And thanks to a large paycheck, several respected actors were cast in supporting roles — most notably Brad Dourif and Raul Julia. This was an A List Production out of the gate.

Armed and ready to take aim at herself. So to speak. Faye Dunaway Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Armed and ready to take aim at herself. So to speak.
Faye Dunaway
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

When the results of the finished film screened in 1978, viewers were presented with a cinematic cornucopia of ideas and images. Some of these worked. Others failed. Mixed together — Eyes of Laura Mars became a largely mixed experience for film critics and an often vexing one for the audience. The film was a hit. Though filled with tension, the movie failed to actually be scary.

While Laura Mars‘ photographs are violently and sexually graphic, the film is surprisingly restrained. Most certainly the violence and amount of nudity earned the film an R rating, but there was a loopy sort of immature logic holding the film together.

Some did find the movie disturbing. Some found it to be a fun ride with more than a few unexpected twists. Others were just left a bit confused.

A male's smackdown on a beautiful woman is intended to sell cologne. Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph by Rebecca Blake

A male’s smackdown on a beautiful woman is intended to sell cologne.
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph by Rebecca Blake

37 years later Eyes of Laura Mars continues to entertain. Sadly, much of the entertainment grows out of unintentional camp.

This is not to say that this odd bit of big-budget 1970’s filmmaking does not hold some merit. But the film’s merits are easily over-powered by the strange plot, Dunaways’s soap-opera like turn and some deeply campy “stupid model” moments. The movie is a fun, pretty and ungrounded mess. And over the past decade it has developed a sizable cult following.

Most view Eyes one of those “So Bad It’s Great” cinematic guilty pleasures. While I can understand ascribing this uncomfortable thriller to that genre, I’ve never been certain that it should be regarded as a bad film.

A glam but deadly car crash in Columbus Circle, but what is being sold here? Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

A glam but deadly car crash in Columbus Circle, but what is being sold here?
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

I grew up in a fairly small town in Texas. We were not too far from Houston, but we did not always get movies when they “opened.” More often than not, movies arrived to our town several weeks or a month after the movie had already been in circulation. This was the case with Eyes. It opened late into its run at our fairly new mall cineplex.

My father had no understanding of what was or wasn’t appropriate for a child. He took me with him to see this movie. The woman who sold us out tickets already knew me as the kid who she would often pull out of a movie to ask where my parents were. I’m not sure if it was before or after the time my father took me to see Eyes of Laura Mars, but this theater manager pitched a fit when my father took me to see Looking for Mr. Goodbar.

Hurry! I Need more film! I'll push my skirt up further while you take care of that! Faye Dunaway Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Hurry! I Need more film! I’ll push my skirt up further while you take care of that!
Faye Dunaway
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Her attempts to prevent my father from taking his little boy to see adult movies always failed. Mr. Goodbar was a traumatic experience. But Eyes was not one. In fact nothing I saw made my jaw drop or caused me any real confusion.

The thing I most remember about seeing this movie was that my father was forced to really get his shit together because no one was admitted after the first ten minutes of the movie’s start. My father had the annoying habit of arriving at the middle of a movie and then staying to see the first half at the next screening. But he had to arrive on time for Eyes of Laura Mars. I also remember noting that he was truly glued to the screen. It seemed like the casually naked models and the violent photographs interested him.

I was not scared by the movie. While I had not yet become educated in filmmaking, I did know who John Carpenter was — and I was frustrated that the Halloween dude wasn’t making a movie he wrote.

"This is Lulu & Michele! We're not home so go to Hell! But if you're not a horny creep, leave a message at the beep!" Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

“This is Lulu & Michele! We’re not home so go to Hell! But if you’re not a horny creep, leave a message at the beep!”
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Eyes of Laura Mars is not a truly bad movie. It may not be scary, but it has its share of intense moments. It also offers a rather lucid capture of 1970’s NYC and its fashion scene.

Sony did issue the film to DVD, but the HD download currently available via iTunes is far superior to the non-remastered print that the ever-cheap Sony put on DVD. One major thing about the Sony DVD is that it features a film-length commentary from the late Irvin Kershner. In that commentary he speaks of not having had much knowledge of the fashion world at that time. He was surprised when he heard female models talking, disrobing, doing drugs and giggling like school girls.

A staunch liberal, Kershner was also more than a little repulsed by discovering that there seemed to be a misogynistic attitude toward women by an industry devoted to women as their focal demographic. This concerning misogyny would change the film’s tone. No new comer to the Sexual Revolution, he was very much surprised by the attitude of the female models he encountered as well as what he saw as The Studio 54 Culture. Clearly this is what motivated Kershner.

Oh, the model's life and selling cars while being abused and killed... Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photography by Rebecca Blake

Oh, the model’s life and selling fashion! No prob with nudity or killing or being killed. But they do have problems with the color of the dresses… Sex, violence and Misogyny Sells Clothing!
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photography by Rebecca Blake

At the time of the film’s release more than a few critics were annoyed by the ample use of casual nudity and the constant stream of violence against women. Kershner explains that he didn’t need to include all the nudity and explicitness of the faked photographs, but these aspects of the plot tied to the world of fashion greatly disturbed and interested him. These aspects seemed to signal that this once simple slasher movie could serve as something a bit deeper in the form of societal and cultural commentary. Or so it seemed.

It wasn’t so much the clothes that the photographers were wanting to capture as the sexuality of the models. And the models were more than happy to comply. Sex was their commodity and it was taking on a sinister tone from Kershner’s perspective. The non-actor models didn’t need to be asked or walked-thru to be nude for the film. They treated their scenes as they would a provocative fashion spread. Off came the clothing and on went the vapid conversing and drug-taking.

Kershner saw and attempted to capture a world in which the female model had no issue with being nude or posing as a victim, but their psyches were challenged when they had to wear “pink” or any color that they didn’t like. Carpenter’s original screenplay was re-crafted to “realistically” capture this world. A intriguing idea in theory does not always manage to fully morph onto the screen.

A lovely book for the late 1970's coffee table? Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

A lovely book for the late 1970’s coffee table?
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Kershner was very careful not to discuss too much about Faye Dunaway. It is no secret that she became frustrated with the making of the film but also the way in which it was promoted. This was really the first film in which Dunaway failed to connect to the production.

A deeply stylized and theatrical actor, Faye Dunaway always had a 1940’s sensibility about her — hence her success in films like Bonnie and Clyde, The Thomas Crown Affair, Towering Inferno and Roman Polanski’s classic film, Chinatown. She had managed to take her style of acting to a whole new level for Sidney Lumet’s brilliant Network and won the Oscar.

As Laura Mars Faye Dunaway appears to be a bit lost. It often feels as if she is fighting against what Kershner wanted. Continually dressed in flowing robes or gowns, Laura Mars seems to edge toward Gothica. She is power-dressed with purpose and that purpose is not to be sexy.

Glam Gothica with a pretty flower hat, how is Laura Mars to compete with her abused models? Tommy Lee Jones has to decide where to look as Faye Dunaway emotes for her life... Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Glam Gothica with a pretty flower hat, how is Laura Mars to compete with her abused models?
Tommy Lee Jones has to decide where to look as Faye Dunaway emotes for her life…
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Surrounded by The Beautiful Elite of the modeling world, Dunaway is constantly subverting her assigned wardrobe to a new purposes. It seems almost comical to watch her photographing a fake car crash tragedy with her models either playing dead or cat-fighting in undies and minks. Kershner’s commentary avoids much discussion, but it seems an odd choice that Dunaway’s Laura Mars opts to hike up her skirt and do a Old-School Hollywood leg reveal as she shoots her pictures.

Decidedly not sexy, it just seems uncomfortable. Dunaway strictly refused any nudity in her love scenes with Tommy Lee Jones. But one suspects she desperately wanted in on some of the semi-nude cat fights she was left to “photograph.” The audience is less interested in Dunaway’s Laura as they are in the barely clothed fighting beauties amidst the wreckage.

The killer probes the ice pick into Laura's eye on the cover of her slick new book of KINK. Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

The killer probes the ice pick into Laura’s eye on the cover of her slick new book of KINK.
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Eyes of Laura Mars gets the late 1970’s NYC Fashion World down correctly. The clothes feel and look very much from the 1977 era. The fashions being photographed look legit. And the wealthy photographer may edge toward the dramatic, but her clothing is clearly upscale and in style.

Kershner also captures the feel and look of the true 1977 NYC. Hell’s Kitchen, Columbus Circle and the Fashion District look like they are from another reality compared to now. This is most assuredly an on location shoot. The grime and grit plays a key role to the film. And although he did not shoot there, one of the movie’s early moments features a PR party given in honor of Laura Mars‘ work and new book that could easily be mistaken for a Studio 54 event.

At this event, Kershner makes no excuses for the vapidity of models like Lulu and Michelle, but both Darlanne Fluegel and Lisa Taylor are comically believable in their roles. It is in this early scene we are given a glimpse into their characters’ personalities.

Disco music blaring, the models pose in preparation for Laura's killing portrait... Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Disco music blaring, the models pose in preparation for Laura’s killing portrait…
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

The director is also to be credited for showing the importance of gay male culture within the world of Laura Mars without falling into homophobia. Little is actually articulated, but we know these men are gay. Rene Auberjonois delivers a solid performance as Laura’s close friend and business manager. We not meant to make fun of him.

And while both Raul Julia and Brad Dourif are wasted, they put forward great work here. Tommy Lee Jones is also strong except when pitted against Dunaway’s convulsively confusing turns. Jones is playing the role as realistically as possible, but he often finds himself in bad soap opera territory when kissing or making love to his leading lady. This is not his fault. Dunaway’s work here often feels like that of an insecure fading movie star who is afraid of losing her place at the table. Sadly Kershner didn’t seem to be strong enough to talk her down. This is of particular surprise given his track record for getting the best out of his actors. It is safe to say that Dunaway’s finest work has been given under infamous duress with tempermental directors.

Roman Polanski or Barbet Schroeder anyone?

Art crime? Faye Dunaway is probably more covered than comfortable amidst all this beautiful flesh. And murder. Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Art crime?
Faye Dunaway is probably more covered than comfortable amidst all this beautiful flesh. And murder.
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph by Rebecca Blake

While it was most definitely a fail on the part of Kershner to not better execute the horror of a film that was obviously intended to be a slasher flick, I doubt we would really remember this film if it had followed that path.

It should be noted that one of the few genuinely creepy moments in the movie is when we are limited to Laura Mars‘ POV which is trapped in the POV of the serial killer who is chasing her at full speed with intent to kill. Arte Kane’s musical score is manically-pitched and when edited into this threatening but non-violent scene, it does illicit a good deal of tension.

