All posts by Kevyn Knox

GUEST REVIEW: AMER (2009)

This review was originally published at The Cinematheque in a slightly different form.

Brought to opulent (some might say pretentious) life by Belgian directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, Amer is an homage to the Italian giallo horror films of the 1960s and ’70s, and more specifically the works of the genre’s most notable denizen, Dario ArgentoAmer (French for bitter) is an all-but-wordless, trisected mindbender of a movie, running portentously through one girl’s life, from her twisted childhood, to the seductively innocent carnality of young womanhood, to her inevitably tragic (and inevitably violent) demise.  In short, it is a lyrical horror movie that manages to arouse and nauseate at the same time and in equal measure.  In shorter yet, it is both succulent and repellent.  In even shorter, it is simply Amer.

Still from Amer (2009)Told as almost Gothic horror, set in a sufficiently terrifying seaside villa, Amer starts out with an eight or nine year old Ana, running from room to room, trying her best to outsmart both her overbearing mother and the ugly crone of a witch that was her grandfather’s caretaker, while attempting to steal a necklace she must pry out of her ancient grandfather’s cold dead hands.  The film takes on a magical feel right away, as an insidious doom overshadows all that is happening around her and her young eyes are assaulted by the evil that lurks around her and (in a scene of frenetic, salacious eroticism) the writhing, sweating bodies of her parents bedroom.  The terror, both metaphorical and physical, that will eventually devour Ana, is already beginning to surround this wide-eyed little girl.

We next turn to the adolescent Ana, her Lolita-esque body glistening in the midday sun, her bee-stung lips curling in a seraphic yet alluring manner, the slight breeze blowing her light dress provocatively, all the while slowly waltzing in front of a row of very-interested bikers, flaunting, advertising her newfound sexual desires.  The erotic longings that first popped up in Ana’s wicked childhood surface here in a much more dangerous way.  Next we see a grown Ana, her fantasy world now completely engulfing her, returning to her now dilapidated seaside home, every shadow, every noise, every creak, every sensual yearning, an ominous foreshadowing of the horror to come.

With the mysterious black-gloved hand that keep Ana from screaming, the muscled, libidinous arms that grope her and strangle her, and the shining, silvery blade that coldly slices against her face and mouth, warning her of what is to become of her, Amer ends with the same seductively perilous urgency with which it began.  Perhaps made as the ego-trip many claim it to have been, Cattet and Forzani nonetheless have captured the essense of those giallo films, and especially the warped, libidinous proclivities of Mr. Argento, to a visual and aural “t.”  Just like the Italian horrormeister’s movies, Amer is an erotically charged mindbender of a movie indeed.

GUEST REVIEW: UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES (2010)

Guest review by Kevyn Knox of The Cinematheque.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, by the Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul (now there are a couple of mouthfuls-and-a-half) is certainly not a film (or filmmaker) for everyone, but if you happen to be one of the lucky ones who can appreciate this dissident director’s young, but deeply-seeded oeuvre, then you will most certainly like this latest film by the man affectionately called ‘Joe.’  Perhaps the director’s best, most fluid work yet, matching or perhaps even surpassing his esoteric treatise on love, Tropical Malady, and his most heralded work, the subtly sublime Syndromes and a Century, Uncle Boonmee (as we will shorten it from here on out) is a grand fable that not only incorporates the folktales we have come to expect from this director, but also the personal and political concerns that have also become a staple for good ole ‘Joe’.

Keeping with tradition (traditions of Thai folklore and of Apichatpong’s stream-of-consciousness works) we get the story of a dying man who is reunited with his family—both living, dead (and in-between)—and the rituals and rites that come with both living and dying (and in-between). We also get, again keeping with tradition, an otherworldly tale that involves mysterious, red-eyed Sasquatchian creatures roaming the jungles of Thailand.  The cinematic works of Apichatpong Weerasethakul can be alluded to (though by no means explained or defined) by the paraphrasing of a cherished Hollywood classic—talking monkeys and tigers and bears, oh my.  The filmmaker’s style of sociopolitical (and oft-times autobiographical) movie making, with his slow, wandering camera, lazily weaving between reality and fantasy as easily as between rural and urban or modern and classic or male and female, and his non-preachy philosophizing—a style that the auteur has captured and made his own—is in top form in Uncle Boonmee.

