Episode 222: The Adventures of Tintin

This week’s episode takes us trotting around the globe, from the stormy seas to the sky to the desert, with a young journalist and his dog. It’s an animated treasure hunting adventure for the whole family and we discuss whether a teenage protagonist makes for as compelling of a story as an adult explorer, why characters chasing their legacies is so interesting, and more.

The Adventures of Tintin – 0:01:56

The Connecting Point – 0:54:58

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A Criterion Adventure (2019)


SETTING THE STAGE


For film enthusiasts everywhere, especially those, myself included, who live for the underappreciated masters and the nooks and crannies of cinema history, November 29, 2018 was a dark day, the day FilmStruck died. FilmStruck had been the all-too-short-lived streaming home for the revered Criterion Collection and their streaming partners, notably Janus Films. FilmStruck had also recently partnered with Turner Classic Movies (TCM) to provide access to an abundance of classic American cinema. Altogether, in addition to offering a large selection of films released on the Criterion label, the service had also provided its subscriber base with a wealth of ever-shifting selections, both foreign and domestic, from across the many decades of film history.

FilmStruck ad post-TCM partnership

After having experienced the Criterion Collection in past years as merely happenstance as I explored various acclaimed films that happened to be on their discs, 2018 marked a shift of intentionality as I purposely began seeking out films associated with the label, especially once I finally made the decision to dive into FilmStruck. Fortunately, I’m a huge proponent of physical media, especially Blu-ray, and so that already represented the majority of my watching, but I quickly discovered many titles on the channel didn’t have Blu-ray releases. Nevertheless, come January 1, the start of my 2019 adventure with the label, discs were now pretty much my only source when it came to anything Criterion-related. That’s not to say I didn’t stop making astonishing, thrilling, and awe-inspiring discoveries on disc. In fact, the majority of my top 10 Criterion-related discoveries in 2019 were from discs in the Collection. But there’s a lot to be said for the convenience and depth of streaming.

Fortunately, the darkness and despair was short lived, as soon after FlimStruck closed, it came to light that Criterion itself would be providing a streaming service. Finally, after much anticipation, on April 8, the Criterion Channel launched, and I began to discover just how deep the rabbit hole would go. The channel’s extensive partnerships would enable them to provide an even more diverse array of films than FilmStruck had. Right off the bat, I experienced one of the new channel’s most ingenious means of helping its viewers to discover films we may never have otherwise seen. Curated collections. 

columbia noir
Criterion Channel home page on launch day

Day one, the first major collection was right there on top of the screen, Columbia Noir. If this was the launching point, a whole group of compelling Columbia Studios films, the vast majority of which had no Criterion ownership, along with a whole host of other films, in and out of the Collection, I knew I was in good hands.  So now, with a full arsenal of available Criterion Collection Blu-ray releases and Criterion Channel possibilities I was ready to dive into all sorts of new territory. By the end of 2019, I had experienced 134 of them for the very first time with representation from every decade from the 1920s through the 2010s. 

Here’s the full list of Criterion-related titles I watched in chronological order by release date.

 


CRITERION COLLECTIONS


I wish I could tell you about all the great films I watched throughout 2019, but instead I’ll have to stick to the highlights. Without going into detail, I am particularly happy with 3 box sets I began and will finish in 2020, not a bad film in the bunch and two genuine masterpieces–The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Playtime. Those sets features the talents of filmmakers Jacques Demy, Jacques Tati, and the collaborations of Marlene Dietrich and her frequent director Josef Von Sternberg. Along the same lines, many of my channel experiences came via the aforementioned curated collections, which focus on either a specific filmmaker, actor, creative theme or a combination of those. The one and only collection I completed beginning to end, though not for lack of trying, was Pre-Code Barbara Stanwyck, in which she played a wide variety of characters, from a long-suffering mother to promiscuous lover to faith healer to a mail order bride fighting for the love of her husband. That last character is found in The Purchase Price, one of the least appreciated films in the collection that was in fact my favorite of the group. 

Rosalind Russell & John Boles in Craig’s Wife (1936), dir. Dorothy Arzner

There was plenty I enjoyed from the other collections I partook from, whether I saw many as in the launch day Columbia Noir collection or merely a couple as in the Fred and Ginger grouping that featured who else but Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, a pair that can’t help but put a smile on your face with their chemistry, dancing talent, and synchronicity. The noir set gave me the opportunity to finally discover Fritz Lang’s genre masterpiece The Big Heat as well as his also outstanding, though underrated Human Desire. I was additionally grateful for the opportunity to explore the contributions of women in early cinema through a trio of Dorothy Arzner films, one of the pioneering women directors, headlined by Craig’s Wife, as well as a pair of George Cukor films that put a spotlight on his complex, unforgettable heroines. Both The Women, which features the unique casting of 130 female speaking parts and not one male on camera, and A Woman’s Face made for rich and heartfelt viewing.