Even still, there is a major bit of let down when acts of actual real-time murders happen. Thanks to the musical score and the trippy use of POV there is some suspense, but the cinematic pay-off in these slasher scenes feel like something you might have seen on Charlie’s Angels.

Well, minus the nudity.

Learning how to shoot a handgun and ready for romance! Faye Dunaway and Tommy Lee Jones Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Learning how to shoot a handgun and ready for romance!
Faye Dunaway and Tommy Lee Jones
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

This is very little gore in this film’s violence. Of course the film’s Big Reveal which Columbia Studios built up by closing ticket sales after the first ten minutes of the movie, has never seemed at all shocking to me. Even as a child I had figured out the identity of the killer before the film decides to reveal it.

Even still, it is a nightmarish situation that is interesting when compared to the “fashion art” our heroine has been crafting with her stylishly perched skinny leg and handy Nikon camera. This is perhaps the film’s most winning turn of horror — it is the film’s use of murder as fashion and violent death as eroticism that leaves a queasy sort of taste on the cinematic palate.

Killing to sell a car... Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Killing to sell a car…
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Irvin Kershner’s take on Carpenter’s script may not have gone to the logical horror route of the Slasher Film, but it’s twisted turns guide the audience to a surprisingly gruesome walk toward the pop culture of the future.

And Faye Dunaway’s odd performance does leave an impression.

It should be noted that this performance does not straddle an artistic line as her work in the ill-advised Mommie Dearest. Instead her work as Laura Mars is consistently up-ending itself. The manic and insecure diva-ish turn has, over the years, added a level of paranoia.

This paranoia plays well into both schisms of the infamous movie: The Uncomfortable and The Cult of Camp.

Putting her best leg and high heeled foot forward. A promo shot of Faye Dunaway which she would later claim she disliked. Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Putting her best leg and high heeled foot forward. A promo shot of Faye Dunaway which she would later claim she disliked.
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Perhaps it is unfair to lay Dunaway’s failure all on her. She is given some very strange dialog:

While in a post orgasmic embrace she murmurs:

“I can’t understand. [slight pause] how it’s possible. [slightly longer pause] to live your whole life. [pause ] without someone. [slight pause] and be doing more or less OK. And then suddenly you find them. You recognize them.”

cue lush love theme as Tommy Lee Jones plants a big smooch on her face.

What do those words even mean?

Faye Dunaway gets and gives more than an eyeful Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Faye Dunaway gets and gives more than an eyeful
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Perhaps Eyes of Laura Mars is a bad movie. Or maybe it is simply flawed. It doesn’t matter. Once you see it you will never forget it.

Matty Stanfield, 12.4.15

 

 

 

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One of the best films to screen in 2015 will not be released to cinemas until next year. The Witch Robert Eggers, 2015

Yes, I know there are more than a couple of movies coming out before the year’s over. But none hold any interest for me. That’s just the way I roll. So, revised from the list I posted back just past the mid-point of the year:

Here are my favorite films of 2015. Some are actually from last year, but were not officially released until this year.

I’m relieved that I saw a few non-thriller/horror films that pulled me in. At the mid-point nearly all were horror movies. It has been a particularly strong year for Art Horror. Interestingly, one of the best films I’ve seen this year was a horror film that is not being released until 2016. This is despite much positive buzz on the Film Festival circuit. But you will not want to miss Robert Eggers’ The Witch.

The film may not have been exceptional, but Michael Fassbender didn't just seem to "play" the role -- for the span of the film he literally seemed to be Steve Jobs. A performance that should not be forgotten. Michael Fassbender as STEVE JOBS Danny Boyle, 2015 Cinematography | Alwin H. Kuchler

The film may not have been exceptional, but Michael Fassbender didn’t just seem to “play” the role — for the span of the film he literally seemed to be Steve Jobs. A performance that should not be forgotten.
Michael Fassbender as
STEVE JOBS
Danny Boyle, 2015
Cinematography | Alwin H. Kuchler

A number of movies that I thought might make my list just didn’t: Steve Jobs, The Walk, Carol, MacBeth, Crimson Peak, Anomalies, Room and High Rise struck me either as merely “good” or “interesting.” None were films I’d want to see again. But it is my opinion that Michael Fassbender and Brie Larson gave the impressive performances by leading actors. However, I could make an easy case for Josh Lucas’ brilliant performance as “Matt” in The Mend. But I still lean toward Fassbender’s ability to so effectively capture the truly iconic and historic master of design and marketing. I have not seen female actors come anywhere close to what Brie Larson manages to do in Room. Though Rinko Kikuchi’s work in The Zellner Brothers’ Kumiko The Treasure Hunter comes close.

An odd film becomes "realistic' thanks to Brie Larson's turn as "Joy." In my opinion this was the most solid performance from a female film actor in 2015. ROOM Lenny Abrahamsson, 2015 Cinematography | Danny Cohen

An odd film becomes “realistic’ thanks to Brie Larson’s turn as “Joy.” In my opinion this was the most solid performance from a female film actor in 2015.
ROOM
Lenny Abrahamsson, 2015
Cinematography | Danny Cohen

Both Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara did exceptional work in the Todd Haynes latest film. The problem for me is that Carol seemed so intentionally artificial that what they both did seemed more like “performance art” than human reflection. Several other acting turns were magnificent this year: The already mentioned Josh Lucas in The Mend, Elizabeth Moss in Queen of Earth, Anne Dorval in Mommy, Paul Dano in Love & Mercy and  Sidse Babett Knudsen in The Duke of Burgundy all blew me away. Both James Hebert in Two Step and Sheila Vand in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night made an incredible impact as relative unknowns.

A parody of usefulness... Josh Lucas THE MEND John Magary, 2014 Cinematography | Chris Teague

A parody of usefulness…
Josh Lucas
THE MEND
John Magary, 2014
Cinematography | Chris Teague

Seth Rogen also scored in his portrayal of Steve Wozniak to Fassbinder’s Steve Jobs. Of course there are the two respective turns by Sally Field in Hello, My Name Is Doris and Lily Tomlin in Grandma. Both are exceptional, but neither are required to deliver more than variations of their personas. It worked for both, but neither exceeded what I’d expect from seasoned professional actors.

My list is in no particular order and I’m really not sure which is my absolute favorite film of the year. If I was pressed against a wall I’d probably say it was between Rick Avlverson’s Entertainment and Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. But wait! What about Miroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe? That was amazing!  Oh! And what about both Kumiko The Treasure Hunter? And what of Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy? I am just not sure which of these is best. Each of these films is unique unto itself with all have very different intentions and ideas.

See? I can’t ever pin-point just one film. Normally I require myself to restrict my list to only 10 films. But I was thinking: As this is my blog I will simply list the films that made my list of the best.  So, in no particular order…

My Favorite Films Released in 2015

creep-poster

“Hi! I didn’t mean to scare you.” CREEP Patrick Brice, 2014

Technically, Patrick Brice’s film is from 2014. However, it was not released until this year. This has been a great year for Brice as a film artist. He had two film release credits to his name. His second film, The Overnight, offers itself as a very serious comedy that works quite well. But it is his collaboration with Mark Duplass that makes my list. The brilliance of Creep is largely fueled by the naturalistic performances from both Brice and Duplass. Fully plugging into Duplass’ sweet scrabby puppy dog charisma and channeling that into capturing an uncomfortable ambiguity within Brice’s own character’s fear. This odd perspective is explored just far enough to divert the audience. Creep carries itself with a darkly comic wink, but there is something far more sinister just out of the frame. Running just at about 80 minutes in length, Brice delivers a movie that elevates the concept of “found footage” to a new place and a new direction. On the surface, Creep is a fun adult horror movie. It is long after the credits roll that the underlying power really “creeps” up. This is an entertaining and deeply disturbing little movie.  Sure, it’s only a horror movie. Now, keep telling yourself that as you realize that what you’ve just seen could not only happen — it most likely has. Exceptional film.

Staying closely connected to the idea of “fact is stranger than fiction,” comes Alex R. Johnson’s Two Step. This surprising independent film lead the audience in one direction and then up-ends the whole concept down a completely different road. Johnson’s feature length directorial debut is a stunner.

TWO STEP Alex R. Johnson, 2014

TWO STEP
Alex R. Johnson, 2014

It is a rare talent to be able to do this much with a limited budget. It is all the more amazing that this filmmaker is able to take the “predictable” and twist it into something altogether “UN” predictable.  Another major asset for Two Step is the outstanding cast of actors. Every actor delivers strong and believable turns. Beth Broderick and Skyy Moore stand out in two of the film’s key roles. But the heavy hitting player is James Landry Hebert who not only brings a presence that fills the screen, it manages to raise the bar for capturing the cruelty of a “bad guy.” Watching Hebert in this role feels like we are watching a movie star who is destined to break big. This is an edge of the seat experience. An engaging, entertaining, intense, suspenseful and often shockingly brutal study of smalltime crooks. The film edges toward a truly menacing, horrific and unforgettable cinematic impression. Similar to but minus the dark humor of Creep, Two Step ‘s  most unnerving aspect is that nothing we see is outside the realm of realism. If you’ve not seen it, be prepared. This is one surprisingly mean and twisted little movie. Alex R. Johnson is another filmmaker to watch. And his supporting actor, James Hebert, is a promising actor. I would be surprised if he doesn’t have a major career ahead of him.

Next on my list is Love & Mercy.

"I was sittin' in a crummy movie With my hands on my chin All the violence that occurs Seems like we never win...: - Brian Wilson The only thing is there is nothing "crummy" about this film... LOVE & MERCY Bill Pohlad, 2015

“I was sittin’ in a crummy movie
With my hands on my chin
All the violence that occurs
Seems like we never win…: – Brian Wilson
The only thing is there is nothing “crummy” about this film…
LOVE & MERCY
Bill Pohlad, 2015

From beginning to end, a near flawless film. Paul Dano (as young Brian Wilson) and John Cusack (as middle-aged Brian Wilson) are fantastic. However, it is Dano who really appears to capture the essence of the troubled American genius. Even with a somewhat limited budget, this film rises far above the bar of celebrity stories. The film is far less concerned with The Beach Boys history or music as it is with the way creativity and mental illness form a unique, disturbing and magical dance. This is a director’s film. Bill Pohlad’s film is equal parts interesting, innovative, creative and astounding.  Unexpected and magical. I find it difficult to find any faults here. Love & Mercy lacks nothing.

Watching Xavier Dolan’s Mommy unfold is a mixture of annoyance, amazement and ultimately astonishing.

