Vampires, Assassins, and Romantic Angst by the Seaside: Takoma Reviews

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The only feature length film I've seen from Jarman is Caravaggio. I'll have to dive deeper into his filmography.
I watched 10 of them for the 2023 Film Challenge, and it was overall a really excellent filmography.

Well, just regarding the theatrical live-action Batfilms that I've seen, I was very meh on '89, but I enjoy Returns a lot because it feels like the movie Burton really wanted to make, with more style, but more importantly, a lot more substance than '89, particularly with Selina's whole character arc, which is one of my favorite ones in a movie, to be perfectly honest. Besides that, the Schumacher ones were annoying (though Batman & Robin is funny in a so bad it's good way, of course), The Dark Knight Trilogy is very good (with TDK itself being an all-timer, at the risk of sounding like another cliched fanboy), and The Batman was good, if a bit overlong and derivative feeling at times.
I really enjoyed the original Batman. Returns felt like it overdosed on Tim Burtonisms (and wasted Christopher Walken), but will admit Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman was the best part. Forever felt like a nice change of pace and palate cleanser from the Burton Batmans (I would have liked to have seen more Kilmer as Bruce/Batman), but Batman & Robin was just a garish, unholy mess. It kind of felt like he was trying to one-up the 1960s TV series with those puns and one-liners.

The Dark Knight was solid, although it rushed the subplot which could have tied up in the finale. Ledger definitely held his own there. Begins is about 2/3s of a good film, but the last act just doesn't come through. Rise felt more like Attack of the Clones that just kept going on and on until it finally ended...I think.

Kind of Batmanned out at this point, although I might eventually get around to tackling the Pattinson version (maybe increasing the detective-work is the way to go...I don't think I've seen him solve anything since the first Batman movie).

Although kind of a one-off, I did enjoy Mask of the Phantasm. I do wish we got a sequel to that one.

Pillow Talk, 1959

Interior decorator Jan (Doris Day) is absolutely fed up with having to share a phone line with composer Brad (Rock Hudson), who hogs the line communicating with his many romantic and sexual conquests. Jan is also being romantically pursued by one of her clients, Jonathan (Tony Randall). By chance, Brad is composing songs for Jonathan, and is thus able to worm his way into her life in the guise of a tourist Texan. But what starts as a ploy to distract Jan morphs into genuine feelings for her.

While the lead characters are somewhat bland and unlikable, the film holds your interest with inventive staging, a script loaded with double entendres, and incredibly fun supporting performances.

I have nothing against Day or Hudson, both of whom have a certain amount of natural charisma, but I found Jan and Brad to be pretty boring as characters. Jan is poorly defined outside of her irritation with Brad, which the film chalks up to jealousy over his robust love life. Brad, likewise, is mainly characterized by the fact that he enjoys romancing and sleeping around, with his only character growth related to discovering the joy of monogamy.

Much more vivid and engaging are Randall as the wealthy and ostentatious Jonathan and the fabulous Thelma Ritter as Alma, Jan’s maid who arrives every day to work in the grip of a massive hangover and is always thrown to the ground by the force up the upwards elevator ride. Jonathan, despite the film’s framing as comedy, actually has the potential to be the creepiest of the men in the film (and every man in this film is really creepy in one way or another!), but Randall plays him as such an absolute goober that he stays in a sweet spot between ridiculous and slimy. I’d also give Perry Blackwell a nod as a singer in a bar where Jan and Brad go for drinks. Sure, she has to pretend that she’s super into Jan singing her song, but her knowing eye on the couple adds a much needed depth to their interactions.

The movie gets a lot of energy from the boundary-pushing screenplay, which sees winking sexual references popping up with great frequency and plenty of quippy dialogue. The actors seem to be having a good time with their line deliveries, and the film has a lightness to its step that keeps the pace at a good clip. The sense of humor extends to the staging of the story, with plenty of split screen action and cartoonish musical cues.

