Favorite Movie #89: You’re Next (2011)

Part of My Favorite Things: 100+ of my Favorite Movies Ever

You’re Next (2011), dir. Adamn Wingard, starring Sharni Vinson, Nicholas Tucci, Wendy Glenn, A.J. Bowen, Joe Swanberg, Barbara Crampton, and Rob Moran

youre next

I’m not a big horror movie fan. I often feel frustrated watching these movies where people do very stupid or irrational things when faced with the supernatural or a rampaging lunatic. How many times have you or anyone you know screamed at the screen because someone is about to go down a dark hallway with no flashlight?  I also get upset watching people trip on a rock or themselves (and I definitely trip on myself so…) but instead of getting up and running, they stop, turn and face the monster and just scream. Admittedly, most horror and slasher movies are meant to be stupid-fun, where the joy is found in watching people get killed in creative ways. The peak of these creative deaths of course is the Final Destination series, which I found so terribly enjoyable: terrible because I absolutely loved watching those awful one-dimensional girls in Final Destination 3 burn alive in tanning booths, or that beefed up jerk getting smashed lifting weights, or the douchey guy slipping on his noodle and getting smashed by a ladder, and I don’t know if I like what that says about me or any audience who enjoy these. Of course, these movies thrive on these contradictions–they’re self-aware enough to know their appeal and that people enjoy watching the ludicrous situations they portray that happen maybe 0.009% of the time in the real world. So watching these movies always made me queasy. Thankfully, most of them are derivative enough that they evaporate a day or two from my memory after watching them.

When I first saw You’re Next on Netflix after randomly landing on it during one weekend in college, I had no expectations beyond its predictability. People will be killed off one at a time, and our heroes will maybe all die too. I was geared up for a sugar high, crashing immediately after. To my immense surprise, the movie threw us a major curveball. The movie starts off with out typical setup: a group of relatives gather together in a vacation house, including Erin (Sharni Vinson) who is dating Crispian, a member of this very wealthy family. Suddenly, the family is attacked by crossbow bolts, instantly killing one member and injuring the other. A garrote wire takes the life of another sibling and the whole family is thrown into chaos. One by one, the wealthy family’s members start getting killed by unknown assailants who are donning animal masks and equipped with analog weapons like crossbows and axes (It’s more fun to watch people run around with these kind of weapons than guns!). Up until Erin’s boyfriend leaves the house to look for help, the movie followed the distinctly familiar pattern of slasher movies like Final Destination. Ergo we watch as our little mice get killed one by one by our cat. It’s fun and the production values of the movie made for a solid filmgoing experience (thoughtfully cool cinematography and modern twisty music!), but I was mentally preparing to write the whole movie off.

But then we see something unfamiliar happen: one of the mice fights back. When one of the killers try to attack Erin from a window, she fights back and stabs him. While he’s in dispose at the shocking turn of events, Erin races for the drawer to get a weapon, only to have her assailant escape. That was an incredible adrenaline rush and an early sign in the movie of things to come. In retrospect, Erin seemed collected for someone who just watched people get killed earlier. She thinks on her feet (that excellent idea of using chairs to block the arrows), keen on sticking together (she was adamant about everyone staying in rather than leaving), and calm under pressure–all traits that make for a great “Final Girl.” From then on, she starts taking action to combat the other killers, setting up booby traps on all entry ways and finding all weapons that the remaining family members can use. Armed with weapons and her smarts, she is set up to defend the house from the invaders. We see this in action when one of the assailants enter the house and go for Erin. In a spectacular show of intelligence, Erin kicks him in the balls (why do people not do that enough in movies?), and while momentarily off guard, attacks him with a meat pulverizer, bashing his head until he’s dead. This moment was incredible–it’s always a fun surprise to see your heroine pull off a victory in the middle of the movie.

Just as we’ve established that the movie’s Final Girl is going to be formidable, we realize another twist when it’s revealed that two of the family members actually hired the murderers to obtain the inheritance from the wealthy parents. Suddenly, the movie presents its big metaphor about greed and inter-generational wealth. The barbaric way that the movie depicts the death of these wealthy characters, killed by their own family members can be treated like an extended metaphor about the cannibalistic nature of wealth–rich people destroy each other for money, willing to compromise their morals, and their families for their own safety. Not only that, hiring military combat veterans as assassins to do the dirty work may hint at a broader discussion about how wealthy people in America use wars, represented by veterans, in their bid to get rich. Suddenly, watching Erin destroy each of these people in a bid for survival echoes poor people’s attempts at surviving without getting trampled under wealthy people’s bid for more money. Erin’s survivalist background makes even more sense as part of the metaphor-she grew up living with nothing, learning to be prepared for the worst scenario, relying on their self-sufficiency. The same can be said about people who were not born into wealth, they have to survive on their own grit and hard-work. These are pretty big ideas in a movie that seemed like it was designed to be superficial and frivolous. Which makes me more in love with the movie.

Erin pulls off the unthinkable and actually manages to survive and defeat her assailants. In scene after scene, Winegard expertly captures this girl’s brilliance but also her descent into survival-fueled madness. Those close-ups of Erin get increasingly more adrenaline-filled, her resolve palpable and unshakable. I love that the script doesn’t make any of her tasks easy nor does it condescend to her. Erin isn’t 100% invulnerable to terror, as demonstrated by her screaming when the ax hits the door she’s hiding behind. But the point of this movie is that Erin keeps moving on. She gets injured several times, but always gets up and ready to fight with whatever makeshift weapon she has on hand. She’s not afraid to get hurt or fight back. You’re Next is proof that slasher movies need not be dumb or predictable to be enjoyable. It is also proof that a kick-ass heroin is more fun and memorable than a bunch of lousy characters surviving by sheer luck.