MOMMY Xavier Dolan, 2014

MOMMY
Xavier Dolan, 2014

The young director truly finds his footing between “artsy” and “eclectic” in this deceptively simple story of mother trying to come to terms with her son’s mental challenges. Dolan’s cinematographer, André Turpin, applies the director’s idea of trying to find a visual way to capture the limited and isolated reality that traps both mother and child. It is a bit challenging to adapt to this screen ratio in a cinema. In fact, if the cinema had not warned the Canadian audience, I think we all would have thought there was some sort of projection problem. As our eyes and senses adjust to both the visual concept and the intensely dire circumstances of the plot, there is no turning back. Dolan’s visual idea is fantastic. It is a transportive device. And if there are any people out there who have doubted Mr. Dolan’s skills, this movie should have put those thoughts to rest. This is a potent gut-punch of a movie! See it!

Next on the list is a whole new sort of twist on The American Movie Western. Slow West ‘s  Kodi Smit-McPhee’s character reads a poster, he is quietly corrected:

“Wanted Dead or Alive…”
“Dead or Dead, kid.”

This was used as John Maclean’s Slow West movie’s tagline. It is one of those rare marketing moments when the tagline truly fits the film it seeks to catch your attention.

"So, now... East. What news? "Violence and suffering. And West?" "Dreams and toil." SLOW WEST John Maclean, 2015

“So, now… East. What news?
“Violence and suffering. And West?”
“Dreams and toil.”
SLOW WEST
John Maclean, 2015

John Maclean’s Slow West defies expectations and stereotypes. Featuring some remarkable performances from Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ben Mendelssohn and many others — this movie is aiming far higher than a genre film. This UK-New Zealand Independent Film takes the ideas of a The Wild West and the American Pioneers and delivers something altogether different and new. There is a constant sort of struggle going on between “myth” and “reality.” To further the point, Maclean’s film constructs itself from a rather tepid story into something far deeper. The subversion and dark humor only drive the heart of this film further.  Slow West is a darkly comical, brutal and violent examination of survival and determination.  But make no mistake, this amazing movie is all heart and incredibly human. Survival of the fittest means a great many things. And almost all of them are examined in one way or another within the confines of this movie.

Another film dated back to 2014 but released in the US early this year, Catch Me Daddy is another film that examined to what extent we humans will go to obtain freedom and personal chosen destinies.

"A great bird landed here. Its songs drew men out of rock. Living men out of bog and heather. Its song put a light in the valleys and harness on the long moors. Its song brought a crystal from space and set it in men's heads. The bird died. Its giant bones blackened and became a mystery. The crystal in mens' heads blackened and fell to pieces. The valleys went out. The moorland broke loose." CATCH ME DADDY Daniel & Matthew Wolfe, 2014

“A great bird landed here. Its songs drew men out of rock. Living men out of bog and heather. Its song put a light in the valleys and harness on the long moors. Its song brought a crystal from space and set it in men’s heads. The bird died. Its giant bones blackened and became a mystery. The crystal in mens’ heads blackened and fell to pieces. The valleys went out. The moorland broke loose.”
CATCH ME DADDY
Daniel & Matthew Wolfe, 2014

Daniel & Matthew Wolfe’s film begins as a steady slow burn that quickly boils into a sort of cinematic rollercoaster of suspenseful human horror.  An unrelentingly dark glimpse into an under-belly of current Britain. This film is not afraid of offending. In fact, I suspect these two filmmakers would be upset if some were not offended. Often shot in a bright neon candy drench, the film wisely allows the audience to put what we are initially seeing together. This is about as far from mainstream formula filmmaking as it gets. Solid performances and brilliant use of music propels the audience on a cinematic ride that is impossible to stop. Even as we swoop down and start our way back up to a final drop, we can’t help but look. Knuckles turning to white as we slam down the the track, we are on the edge of our seats waiting to see where this ride is going to take us.

Catch Me Daddy is a dark vision that refuses to be ignored or dismissed. A stunning cinematic experience that deserved a better theatrical distribution.

I was largely disappointed with what the major studios released this year, but there were some exceptions. Disney’s Pixar released Inside Out and it blew me away.

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“I’m Sadness.” “Oh, hello! Uh, I’m Joy. So, could I just… If you could… I just wanna fix that. Thanks.” INSIDE OUT Pete Docter & Ronnie del Carmen, 2015

It took me far too long to finally see Pixar’s Inside Out. Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmens’ film has a whole lot going on — funny, sad, touching, clever, innovative, intelligent and all around brilliantly conceived reflection of the inner-workings of the human mind.  It’s hard to conceive anyone not enjoying this film. It’s appeal is not limited to children. In fact, there is a great deal here that will most likely soar over the heads of many children. I was captivated. Exceptional from all vantage points. I’m not a big fan of animation, but this one really caught my attention.

Unless you live in a major city, it is quite possible that you totally missed Roy Andersson’s fascinating Swedish film, A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence. If you did, time to catch up. It is now available via VOD.

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The final installment of his “Living Trilogy” is a series of sketches tied together with common themes. A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting on Existence Roy Andersson, 2014

Roy Andersson’s final film of his “Living Trilogy” is my personal favorite the series. Featuring some of the best droll humor and exceptional set design captured with Istvan Borbas and  Gergely Palos’ stilted cinematography, this is a droll masterpiece.  Essentially a series of sketches loosely tied together by a pair of hapless, depressed and angry “entertainment” salesmen “dedicated” to bringing joy to their customers.

Starting with topics such as death and dying to the futility of lust to the cruelty of human nature to one of the most disturbing metaphors for the true horror of European Colonialism — our salesmen sort of fumble their way through it all.This film is more likely to put more people off than it entertains. That being stated, I was deeply entertained. Intentionally slow and awkwardly paced, this is Absurd Surrealism at it’s most comic and effective. Totally matching my own personal cinematic tastes, Andersson had me within the opening 4 minutes before the credits even begin. A Must see!

And then the surprisingly artistic cinematic journeys into the realm of Art Horror…

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“It could look like someone you know or it could be a stranger in a crowd. Whatever helps it get close to you.” IT FOLLOWS David Robert Mitchell. 2014

It amazes me that David Robert Mitchell made It Follows for just at $2,000,000. This film is more sleek, professional and better crafted than most films with a budget towering closer to $50 million. An impressive feat to say the least.

The film is masterful from every perspectives. Mitchell has created a sort of alternate world in which his characters and story reside. This world feels “familiar” but somehow none of it is quite right. It seems like we are in a sort of dream where everything seems like it could be from another era — even as far back as the mid-70’s — yet there are cell phones and modern cars, but there do not appear to be any modern televisions or computers. Instead, this is a world filled with typewriters, somewhat out-dated medical supplies and odd mixtures of clothing/hairstyles that don’t quite seem “current” or appropriate to the 21st Century. This disoriented world helps Mitchell achieve a deeply creepy vibe that starts almost immediately.

Horror does feels like the main goal of this movie. Mitchell is more concerned with psychology, paranoia, sex. And most specifically a sort guilt or worry attached to casual sex. The lead characters fears are immediate and are presented as “fact” — these paranormal stalkers are unnerving. As Jay’s fear and paranoia take over her life, she finds herself facing ethical decisions which she quickly dismisses. Jay is being stalked not only by some sort of paranormal rage, but guilt.

The importance of this smart and polished movie is the way Mitchell manipulates every aspect of his production to create an almost immediate tone of danger/doom. This tone is carefully articulated that it becomes a character. More profoundly creepy than scary, It Follows slips under your skin long before you recognize it.

The entire cast is exceptional, but it is the synthesis of cinematography, musical score, precise editing and such well planned writing fuses into an absorbing and unforgettable film. Mike Gioulakis’ cinematography and Rich Vreeland’s retro score deserve a great deal of credit. And Julio Perez IV demonstrates film editing at its best. But this film is clearly constructed by its director. David Robert Mitchell provides many clever details that draw viewers back for repeated viewings. A great example: An abandoned “Foursquare” style house in which the characters explore. It is not clear if Jay or any of the characters realize why this construction is so related as means of hiding and escape, but we are. A partial reading from a T.S. Eliot poem is also another way of articulating what is happening. If you enjoy horror or experimental films, It Follows will satisfy fans of both genres. I suspect that love and admiration for this film will only grow stronger as time goes on.

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The hierarchy and corruption of a sort of boarding school for the deaf becomes something of staggering depth. The Tribe Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, 2014

Like the majority of filmmakers working out of Eastern Europe, Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe is about as dark, bleak and grim as cinema can get. It is also something dramatically different than I’ve ever seen on a movie screen. The plot of the film revolves within and around “life” in a sort of dystopian school, shelter, home, trade school or dorm for The Deaf. The true purpose of where we find ourselves is suspect.

No auditory speaking, no subtitles — essentially no sound save the breathing and movement of fingers, hands and arms. This is not some cheap marketing stunt. This is pulling the audience into the perspective of the characters who do not have the benefit of sound. We are essentially pulled into a “world” within which we have no way of easily understanding what is being communicated. The impact is almost without measure.  Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s cast is deaf. They communicate in sign language which very few of us actually know. To the director and the casts’ credits, it doesn’t take us long to determine what is going on, but it does serve as a sort of portal toward metaphor and allegory that would not exist without this challenging perspective.

Welcome to a world where all understanding and communication is stolen. Welcome to the world of The Tribe.

Cinematographer, Valentyn Vasyanovych, captures everything in an almost formalist and interesting set of long-takes. The art of cinematography is crucial here and extraordinary. Without question, we would be watching closely anyway, but Vasyanovych’s work lends itself to pulling us even closer in our almost dazed gaze. When our main character shows affection toward another, the possibility of being loved seems cruel to the other. Not fully certain what is stated between these two young people, but it certainly feels as if “Anna” feels that there is no room for “love” within the world in which both are trapped. The scenes between Anna and Sergey are intense, erotic and frightening. Partly because we are never sure exactly what is being communicated. Their argument seems like an outburst of violent gestures, grunts and thumps. The sexual intimacy is both beautiful and somehow disturbing. Especially given what we learn is actually going on within this dark and fractured world of a state-funded (?) school / dorm. There are a great many disturbing aspects in The Tribe. In fact, some of this film is more than a bit difficult to watch. And watching is key here. We have no choice but to watch, to blink or look away is to miss out on vital information about his grim world.

This film is a traumatic reminder to the audience who only have limited access to this tribes’ world. In more than a few ways we are transported and trapped within their world. Certainly not an easy film. But the vitalness and the cinematic magic is impossible to deny. And in my opinion, it would be tragic to miss this movie. An unforgettable sort of silent movie. …with no title cards to guide you. Sadly The Tribe received a very limited US release. But it will be coming forward via VOD, DVD and Blu-ray soon and is already available in the UK. If you love the art of film, you will not want to miss The Tribe.

One film that really surprised me was a movie that never seemed to capture the attention of audiences or film critics as it really should have: Hannah Fidel’s 6 Years.

