E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial / Steven Spielberg / 1982 / fivestar

Active Ingredients: Child’s-eye view; Lighting; Exhilarating spectacle
Side Effects: Second act conflict

I’ll never not love E.T., so formative was its role in my own cinematic imagination, yet I was exhilarated and moved all over again rewatching it for the first time since my youth. It helps that E.T.—and indeed, most of Spielberg’s work—seeks to restore this sense of childhood wonder to viewers of all ages. This mode of storytelling then, becomes both text and subtext, and even informs the film’s visual style and sentimental machinations. It might have been easy to undercut this systematic naivety with the cynicism and fatigue of adulthood, but the triumph of E.T. is its profound respect for the emotional experience of childhood, for its joys and tragedies, its fears, and its own unique wisdom.

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The Clock (1945)

The Clock / Vincente Minnelli / 1945 / fourstar

Active Ingredients: Charming and mature romance; Dramatic, mobile camerawork
Side Effects: Odd pacing

In Vincente Minnelli’s elegant and sophisticated war-time romance The Clock, a charming and tender lonely-hearts love story slowly cedes to a sober consideration of the costs of love and commitment. It seems a rare trick for an Old Hollywood genre piece, to indulge in the populist pleasures of its form while undercutting its naiveté with a dose of realism. But it’s the sincerity of Minnelli’s tone that elevates The Clock; the director isn’t interested in easy cynicism, just in engaging with the romance this genre provides in the first place. Read more…

Under the Skin (2014)

Under the Skin / Jonathan Glazer / 2014 / twostar

Active Ingredients: Bold imagery; Unsettling score and sound design
Side Effects: Lack of thematic weight; Use of non-actors

Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is a difficult film to assimilate after seeing only once. It doesn’t offer answers, but rather tasks its viewers with unpacking its many narrative and thematic mysteries. This is a challenge I embrace from any filmmaker who respects his audience enough to issue it, and one that rewards multiple viewings, and yet I can only say that seeing Under the Skin once felt frustrating, unsatisfying and incomplete. Read more…

Ordet (1955)

Ordet / Carl Theodor Dreyer / 1955 / fivestar

Active Ingredients: Thematic provocation; Lighting and production design
Side Effects: Pace and theatricality can be challenging

[I owe a lot to Jonathan Rosenbaum's piece for helping me discover Ordet's mysteries.]

Ordet is a film of astounding grace, dignity and transcendence, cinematic attributes in service of a tender fable about grace, dignity and transcendence. Its impeccable construction and sophisticated style are beautifully tailored, even inextricably linked, to the religious themes of its story. To discuss one is to discuss the other, the cinematic and the spiritual exist in close dialogue. And yet the elegance, austerity and honesty of this filmmaking—often mistaken for mere simplicity—conceal a quiet storm of drama and incendiary ideas. As both cinema and thought, Ordet is deceptively potent and provocative. It’s a lion of a film masquerading as a lamb. Read more…

Where to Start With… Mario Bava

[Diving into a new cinematic topic can be daunting. This series provides some suggestions on where to begin exploring a director’s body of work, a genre, style or theme. The three suggested films serve as a brief introduction; they’re not complete or authoritative, but will in some way be representative of the topic and hopeful inspire you to watch more, outlined in recommended further viewing.]

Mario Bava is an Italian director who made dozens of genre films throughout the 60s and 70s. Bava is often associated with the wave of giallo films—strange, colorful and vibrant horror/thrillers—that flourished at the time. While Bava’s films share the often-schlocky, low-budget aesthetics of many gialli, they demonstrate the director’s elegant construction, boundless creativity and sophisticated camerawork. Read more…

Noah (2014)

Noah / Darren Aronofsky / 2014 / twostar

Active Ingredients: Dark thematic content; Creation sequence
Side Effects: Derivative visuals; Theatrical performances

The critical consensus on Darren Aronofsky’s big-budget, epic passion project seems to deem it an “interesting mess.” To me, Noah is neither. The film is actually quite cogent narratively, if a bit unpredictable, and it’s too bloated and oppressive to be very interesting. Aronofsky has injected the biblical story with darkly psychological undercurrents involving faith, duty and the questionable morality of mankind, but all of this is drowned beneath uninspired CGI and familiar production design. Read more…

Nymphomaniac: Volume II (2014)

Nymphomaniac: Volume II / Lars von Trier / 2014 / onestar

Active Ingredients: Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellen Skarsgard
Side Effects: Shallowness, cruelty and preposterousness

[Read my review of Nymphomaniac: Volume I here.]

Nymphomaniac: Volume II reveals the shallowness of Lars von Trier’s saga of emotional and sexual depravity that probably existed all along. And yet I feel that my reaction to the completed work would be substantially different if I had seen it in its original form, longer and as a single film. As it stands, however, Volume II eschews the formal and narrative playfulness of the first installment and veers Joe’s story in directions either impotent, regressive, or simply ludicrous. Read more…

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