Favorite Movie #90: What’s Love Got to Do With It? (1993)

Part of My Favorite Things: 100+ of my Favorite Movies Ever

What’s Love Got to Do With It? (1993), dir. Brian Gibson, starring Angela Bassett, Laurence Fishburne

WLGTDWI

Sometime in high school, I wrote an essay about African Americans on film. Why I chose this topic somehow tied in with my obsession with the Oscars. My favorite category at the time (and still is) was the Best Actress, where only a handful of black women were nominated, and only one has so far won. Besides Monster’s Ball, for which Halle Berry won the Best Actress award, I’ve not seen any of the other black women nominated. By the end of my assignment, I would have seen 3 more: Cicely Tyson in Sounder, a majestic picture with a searing unforgettable performance; Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple, another magnificent performance; and lastly, the topic of this piece, Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It? When Bassett stepped into the role of legendary music superstar Tina Turner, she inherited a tremendous burden of playing one of the most well-known stories in the music industry–that of  the tumultuous relationship between Ike and Tina Turner. She must have been nervous, but if she were, it didn’t show onscreen. But before we get into the movie, I want to talk about the whole point of this piece, which is indeed yet another love letter to a favorite actress of mine.

Angela Bassett is simply the most criminally underutilized actress with the star charisma and boundless supply of energy like Bette Davis or Katharine Hepburn. A graduate of Yale Drama School, Bassett should have been a major star but her skin color kept her from getting more parts that merited her gifts. But ever the consummate actress, she imbues her work, no matter how small a film, with fierce energy. I think about her no-nonsense mom in Akeelah and the Bee, her seen-i-all attitude as principal in an inner-city school in Music of the Heart, and her formidable mommy in Boyz n the Hood. On the occasion that she does get a meaty lead role, which is unfairly too few, she tears into it like an actress with limited opportunities. Her work in Waiting to Exhale is memorably bananas but all within reason and context. Nowadays, when I think about Angela Bassett, it’s always in remembrance of the one quality that really distinguishes her from many actresses: her enunciation. No actress can speak with such clarity, authority, and with such meaning better than Angela. She weaves in and out of words, punctuation, and tone, capable of adding multiple meanings or feelings to every sentence. It’s as if every single word is a weapon she wields to amplify her character’s thoughts. We’re never unaware of what Bassett’s characters think because she projects them through her elocution and watching her eviscerate a lousy doubting teacher or arguing with her ex-husband about their son is a treat. Of course her voice is capable too of incredible warmth and tenderness as demonstrated in the quieter moments of Akeelah and the Bee or Black Panther. She’s a genuine A-class talent, that never got the roles she deserved. Except for one, of course.

What’s Love Got to Do With It is a very conventional biopic that is nevertheless super entertaining, memorable, and rewatchable because of its two powerhouse lead performances. It starts from the beginning of Tina’s career, when she was still Anna Mae, a young girl from Nutbush, TN. In these scenes,  Bassett plays Anna Mae’s youthful naivete and sweet-natured persona very well, including her growing attachment for Ike’s sweet-talking record producer. She also shows Anna Mae’s growing confidence, slowly working her way up to be able to perform on stage. And those performances: whew–Brian Gibson shoots these scenes well, capturing the energy on and offstage, in gorgeously blues, reds, and blinding whites. It’s frenetic but definitely not chaotic. Although the movie’s airtight focus on Tina and Ike’s relationship, it also gives us glimpses of the music industry and about what it takes to produce a record. Its closeness to Ike and Tina’s relationship also gives us a dissection of an abusive relationship–one built on business. It’s a lingering question about how and why Tina stayed in the relationship for that long, and I think it’s the lack of control she felt over her own destiny. Her livelihood was tied to Ike, even though she was unquestionably the more famous one and the one crowds respond to the most. We even get a glimpse into her salvation, when her friend introduces her to Buddhism.

Besides Bassett, who I’ll get back to, a quick shout-out to Laurence Fishburne for portraying Ike Turner with intense, bone-chilling ferocity, locking into his deep insecurity, his jealousy, and his toxic masculinity. But we also see his innate talent and genius as a musician. Still, we don’t see Fishburne soften any of these edges. He makes us understand how a man like Ike can do these violent actions towards Tina. And when you have Bassett giving one of the defining biopic performances and a well-established, trusting working relationship with Bassett, it’s no wonder Fishburne gets the insecurity, the intense jealousy, and the rage. The chemistry between these two actors is palpable, and has been an asset in films like Boyz n the Hood and Akeelah and the Bee. In fact, if I had a favorite acting duo, Angela and Laurence will certainly be top 5 (they show up in 3 movies on this list alone). Watching them react to each other is mesmerizing and so natural. In this movie, Bassett and Fishburne are required to stage several domestic altercations, each a deeply unsettling scene. I think the most memorable one of these is the one with the aquarium, a fantastic shot that distills what the movie is all about– Tina trapped underwater with Ike and all we see is what’s on the surface. The movie doesn’t shy away from these scenes either, portraying them vividly (although appropriately blocked when the scene demands it). The final showdown between the two, where Tina decides to fight back is a true crowdpleaser, giving us the fierce confidence, finally fighting for her life , that was missing from Tina in much of the film, outside of the stage. And in this scene and the one immediately after, where she runs across the street to a neighboring hotel, Bassett gives us a fully physical performance, built from the leg up.

When I think about 90s, few things are as iconic to me as of Angela Bassett in this movie. Her Tina Turner is a livewire, performing every song with gusto that feels like she brought to the screen everything that made Tina Turner a showstopper. And it’s not that she’s just performing these songs well, capturing Tina’s very specific mannerisms, she’s also giving us the full narrative. Some actors can either sell the story or sell the performance. She does both here. For instance, her first performance of “Darlin You Know I Love You” at a club, we see Anna Mae slowly build her confidence, the nerves, that then turns into a dawning confidence in herself. You get just as swept up in her as the crowd does. I know she lip synchs through all of her performances, but her physicality matches every note in Turner’s voice seamlessly, that I can’t actually separate the two. This comes through most clearly in two brilliant performances: “Fool in Love” and “Proud Mary.” In the first song, Tina is fighting through a terrible cold that has robbed her of some of her voice and energy, but Ike forces her to sing. Starting onstage unable to sing–with tears coming down her eyes, Ike gives her a threatening kiss on the cheek (such a scary kiss…) that prompts Tina to start, first obviously losing her voice, but fighting through it with her whole body (which omg Angela’s biceps!). And Angela powers through this rendition fully alive with energy as if running on desperation. The second performance of “Proud Mary” is just spectacular–every closeup gives us an opportunity to marvel at Bassett’s control of her facial muscles, again capturing the real Tina Turner’s essence. Outside these stage performances, Bassett is nakedly emotional, giving us variations on terror, resignation, desperation, and rock-bottom. Watching her run so despondently, like her whole body is fleeing in terror, across the street is an unforgettable scene. The sight of her crying to her friend at the absolute bottom before finding solace in Buddhism is another unforgettable moment. Bassett is so physically and emotionally in tune with this character, and you feel her dig so deep, and therefore is so heartbreaking and mesmerizing.