"I can't not see you every day. I can't not be with you." 6 YEARS Hannah Fidell, 2015

“I can’t not see you every day. I can’t not be with you.”
6 YEARS
Hannah Fidell, 2015

“6 Years” is not an obvious film, but it may have been the way the film was marketed and filmed that confused potential viewers. At a time when it is literally almost amazing that any woman is able to command a film both as Director and Writer, it disappointed me that Fidell received such little support for her film. Brutally honest, 6 Years offers a great deal of insight into the messiness of the human condition. After six years of times spent in love, a couples’ mutually shared lives are on the cusp of major change. The question Fidell’s film poses is notWill they be able to make it work?” The question here isShould they even try to make it work?

As in “real life” — the answer is not simplistic or easy to face.

6 Years explores a relationship from a perspective that few filmmakers have been willing to take. This film isn’t aiming to provoke. It aims to be honest. Taissa Farmiga, in a role that comes close to equaling the skill of her older sister, plays a young woman with some very serious issues. As kind and loving as “Mel” is, she can be equally abusive. It doesn’t take long to realize that this beautiful and seemingly petit woman has very little control over her anger and frustration. Thanks to the filmmaker’s script, direction and her leading actors’ skills — this topic does not have to be discussed or overly analyzed. 6 Years presents the male of the relationship as the one who is actually the most vulnerable. “Dan” has no recourse. He has no way of protecting himself. He could, but to do so could harm the person he loves and could potentially crash his entire future. Ben Rosenfield’s performance is the magic of the film. He is able to portray “Dan” in a compelling mix of love, hurt, fear, anger and confusion. These are two actors to watch. A great deal of skill is presented by both from the film’s start to finish.

This is not your average cinematic “love story.” But this is most certainly about two people who are very much in love. The use of romantic tone is counter-balanced by the startling honesty with which the film bluntly steers us. Within the first few minutes, Hannah Fidell drenches her film in the glow of teen romance. Rays of sunlight drip over her two lovers as if waiting for a pop ballad to fill the aural space around them. This is not a mistake. It was a smart choice. The sunlit-kissed and dewy world of 6 Years, both informal and lush, reminds us that we are entering that magical and exhilarating feeling of first love. And this is true love. These two people have not yet forged forward enough into life to be fully weary, tired or jaded. They are young and full of promise. The power of their connection resonates and entices. So when our two protagonists come to the crucial moment of answering the film’s core question, it makes the reality of the film all the more potent. 6 Years is exceptional and deserves attention and a critical revisit by many.

When Elisabeth Moss’ Catherine smiles and jokingly says to her best friend, “Thanks for the exile.” It is more than half way through Alex Ross Perry’s odd film that we realize that a whole lot more can be read into Catherine’s seemingly sweet note of thanks to her pal. Welcome to the unique and somewhat familiar universe of Queen of Earth.

queen-of-earth-poster-07252015

Alex Ross Perry’s film is clearly inspired by several key films of Robert Altman, Roman Polanski and even Rainer Werner Fassbinder. But make no mistake: This film is absolutely true and unique unto itself. Carefully articulated and masterfully crafted, this film never veers. And if the audience is able to channel back to the idea of psychological melodramatic Surrealism, it will hold attention from beginning to end. It is as if the writer/director has created the perfect cinematic symphony with an orchestra full of exceptional players: Keegan DeWitt’s musical score, Sean Price Williams’ cinematography, Robert Greene’s tight editing and three actors in key supporting roles — all pull together to form an ideal “stage” for the Perry’s two key leading ladies.

Katherine Waterston’s portrayal is a mix of “ice” and “fire.” She moves about the film fully formed like twisted idea from a Modigliani painting merged with a 1970’s Holly Hobby Doll. But the heart, soul and ultimate power emanates from Elisabeth Moss. The camera seldom moves away from her and you don’t want it to — she is captivating and brilliant. Alex Ross Perry has created a real bit of magic with Queen of Earth. Despite a low budget and an idea that seems ripe for parody — he has created a stunning film as interesting as it is disturbing. Long after the film ends, the true horror of what has been played out takes on a deeper and more sinister element. This is most especially true when we realize that the ideas of reality, dream, paranoia, anger and insanity reach points where it is impossible to know what has actually happened. I’ve not been able to get this film out of my head since I saw it.

As much as Queen of Earth caught me off guard, John Magary’s The Mend threw me off the road.

Brotherhood explored in a whole new way... THE MEND John Magary, 2014

Brotherhood explored in a whole new way…
THE MEND
John Magary, 2014

This is John Magary’s feature length film debut is impressive. In fact, there is no sign of a first time filmmaker to be found. And he was blessed to secure Josh Lucas as Mat. Lucas delivers his best on-screen performance thus far. Essentially an incisive character study of two brothers. Both are miserable. One represses everything and attempts to force his way through. The other, Mat, seems to have slipped into an empty world of damage. As cruel as it is deeply and artistically insightful. These brothers are caught in vicious cycle of dysfunction that may or may not have been “passed-on” or “pulled” into their respective psyches. Often very angry, grim, profane and always somehow consistently subversively comic — Magary’s movie does something almost unheard of as we move well into the first quarter of The 21st Century, it is original in every way. This is not a celebratory man-boy movie. Nor is it comfortable with positioning itself as a revelatory study of family healing. The Mend reminds me a great deal of loose comedy I would expect to see come to us from France. This is a smart movie. Realistic and non-satirical, there is nothing cute or twee here. A bit like a dirty puppy you can’t decide to pet or lock out of your home, this film is compulsively bounding about with little to no concern for things that get broken as it runs about. This surprisingly dense film stays with you and invites repeated viewings. And it gets better every time I see it.

Filming with smart phones... TANGERINE Sean Baker, 2015

Filming with smart phones…
TANGERINE
Sean Baker, 2015

Sean Baker’s Tangerine is raw, crude, profane and full of heart. It also happens to very funny. Filmed using only iPhones and other smart phone related devices, Baker creates an unexpected and effective look for the movie. The film follows two girlfriends on Christmas Eve into the early hours of Christmas morning. These are two trans-women of color. They also happen to make their livings as sex workers. Kitana Kiki Rodriguez’s “Sin Dee” has just been released from a month stay in jail. Her best and far wiser pal, “Alexandra” (played with equally realism by Mya Taylor) makes the mistake of mentioning that Sin-Dee‘s man has been having an affair with another woman. …A non-trans-woman!!!  News of this sends Sin Dee into a full-on freak-out which we quickly suspect is a daily part of her routine. We follow these two friends and a taxi driver pursuing their day. There are a number of reasons this film works so well. The actors are pitch-perfect in their roles. Nothing happens that isn’t believable. And Baker smartly offers no excuses for or judgements on his characters’ lives. These people are presented for who they are. Also, as sordid as the movie gets, this is really a film about survival and friendship. Rodriquez and Taylor manage to consistently convey a kindness beneath the rough demeanors. The fact that the film is focused on two Trans-women and people who love them is not presented as plot. It is presented as a matter of fact.  See it.

Jason Banker’s second feature-length film, Felt, is possibly the most polarizing movie released in 2015.

Felt Jason Banker, 2014

Felt
Jason Banker, 2014

The San Francisco audience sat in silence as the credits rolled. The majority of the audience was female. I am male. But I approached and discussed the film outside with three young women. They were obviously shaken and unable to articulate how they felt about Felt. But each agreed that Banker’s movie conveyed an all-too real experience. The most expressive of the three women told me, “It’s so weird I hardly ever allow myself to think about it. But I’m always so uncomfortable when I’m in a room with more than a few men.” The other two women agreed, but none could articulate why. As I walked away one noted to me, “Actually, it was in that movie.

The first line of the movie is “My life is a fucking nightmare.” It is delivered in an almost “little girl” voice of a young adult woman. The woman is our protagonist. Amy Everson is more than the lead actor of Felt, she is also the co-writer of what appears to be a fictionalized and possibly “amp’d-up” version of her own experience. The movie’s Amy has obviously survived some form of sexual abuse. The actual abuse is never stated or confirmed, but it clearly happened. Her friends want to help her, but are growing weary of her coping skills. Not only have these skills become isolating, they are provocatively inappropriate and she is becoming too over-protective of them. Amy creates artwork and most importantly artistic costumes in which she has allowed herself to find her inner-strength and push away her fears of men. The costumes are perversely anatomically-correct. She has found a way to funnel her anger and fears through her art. The dark side of this coping method is that her once comforting art (stylized armor to self-protect) has begun to form into a sort of weapon with which she can project. “Armors” made of felt is starting to fuel a fantastical idea into a warped realistic alternative.

We see Amy in several scenes with single men of her own age. These scenes feel so real it hurts to watch. Each of these interactions reveals aspects of male behavior about, toward and with women. It is unsettling. The men Amy meets are dismissive, aggressive, inappropriate and passively menacing. If there is even an initial “friendliness” — it quickly feels false as a sort of menace or agenda seems to constantly be put into play. Her girlfriends seem to be “aware” of this, but almost come short of stating that it is easier to just “accept” the cultural misogyny. In essence it appears that Amy‘s more well-adjusted and functioning friends have and are assimilating into “Rape Culture.” The film is a slow-burn that seems to ask one core question: “How does a sexual assault victim heal in a world that almost seems to support the assault?” By the time a seemingly understanding and caring male (played beautifully by Kentucker Audley) enters her world it might be too late.

Bold, disturbing and infuriating, Felt is a movie that seeks to provoke. Jason Banker has filmed it all within the framework of Art Horror. The artistic mastery of his filmmaking can’t be denied. The casting of a non-actor in the lead role she has inspired is the film’s weakest link. However it does feel as if Amy Everson’s mono-tonal and expressionless visage often feels as if it might have appealed to Banker’s intentions. Amy wanders and wonders throughout the film as if numbed to her own body. Felt spews a firm depiction of cultural/societal misogyny that never seems to wain. Inappropriate and angry, Felt offers no middle ground. Audiences either hate or love it.

 

 

When Gregg Turkington appears on the screen of Rick Alverson’s Entertainment as Neil Hamburger, you know you’re in for a unique film experience.

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“Why? Whyyy? Whyyyyyy?!?!?!?!” ENTERTAINMENT Rick Alverson, 2015

Gregg Turkington (AKA Neil Hamburger) plays The Comedian. Our comedian is on a tour of Mojave Desert run-down nightclubs as the headlining comedian. With Tye Sheridan as his Opener Act, it is clear that this kid’s rather ironic clown-act is a more pressed and post-modern take on what The Comedian is trying to do. Subverting normal cinematic convention, Rick Alverson takes us into the increasingly disturbed mind of a depressed, aging, failing and lost comic. The Comedian‘s self-loathing and existential crisis start out as rants to the audience and then quickly escalate via a series of increasingly strange and surreal encounters and experiences. John C. Reilly makes a great appearance as a somewhat “defective” but concerned cousin. Michael Cera and Amy Seimetz also pop up along the tour.