My other big push came at the very end of the year as I simultaneously gobbled down soon-to-be-expired entries from the Val Lewton and MGM Musicals collections wherein I found some fun, some thrills, and three new favorites, from an ultra dark classic horror mystery featuring Satan worshipers and suicide, to emotional romantic drama in musical form provided by the likes of Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, to a film of pure joy, silliness, and dreams of romance with the sunny Debbie Reynolds being pursued by the awkwardly charming Donald O’Connor. Those films are The 7th Victim, For Me and My Gal, and I Love Melvin, in that order.

Yasujirō Ozu

About mid-year, after having seeing there were a massive number of Yasujirō Ozu films on the channel, a master director I had discovered the previous year and whose work intrigued me, I was inspired to try something truly ambitious, my biggest film-watching project to date. I would begin a chronological deep dive through every Ozu film I could access. By year’s end, I had journeyed through his first 10 films, though a couple only exist in part. It’s been an immensely rewarding experience watching them in order to see the growth of his film-making skills, the types of stories he tells, and to see his style progress over time. In the few short years these first films have covered, I’ve been able to pick up on subtle shifts in direction such as his heavily Hollywood influenced beginnings to him starting to develop his own distinct style. My favorite of these early years, Tokyo Chorus, is a deeply emotional family drama where a man loses his job trying to stand up for a coworker, which throws his family into hardship. Those who look ahead know emotional family drama would become a mainstay in Ozu’s work.

 


TOP 10 CRITERION DISCOVERIES


Now we come to the main event, the best of the best, where I highlight my top 10 Criterion-related discoveries of 2019, plus an honorable mention. These were the films that grabbed the whole of my heart, mind, and spirit, showcasing complete package film making, from script to cinematography to acting to direction to music.

Note, these titles were extracted from my overall list of my top 20 first-time watches during 2019.


Honorable Mention:
La Jetée

Year: 1962
Director: Chris Marker
Genre: Short, Drama, Romance
Cast: Jean Négroni, Hélène Chatelain, Davos Hanich, Jacques Ledoux, André Heinrich, Jacques Branchu, Pierre Joffroy, Étienne Becker, Philbert von Lifchitz, Ligia Branice

A 28-minute genius work of art. The time travel plot, as mind bending as it is, is simply window dressing to the meditation on love, memory, and the attempt to attain the unattainable or regain what is forever lost that lies beneath. Rarely has so much been accomplished with so little. Through [almost] nothing but a set of still pictures and narration, Marker sets our imaginations alight, and we ourselves become captivated with this entrancing woman once frozen in a snapshot of memory.

Upon the prisoner’s re-entering the past, the juxtaposition of music and image creates a transportive experience that makes you want nothing but to rest in those peacetime moments indefinitely all the while knowing the apocalypse is just around the corner. Likewise when the time-traveling prisoner and the woman he was seeking are together. There is so much life in the still images that you can almost sense them moving but in the way that life moves when you’re sitting quietly with someone you adore simply adoring their presence, and time just fades away. And then comes a look. Just briefly, but one that you will never forget. But these moments are fleeting, and time in fact does go on and that moment is forever gone.

 


#10 – Arsenic and Old Lace

Year: 1944
Director: Frank Capra
Genre: Comedy, Crime, Thriller
Cast: Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Raymond Massey, Jack Carson, Edward Everett Horton Peter Lorre, James Gleason, Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, John Alexander, Grant Mitchell

Who knew a movie featuring serial killer sisters that’s directed by the guy who made such moving slices of melodrama like It’s A Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington could be so freaking funny? Cary Grant kills it as the just-married and utterly flummoxed Mortimer Brewster who is simply trying to get ready for his honeymoon at his family home when he stumbles across a corpse upon which his aunts happily reveal to him that they’ve been killing lonely bachelors as a service to them. As if this wasn’t wild enough, Mortimer’s brother Teddy thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt, and his other brother, Jonathan is himself a murderer on the run with his own dark intentions. But murder turns to farce as the comedy of errors and miscommunication pile up. The plot is beautifully orchestrated, but the sheer incredulity alone that Grant hilariously shows at the ever increasing madness around him is alone worth the price of admission.

 


#9 – Solaris

Year: 1972
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Genre: Drama, Mystery, Sci-fi
Cast: Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk, Jüri Järvet, Anatoliy Solonitsyn, Nikolay Grinko, Vladislav Dvorzhetsky, Georgiy Teykh, Sos Sargsyan, Olga Barnet

Even more than the main character Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) and despite her not showing up for some time, Solaris thrives on Natalya Bondarchuk’s magnetic portrayal of Hari, Kelvin’s long-dead wife who has suddenly appeared again… and again… and again. Kelvin himself represents a relatable everyman, and it is through him we are transported from what remained of his life and relationships on Earth into a surreal, contemplative, and ever more disturbing experience on a nearly empty space station in growing disarray. The station is hovering over an alien ocean world full of fog and mystery. Through Kelvin, our attention is ever drawn to Hari, and it is the intimacy her present manifestation shares with him, an intimacy defined by their past relationship, through which Tarkovsky provides the core of his exploration into what it means to be human.