To this day, I think Angela Bassett ranks among the most talented actresses of her generation without the great roles that she deserve. In film after film that I’ve seen of hers, she works harder than the role demands. What’s Love Got to Do With It gives Angela her greatest opportunity to shine but it’s also a monument to foreclosed possibilities and the limited opportunities that actress of color in America get. Today, the proliferation of platforms allow more stories about people of color to come out. I sometimes wish that Angela could have enjoyed them in her prime. We would have certainly been better off.

Favorite Movies #91: The Piano Teacher (2001)/ Elle (2016)

Part of My Favorite Things: 100+ of my Favorite Movies Ever

The Piano Teacher (2001), dir. Michael Haneke, starring Isabelle Huppert, Benoit Magimel, Annie Girardot

The Piano Teacher

Elle (2016), dir. Paul Verhoeven, starring Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anna Consigny, Charles Berling

ELLE

The 89th Academy Awards was the most memorable ceremony in the past 15 years or so that I’ve watched the Oscars. Of course, everyone remembers the Best Picture mix-up where La La Land was mistakenly awarded the Best Picture over Moonlight, the actual winner. Heading into the ceremony, they were definitely the two frontrunners, with La La Land winning every major precursor and leading the tally for Oscar nominations. It also won all of the key awards during the ceremony, including Best Director on the way to the final award of the night. It looked like it was going to sweep. But then a miracle happened–Moonlight, an improbable award season darling, took the top honors. Watching La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz pull up that envelope while the camera slowly zoomed towards the content,  the subsequent faces of stunned but excited audiences, and the faces of Moonlight‘s cast as they embraced each other on the way to the stage to accept the award–it was all a magnificent television spectacle.

Yes, Moonlight winning against all odds, definitely tops my list of favorite things that happened in the last decade, followed shortly by seeing Viola Davis holding an Oscar for her beautiful work in Fences. But there’s one nomination that I found so strange, so inexplicable, and so never-in-a-million-years, that it still takes me a few moments to process every time I think about it. Yes, I’m talking about Isabelle Huppert’s Best Actress nomination for Elle. Isabelle Huppert is an international superstar–one of the most venerated artists whose body of work is full of eclectic choices that has earned her global adoration. She may be tiny, but her magnetic presence hardly fits the screen. Despite her prolific career and her renowned brilliance, Isabelle does give off an intimidating vibe. She comes across as very intelligent and no-nonsense about her work and her choices in material are as daring and unconventional as Tom Hooper is bland and generic. Typically, if a well-regarded international actress were to be nominated at the Oscars, it will be a career tribute and in a movie that’s well within the Academy’s wheelhouse. Think Catherine Deneuve in Indochine or Fernanda Montenegro in Central Station or Norma Alejandro in Gaby: A True Story. Sometimes, actors get nominated for films that are so unrepresentative of their bodies of work–Patricia Clarkson in Pieces of April come to mind. I figured someone as unconventional as Isabelle Huppert must show up in Crash-type film to even be remotely on the Academy’s radar.

But then a miracle happened. Instead of being nominated for a lousy Oscar-friendly movie, Isabelle Huppert gets nominated for a movie that is not only batshit crazy but one that taps into everything that makes Huppert an amazing actress–her cerebral approach to acting, her powerful sexuality, and a certain unknowable quality in her performances. That last one is worth emphasizing: Huppert is quite simply the most mysterious actress I’ve ever watched in movies. She can project an active thoughtful mind even beneath her willfully blank face. She can surprise you with a line reading or reaction that plays against how you think a scene will go. She’s even enchanting when she’s just sitting still, not speaking. The two movies here are but a limited sample of her 100+ catalog but they do give a complete picture of what I find so alluring about this actress, not to mention they’re two of the most thought-provoking films on this list.

In Elle, Huppert plays one of the most difficult characters to ever appear on film–a rape victim who treats her assault with initial indifference. It’s a jolt to the system to see Michelle, immediately after her assault, get up from the ground to clean up the broken plates, and take a bath with no visible sign on her face that a major traumatic event just occurred. It’s a surprising premise that gets increasingly absurd–Michele runs a videogame company that’s trying to produce a very sexually violent game; she’s also carrying on an affair with her best friend’s husband; she’s also dealing with a needy domineering mother, a useless son and his baby mama drama, and a hapless ex-husband; she’s also dwelling on her father’s murderous rampage when she was a child and the repercussions she still face today; and lastly she’s stalking and seducing her assailant. On top of all this–Elle plays like a comedy. About rape. If that all seem like a lot of things that shouldn’t go together, well, they shouldn’t. Yet somehow all of them work together. Very well actually. Paul Verhoeven, the director of movies like RoboCop and Basic Instinct pieces together this trashy concept into a dark, riveting and frequently funny film, that wrestles with the idea of trauma in unconventional ways. It’s fairly self-conscious–it knows when to deploy a rape flashback (from a different angle); when to amp up its mystery-whodunnit tropes; and how and when to break a tense moment with humor and when to inject tension into a moment of levity. Given the numerous tones and the increasingly ridiculous things that happen, the glue that holds it all together is Isabelle Huppert’s fierce performance as Michele. As I mentioned earlier, Isabelle has a knack for throwing surprising reactions that seem counter-intuitive, yet somehow makes sense with the character as a whole. In scene after scene, Michele moves on with her life completely unfazed or unafraid after her rape. Her announcement to her friends at a dinner came with little fanfare, like she was just mentioning an event that she attended a night before. Even when her rapist comes back to leave his semen on her blanket, she takes a moment to take in what happened and then proceeds to take off the sheets. When her assailant comes back to attack her–she defends herself ably and inflicts damage on him, finally unmasking him as her neighbor. But the real shocker is the titillation she gets out of it: instead of being frightened, she’s turned on. Seeing Huppert go from prey to hunter, then suddenly feels complicated–how can we reconcile the rapist’s violent actions (which we’re constantly reminded of via flashbacks to that scene) with Michele’s obvious sexual desire for her rapist? What are we supposed to feel about a protagonist who blackmails her employee into showing his penis to her to keep his job? How do we stay on Michele’s side even though she’s sleeping with her best friend’s husband? The movie doesn’t shy away from these questions and in fact pushes the audience to consider them. We as audiences are constantly tested to determine the parameters of our moral ethics, what we consider as sexy, and how we would behave in scenarios that Michele is put through. Mchele is a tricky character to play because it requires a lack of vanity that too few actresses are willing to risk, especially given the #MeToo Movement and the politicization of everything. Yet Isabelle bares it all in a risky performance in a movie that goes against any conventional mainstream ideas about rape (again, there’s a lot humor in this film), women in the workforce, and feminism, and comes out with an Oscar nomination for it.