Profoundly strange, magical, grim, comical and impossible to forget. Rick Alverson has crafted an amazing experimental film. Entertainment is his best work yet and one of the most impressive films to screen this year.

When Cynthia’s lover, Evelyn, assures her by saying, “I love you. I know I have a different way of showing it. But I love you.” It is hard to know if her idea of “love” is far more “show” than “true.” Of course, in a relationship true knowledge of the other is sometimes places on unquestionable ground. Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy presents a great deal more than expected.

"Would a human toilet be a suitable compromise?" THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY Peter Strickland, 2014

“Would a human toilet be a suitable compromise?”
THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY
Peter Strickland, 2014

It is interesting to note that Peter Strickland’s initial motivation to make this film was inspired by the early sexploitation films of European filmmakers like Jess Franco and Jean Rollin. Just as 2012’s Berberian Sound Studio sprouted from an interest in the infamous giallo Italian films of the 1970’s, The Duke of Burgundy is only loosely tied to Franco and Rollins’ cinematic ideas. While Berberian Sound Studio took place in the paranoid psychosis created by assisting in the sound design of a giallo horror film, that movie went some place far deeper than giallo ever ventured. The same can be said of Strickland’s latest film which follows two lovers as they approach a troubling shift in their relationship. Carefully and artfully constructed, the film’s lush and surreal setting serves as more than an erotic set-up. Peter Strickland refuses to restrict his story to the limitations of eroticism or to the perverse objectifications of the couple’s BDSM games. As the meticulous film unfolds, there is an unsteady feeling that The Duke of Burgundy has no limits. This film offers its audience no safe word.

While the film is ripe for erotic exploration, Strickland and cinematographer, Nicholas D. Knowland, apply surprising restraint. Whereas Franco or Rollin would have felt the need to push the boundaries of KINK or nudity or introduce a full-force menace, Strickland actually goes to the most vulnerable aspect of humanity. This is a film of the heart. This is less about kinky sex games as it is more about love that has begun to bore, sour and fade. Despite the many uses of Surrealism and Cinematic Metaphor, this movie is about two people who must either accept the other’s need for power or refuse it and move forward.

Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna are both up to the films challenges. And they are challenged. Much of what we learn is told in their eyes, movements and phrasings. For a film so firmly rooted in a lesbian couple’s sexual games, one might anticipate that there would be a high degree of eroticism. What might have once been a mutual erotic game of desire has grown into twisted ritual that could easily be misread as a cruel boss and her over-worked maid. Only one lover is being satisfied. The attraction of mutually shared joy related to entomology appears to be the only truly intimate connection. Hence the film’s odd title, The Duke of Burgundy is a type of butterfly unique to southern England’s spring butterfly. But even this connection is becoming a challenge for both. As we watch the two women listening or leading lectures to other entomology-concerned women, we notice that there are perfectly dressed and coifed mannequins sit in the audience with the live women.

More neurotic than erotic, the characters fight to stay within the lines constructed by desire. One or possibly even both feel as if intimacy has reduced each to mannequins being placed in position. As often the case, the bottom is the master. The top or dominating is actually the slave. This film’s meaning is not limited to a lesbian relationship or BDSM. This is a film about love and trying to work through the challenges of a relationship. Unlike those mannequins seated for the lectures, this film is alive, vibrant and pulsating with blood and tears. And by the time reaches the ending point we understand that both women are vested to each other, but can love survive such rigid rules and restrictions? Strickland’s movie is spot-on and unforgettable.

A kind older woman offers a bit of insight to her uncomfortable house guest who she has mistaken for a Japanese tourist, “Solitude? It’s just fancy loneliness.” This comment offers no solace to the heroine of The Zellner Brothers’ Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.

KUMIKO THE TREASURE HUNTER David Zellner and Nathan Zellner, 2015

KUMIKO THE TREASURE HUNTER
David Zellner and Nathan Zellner, 2015

David and Nathan Zellner’s film is an abstractly loose variation on an actual incident involving a Japanese woman who died in the unforgiving climate of Fargo’s winter. The real “truth” was she was there to revisit memories of a past love before killing herself. But due to misunderstanding her English prior to her death, a false rumor began to morph into a “truth” that she had traveled to Fargo to find what she “believed” to be the stolen money buried in The Coen Brothers’ 1996 film, Fargo. Kumiko, Treasure Hunter plays with the the idea that has remained firmly grounded in the realms of urban myths generated by The Coen Brothers movie.

Ringo Kikuchi gives a painfully realistic performance of a woman so depressed and detached from her own world in Tokyo she has begun to slip into a world of isolation and retreat. Kumiko has lost the ability to apply logic. She no longer knows reality from fantasy. Wisely, it is never explained why or how Kumiko manages to “unearth” a battered VHS tape of Fargo. But it is clear she mistakes that iconic film’s opening statement, “This is a true story” for “fact” and assumes she is seeing some sort of documentary. Her inability to apply logic to her situation and desires leads her to abandon everything, including her beloved pet rabbit, to find her way to Minnesota in pursuit of what she now perceives to be her life’s mission. She is hellbent on finding that case of money she saw Steve Buscemi burry in the snow.

David Zellner’s film is even more quirky than Coen’s Fargo. This quirkiness is established in the ways we see a clearly unstable woman interacting with her Japanese peers, boss, family and the local Americans as she refuses to relent in her pursuit. It is a fascinating journey to follow. Mixing realistically comic encounters with the increasing uneasy tone is achieved by a balance of acting fused with effective musical score, elegant editing and stylistic camera work. Sean Porter’s cinematography is of particular note.

The movie is constantly challenging the viewer to know if it is “ok” to chuckle/laugh or if this reaction is inappropriate. Rinko Kikuchi never drifts away from what is clearly a tragically lost character in dire need of help. This entire cinematic experience is both fascinating and devastating in equal measures. Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is one for whom we cheer. And she is also a tragic parable of humanity pursuing dreams that are impossible to achieve. This masterful film weaves its way into our minds and hearts. One should not miss the opportunity to see this movie. It carries a disarming level of power.

It might be that I will forever remember 2015 as the year that Ana Lily Amirpour made her feature-length film debut. I am unable to choose the best or my absolute favorite film of the year, but A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is the one I’ve seen the most. Unlike many artists of her generation, Ms. Amirpour appreciates the audience. Clearly intelligent, effortlessly interesting and always engaging when asked to sit down for a Q&A — Ana Lily Amirpour is honest but never at the expense of the individuals asking her questions or offering her insights. Her first film is often compared to the work of Jim Jarmusch. This is not a comparison she can agree with and she handles it with humor and kindness. She is clearly not a big fan of Jarmusch’s work, but she never takes the opportunity to slam him or the idea that he influenced her film. If there is any clear influence that shines through this amazing film it is that of the late 1960’s Spaghetti Western.

The chador as cape... Sheila Vand shows her teeth A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014 Cinematography | Lyle Vincent

The chador as cape…
Sheila Vand shows her teeth
A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT
Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014
Cinematography | Lyle Vincent

 

I think the reason we think of Jim Jarmusch as we watch A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is not because it is sleekly shot and designed in black and white. It is because the movie utilizes amazing music, is quietly intellectual and from beginning to end the movie oozes natural cool. The best kind of cool. Amipour’s film never feels like it is trying to be “cool” — it simply is.

The stunning film alternates between being an observation of humanity and vampiric horror.  Ultimately, the stronger emphasis is on loneliness, isolation, the need for acceptance and love. There is actually a whole lot going on in this tight movie. This stylized movie is captivating, magical, mysterious and unique. It is a dark visionary movie that manages to evoke an air of hope. As I watched Ana Lily Amirpour’s film for the first time, I got the distinct feeling I was sharing in the impact and realization that every one of us in that screening room was witnessing the emergence of an important cinematic voice. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen this sleek film. The perfect balance of image, sound and ideas.

It begs for repeated viewings. And it offers something we rarely see in film these days: You hate to see it come to an end. 

I can’t wait to see what Ana Lily Amirpour does next. Her next film is in post-production. I can’t wait to see if I can get lost in it the way I can in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.

There are several movies that have yet to open. They are what most would call “Oscar Bait.” The older I get the less patience I have for those kind of movies. I’m not sure if any of my favorite films of 2015 will make it to Oscar consideration. The thing is, this has become more a sign of quality to me than if they were. Let’s reject the brainless mainstream and strive to find art that offers more than the predictable. Support the Film Artist. 

Cool not because it tries to be, it simply is... A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014

Cool not because it tries to be, it simply is…
A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT
Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014

Matty Stanfield, 11.27.2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Things are about to get very strange... Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Photograph | Jan Kudela

Things are about to get very strange…
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Photograph | Jan Kudela

“The Dreamer awakes.
The shadow goes by.
The tale I have told you, that tale is a lie.
But listen to me, Bright maiden, proud youth.
The tale is a lie; What it tells is the truth.”
— Author Unknown, Traditional folktale ending

When we are children and an adult reads or tells us a story from the realm of “fairy tales” or folklore, a profound logic seeps into our psyche that never leaves. An aspect or a key moment in one of these stories becomes a core foundation of our identity. It seems impossible that some bit of a childhood story has worked its way so deeply into our perception of logic. When given a period of time to “digest” this idea it no longer seems  impossible. It is valid truth. This is not a bad thing. The illogical silliness of some old folklore bears a great deal of truth that is easier for a child to grasp when told in the form of a “Once Upon A Time..” context. Folklore, mythology and fairy tales are grounded in some subversion of truth. It isn’t the fox in Little Red Riding Hood or the witch in Hansel and Gretel that scares us and merges into our logic. It is the deception perpetuated by these character archetypes that grabs our tiny minds and never lets go.This is an important understanding  for every human being: Don’t trust strangers. It is certainly a crucial idea that every child must understand.

On the flip-side of this logic, sometimes those terrifying allegories form such a strong hold within our minds it aids in a perpetuation of illogical paranoia.

Horror is fast approaching... Father Tucker's Play-Time Series Edition of Little Red Riding Hood, c. 1910

Horror is fast approaching…
Father Tucker’s Play-Time
Series Edition of Little Red Riding Hood, c. 1910

Unfounded feelings or suspicions that can linger with us well into our adulthood. While it is absurd to think your Grandmother or anyone upon whom you depend could morph into a fanged sort of demon intent on eating you, it doesn’t mean that in a crisis of an elder’s illness you won’t have a nightmare in which this happens. This is the subconscious creating a metaphor out of the stressors involved in your worries for and about her care. On a conscious level, that a walk in the woods might seem fun but something inside you worries that it could easily become a walk into unspeakable dangers.  A jump into the ocean for a swim can sometimes be met with a fear that somewhere just below us,  John Williams’ musical notes are trying to warn us of that giant shark that is about to attack. We know that the forest and the ocean contain dangers, but these are dangers that are very low from a realistic perspective. This is when those parables, allegories, metaphors and movies come to the surface of our adult identities. It is easy for many to push back these illogical concerns, but for some it gets a bit more murky.