Clearly, human individuals are unique in a way that other creatures are not, a distinct nature that even a carbon copy cannot emulate, try as they might. Another side of our humanity is our attachment to one another, none more so than in that unifying relationship of marriage, where two become one flesh. The longing that comes from the loss of that relationship can be so intense that perhaps one would consider a carbon copy substitute, even knowing it’s not the same person?

 


#8 – The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

Year: 1943
Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Genre: Drama, Romance, War
Cast: Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr, Adolf Wohlbrück, Roland Culver, James McKechnie, Arthur Wontner, David Hutcheson, Ursula Jeans, John Laurie, Harry Welchman, Robert Harris

An epic rivaling the indomitable Lawrence of Arabia that gives flesh and meaning to what had seemed a mere caricature of a man. The viewer is faced with such human complexity in this study of the fictitious General Clive Candy (Roger Livesey) that he is himself forced to contemplate the whole of his own past, how it has affected his present, and what the impact will be on his future and the future of those who will come after him.

The depth and weight Powell and Pressburger were able to instill into the film is even more profound when one considers it having been made in wartime, when the fate of the world was yet unknown. They also demonstrate an attempt to understand the nature of that present war and how it came to be that all of Britain (and the world) was fighting for its very existence against the disastrous threat of Nazism. The acting is chock full of so many delightful subtleties and the dialogue is incredibly well written, detailed with emotion and color and memory. I also must give special attention to Deborah Kerr’s extraordinary multi-role performance, no doubt helped by the costuming and makeup talent.

 


#7 – The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Year: 1964
Director: Jacques Demy
Genre: Drama, Musical, Romance
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, Anne Vernon, Mireille Perrey, Marc Michel, Ellen Farner, Jean Champion, Pierre Caden, Jean-Pierre Dorat, Bernard Fradet, Michel Benoist

Jacques Demy is a master manipulator of the heartstrings and intimately familiar with the intense passions and longing that come with young love. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg left me with bittersweet tears and a tight ball of conflicted emotions as sadness and joy fought against one another within my soul. But it’s not only emotions Demy demonstrates artistry over. The frame throughout explodes with bright, bold colors and he collaborates with composer Michel Legrand to provide a soul-stirring musical score with powerful songs. Though this is no Hollywood musical as every word of dialogue is sung, often in a subdued, melancholy manner due to the ever-present conflict even amidst joy, which plays in subtle ways against the colorful backdrops.

While Catherine Deneuve’s character Geneviève takes center stage through much of the film, every romantic relationship and desire, whether given short or significant attention, is fueled with earnest intention and truthfulness. There is absolutely nothing casual about any of the romance. But speaking of Deneuve, the pained longing and desperation expressed in her face and eyes broke me. Through her and Guy’s (Nino Castelnuovo) forced separation, we are made to feel the misery of the not knowing and the consequences of the impossible choices that life and our own actions force us to make when we’re desperate not to have to make them.

 


#6 – Wild Strawberries

Year: 1957
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Genre: Drama, Romance
Cast: Victor Sjöström, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Gunnar Björnstrand, Jullan Kindahl, Gunnar Sjöberg, Max von Sydow, Åke Fridell, Ann-Marie Wiman, Gunnel Broström

A deeply introspective tone makes Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries immensely relatable, despite the often surreal quality of the film and the vast age difference between 78-year old doctor and widower Isak Borg and the average viewer, especially when we discover he and his much younger estranged son Evald suffer from a similar darkness of the soul that has brought each to their own crisis point. Victor Sjöström plays Isak with such sensitivity that he makes us care about his inner turmoil all the while he’s showing himself to have become an insensitive and grumpy old man to those he should be closest to.

The film opens with a surreal nightmare, which sets Isak face to face with the immediacy of his mortality with vivid symbolism. This begins a literal and figurative journey, the former a shared road trip with his pregnant daughter-in-law battling her own demons and with those they pick up along the way, including a girl named Sara, played by Bibi Andersson, who reminds him of the Sara he thought he would marry as a young man (also played by Bibi Andersson). These encounters on his literal journey propel Isak into a deep inner journey of sentiment, regret, and hope that serves to change how he sees himself and the world around him.

 


#5 – The Big Heat

Year: 1953
Director: Fritz Lang
Genre: Crime, Film-Noir, Thriller
Cast: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Jocelyn Brando, Alexander Scourby, Lee Marvin, Jeanette Nolan, Peter Whitney, Willis Bouchey, Robert Burton, Adam Williams, Carolyn Jones

Never has so much tension been wrought out of a boiling pot of coffee and rarely does a final line land with such foreboding potency. WIth a screenplay written by actual former crime reporter Sydney Boehm, Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat unleashed upon the world one of the most brutal film noirs of the classic era. With no holds barred, Lang unhesitatingly reveals the world as a place that feels cold, hopeless, vicious, and full of infidelity. It’s a world populated by the mafia, dirty cops, and promiscuous women, and by making it clear that no one is safe, good or bad alike or anywhere in between, Lang establishes an environment loaded with tension, both for physical danger as well as moral compromise.