In a similarly perverse role, but a totally dissimilar character, Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher finds Isabelle in the apex of her career. Here, she uses everything in her arsenal: her intellectual characterization; daring sexuality; and her penchant for delivering complex emotions at surprising moments. Her character Erika is a professor who teaches piano at a college who lives with a domineering mother (the great Anne Giradot). Erika is cold and distant with her students and colleagues and has a temperamental relationship with her mother.  Like Michele, Erika has a taste for the sexually perverse–she frequents booths where she can watch porn and sniff disposed tissue in the booth’s trash; she engages in self-mutilation; and she observes people having sex through cars. What distinguishes her from Michelle, however, is that while Michele generally feels satisfied with her life and proudly owns her sexuality, Erika is terribly lonely and sexually repressed–a product perhaps of her mother’s absolute control of her life. She meets a student Walter (Benoit Magimel) who starts courting her, declaring that he loves her, even though she tries to resist at first. When she does give in and they finally passionately kiss in the bathroom, she tries to take control of the situation and starts instituting rules of contact between the two. From there, the movie dives further into Michele’s sexual perversions that leads to a stunning conclusion. Now unlike Elle, there’s nothing funny about The Piano Teacher–it’s sexual and emotional violence are uncomfortable.  Haneke is a very precise director, whose style is very formal and controlled, with not a single shot out of place. It’s a very cold film, that frequently uses long takes at jarring or upsetting moments and its color palette is clinical, almost as if to announce the film’s intentions to really dive into this character’s psyche. And boy, there’s a lot to unpack. Erika, despite being a middle-aged adult, is still beholden to her mother’s schedule and her intrusions. They also frequently squabble, that sometimes turn violent–there’s enough slapping and hair pulling in the movie to make you think we’re watching an episode of Jerry Springer. The movie doesn’t give us any indication that Erika has any friends–she’s frequently alone, and even in crowds, she’s away from everyone. Her loneliness is apparent and sometimes is displayed through her actions. On two separate occasions, we find Erika humiliate her students, who respect her clearly but hold no warm feelings toward her. In one incredibly upsetting scene, she even sabotages one of her students by placing broken glass shards in her coat pocket for getting too chummy with Walter. Speaking of Walter, he’s a typical tool, who’s handsome and self-confident to charm his way into Erika’s orbit. And once Erika finally accepts his attention, the movie devolves into a sexual game of cat and mouse–only terrifying. Erika is a sadomasochist fetishist who tries to engage Walter in her sexual fantasies (on only their second sexual encounter no less) only to find  her totally rebuked.  In a complete 180, suddenly we see Erika submit herself so willingly and so desperately to Walter only to be surprised that what she wanted–her violent sexual fantasies–is not exactly what she expected it to be. In these scenes, starting with Walter in her bedroom, we see Erika finally open up in surprising ways: As Walter reads her letter, her face is wet with tears. As she begs for Walter’s apology, she’s totally lost in her desperation; as she succumbs to Walter’s sexual assault, she shuts down; and as she sees her love walk by her so glibly, she literally stabs herself in the chest in a show of intense heartache. These are some of the most astonishing scenes that Huppert has ever played–intensely vulnerable and vanity-free, even given the things that Erika has done onscreen earlier in the film–including peeing next to the car while getting aroused by two people. She’s giving us new facets of this woman in every scene, showing several variations of glacial thaw. Simply put, Huppert’s Erika ranks among my most favorite performances ever.

In both these films, Isabelle Huppert stars in a challenging film that delves into its character’s intense sexuality, complex psychologies, and perverse behavior. In each role, Huppert gives us mesmerizing performance–controlled, surprising, and quite unforgettable. She’s an amazing force, tackling each role with surprising lack of vanity and a daring attitude. People often use the word “brave” to actors for undergoing physical transformations or getting skin-deep into character. Huppert doesn’t need to resort to cosmetic changes to be brave–she marshals her full persona into the character-imbuing every one of them with the intelligence and mystery that she preternaturally has. And for all the awards that she has won over the years, nothing compares to the reverence of future filmgoers, who’ll be lucky to discover Huppert onscreen.

Favorite Movie #92: Audition (1999)

Part of My Favorite Things: 100+ of my Favorite Movies Ever

Audition (1999), dir. Takashi Miike, starring Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina

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This is for my friend Charles, who I saw this movie with, and who’s been an ever-dependable pal since our first day of freshman year in college.

Kiri-kiri-kiri-kiri.