Exploring fairy tales, folklore and mythology is nothing new for filmmakers. They often hold the same sort of spell over us as do the stories that inspire them. Movies have always played a strong role in my life. Partly because I grew up constantly seeing them, but also because I desperately needed to escape my reality. My father was insane. It was mistaken for “eccentricity” at the time. But he was a scary man. He was brilliant at deception. For the first nine years of my life, I viewed him as constant threat. But that is a whole other blog. For now, let’s stick with the fact that my father was insane and he had no clue regarding “appropriate boundaries.” The few boundaries he had were skewed at best.

Interestingly, it would be my greatest source of fear who led me to the power of movies and the escape they offered. This started very early in my life. He seemed to have no idea as to what was acceptable for a child to see. Naturally, as child I didn’t mind this at all. But often I would see images and stories that left me feeling deeply confused and afraid. Children are far aware that culture gives credit. A child may not be able to articulate an understanding, but they understand much more than most think. I can remember my father making a last minute decision that we were going to the movies. My mother was not home. As we walked up the ticket counter he must have requested one adult and one child. I’m not sure, but I the woman behind the ticket counter became quite upset, “Sir, this is not a movie for a child! How old are you, sweetie?” I still remember the shocking way her tough voice suddenly took on a honey-dewed sweetness. Before I could form an answer, I felt the seemingly giant hand of my father firmly clenched my head. “His age is none of your business. How much do I owe you?”

"Do you know what she did, your cunting daughter?" Linda Blair inciting heart attacks and long lines at the box office. The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973

“Do you know what she did, your cunting daughter?”
Linda Blair inciting heart attacks and long lines at the box office.
The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973

The Exorcist did not scare me at that time. To be honest, I was just confused. My biggest concern regarding the movie was trying to understand why people around us seemed so disturbed. When I whispered, “Her voice don’t match her lips.” was greeted with hushes from all corners. It would be years later that the horrific side of this film became apparent to me. As a child, it seemed more silly than scary. I understood I was not tell mom we saw it. Later my father took me to the drive-in. Drive-in’s always showed movies in “double bills.” Pay one price per head and see two movies. The movies were usually older and more obscure than what one would find in a traditional cinema. As my father adjusted the speaker to his window the show began. The first movie was about vampires. Later I realized that this was Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers.  I’m not exactly sure how old I was, but I am thinking I was about 8. Once again, I wasn’t particularly scared. To be honest, I remember being more concerned about this odd dude who walked around my father’s car. My father pulled out his pistol and the odd man quickly vanished.

The second feature would have a much dramatic impact and it intoxicated my tiny brain. It was scary to me, but it seemed to require my attention. I might not have been able to state what the film was about, but I suspect I understood it better than most of the adults sitting in their cars. This girl was in trouble and none of it was her fault. I was worried for her. And the images that were projected on that outdoor screen were searing into my being. I did ask my father about it. He said something to the effect that it was an artsy-fartzy movie. He was bored and wanted to leave, but I begged him to stay and let us watch it. It would be years later that a friend’s older cousin produced a beat-up old VHS tape for us to watch. The images were pretty muddy, but these were the same ones I had seen as child. I was pulled into the screen of my friend’s television. As I watched it all flow out too quickly for my stoned consciousness to read the blurry subtitles my friend kept muttering, “What the fuck? No, Matty! What the fuck? Make it stop!” She rolled around laughing. Occasionally sneaking a peak, she would scream in a sort of mocked horror.

The movie we were watching was  Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. Returning to this film with a clear and adult perspective, it is easy that my childhood reality lent this surreal film a great more power than it intended.

Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Jan Curík | Cinematography

Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Jan Curík | Cinematography

Shot in 1969 and released in 1970, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders marks the end of The Czech New Wave. No doubt it ended up on a double-billing with another old movie at the drive-in. I’m not sure where my friend’s cousin got his tape. I would be in my 30’s before it was even remotely “restored” and released via DVD. After a good deal of work, Criterion has recently re-issued a pristine version with improved subtitles. Watching Jaromil Jireš’ bizarre movie within the context of the 21st Century is challenging. Based on Vítězslav Nezval 1930’s Surrealist novel, the entire production is almost drenched in Gothica.

“Sirin and Alkonost, the Birds of Joy and Sorrow” by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1896 Was thought to have had an impact on Vítězslav Nezval

“Sirin and Alkonost, the Birds of Joy and Sorrow” by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1896
Was thought to have had an impact on Vítězslav Nezval

Nezval was key member of the Czech Surrealist Movement, and Jireš’ utilizes his dialogue and adheres to Nezval’s core aesthetics. Nezval wrote the following in his “Forward” for his book, Valerie and her Week of Wonders:

“I wrote this novel out of a love of the mystique in those ancient tales, superstitions and romances, printed in Gothic script, which used to flit before my eyes and declined to convey to me their content. …If, with this book, I will have given [the readers] an evocation of the rare and tenuous sensations which compelled me to write a story that borders on the ridiculous and trite, I shall be satisfied.”

Nezval’s book still holds interest, but it is far more complex than the movie it would inspire. At times the book seems like it is intended to be comical, but then takes a twisted turn to the grotesque. It is filled with narratives of the Gothica tradition. It is also creepy in the use of eroticism. Unlike the book, the film adaptation forms an immediate tie to the Pohádka. This is the term for the Czechoslovakian concept of “fairy tales” which is more than a little different from our perceptions of parables. The Pohádka holds an important place in Czech culture and is often steeped in religious ideologies. From what I’ve been able to gather, the “Evil” characters are even more cruel and the “good” characters are quickly identified as victims who may or may not take vengeance. The victims may not even survive. I apologize if I offer a weak definition of Pohádka. Please feel free to leave a comment to correct or clarify my description.

Jaroslava Schallerová as Valerie, the dutiful granddaughter practices her piano lessons.  Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Jan Curík | Cinematography

Jaroslava Schallerová as Valerie, the dutiful granddaughter practices her piano lessons.
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Jan Curík | Cinematography

The plot is deceptively simple: a beautiful 13 year old orphaned girl has her first period and, as she starts her path toward womanhood, she is confronted with a series of horrify and menacing people and situations.  These individuals and the circumstances in which she meets and experiences them is in a world that may or may not be strictly limited to her imagination. Poor Valerie seems to be living in a sort of disorienting dream state.

The film begins with a beautiful young girl napping in some form of surreal post-hippie gazebo. In the first of many “forms” a thief arrives. Dangling upside down he magically slips Valerie’s earrings off. She awakens just in time to see him running away. She runs after this thief to determine his identity and why he took her earrings. Valerie seems more intrigued than upset. As she roams about her village people began to take a grotesque formations. We have already met her grandmother. Grandma is strange from the first moment she enters our view.  Valerie seems to realize that something is not quite right with Grandma, but she doesn’t let on. Later as she floats in a small pool of water in her village’s fountain. As she prepares to emerge from the water, she becomes entranced by the water’s ripples. The thief returns. This time he magically slips her earrings back on. Seemingly content she begins her walk home.

A First Menses has never appeared this easy or so pretty as Valerie admires her blood drips on the daisies.  Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Jan Curík | Cinematography

A First Menses has never appeared this easy or so pretty as Valerie admires her blood drips on the daisies.
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Jan Curík | Cinematography

In what must be the oddest cinematic depiction of a female’s first menstruation, Valerie notices drips of blood falling on the daisies over which she gently glides. She does not appear alarmed or upset. She simply marvels at the beauty of the red blood droplets on the flowers. She then dashes home to the safety of her pristinely white and innocent bedroom. She falls into a deep sleep. It is very hard to know if the rest of what we see is a nightmare or her reality.

 

Valeris is becoming suspect of her Grandmother.  Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Jan Curík | Cinematography

Valeris is becoming suspect of her Grandmother.
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Jan Curík | Cinematography

Her ghostly Grandmother begins to form into a sinister threat. Other females enter her world who seem to share her Grandmother’s face. And each new version of Granny offers a new level of terror. Her yearning to know who her parents were takes on an odd level of horror. As she looks through her Grandmother’s dining room window she sees a procession of interesting and happy-looking people. Her Grandmother states that these are the missionaries and that they will be providing sleeping quarters for one of the priests. As Valerie looks at the people she begins to notice a number of things that seem “off” but most noticeably is a horrific looking man hiding his face behind an equally disturbing mask.

Oh, not to worry. He is just a former lover of Grandma's.  Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Cinematography | Jan Curík

Oh, not to worry. He is just a former lover of Grandma’s.
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Cinematography | Jan Curík

This “man” looks more like a monster than a person. But Grandma dismisses Valerie’s concerns. There is no need to be alarmed. Granny reveals that this vile creature is just a former lover.

Valerie receives an invitation to a sermon for all of the village virgins. Valerie, being a virgin and a “good girl” goes to the sermon. It isn’t long before Valerie meets the man who took and returned her earrings. He proclaims his love and desire for Valerie. The physicality of this man has changed twice already. Valerie seems hesitant, but she clearly finds this form attractive. He warns that the monster she saw is not some just some former lover of her Grandmother but true Evil in human form.

Before long Valerie discovers that this monster might be her father. And that the boy who seeks her affections might be her brother. Or, her father. Identities change so often that we are more confused than Valerie. When she returns home where she is led to a secret chamber.  She is forced to witness her Grandmother in a series of sadistic and perverse sexual tortures for her “former lover” who now looks like a priest. From Valerie’s perspective it is hard to know if Granny is ‘getting off’ or in jeopardy. This sadistic priest is called Gracian. This vile priest proves to be one of the most cruel of Valerie’s world. When Valerie refuses to give in to his disgusting sexual advances which quickly turn to the threat of rape, he conspires to have the whole village turn against Valerie. He claims she is a witch entrancing everyone with her beauty. They attempt to burn her at the stake! Oh, poor Valerie! What is she to do?