Glenn Ford is ideally cast as the good guy homicide detective Sergeant Bannion who starts out a positive well-intentioned family man but soon finds himself caught up in mob brutality while trying to solve a case. In his anger and frustration, the cracks in his good-guy persona quickly develop and he starts to look and more like the criminals he’s pursuing. Gloria Grahame is also outstanding as Debby Marsh, girlfriend to Vince Stone, second-in-command to the local mob boss. Despite the company she keeps, she demonstrates an awareness and intelligence and an appreciation of moral uprightness in Bannion when he stands up to a nightclub singer who Vince abuses. It seems to be the spark she needs to seek a way out of the only lifestyle she’s known. So while one character is on the descent, the other is rising up.

 


#4 – The Elephant Man

Year: 1980
Director: David Lynch
Genre: Biography, Drama
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Freddie Jones, Michael Elphick, Hannah Gordon, Helen Ryan, John Standing, Dexter Fletcher

Carrying on the torch of early 20th century filmmakers like Tod Browning (Freaks) who want to inspire us to care for those society has rejected and abused, David Lynch’s The Elephant Man eschews the distortion of surrealism for the distortion of humanity and a trumpets a desperate call for empathy and kindness. Lynch’s most important choice is to unmask John Merrick (the eponymous character’s real name) early on. The more he shows us John’s (John Hurt) intelligence, faith, ability to create and appreciate beauty, and his longing for human connection, the more monstrous those who would be cruel and take advantage of him appear. By the point he’s crying out that he’s a human being, not an animal, he’s the only one present who isn’t acting like one.

Hurt’s performance is one for the ages, both in physically presenting himself as this horribly disfigured man as well as from the soul that pours out of his eyes. Anthony Hopkins is likewise terrific as Dr. Treves. We sense his deep compassion for John and yet he’s hardly perfect as he comes to realize about himself. Despite his good intentions, he realizes he and his hospital staff are treating John with the same lack of humanity as John had endured in the circus. I loved seeing the pure care and affection that Mrs. Kendal (Anne Bancroft) had for John. She is wholly unaffected by his outward appearance, seeing straight into the soulful kindness and goodness of the man’s heart. And she’s proud to show him honor in public as well. What an inspiration!

 


#3 – Autumn Sonata

Year: 1978
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Genre: Drama, Music
Cast: Ingrid Bergman, Liv Ullmann, Lena Nyman, Halvar Björk, Marianne Aminoff, Arne Bang-Hansen, Gunnar Björnstrand, Erland Josephson, Linn Ullmann

After several previous attempts to fully appreciate the morally, philosophically, and artistically dense films of Ingmar Bergman, this one was the key to finally unlocking my ability to love one of them. I adore movies that make me feel, and let’s just say that if you ever wanted to know what the emotional equivalent of going 12 rounds with a prize fighter would be, my suggestion would be to watch the pulse-pounding bout herein between Bergman regular, Liv Ullmann and the incomparable Ingrid Bergman, who play a daughter and her estranged mother respectively. That daughter, named Eva, is the troubled wife of the village pastor, and her mother Charlotte is a highly accomplished and well-traveled pianist. Both have to face the disappointment and frustration that has come with choices that were long ago made, especially those due to Charlotte’s career pursuits.

If we’re honest, emotional baggage is always going to be a factor between mothers and their daughters. Ingmar takes advantage of this reality by heaping insult onto injury and creating deeply complex individuals whose fully fleshed out characters and rich histories bear scars that run incredibly deep. Reconciliation is the unstated desire, but as long-held secrets, selfish desires, and bottled up trauma are dredged up even the possibility of achieving that reconciliation is going to unleash all kinds of misery, frustration, rage, and despair. For 90 minutes, Ingrid and Liv are this mother daughter pair. With exacting performances that never once cross the line into overacting, they are taken to the limit as emotion pours out of each of them in a mesmerizing, soul-crushing plea for understanding and appreciation. By the end, the viewer feels as exhausted as the couple on the screen.

 


#2 – Barry Lyndon

Year: 1975
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Genre: Adventure, Drama, History
Cast: Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee, Hardy Krüger, Diana Körner, Gay Hamilton, Frank Middlemass, Arthur O’Sullivan, Godfrey Quigley, Leonard Rossiter, Philip Stone

It amazes me how Kubrick could seemingly take any genre and make a masterpiece out of it. This is his take on a 1700s period film. The sumptuous beauty of the cinematography presents an experience akin to a relaxing stroll through a gallery of richly detailed paintings, complete with narration and a gorgeous classical music compositions, except in the rare moment when the calm is unceremoniously broken and even the camera is set loose in the ensuing chaos. In contrast to the beauty of the camerawork is the only sometimes sympathetic man at its center, Redmond Barry, played to subtle perfection by Ryan O’Neal.