That sound makes me wince. It’s a sound so uniquely attributable to one source. For fans of J-Horror, it’s a well-known sound. At the turn of the millennium, Japanese horror films exploded worldwide. Films like Ringu or The Grudge came to prominence as big hits in their home country and VHS/DVD curios abroad. Both of these movies would go on to be remade for Western audiences to varying success. But why, Japanese horror? There’s an eerie quality to Japanese horror films that makes them creepier than Western horrors. Somehow they figured out that horror movies are best when they psychologically fuck you up too. From what I can tell, they do this expertly by playing with the atmosphere.  Therefore, jump scares are earned and gore is merely an accessory used to punctuate a scene.

Take for example Audition, a film by Takashi Miike, one of Japanese cinema’s weirdest and most prolific movie directors. If you think Woody Allen or Clint Eastwood make movies fast, Miike makes at least 3 or 4 every year. That’s an insane amount of movies and with that many, it won’t be surprising if a lot of them are duds. Audition, is most certainly not a dud. It has gained a reputation for disturbing scenes and inexplicable violence beyond what most people are accustomed to. The funny thing though is that outside of its key disturbing scenes, the movie is actually a taut, psychological drama. The first hour or so, the movie plays like an odd romance movie: Aoyama, a middle-aged widower tries to overcome his loneliness by staging a fake casting call with his movie-producer friend to interview potential partners. This scene is admittedly gross as a concept and given our current times, remind me a bit of the casting couch. From this process, he meets Asami, a meek girl dressed in virginal whites, with whom he quickly falls. The movie then follows this couple’s first few dates.

I think Audition excels at constructing terror. For much of its running time, we focus on the mundane aspects of their dates. We’re only given hints about Asami’s past (in vivid colors) that do enough to unsettle an audience, but not enough to make people second guess their vulnerability. Although, one scene definitely made me go hmm: it’s the first WTF scene where Asami is seen waiting for Aoyama’s call–and suddenly this huge sack that occupies the central frame moves. A jump scare. Given the movie’s languid pace, that really caught me off-guard. How Miike manages to lull me into complacency thereafter is still a mystery. The first hour ends in Aoyama and Asami taking a vacation where Aoyama declares his lover to her and then she vanishes the next morning. Things rapidly escalate from there. Through a series of flashbacks, we become more acquainted with Asami’s troubled past,  the disturbing details of which we see in vivid colors. These inserts are placed extremely well, and we only see enough to be amply disturbed, while still holding on to a sense of naivete. Miike shoots this film from curious angles, always slightly off center and holding his shots longer than expected. This creates a lulling effect, making your eyes wander for some sign of incoming terror that doesn’t always arrive. It’s also patience-testing: horror movies expect instant payoffs and fast jolts, but Miike would rather we play a waiting game.

To make this work, his editor Yasushi Shimamura sharply cuts and arranges these scenes with precision. Take for example the early phone call scene. The jump scare is very effective because of how quietly but effectively the cuts of the scene are implemented. It starts with a shot of the phone from Aoyama’s POV, holds it there in silence for about 3 seconds. Then, he cuts to a reverse shot of Aoyama looking pensively at the phone for another 3 seconds. Then a match cut to a phone in the foreground, with an oddly large sized bag in the background. Another 3 seconds. We then see an overhead shot of Asami facing the ground, her neck bones popping out for a second longer than the first 3 shots. Then an establishing shot of Asami’s worn down apartment with Asami sitting on the floor. This is the first time we see something worrisome about Asami, and it’s established in three shots worth 9 seconds, with nothing happening. This shot Shimamura holds for at least 5 seconds before cutting back to the reverse shot of Aoyama looking at the phone. In this 22-second clip, Shimamura builds a sense of anxiety about Asami even though nothing happens yet. Back to Aoyama, he picks up the phone, thinks for a second, then drops it. We cut to him getting up from the desk and heading out the door, tracking his reaction as he changes his mind. Then, we cut to a close-up of Asami smiling through her long flowing hair as the phone keeps ringing ominously. It’s downright bone-chilling. We cut to a shot of Asami lifting her head in the foreground, the phone and the sack in the background. Then it happens–the jump scare. It’s a brilliant build-up, efficiently using the silence, a few camera angles, and a few edits to make it work.

If I happen to be burying the lede, it’s because in some ways I am. The movie builds the anxiety towards its infamous scene, ratcheting up the disturbing images like a fevered dream but the audience is still forced to wait for the payoff. This is the source of the movie’s power–it’s testing your resolve by forcing you to wait for the terror all the while holding you in suspense and disbelief. When the scene does finally arrive, well…you can’t help but be horrified. After all, the movie has expertly built the tension and locked you in anticipation for 2 hours and now it’s arrived at the release point. Let’s just say this scene lives up to its reputation, even if I think Miike is being generous by sparing you the finer details. Or is he? Audition is at its scariest when you know something fucked up is happening but can’t see it. Barring a few short shots, we hear sounds of pained screams, the wiresaw cutting into flesh (the best sound design I’ve ever fucking heard in a horror movie), and the eponymous “kiri-kiri-kiri” intoned with a naive innocence. These sounds are enough to paint a full picture, especially when you see Asami disturbingly enjoy the whole ordeal. It’s painful, sickening to watch. In other words, perfect.

Regarding the debate about whether its scenes can be construed as misogynistic–I have no strong opinion about the matter. I think the movie brilliantly explores the thin divide between love and pain, between care and obsession. I don’t think Asami is a simple demon–but rather a sum of her collective experiences. I’m also not into kink-shaming so to each his own I guess. I do think that lonely people, like Asami and Aoyama would do anything to find happiness, just to escape their miserable circumstances. It’s a sad movie really, one that has resonated with me because it explores the ways loneliness can make you vulnerable to cruelty, obsession, to carelessness.