Wait? Is this really my week of wonders or are all my friends and family trying to burn me at the stake??!? Oh, poor Valerie! Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Cinematography | Jan Curík

Wait? Is this really my week of wonders or are all my friends and family trying to burn me at the stake??!? Oh, poor Valerie!
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Cinematography | Jan Curík

Fear not, despite the flames and rope — Valerie never seems too concerned with this situation. She makes fun of the priest and spectators who were once her friends and neighbors. She magically escapes the fate of the burning stake only to find more horrific challenges ahead. It would seem that her creepy old Grandma has made a pact with Evil. She will surrender Valerie to him in exchange for the return of her youth and beauty. It all gets quite upsetting for little Valerie. Upon learning of her Grandmother’s cruel pact with Evil, she discovers that her recently wedded neighbor has been assaulted by a vampire! But not before this adult neighbor attempts to seduce Valerie. As with most of Valerie’s interactions, she is just curious enough to allow an erotic opportunity to start, but then she immediately finds a way to break free of the erotic commitment. This is the case regarding what appears to lesbian sex is actually feeble attempt to suck Valeri’s blood for strength. Oddly, once Valerie manages to calm her “friend” they both seem to fall asleep. Or that is what appears to happen.

Oh, Valerie! Trust your instincts! Your Granny wants your youth and beauty! Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Cinematography | Jan Curík

Oh, Valerie! Trust your instincts! Your Granny wants your youth and beauty!
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Cinematography | Jan Curík

Valerie’s week of “wonders” is really turned into a week of confusion. She soon learns that her parents are quite alive. When they show up, Valerie notices that her mother looks just like her Grandmother, her father looks just like her would-be suitor who she had originally thought might be her brother. And as for the Evil Monster, like the others who populate her world, he is continually vacillating his intentions.

For Valerie, evil becomes the one constant that is seemingly always wanting to kill, seduce or trap her.  Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Jan Curík | Cinematography

For Valerie, evil becomes the one constant that is seemingly always wanting to kill, seduce or trap her.
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Jan Curík | Cinematography

He is clearly some sort of vampire. But just as soon as he seems hellbent on sucking away all of her life’s blood, he is more interested in seducing her. Then, and without warning, he seems intent on raping her. Just when Valerie thinks she know what this Evil Monster wants, he offers to save her. Valerie is amongst every sort of imaginable identity of harm and danger. Possible familial connections turn toward incest, neighbors become enemies in the form of potential lovers or vampires or just plain old ghouls. Every one she encounters is loaded with vile intent.

All while filmmaker, Jaromil Jires, fills her world with symbolic colors, constantly alternating tones and metaphors of all shapes and sizes. From beginning to end the movie is a total trip into stunningly beautiful and ugly oddness. The strange appearances of the actors and Jan Curík’s stunning cinematography make it almost impossible to look away. Is should be noted that Ester Krumbachová served as the film’s Production Designer. Film buffs will note that she was also responsible for the look of Vera Chytilova’s groundbreaking 1966 film, Daisies. Her work here is actually more impressive.

Wow. This is some week alright... Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Cinematography | Jan Curík

Wow. This is some week alright…
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Cinematography | Jan Curík

I’ve essentially been making fun of this truly amazing movie. But it is clearly intended to make us laugh as much as it makes us squirm. Valerie and her Week of Wonders is a surreal view of the implications of pending womanhood. The most surprising thing is this film is made by a man based upon the book by another very famous male writer. So is this is a limited male perspective on the challenges of women? Being a male, I’m not qualified to answer. At times the film’s depiction of women is most certainly grounded in a male perspective. However much of what the film explores feels relevant to the all-too-real threats that constantly loom over women.

As soon as the lead character receives the biological sign that “womanhood” is shortly pending, everyone around her seems to shift in motivations and interests regarding Valerie’s identity. Men seem intent on either seducing, molesting or raping her. And if that is not the intended goal, the sexual is over-ruled to hurt, theft, torture or murder. The women in Valerie’s world change as well.  Women now seem to view her as a threat to their own individual identity and worth. Or they desire her in sexual ways that she can’t quite understand. She is an innocent, but those in her world no longer view her as such. She is now essentially “an object” on which they feel free to project love, lust, desire, anger, jealousy, pain, degradation, humiliation and even death. Valerie is no longer a sweet little girl. Valerie is now a potential prize or victim.

Beautiful Innocence is now an object available for the taking. Or so they think... Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Cinematography | Jan Curík

Beautiful Innocence is now an object available for the taking. Or so they think…
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Cinematography | Jan Curík

 

It is important to note that Valerie manages to escape and conquer all the challenges that come her way. She is no one’s victim. She sometimes falters as she attempts to understand or is sometimes even partially pulled toward some of the eroticisms — but those are fleeting moments. Valerie is steadfast in protecting herself. Her goal is to survive. And to survive with her dignity in place. Jaromil Jires offers one scene twice in the film: a small group of sensually enraptured women are engaging in an intense but somehow banal level of erotic play in a flowing stream of water. These women seem taken over by sensual delight in every aspect of themselves, each other, the sheer clothing that covers that wet bodies. They tease each other with soft kisses and even attempt to catch the fish swimming by to drop down their “barely-there” dresses and skin. We see Valerie walk past the stream twice from opposing sides of the stream. Our Valerie is clearly amused and passively interested in what these sultry lady-girls are up to. However, when one or more of these women notice Valerie and invite her to join them — Valerie becomes embarrassed or troubled and rushes her way past them. In between her her views of these lusty maidens, she runs across the river. As she crosses she notices the horror of one of the men from her world left for dead in the rapids of the stream that lead to these water vixens. Is there a connection to their perpetual state of wet eroticism and the dead man just a ways up stream?

Uh, oh. What fresh hell is this?  Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Cinematography | Jan Curík

Uh, oh. What fresh hell is this?
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Cinematography | Jan Curík

Sadly, Valerie’s “wonders” or “curiosities” is most likely going to be longer than a week.  This surreal dreamscape now might be her fate. It is hard to determine the intention of the film’s ending. As her horrifying and eroticall-fueled week comes to an end, all she wants to do is escape back to the safety of her pristinely innocent bedroom that has been bathed in warm white light. Her bedroom may be small, but it contains all she loves and treasures. True, Valerie awakes in her own bed. The problem is that her bed is now placed in the wilderness of her villages’ forrest. It is here we leave her. Alone in her bed surrounded by the natural elements of the forrest. The ending is as beautiful as it is disturbing.

The dilemma Jaromil Jires’ film presents for modern viewing is almost as challenging as Valerie’s week. The part of “Valerie” was played by a 6th grade girl, Jaroslava Schallerová. The movie has no problem in sexualizing this child. Filmed in what can best be described as “dewey erotic lighting” — the actress is often semi or nude and constantly being pulled into sexual intended kisses and caresses. The film veers into the realm of the inappropriate in the way this child actor was filmed.

Valerie in the privacy of her innocent room strikes an alluring pose.  Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Cinematography | Jan Curík

Valerie in the privacy of her innocent room strikes an alluring pose.
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Cinematography | Jan Curík

The current view of Film Scholars is that Jires did not film the girl as a “sex object” but more as a “symbol of innocence” trapped in a world filled with sexual desires and constant threat. This defense is weak. I’m not able to buy-in or agree with this attitude.

In defense, the film never even approaches the level of “pornography” or “soft core adult entertainment,” but it does go too far. The actress now in her early 50’s has always been proud of her fleeting moment of fame. Her mother was present for the entirety of the shoot. A fairly recent interview with the adult woman discusses some of these concerns. Adding to my own conundrum regarding the way a child was filmed is the fact that I still admire Louis Malle’s 1978’s Pretty Baby. Brooke Shields was 13 when she appeared as a prostitute and is filmed nude several times. Pretty Baby is highly regarded in the world of film. Because no male touches her while nude, it falls into the legal realm. Brooke Shields, a highly educated and clearly intelligent woman does not look back on the experience as negative. Both of these women appear to be healthy and unharmed.

Welcome to the adult world in which your earrings as well as your innocence are up for grabs.  Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Cinematography | Jan Curík

Welcome to the adult world in which your earrings as well as your innocence are up for grabs.
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Cinematography | Jan Curík

I still wonder if either Ms. Shields or Ms. Schallerová would allow their 12 or 13 year old daughter to be in these films.

Louis Malle's 1978 film, Pretty Baby, created some controversy at the time it was released. But it never generated any legal doubts that Brooke Shields was exploited. It remains a potent film, that feels suspect.

Louis Malle’s 1978 film, Pretty Baby, created some controversy at the time it was released. But it never generated any legal doubts that Brooke Shields was exploited. It remains a potent film, that feels suspect.

 

I would not. I somehow suspect they would not either.  Audiences should be warned that this envelope is pushed. Though no where near to the point that Louis Malle pushed it in 1978.

Despite this ethically concern, I can’t help but love the artistry and the film itself. It is a highly effective surrealist attempt to capture both the human psychological and emotional experience of gaining a mature understanding of the world. A world that will very quickly become her/his own. In many respects the morphing of the familiar into the unknown or monstrous is resonating. Of course this lies at the heart of many fairy tales. And Valerie and her Week of Wonders never strays too far from a world that feels like that of twisted folklore. The film is edited and shot in ways that allow the viewer to constantly find new ideas or points with each viewing. It applies a circular sort of logic which invites multiple interpretations. Valerie and her Week of Wonders is a totally unique cinematic experience.

Now we fast-forward 44 years later and approximately 250 miles away to a modern-day village in Germany. Till Kleinert’s Der Samurai is a newer but equally puzzling re-examination of “identity” within a fairy tale-like world.

Trying to catch a wolf without harming it. But will that satisfy the deceptive wolf?  Der Samurai Till Kleinert, 2014 Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

Trying to catch a wolf without harming it. But will that satisfy the deceptive wolf?
Der Samurai
Till Kleinert, 2014
Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

In his amazing and  jolting directorial debut, Til Kleinert is exploring deception in a more familiar setting. It also should be noted that there is a growing concern in parts of Germany regarding wolves. For decades the German Wolf was near the point of extinction. In the last decade these wolves have returned to the point of near over-population. This has generated valid concern for the towns that exist near forested areas. While much of our fears regarding wolves is out of proportion to reality, when they start roaming in packs or are hungry — the question of “proportional fear” becomes trivial. We catch a glimpse of the German village in which this story takes place at the beginning. The homes are gathered closely together as if in group formation. The modern windows have metallic-like shades that close from the inside. This is not uncommon in Europe, but to our eyes it seems kind of creepy. This village would appear to be formed out of a shared fear of the woods that surround it.