Barry is repeatedly given opportunities to put his past bad choices behind him and start anew, often in even better shape than he was before, but he keeps failing to overcome the lusts that drive him leading him to spurn those opportunities. He finds pleasures for a time, but those pleasures, those choices to act evilly towards not only strangers but eventually even his own wife and stepchild come at a severe cost. The defining duel of the film is masterfully filmed with immaculate detail and taking what had been a mostly relaxing viewing up to that point and ever so slowly infusing ounce upon ounce of suspense, creating intense discomfort for the characters on screen and the viewer alike.

 


And my #1 favorite Criterion discovery of 2019 is…

 

Bicycle Thieves

Year: 1948
Director: Vittorio De Sica
Genre: Drama
Cast: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell, Gino Saltamerenda, Vittorio Antonucci, Giulio Chiari, Elena Altieri, Carlo Jachino, Michele Sakara, Fausto Guerzoni

Such a simple premise–a man’s search for his stolen bicycle through the streets of post World War II Rome, an ancient, endlessly fascinating city of contrasts. Shot on location (no sets) with only untrained actors (though you’d never know it), this prime example of Italian neorealist cinema blurs the line between fly-on-the-wall documentary and fictional narrative. Director Vittorio De Sica demonstrates how such an event that would seem a mere inconvenience to many feels like a life and death predicament to the impoverished Antonio Ricci and his family. Through Antonio’s desperate urgency, he being played by the remarkable Lamberto Maggiorani, a factory worker by trade, we understand that failure is not an option. He must recover his bike, or he won’t be able to work, and his family will starve. Along for the search comes his son Bruno played by Enzo Staiola, equally photogenic and adept at showing a range of emotion as he watches his father’s growing desperation.

De Sica expertly fuels our empathy for the Riccis right away as the film opens with a bit of tragic irony. Antonio, desperate for work is informed there’s a job available for him. The catch, he must have a bicycle. The irony is he had one and had to pawn it to put food on the table. His wife Maria (Lianella Carell) takes charge and decides they can live without their bedsheets and pawns them–because there’s nothing else of significance left to pawn–to get Antonio his bicycle back. With such a precious possession back in hand, we are in suspense every moment the bicycle is not under Antonio’s watchful eye. Later, at times as the needle-in-a-haystack search continues, we are further enlightened to Antonio’s miserable condition as he is surrounded by hordes of bicycles, the very thing he needs, but not one is his. We also see how Antonio’s desperate condition and the decisions it leads him to make affect young Bruno.


Jacob Neff is a film enthusiast living east of Sacramento. In addition to his contributions as an admin of the Feelin’ Film Facebook group and website, he is an active participant in the Letterboxd community, where his film reviews can be found. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to keep up with his latest thoughts and shared content.

MOVIE REVIEW: The Turning

Rating: PG-13 / Running Time: 1 hour and 34 minutes

“The Turning” is a film that leaves much to the imagination in its confusing and jumbled mess of a horror adaptation. Based on the novel “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James, we follow a woman named Kate (Mackenzie Davis) who gets a job watching over a couple of children who lost their parents to a tragic car accident. As she becomes comfortable with her new live-in arrangements, she starts to notice something is off with these two kids and the gigantic mansion they reside in. Strange noises, frightening nightmares, and visions of a ghastly looking ghost put her mind and body into panic mode. Once she hears stories of the mysterious deaths that have befallen previous employers of the estate, she immediately fears that her life is in grave danger and that these kids are not so innocent after all.

Brooklynn Prince is such a gem in this film with her boundless energy and cute sassiness she brings to her character. She is turning into a young prodigy to watch over the next five to ten years. Finn Wolfhard displays the angst and darkness that subsides underneath the exterior weird vibe of this haunted setting. He and Prince represent the only shining hallmarks of the film. The character of Kate suffers from a lack of layers that would have helped the audience connect to her intense plight. There is nothing to really point out who she is as a character except that her dad died and her mother currently stays in a mental institution; none of this backstory allows an insight into her wants, needs, or desires which makes her story all the more unfulfilling. Ultimately, the cast is talented but gets the short end of the stick due to an abomination of a screenplay setting the blueprint.

If a story is structured well, it starts the viewer off with a general premise that is easy to follow while traveling through a series of events that will be capped off with a climax. This film decides to do it the hard way and produce a narrative that lacks consistency and relies cheap scare tactics and a confusing ending. Just when I thought I was seeing another generic haunted house film, the last 20 minutes stray far away from the original premise and result in a non-ending without resolution. We don’t get answers to questions such as: Are the kids operating under the control of spirits, is the main character going crazy, or is another entity responsible for the prevalence of terror surrounding the property? It is like a person starts to drink a glass of water that tastes like water until the last couple of gulps start to taste like vodka. A poor attempt at an ambiguous ending plays off like the writers of the film had written themselves into a corner and could not find the way out. This adaption of the novel got ahead of itself trying to put on a modern twist while lacking an ambitious vision. There is no jolt of excitement present in the moments that are supposed to live up to the horror name, every “scary” scene is nothing more than ghosts appearing out of nowhere or characters responding to strange noises all around the house. The film’s direction and editing are a step below average, as well, characterized by stuck in the mud pacing and no style to separate itself from any other run of the mill “haunting” film.