Still from Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)Basically (and the story is subversively basic, or primal, if you will) this is the story of the titular uncle, who finds himself dying and invites his sister-in-law and nephew to spend his final days together on his jungle farm. Shortly thereafter, the ghost of Boonmee’s dead wife shows up to help him get through his illness; shortly after that, Boonmee’s long-lost son returns, in the aforementioned Sasquatchian form (the director calls these creatures ‘Monkey Ghosts’). The film gets even weirder from here on in—wonderfully weirder, that is. It was the first appearance of these ominous monkey ghosts, shortly into the film, that sealed the proverbial deal for this critic. After all this, we join Boonmee in what may be his final moments (or may not) deep inside a cave that seems to be the darkened womb of Weerasethakul’s storytelling. A definite mythmaker, Apichatpong, with his unnatural naturalness wholly intact, has managed to deepen my already heartfelt love for his work.

In my initial look at the succulent Uncle Boonmee (written just after viewing the film at last year’s New York Film Festival), I said this of the film: “The proof in the pudding, so to speak, of the mystical quality of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s cinema, is when you can introduce a talking catfish into the middle of your story (in a seemingly unrelated episode to the rest of the film) and have him ‘pleasure’ a young melancholy princess beneath a beautiful waterfall, and never once does it seem out of place or extraordinary; merely a natural extension of the director’s mythmaking style of filmmaking. When von Trier had his ravenous fox growl out “chaos reigns” in Antichrist, it was meant to be as antagonistic as the filmmaker himself. In Uncle Boonmee, Apichatpong makes it seem like just a natural thing that happens all the time. A talking catfish that goes down on a princess? Sure, why the Hell not.” And I still agree all these months later—why the Hell not.

GUEST REVIEW: THE TEMPTATION OF ST. TONY [Püha Tõnu kiusamine] (2009)

This review originally appeared in a slightly different form at The Cinematheque.

Surprisingly resonant, this little film from the wilds of Estonia is a sharply focused take on the classic tale of St. Anthony, recalling the work of such past auteurs as Tarkovsky, Buñuel, Bresson and Renoir. The Temptation of St. Tony, directed by Veiko Õunpuu, explores the modern world by showing the strange half-built state of affairs in the former Soviet state: middle-management bureaucrats with bourgeois attitudes traipsing about in the visual poverty of newly built homes on ugly, fauna-less tracts of land—Huxley’s grey squat buildings with a twist. All the while, the film is ensconced inside the world of Hieronymus Bosch, whose “Temptation of St. Anthony” provides the visual starting point.

Still from The Temptation of St. Tony (2009)Shot in crisp black and white (so crisp one could call it black and silver) Õunpuu gives us a tale that is pure Kafka (via Tarkovksy visually and Bunuel spiritually), interspersed with visions of a hellish possibility that twists the film into a nightmare.  Our faithful and fateful protag is homebound after a party when he hits and kills a dog. He drags the dog into the woods to hide the evidence and stumbles upon a severed human hand. Upon further inspection, our man finds a pile of dozens and dozens of severed human hands. This is the beginning of the Kafkaesque nightmare, which roller coasters its way through Hell and back and into its inevitably tragic, incessantly twisted finale.

The centerpiece of the film is the Bosch-like Hell that plays itself as some sort of nightclub-cum-cannibalistic whorehouse where our “hero” must save the waifish (read: pretty, but used would-be crack whore) damsel-in-distress he has become enamored with—and since we are throwing in influences, let’s toss in David Lynch right around this point.  The place is made up in such a way that we would not be surprised to find the disfigured face of Tom Waits dancing about in some sinister manner—and for a second we almost seem to, though at second glance we find that it’s the French actor .  Whatever the case may be, The Temptation of St. Tony—this strangely sublime nightmare of a movie, in its crisper-than-crisp photography, impossible Kafkaesque storyline, Bosch-inspired visual audacity and Tarkovskyian layerings—is a film you’ll be hard pressed to avert your eyes from, even in the most disturbing of moments.

GUEST REVIEW: DOGTOOTH [KYNODONTAS] (2009)

UPDATE 2/16/2011: Dogtooth was placed on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of All Time; the Certified Weird entry is here.