Der Samurai  Till Kleinert, 2014

Der Samurai
Till Kleinert, 2014

Our innocent hero appears to be a sincere, kind, gentle and lonely man. There are also hints that he hides his intentions very well. He seems almost stubbornly stern when it comes to expressing himself. Jakob may be young but he is a grown man. He is a cop. And he takes his job more than seriously. Jakob seems truly dedicated to protecting the law those who reside in his environment. His village is experiencing a series of minor but annoying mishaps relating to a wolf. It seems the filmmaker’s intent that we notice that this community’s shared fear is aimed at a wolf — there seems to be no clear articulation of the plural version of wolf. This appears to be a fear of one wolf. Jakob does not seem to fear the wolf like his village. He seems more concerned about trying to stop the wolf from bothering the villagers.  We first see him tying up sheer-thin bags of bloody raw meat from low hanging branches to allow easy access. Jakob appears to hope that these bags will satisfy the wolf and prevent it from lurking out into the village.  Or not? We are presented with an unanswered question regarding our hero’s actions. Is this an attempt to keep the wolf out of the village or is this merely an attempt to feed the wolf.

Jakob’s concerns relating to this wolf are very different than his fellow residents. The threat of this wolf is taking on a strange level of horror. Knocking over outdoor trash containers and the alarmed barking of family dogs is resulting in a seemingly illogical reaction. Jakob not only seems perplexed by the level of fear this wolf is causing, he is at a loss at just how concerned everyone seems to be. Michel Diercks plays Jakob with a cautious and thoughtful performance. Diereses’ performance seems to hint at something that the viewer can’t quite understand. His concern for the wolf’s safety seems as odd as the villagers fear. Kleinert frames his story within the context of being afraid of something “out there” that is not only on the prowl but poised for menace.

Something is out there. Just beyond the trees. Is it a wolf? A werewolf or something altogether different?  Der Samuari Till Kleinert, 2014 Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

Something is out there. Just beyond the trees. Is it a wolf? A werewolf or something altogether different?
Der Samuari
Till Kleinert, 2014
Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

One evening as Jakob starts to leave the sherif office for home,  he discovers a package delivered to his attention.  The package is actually addressed to “Lonely Wolf.” And so the tale begins. Jacob receives a phone call. A whiskey and cigarette damaged female voice advises him of the address to which he needs to deliver the package. It is difficult to articulate why the phone call is so erie. Part of it is in the delivery of what is said and the other part is the way in which Jacob reacts. As we hear the caller’s voice it is clear that she is flirting, but also daring the cop to follow her directions. The package is for her and she strongly urges that he must deliver it to her. There is a tinge of cruelty in her chuckle as she provides her address.

Jacob seems more curious than concerned. It is a disturbing moment in a horror film that very quickly pushes the boundaries of tension to surprising level of creepy horror. As Jakob approaches the dilapidated old cottage occupying carrying the thin long package which he has been “advised” to deliver, a unexpected unease fills us. You don’t want Jacob to go in. You want him to call for ‘back-up.’ The cottage not only looks sinister, it feels sinister. Carrying the box up the seemingly grimly rotted stairs he soon meets the owner of the voice that called him. Sitting crouched in front of an old dresser mirror, her face is hidden. It is clear that she has been applying a great deal of make-up. An abandoned doll hangs by a noose. Pictures from fashion magazines hang around this obviously well muscled person. The pages have been defaced and are fading away. The room is damaged from years of neglect and water damage. It is impossible not to note that what appears to have been yellow wallpaper has been illogically covered with streaks of red. Blood red.

Pit Bukowski is getting ready to really give the villagers something to panic about... Der Samurai Till Kleinert, 2014 Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

Pit Bukowski is getting ready to really give the villagers something to panic about…
Der Samurai
Till Kleinert, 2014
Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

It is difficult to pin-down what it is about this movie that is so unnerving. The two lead actors are great. The film is incredibly well styled. But Till Kleinert finds a way to really get under our skins. The villagers’ fear is not misplaced. Indeed, there is something waiting in the woods to roam out after sunset to wreck havoc upon their quiet little village. But is it not the wolf they have imagined. This wolf is a man made-up and wearing an elegant sort of long slip. The true object of fear is a homicidal and feral transvestite. As this visage pulls the huge samurai sword from Jakob’s package, we instantly know that this “something” is no longer happy merely causing havoc and generating this mini-societal fears.  This is our wolf and it has a blood-lust of epic proportion. If you are thinking this subversion of fairy tale is mired in what can easily issue a reaction of concern, you are correct. Only the most homophobic of viewers will not feel a pang of “Political Incorrectness” warning flags poking at them from the screen. Before the audience has a chance to become offense, Kleinert’s film literally jumps into a frantic level of strange and undeniably fascinating horror film.

Jakob is fully aware of the potential for danger as this almost feral, androgynous and seductive figure carefully caresses her new weapon. He tries to talk this self-proclaimed Samurai out of jumping out of the house. Jakob attempts to apply logic that somehow feels confused. Der samurai seems to take on a sort of perverse beauty in his elegant white slip as well as a sense of supernatural strength. She has no time or interest in listening to Jakob’s concern and protests. She has an axe to grind with this tiny village cloaked away within the German forests. She is out for vengeance and blood.

Pit Bukowski as Der Samurai who takes no prisoners.  Der Samurai Till Kleinert, 2014 Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

Pit Bukowski as Der Samurai who takes no prisoners.
Der Samurai
Till Kleinert, 2014
Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

As tensions mounts so do the ever expanding Surrealist stylings. Der Samurai is almost unrelenting in generating our guilt and fear. And while the gore goes to extremes, it is intentionally unreal. Jakob follows this raging “wolf” down deserted streets filled with her violent vengeance. Everything has been slashed and torn up. And Jacob has forgotten his gun. It gradually becomes clear that the kindly Jakob is not as much “hunting” this wolf down, he is starting to encage in a grim sort of dance. This is both figurative and literal.

Facing the werewolf or an identity long repressed? Or maybe not.  Der Samurai Till Kleinert, 2014 Cinematography| Martin Hanslmayr

Facing the werewolf or an identity long repressed? Or maybe not.
Der Samurai
Till Kleinert, 2014
Cinematography| Martin Hanslmayr

As we follow this pursuit or dance, more and more of the the villagers are being laid to brutal waste. It may be silly and even look “unreal” but Der Samurai has entered into a truly disturbing frenzy. To be honest, there were more than a few times I had to ask myself, “Did that just happen?” And just as the audience thinks that it has got the whole thing figured out, Till Kleinert turns it all around again. This demented twist on the “fairy” tale continues to escalate along with our unease and fear. Jakob has no choice. He must stop this dance and slay this maniacal “wolf” in tranny clothing. As he approaches to to take this mythical evil creature down, we discover that Der Samurai has shed the costume. Ravenously eating the contents Jakob’s blood-drenched meat bag, Der Samurai is nude. It is a deliberate choice that Kleinert shows that our nude monster is now packing more than a huge sword. His “excitement” has swelled to form the potential for a whole other type of “swordplay”. This is only one of many darkly comic and inappropriate moments in the movie. Jakob is clearly more afraid of a penis erection than a samurai sword or the muscular threat of this wolf who we now know was only hiding in monster’s clothing. This is a problematically loaded bit of metaphor.

Feeding the wolf or attempting to put out the fire with gasoline. It doesn't matter. Der Samurai is ready to fight our hero. Till Kleinert, 2014 Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

Feeding the wolf or attempting to put out the fire with gasoline. It doesn’t matter. Der Samurai is ready to fight our hero.
Till Kleinert, 2014
Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

Jakob would at first seem to want to repress or stifle the beast that threatens his village. But in the end he must face the evil and destroy it. Once again a sort of circular logic is displayed. We do not know where this tale has taken us. The final shot of the film is as confusing as it is entertaining. The grande finale is really as surprising as it is awesome. As Jakob appears to go on full attack of the monster terrorizing the quiet village, the musical score gives sway to a silly and  diametrically opposed pop song by The Ark. Suddenly Der Samurai slips into a sort of parody of 1980’s Rambo-like hero anthem. On paper is seems like a truly ludicrous idea, but in practice it is a magical way to relieve the audience tension and remind us that we are seeing a sort of fairy tale. The lessons of which only really reveal themselves after we achieve some distance from the work. Is there actually a wolf at all? Is our “hero” also our “monster?” It is unclear. Once again the Surrealistic circular logic prevents an established answer. However one very realistic idea is formed: When a society oppresses the individual and that individual gives in and represses their own identity — the results can be catastrophic. Eventually the needs of the “self” must be addressed in one way or another. More than likely the self will assert in a skewed ideology that not only matches the societal ideology, but surpasses it.

Slaying the Beast of the Village? Or not?  Der Samurai Till Kleinert, 2014 Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

Slaying the Beast of the Village? Or not?
Der Samurai
Till Kleinert, 2014
Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

Der Samurai is wide open for interpretation. I’ve heard and read it described as “Queer Surrealist Horror” to a “perverse reworking of ‘The Big Bad Wolf.'” I do not agree with either label. This is a sleek and effective spin on folklore presented in both a Surrealist and Absurdist way. ,While Til Kleinert is willing to risk his metaphor and parable being misunderstood as “self-loathing” or “homophobic” or “misogynistic,” it clearly is not. Kleinert is willing to trust the intelligence of his audience to understand the film. This film is far too smart, polished and subversively rebellious to be considered as inappropriate art or offensive. This is a spin on a fairy tale and folklore is taken to an unexpected place. It is a thrilling and unforgettable film. Kudos to ArtSploitation for releasing it via VOD, DVD and Blu-ray. The Artsploitation label usually restricts itself to gore horror of the lowest denominator, but in this case they have helped secure the release of a valuable work of Art Horror.

One thing is for sure: There is 'something' on both sides of that window. And neither offer a 'happy ever after' Der Samurai Till Kleinert, 2014 Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

One thing is for sure: There is ‘something’ on both sides of that window. And neither offer a ‘happy ever after’
Der Samurai
Till Kleinert, 2014
Cinematography | Martin Hanslmayr

Like Valerie and her Week of Wonders, Der Samurai is more of an experience than a typical narrative film. It washes over you.  You are left both exhilarated and confused. Both of these film present themselves with a non verbalized, “Once upon a time…” and bring us to the conclusions that while the world offers us “choices” they are seldom easy to chose. To deny the reality of the deceptions that hide along our life paths is not only problematic — it is dangerous.

And like most fairy tales, these are not for children. In truth, the origins of fairy tales and folklore were really simple ways to explain the complexities of human existence and survival. These parables attempted to explain what is often unexplainable.

At the end of a journey, we may find our way back to bed. But our bed has been moved to a place than can offer no happy ending or safety.  More to the point: there is no such thing as a “happily ever after.”

Fairy tales do not always offer happy endings. When viewed as initially intended, there was never such a thing as Happily Ever After.  Valerie and her Week of Wonders Jaromil Jires, 1970 Cinematography | Jan Curík

Fairy tales do not always offer happy endings. When viewed as initially intended, there was never such a thing as Happily Ever After.
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Jaromil Jires, 1970
Cinematography | Jan Curík