I caught the vibe of “The Conjuring” when the trailer of this film debuted and sure enough, I spotted out the familiar played-out tropes those films have used ad nauseam. No good times are to be had with this film and now it finds itself fading into the populated graveyard of mediocre January films. “The Turning” doesn’t know what it wants to accomplish as a horror experience and then expects the audience to put all the pieces together.


Caless Davis is a Seattle-based film critic and contributor to the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He loves any discussion of film and meeting new people to engage in film discussions on any subject. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

MOVIE REVIEW: Underwater

Underwater, no one can hear you scream!
(unless of course they have a mic in their dive suit helmet and you do too, and then you can definitely hear them scream but I digress)

 

It’s easier to just get the comparisons out of the way right off the bat. The hot take will be that “Underwater” is “Alien” at the bottom of the ocean. And, of course, there’s some truth to that, or people wouldn’t be saying it. Sure, “Underwater” follows a female primary protagonist, who is part of a crew trying to stay alive amidst the presence of mythical deadly creatures, but much of the film plays out a lot more straightforward than you might expect, instead resembling a traditional natural disaster escape movie.

Narratively, “Underwater” isn’t too deep (heh), and that’s perfectly alright. Director William Eubank makes a great choice utilizing the credits sequence to provide background information that normally would be delivered via boring, pace-slowing exposition. Instead, a collection of newspaper articles, scientific papers, and memos flashing behind the credits tell us that our setting is a drill site in the Mariana Trench, where the deepest drilling in history is taking place, and that reports of mysterious shadowy creatures have been made. Once inside Kepler Station, we meet Norah (Kristen Stewart), reflecting on the isolation and timelessness of life in the deep while brushing her teeth. Within minutes, though, a breach of the station hull occurs due to an earthquake and what follows is a 90-minute rush to rescue, survive, and escape. Along the way, Norah, a mechanical engineer, teams up with fellow survivors. They include a wise-cracking, Alice in Wonderland obsessed goof played by T.J. Miller (who surprisingly has a few jokes actually land), their calm and collected Captain (Vincent Cassell) of the station, and a few others. The Captain proposes a dangerous plan where they will don their deep-sea suits, descend, and then traverse the nearly 7-mile deep ocean floor to reach another station that still has working escape pods. They all know it’s insane, but they have no choice. What follows is a suspenseful group effort to stay alive; some do, some don’t. At times it definitely gets ridiculous and some of the more chaotic action is nearly incoherent in the dark watery setting, but mostly it’s a hell of a lot of fun, with the dialogue kept at a minimum and the propulsive intensity dialed up high throughout. Stewart is a capable lead and her considerable talent is on display, even when not really necessary. She carries an emotional weight for the crew that elevated the film for me, and she is also a part of the film’s most memorable monster moment.

The concept of “Underwater” certainly could have been presented in a longer, smarter, and more dramatically heavy film – one that isn’t so predictable, doesn’t play fast and loose with science, and gives a more thorough explanation about the creatures encountered. But that’s not this movie, and as I said in the beginning, that’s okay. What “Underwater” does is deliver a fast-paced, claustrophobic, action-thriller (backed by an excellent Marco Beltrami/Brandon Roberts score) that works perfectly fine without sea monster aliens even introduced, but that takes joy in leaning into its creature feature third act. It’s wild and at times silly, but I had a great time watching it and would gladly sit through it again when it releases on home video. Not every movie needs to have depth (heh again) to be entertaining, even if its title makes you think otherwise.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: The Grudge

It has been said that the month of January is a dumping ground for studios to unload projects that spark the least potential to be a success. As much as it pains me to say, this claim has been verified with the release of Nicolas Pesce’s “The Grudge”, a horror film that tries to juggle so many characters and superficial subplots that it drops the ball on every level. There is no time to connect with any of the characters who find their life altered by a vengeful ghost known only as “The Grudge”, an evil spirit that stalks anyone unlucky enough to inhibit the space that it calls home sweet home. Suspense and tension should cover every nook and cranny of this narrative, but they’ve been replaced by unimaginative and overused horror tropes. Dullness is the rhythm that carries this horrid horror remake to a land of no distinguishing qualities.