Favorite Movie #93: Modern Times (1936)

Part of My Favorite Things: 100+ of my Favorite Movies Ever

Modern Times (1936), dir. Charlie Chaplin, starring Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman

Modern TimesAt some point in everyone’s cinematic regular life, they encounter Charlie Chaplin. For people who don’t watch movies, chances are they still recognize him. After all, “The Tramp”, Chaplin’s most famous character, is eternal. As described by Chaplin himself, the Tramp is a “gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful for romance and adventure. He would have you believe he’s a scientist, a musician, a duke, a polo player. However, he’s not above robbing a baby of its candy, and of course, when the occasion warrants it, he’ll kick a lady in the rear, but only in extreme anger.” I’ve seen a few Chaplin movies, City Lights being his best in my opinion, but I loved The Gold Rush (that potato dance!!!) and The Kid (another kid performance that touched me despite the odds). I wasn’t as keen on The Great Dictator but I appreciated why Chaplin made the movie in the first place. Like his fellow comedian Buster Keaton, Chaplin was a graceful physical performer–acrobatic and balletic in equal measure. He also has a knack for funny faces. Chaplin definitely doesn’t need any sound to be funny.

But beyond his humor, Chaplin’s movies also tend to have sociopolitical critiques that add an additional dimension that Keaton movies do not. His critiques are overt. Chaplin builds his vignettes around a certain theme, somehow weaving a narrative thread through them. Of all his movies, Modern Times is the clearest and best example of his social critiques.

My first encounter with Charlie Chaplin was in my high school sophomore year Global History Class. We were discussing the Industrial Age and as part of our class, our teacher, Mr. Thoman showed us the movie Modern Times to tie-in to our discussion of the assembly line. Having just started watching Casablanca and The Philadelphia Story recently, this would have been my third film in black and white, and my first silent film. I remember being unsure whether I would like the idea of a silent film; and I have never even heard of Charlie Chaplin back then. By the end of the movie, I was a big fan.

Modern Times open to what appears to be an office straight out of Metropolis–including the weird electric zappy sound that is supposed to represent technology. The setting of this opening vignette already gives away most of Chaplin’s sociopolitical message. The factory is full of big loud machines, levers and screws. Its metallic surfaces all feel cold and grim–not an appealing place to work in. The factory head projects his orders from a comically large screen that screams “BIG BROTHER”, ordering Section 5 to speed up. The screen cuts to the Tramp furiously screwing knobs as his only job on the assembly line. The Tramp is easily distracted, missing one piece and then furiously trying to catch up. When the whistle blow][s, the assembly line stops but the Tramp is jittery from his job, unable to stop.  During lunch break, the company introduces a new lunch feeding tool that will take away people’s need to take a break by automatically feeding them while they work. The machine hilariously goes awry and the poor Tramp suffers from dumped soup, cake on his face, and almost swallowing metal parts. When they come back to work, the pace of the assembly line increases and the Tramp is clearly falling apart and ultimately suffers from a mental breakdown.

Chaplin doesn’t waste time at all. Within its first 15 minutes, Chaplin demonstrates the indignities of working in factories, where people are treated like mechanical parts, allowed a measly break, and pushed to work until they get a nervous breakdown. In fact, at the end of the first segment, The Tramp ends up in an asylum after suffering a work-induced breakdown. The next vignette features the Tramp unwittingly joining in on a labor protest that’s quickly shut down by police. The movie is clearly a sign of its times. It’s made during the height of the Depression, where chronic unemployment is a fact of life, as is poverty. Yet despite real life slipping into the film, Chaplin somehow finds the comedy in these sad, and occasionally dismal settings. One vignette in a jail cell features a gassy stomach joke, a joke about “nose powder,” and an aborted jailbreak. Another, where the Tramp and the Gamine (a spunky Paulette Goddard) share a breakfast meal in their dilapidated shack, is chockful of jokes about the shabby state of their home. It also features the biggest laugh I had all movie long, when the Tramp dives into the pond only to find that the lake is shallow. It’s a testament to Chaplin’s genius that the movie can seamlessly marry its political messaging with the slapstick-heavy antics of the Tramp, without feeling burdensome. More to the point, no one’s fortunes have dramatically reversed by the end of the movie: The Tramp is more or less a vagrant still, the Gamine works at a seedy nightclub, and there’s still people with no jobs, and orphans with no homes. Chaplin doesn’t offer any resolutions for society’s problems.

I think the allure of the movie, at least for me, has always been the joy that Chaplin clearly imbues in moviemaking.  You can feel Charlie Chaplin’s love and care for each scene, see the thoughtfulness in his camera positions, and feel how mindful he is of audience expectations and he playfully subverts them. One lovely scene has the Tramp gearing up to sing a song in front of a large audience, almost two decades since Chaplin debuted this character. Finally, people must have thought this is their chance to finally see him speak, let alone sing. Alas, the Tramp forgets his words and sings this bizarre song in an undetectable language. Yet despite his fakeout, I doubt people were disappointed; to make up for forgetting the lyrics, the Tramp does this bizarre and hilarious dance that had me in a fit of giggles. And the movie is built up of lovingly realized scenes like that. It’s hard to oversell Charlie as a genius, because he really is. His movies are endlessly rewatchable because they just radiate happiness. I know when I get sad, I can easily turn on a Chaplin movie and lay back and watch the magic happen. Smiling all the way.

 

 

 

 

Favorite Movies #94: Kramer vs Kramer (1979)/ Ordinary People (1980)

Part of My Favorite Things: 100+ of my Favorite Movies Ever

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), dir. Robert Benton, starring Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Jane Alexander, Justin Henry

Image result for Joanne Kramer vs Kramer window

Ordinary People (1980), dir. Robert Redford, starring Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch, Timothy Hutton

Image result for Ordinary People scene

The one-two punch of Kramer vs Kramer and Ordinary People winning Best Picture in 1979 and 1980 must have signaled a clarion call for therapists in Hollywood. How best to explain the Academy’s mood then in awarding two piercing family dramas about domestic strife the Best Motion Picture in consecutive years? Sure, each movie touch on a specific part of the American middle class life: Kramer vs Kramer portrays the dissolution of a middle class marriage and the court circus that springs from it, while Ordinary People depicts a middle class family falling apart from the trauma of a son’s death. 1970s American pop culture has certainly built up to these back-to-back wins. Stephen Sondheim debuted Company in 1970–a landmark musical that depicts middle class dissatisfaction. Then there’s movies like An Unmarried Woman, A Woman Under the Influence, The Stepford Wives, and others that show various forms of middle class family malcontent. On top of that, we have movies that grapple with the effects of Vietnam War and the Nixon Watergate scandal that seem to imply a decade of unhappiness with the status quo. To me, both Kramer vs Kramer and Ordinary People are perfect stories about American middle class discontent–easily accessible, asks tough questions, and chock full of savory performances.