Imagine a world where up is down, hot is cold, red is black, dandelions are zombies and that mysterious slit between a young girl’s legs is called a keyboard.  Welcome to the bizarre world of Giorgos Lanthimos’ deep black comedy-cum-Greek tragedy oddity, Dogtooth.

Still from Dogtooth (2009)The strange story of a father who keeps his three adult children locked away on their country estate, allowing them no knowledge of the outside world other than what he and their mother (almost a prisoner herself) let them know—most of which is a twisted version of reality.  Never allowing the children (and though they all seem to be in their twenties, they are still very much children emotionally) to set foot outside of the family gate, the father tells them no one can venture outside the home except in the family car.  Only he ever does.  He drives his car ten feet past the gate to retrieve the son’s lost toy airplane.  Down on all fours and barking at unseen terrors lying in wait just outside of the family compound, these are not your normal cinematic children.  Though they live in what they perceive to be reality (and the only world they know) they could very well be living on another planet.

Essentially prisoners, these children are like experiments to the father (much like the dog training he is introduced to at one point in the story).  Each day they learn new words that have no correlation with what they actually mean in the outside world.  They are told that they can leave home only once their canine teeth fall out—a thing that of course we know does not happen without a bit of forceful persuasion.  At one point, the father begins bringing home a young woman he works with (blindfolded, of course) to have her engage in sexual relations with the son—a thing that is done without emotion, without fanfare and without any seeming pleasure on either end—only to have her betray his confidence by beginning to have a sexual relationship with the youngest daughter in exchange for presents.  Again, this is done without any semblance of emotion or passion; the daughter simply tells the girl if she licks her “there” (pointing to the obvious spot) she can have a gift.

Playing off Shyamalan’s The Village (though without the ridiculousness of that film) but done in a very matter-of-fact style typical of Greek cinema (or any Balkan cinema really) and especially of the nation’s cinematic icon Theo Angelopoulos, Lanthimos’ odd little movie reeks of possible exploitation, both in character and in style.  But, instead, it comes off as almost experimentation—as much as the father’s experimentation (i.e., the dog-like training) upon his unknowing children.  Yet, even with the passionless approach to characterization (including the most banal sex scenes ever filmed) we can feel the tremors begin beneath the surface, and we know that eventually there is going to be a deeply felt emotional explosion from at least one of these children.  Of course this emotional A-Bomb does eventually come (culminating in that aforementioned forceful persuasion) and we are left with a haunting final image that may be the inevitable conclusion to a psychologically dangerous tale such as Lanthimos’ bizarre Dogtooth.

This review was originally published at The Cinematheque in a slightly different form.

GUEST REVIEW: JOHNNY GUITAR (1954)

Guest review by Kevyn Knox of The Cinematheque

Directed by Nicholas Ray

“There was theatre (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rossellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforward there is cinema.  And the cinema is Nicholas Ray.” – Jean-Luc Godard

Johnny Guitar is one of those films one must not take too seriously.  Now don’t get me wrong, the film is indeed a great work of cinematic art (possibly director Nick Ray’s best work) and its classically gorgeous look and progressive visual style make it a wonder to behold, but its over-the-top giddiness and the way it verges on camp (especially in the dialogue and performances) make the film something altogether different.  Something almost dreamlike—almost as if you are not watching a movie so much as hallucinating what you might think a movie could or should be.

Johnny Guitar, the film that Truffaut once called “Hallucinatory Cinema,”  is almost magical in its approach to what film is and still should be.  This strange characteristic turns this redefined western into almost an experimental work of art.  Something that defines not what the western genre is, nor even what it could be, but what it might be if torn asunder and flipped onto its proverbial backside.  Something one could see Quentin Tarantino attempting today, but made instead back in the mid-fifties when life was staid and suburban and everyone was just crazy about Ike.
Still from Johnny Guitar (1954)
Derek Malcolm of The Guardian said of the film, “This baroque and deliriously stylised Western, along with Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious and Raoul Walsh’s Pursued, proves it is possible to lift the genre into the realms of Freudian analysis, political polemic and even Greek tragedy.”  Amen brother.

Other westerns of the time delve deeper than the typical genre-specific Hop-a-long Cassidy territory of the earlier mode—The Searchers is a Freudian masterpiece for sure and the films of Anthony Mann (and to a lesser degree Budd Boetticher) have stretched the ideas of right and wrong to Continue reading GUEST REVIEW: JOHNNY GUITAR (1954)