The film uses a non-linear story structure to try and separate itself and the results are less than inspiring. The different storylines are misconstructed into a mess of exposition dumping and paper-thin characters. Our main protagonist is used as a plot device to force the audience into badly edited flashbacks that feel out of place to the overarching narrative. Her role as a police officer gains her access to different files of Grudge victims from past events that all took place in the same haunted house. At times, you think you are following one set of characters and then you are jarred backward to experiencing a different set out of nowhere. Confusion peaks when you are shown the climax of a subplot only to then travel to the beginning of it, erasing the opportunity for authentic stakes. It’s hard to feel connected to the outcome of this film given that none of the characters are written to be anything more than easy fodder for the main villain; there is no personality, charm, or emotional guts to make the serious moments more than forgettable. Consider the biggest crime of this film to be undercutting the supreme talents of a pair of talented actors such as John Cho and William Sandler. This screenplay dealt them poison in the amount of cringe dialogue and farce use of depressing storylines which would ruin any actor’s chance of making their performances work. To make things worse, the final act is essentially a rush job in trying to wrap up all the tangled web of storylines before the audience makes it to the finish line. It felt like the writers submitted the screenplay as the first draft with no revisions or corrections to the flow of different set pieces.

Horror and suspense was manufactured straight from the bargain bin section of the generic store. There is an abundance of poor jump cuts, odd implementation of sound effects, lackluster visual effects, and weak lighting in dark scenes. Some scenes suffer from having human faces drenched in too much darkness; terror scenes didn’t have a stressful effect because there was no way to see the characters or the monster moving around in the environment. There was a weird instance of people popping in and out of the frame, masquerading as a scary surprise. It’s just very easy to see coming and no creative juice is present. I have seen all of the terror tricks this film tries to make unique and it all turns out so bland and tepid to watch. The musical accompaniment to these scenes comes off too hard as a Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross knock-off with badly composed use of pounding drums and broken electronic notes.

“The Grudge” is the kind of experience that will drain the life-force out of the average viewer. It has no crowd-pleasing moments and treats the audience as a child who needs their handheld to navigate what should have been a simple horror film. This is one of the few films I have witnessed in the last few years that does nothing well and is an embarrassment to not just horror but any cinematic genre. 2020 has started off its year by providing me a top candidate for one of the worst films of the year.


Caless Davis is a Seattle-based film critic and contributor to the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He loves any discussion of film and meeting new people to engage in film discussions on any subject. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

MOVIE REVIEW: Uncut Gems

The experience of your physical and mental senses being run through the gauntlet of a pressure cooker has never been more fully realized. Your heartbeat thumps with each new anxiety-filled sequence that won’t resolve itself, and an escalation of stakes conjures sweat to trickle from the surface of your forehead. Even in the quietest of moments, there is a sense that the viewer and the main protagonist will never find themselves out of the massive black hole that has swallowed them whole. The Safdie Bros “Uncut Gems” is a cinematic experience that demands full attention with its cascading thrills, visual/auditory richness, and Adam Sandler’s tour de force performance.

Set in the year 2012, Howard Ratner (Sandler) is a jeweler stationed in New York City who enjoys an impressive clientele that features a who’s who of musicians and athletes desiring custom pieces that stand out. Ratner receives the delivery that he has been salivating over for months, a rock filled with colorful gems straight from the country of Ethiopia. Ratner hopes to score a big windfall of cash from this prized possession in the form of an auction listing, while also getting serious loan sharks and bookies off his neck over uncovered debts. The plan does not go well due to unfortunate circumstances brought on by mishandled gambling decisions and the chaos of Ratner’s personal life unfolding behind the scenes, sending him traveling down a slippery slope of heightened drama and personal turmoil that can prove undo his quest for a high heaven payday.

Adding to the massive characterization of this New York City thriller is Daniel Lopatin’s chilling score, featuring a mixture of 80’s inspired synthesizers, monk chanting, jazz-influenced instrumentation, and pounding drums. The musical accompaniment is important to creating an atmospheric high on par with the thrilling events provided by the story. This is one of the best examples of the year in how a score can serve as a mirror to the emotional texture a film wants to supply the audience. There is an immersion element present in the sound design that is chock full of details and pays emotional dividends. One great example is a sequence that takes place in a club where the insurmountable boom of early 2010’s rap and R&B surround the auditory landscape, filling viewers with an  actual rendering of the chaos present on the screen

Sandler proves once again that he is not just useful in the comedic arena but can also encapsulate larger than life characters. He became Howard Ratner down to the accent, personality, walk, and contradictions. It is fascinating to watch him lose himself and take over the DNA of the film with a performance that is equal parts compelling, entertaining, and award-worthy. Lakeith Stanfield is wonderful in his supporting role and continues to travel upward to respectability in the cinema world. Basketball enthusiasts will be ecstatic to see Kevin Garnett have a major role in how this film unfolds, too. He is such a loveable cult of personality, playing himself, which is far from a fault but icing on the cake.

The Safdie Brothers feel right in their element with another adrenaline-filled ride that follows their previous breakthrough “Good Time”. This effort strikes white-hot with the handling of tension and offers a great exploration of morality in the dangerous world of high stakes gambling. The intense direction sparks growing suspense and dread that never leaves. Quick cuts, push in close-ups, and panning shots are employed with a showmanship style that captivates. It can be very hard for most films to keep up high energy because there is a risk of driving off the tracks and losing a sense of newness present in the tone. The Safdie Brothers have incredible talent displaying prominent control which keeps the audience hooked into what will be coming around the corner. This all leads to a shocking conclusion that will not leave my mind even with the advent of a new decade. Let’s just say that viewers will get their money’s worth, but it may not be in the manner of what they expected.