If you ever saw the promotional material for Marriage Story, the Netflix sensation that won Laura fucking Dern her Oscar, it deliberately takes its cues from Kramer vs Kramer. As the title implies, the movie builds to a divorce case between Ted and Joanne, who starts the movie by leaving Ted for California. I don’t want to bury the lede, but Joanne is played by Meryl Streep, aka THE actress of my life and the most important part of my cinematic experience. Meryl won her first Oscar for playing Joanne, and right off the bat, she’s excellent. The movie opens to her face, ponderous, exhausted, clearly a lot on her mind. When Ted comes home, he barely notices his wife’s state of mind, a red flag that explains the underlying problem in this marriage. Joanne attempts to leave Ted, even giving instructions for dry cleaning and her American Express. Meryl is amazing here: she slowly builds her confidence to utter her opening line “I’m leaving you,” only to be met with Ted’s shrug. Then with the next line–her voice is stronger, assured and rattling off a list like a mother talking to her truant kid. Starting off a movie with a depressed Meryl, it makes you wonder how on earth will the rest of the movie go? Furthermore, how will the movie ever be balanced if it already emphatically takes a side? After all, Joanne left, and while Ted is aloof, he stayed.

The next hour is spent trying to make Ted change. He learns to be a parent, making French toast with Billy, learning to balance work and raising a kid, and learning to be an overall involved parent. The movie takes pains to show how much Ted has grown since we first met him, so much so that when Joanne comes back, it’s disruptive and a little alarming–Joanne has spent much of the movie as a phantom that hangs over Ted and Billy. The movie treats her return like a menacing threat. I mean check out the photo of Joanne in the window–it makes you think she’s a stalker. And the movie in some ways, places an unfair burden on Joanne for the marriage’s failure, only rescued by Meryl, whose sheer talent overcomes the character’s unfair treatment. Meryl paints Joanne as a tired, unfulfilled wife, who aspired for more outside of her domestic confines, and whose self-worth was at an ultimate low. Her husband, despite being a provider, doesn’t understand this and probably doesn’t care–Ted said so himself. By the time Joanne has returned, it’s a bit disconcerting that even though he now experienced how hard Joanne had it raising Billy, he’s still unsympathetic.

It’s only until the climactic court scene that Ted really shows some compassion for his beleaguered wife. Joanne, in a wonderful monologue about being a mother,  makes clear her struggles with her identity and self-worth while married to Ted. Even the painful bench questions from Ted’s lawyer, unfair as they are, cannot remove the fact that Joanne had every right to parent Billy. Joanne does eventually win custody, but I wish the movie just ran with it instead of making this odd compromise at the end. Nevertheless, the movie does get to me. Watching Dustin struggle to understand his son and the job of a parent made me soft. Seeing Dustin and Meryl spar at a cafe that ends explosively with a glass smashed against the wall is unforgettable. And watching Billy run to see his mother for the first time in a while, not only broke my heart for Ted, but made me nervous. Throughout Ted and Joanne’s journey, I was fully invested in their characters–loving them despite their flaws. Both Dustin and Meryl give great performances, and there were definitely buckets of tears by the end. It’s prodigious filmmaking, televisual, but not unremarkable.

Ordinary People meanwhile starts eerily, like there’s a pall hanging over this family even if it’s not clear what happened. There’s a noticeable frigidity between mother and son, and even somewhat between husband and wife. Whereas Kramer vs Kramer starts off with some shitstirring, Ordinary People starts calmly and builds meticulously. Each of our characters are suffering from the death of a son and brother. Connie, who survived the boating accident that killed his brother, is suffering from survivor’s guilt and has recently returned from the psychiatric hospital after attempting suicide, while his mother Beth is in a constant state of denial, holding it together by being withholding for the sake of appearance. Her husband Calvin is in grief, but tries anyway to connect to Connie and understand Beth. Over the course of the movie, the volatile emotions and inherent tensions of the plot unravel.

With no disrespect to Donald Sutherland, who I think gives an amazing performance as Calvin, but for me, the movie is all about Hutton’s Connie and Moore’s Beth and their fragile relationship. It’s clear that Beth loved her dead son Buck a tad more than she did Connie, and Connie, like every kid in the world who is not the favorite child, can feel this. They circle around each other wearily, guarded and afraid to get hurt, but they can’t help but inflict pain on each other. Beth, in particular, is scary–she deals with her pain by refusing to deal with it at all, choosing instead to cling to normalcy and making everything about that. This of course leads her to shut off emotionally to both Connie and Calvin. Connie is so desperate for love and affection from his mother, and seeing Beth unable to reciprocate is so painful. Across several attempts at talking, Beth turns off, even when she initiates. Consider this painful awkward conversation about a pet they never had. Beth tries to engage Connie, and Connie tries to connect by bringing up Buck, but Beth disengages. Mentioning Buck is a sensitive topic to her and she’s not ready to deal so she evades by talking over Connie. This obviously doesn’t end well. Their relationship climaxes at a Christmas party where an attempt to get Connie and Beth together in a photo results in an angry outburst.

Beth’s inability to love her surviving son fully is painful to watch. I felt for Connie’s desperate attempts at capturing his mother’s affection and felt the sting of rejection too. Most movies try to portray mothers at two poles: either saintly, loving mothers or gorgon women. Ordinary People depicts a mother somewhat in between, crippled by her own shortcomings, unable to love her son. And it also doesn’t escape me that the actress playing Beth, is Mary Tyler Moore–the embodiment of loving suburban wife in The Dick Van Dyke Show and a sweet, bright, headstrong producer in Mary Tyler Moore Show. Moore’s natural joyful persona is flipped on its head to reveal a cold woman, incapable of really letting anyone in to her head and her space. In Moore’s hands, you can feel Beth’s maternal instincts, but the joy of caregiving completely robbed from her. It’s a calculated performance–but beat by beat, Moore excels. On the other side, Tim Hutton’s Connie is perfect–it’s scary how hollowed out Hutton’s Connie is, haunted and desperate, trying hard to reconnect to his old life. How he looks at Beth for any sign of affection is stunning; his discomfort at standing next to his mother for a photo is palpable; and the hurt he feels from his mother pulling away in the photo, it all reads like a novel on his face.

As an Oscar nerd, I love both Kramer vs Kramer and Ordinary People partially because they won Oscars for Hoffman, Streep, and Hutton and they deserved it. Moore and Sutherland certainly deserved the Oscars too. But beyond just answers to a trivia question, both of these movies are sturdy dramas built around familial traumas and how individuals cope with internal pain. I’m no stranger to depression, self-doubt, and identity crises, so seeing these people onscreen struggle to deal with their own weaknesses, it’s humbling.

Favorite Movie #95: Pather Panchali (1955)

Part of My Favorite Things: 100+ of my Favorite Movies Ever

Pather Panchali (1955), dir. Satyajit Ray, starring Subir Banerjee, Kanu Banerjee, Karuna Banerjee, Uma Dasgupta, Chunibala Devi

Image result for pather panchali

For the most part, I’m allergic to kids–never gotten along with them in real life and don’t always enjoy watching them onscreen. Instead of playing with kids, I fight with them: I made my nephew cry because I refused to stay dead (I was a zombie) and said he’ll never win because I never die. On movie screens, as much as I enjoy The 400 Blows, a big big part of me wants to smack Antoine across the face.  L’Enfance Nue has an even more exhausting child. But when I saw Pather Panchali, it was a quiet revelation. Against all my instincts, there’s something lovable, endearing, and innocent about Apu that translates onscreen the way Antoine or Francois doesn’t. Sure, like any other kid, Apu can be disobedient and tiresome–his mother’s face is the dictionary definition of weary. But this movie is uniquely its own thing. It conjures precious memories of my childhood summers spent in the province of Bohol.

Every summer, since I was 3, I remember spending time in Bohol with our household helpers when they go on vacation. I remember taking a ship that leaves from Manila Bay, docks in Cebu before heading to Tagbilaran. From there, we would take a jeepney to Panglao, a small town that is now a popular tourist site. Back in the 1990s, it was barely electrified. Life there was simple. There weren’t asphalt grounds, no cement houses–everyone lived in nipa huts. Yet it was still full of simple joys. I remember watching a kid climb a coconut tree that must have been 25 or 30 feet tall with his bare hands; I remember playing with kids on the beach and stepping on one of those spiky sea urchin that hurt like hell; I remember having to take a flashlight to go use the outside toilet. I remember sleeping under a mosquito net with someone fanning me. It was a simple and romantic time.

Pather Panchali opens to its famous sitar-based score by Ravi Shankar, known to many as the guy who popularized sitar music in the 60s and 70s, but to me he’s famous for being Norah Jones’ father. It’s an innocent tune that opens one of cinema’s greatest movies made by one of its most important figures–Satyajit Ray. The movie is as far as it gets from the Hollywood glamour and cardboard cutout sets. It’s even further away than the Italian realist cinema of Vittorio de Sica and Roberto Rossellini. It’s set in the developing world of India, in the rural areas of Bengal, made just a decade after India’s independence. The fact that it got made is already a feat of tremendous effort. Satyajit Ray was never a trained director and learned by watching films. He spent years trying to make this movie. That this is his debut feature is astonishing.

But even without knowing all that backdrop, the movie is something to behold. Apu is the son of a priest who lives off of his meager salary while dreaming of being a playwright. His elderly cousin Indir (a fabulous face made for cinema) lives with Apu’s family being a constant pain in the ass to Sarbajaya, Apu’s mom. Apu has an older sister Durga, who cares for him affectionately. The movie revolves around Apu, but it’s filled with vivid characters, such as the elderly Indir, who reminds me of elderly women in the provinces of the Philippines who have long overstayed their welcome. Apu’s mother is a preoccupied and busy lady who frequently spars with Indir, like a daughter-in-law tired of her meddlesome husband’s mother.  The camera observes this family with such tenderness as they weather the seasons of their life. Throughout the movie, we encounter simple joys such as witnessing a train roll by or a visiting play, and also terrible sadness, care of bitter poverty and death.

One of the awards that Pather Panchali won is “Best Human Document” from Cannes, something quite condescending of course coming from a Western institution. But if I took that award literally, Pather Panchali certainly deserves it. Scene after scene is brimming with pleasure. The set is littered with cats, surrounded by overgrown grass or trees, and a stone house that’s somewhat falling apart. There’s always kids in and out of the house, sharing simple joys like making a meal together, or chewing on a sugarcane. I love, LOVE seeing people eat–and it’s something you see often in the movie. You can feel the life in the movie and the humility of people who live in it. It’s also a gorgeous movie–full of very expressive shots of the house and setting and the people who live in it. Whether sun-dappled, or indoors with minimal lighting, Ray and his cinematographer Subrata Mitra come up with some of the most gorgeous still frames I’ve seen. This is what I love about the movie–there’s nothing condescending about it–it’s just simple observation. People living full lives even amidst the daily struggles that greet them. Having seen that life myself, what Pather Panchali captures on film is remarkably accurate.

Pather Panchali is a world treasure–one that needs to be seen by everyone. It’s not cuddly like your average family film, and it knows how to really break your heart. To this day, I’m still haunted by Indir’s very sad song that serves to comfort her. It’s testament to Satyajit Ray’s prodigious talent that a movie about daily life in rural India can bring such tremendous joy with its humble style and unassuming characters. I guess it makes sense that this movie endears itself to me–I saw my little self as Apu running around and playing with kids in Bohol, or teasing my sister and rummaging through her stuff. It’s a delicate and simple movie, but like a distant memory, it’s beautiful and warm.