Darius Khondji’s work as cinematographer is visually powerful and hard to keep from gawking in amazement. The use of neon and fluorescent lighting in evening vignettes feels natural to the worldwide reputation of New York, also known as “The Concrete Jungle”. There is an air of grittiness, but also classy opulence, in the production design; apartments and houses that give off the style of high taste even with the characters and sequences involved being rife with uncertainty and sometimes illicit behavior. The look of a flashy extravaganza complete with luxury but embodying the same surface area as a Scorsese crime drama in homage brings the film home in a majorly impactful way.

“Uncut Gems” is a film that will test your strength and stamina in how much intensity one human body can handle. It is a drama that builds and builds on entertainment, suspense, and fascination until it releases it all in a climactic supernova, making it an integral part of the year in cinema.


Caless Davis is a Seattle-based film critic and contributor to the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He loves any discussion of film and meeting new people to engage in film discussions on any subject. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

MOVIE REVIEW: Black Christmas

The best experience anyone can have going to see a new film in the theater is being surprised by what new ideas it brings. Audiences are dazzled when venturing into the unknown and having their imaginations sparked. Contrary to that, some films follow the trends and cliches that have been established before. One genre that has fallen victim to this syndrome is horror films, specifically more so the reboot variety that aims to introduce an old story to new generations. “Black Christmas” is a case of a reboot trying to bite off more than it can chew in trying to balance the brand of horror its predecessors emulated while roping along social message parallels. It all adds up to a horrible cinematic experience and an easy candidate for a “Worst Of The Year” label.

Issues are abundant in every area, but especially so in a story that is comical and barebones which involves a supernatural/fantasy cult of men who hunt for women on a college campus during winter break. Audiences are treated to a narrative that will have you believe that a statue bust of a dead college founder can possess the souls of young men and turn them into murderous villains intent on keeping women from being a threat to the male population. The classic “toxic masculinity is the real enemy” message hits you in the face like a gust of wind almost throughout the proceedings. As a man, I am a staunch defender of female empowerment, but films like this make that message very obvious, with nothing new to say about this current societal issue nor any pleasant subtleness. “Black Christmas” comes off like a poorly written piece of fan fiction using Wikipedia articles as a source. Saying this film is predictable would be a serious understatement. There are no surprises in store; it can easily be foreseen who the villains are, who will be killed, and all of the twists that carry a facade of being clever. There is no thrill factor, which is a big no-no for an aspiring horror film and the pitiful attempts at comedy all fall flat on the floor. A better place for this cinematic eyesore would be an MTV Original Special or Netflix film with no one having to waste a dime on promotion.

The characters are not unique and suffer from a lack of development which keeps the viewer from caring who makes it to the end and who does not. Even the lead character is shorted by the writing as only being a victim of a sexual assault, with no other distinguishing trait. The villains look and speak like prototypical smug alpha males who lack a menacing presence and are reduced to angry misogynistic trolls spitting logic akin to the “He-Man Women Haters Club” skit from “The Little Rascals”. Imogen Poots was such a winner in the cult classic “Green Room” that it’s painful to see her subjected to this wannabe “deep” horror drama that shortchanges its own feminist message with rudimentary structuring.

“Black Christmas” is one of the worst films of the year and is a joyless bore of generic horror conventions. If you want to see a horror-thriller that has something to say about the female experience in the greater perception of society, check out the original predecessor and gems like “The Babadook”, “It Follows”, “Rosemary’s Baby”, and “Carrie”.

Rating:


Caless Davis is a Seattle-based film critic and contributor to the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He loves any discussion of film and meeting new people to engage in film discussions on any subject. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Episode 202: Knives Out

This week we’re joined by film critic Kolby Mac to discuss Rian Johnson’s crowd-pleasing whodunit murder mystery. We compare its signature detective to iconic ones of the past, talk about the use of immigration as a theme, recount our incredibly fun theatrical viewing experiences, and much more.

Knives Out Review – 0:00:58

The Connecting Point – 1:00:48

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MOVIE REVIEW: The Lighthouse


Caless Davis is a Seattle-based film critic and contributor to the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He loves any discussion of film and meeting new people to engage in film discussions on any subject. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Episode 188: Ad Astra

This week we head into space with Brad Pitt for an introspective, meditative, thoughtful exploration of daddy issues that has moments of action blockbuster mixed in as well. Does this tonal marriage work? Were we able to feel what James Gray was putting down? Tune in to find out.

Ad Astra Review – 0:00:53

Connecting Point – 1:03:47

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or you can support us through Paypal as well. Select the link below and make your one-time or recurring contribution.

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