But there are a few things that bog the film down. Ultimately I felt a bit sad about the trajectory of the two main characters. Jan goes from being a confident, independent woman to realizing she needs a man . . . because. Brad goes from a life of breezy non-monogamy to wanting to just be with Jan . . . because. Each of them being underwhelming makes the mutual giving up of lifestyles kind of a bummer. While I enjoyed the film for the dialogue, I never felt particularly loyal to either of the lead characters.

And while, sure, you expect some dated humor in a romantic comedy from the 50s, it was still pretty striking how often sexual violence was played for laughs and just how awful all of the male characters were. Jonathan, of course, using his money to manipulate and control Jan. Brad, who sets out to seduce Jan in a way that can’t help but end in humiliation for her. And a yucky sequence in which the son of a client, Tony (Nick Adams) offers to drive Jan home and then tries to force himself on her. It’s in the aftermath of this assault that Jan meets Brad for the first time, and thus the film lets its male protagonist clear that lowest of bars: better-than-a-rapist. Later Brad forcibly carries Jan back to his apartment and when she asks a police officer for help, he just laughs and says he “can’t blame” Brad. Now, obviously these sequences aren’t staged in a super realistic way, you don’t actually think Tony’s going to rape Jan, etc. But I still found them jarring and uncomfortable, mostly because of the casual acceptance of the characters and the film’s insistence on scoring them with jaunty music, like fighting a strange man off of you in a parked car at night is just one of those funny old experiences that women just have to put up with.

Certainly enough personality and hilarious supporting performances to merit watching, but it’s not one I see myself returning to any time soon.

Money Movers, 1978

Dick Martin (Ed Devereaux) is an armored car driver who is demoted to the night shift after his car is the victim of a daring heist. The head of the firm becomes incredibly paranoid after a note is sent to the company declaring that another robbery will soon take place. A main suspect is newcomer Leo Bassett (Tony Bonner). But unbeknownst to the head of the company, ruthless criminal Jack Henderson (Charles Tingwell) is planning his own robbery and is determined to make sure that no one beats him to the punch.

While a bit muddled at times in its writing, this one has enough gritty action and cynicism to make it a worthy entry in the armored car heist subgenre.

I’ll admit that at times I had some trouble following the thread of this film, something that’s probably more on me than the movie. There are a lot of conversations in similar looking white offices and between men in very similar suits.

But the upshot of all this similarity is that it does end up aligning well with a main theme of the film. A violent gangster. An armored car employee. A police detective. A night watchman. How do you tell them apart? In this film, the answer is a knowing nod and a cynical “Exactly.”

My own confusion as I watched the film somewhat echoes the dizzying journey that Martin finds himself on as he tries to figure out who was in on the heist. The line between the good guys and the bad guys is so blurry that you kind of have to sit back and wait for each character or suspect to show their true colors. Anyone, it seems, could be part of the plot. How does a single man like Martin stand a chance against such odds?

And the movie is just as interested in the story of Martin’s protagonist trying to restore his good name as it is the jockeying for power between the various shades of villain. Right until the last seconds of the film, people are being betrayed, airing their own corruption, or taking unlucky bullets in the back.

There are definitely slumps in the film’s momentum. There’s a line where “realistically low-key” transitions into “actually a bit boring”, and the film lands on the wrong side of that line a few times. But the suspense of learning how the whole heist will turn out and who exactly will be implicated is more than enough to pull you through the story.

An easy recommend if you’re a fan of heist films.

Dead End Drive In, 1986

In a near-future dystopian Australia, Jimmy (Ned Manning) takes his stepfather’s prized car and his girlfriend Carmen (Natalie McCurry) to the Star Drive In Theater for a night of action movies and sexy times. But when the wheels are stolen from the car, Jimmy and Carmen are forced to spend the night at the drive-in. In the morning, they wake to realize that there are a lot of people who seem to be camping out at the drive-in . . . and apparently once you check in, you don’t check out.

Despite needing to adjust my expectations--for over 20 years I’ve thought this film was a slasher horror about someone killing people at a drive-in theater, NOPE!--this was an enjoyable thriller with a pyrotechnic conclusion and some surprisingly decent insights into group dynamics.

There are a lot of movies about undesirables or unwanted people finding themselves being hunted or otherwise pitted in violent circumstances. But here, there’s a different spin put on that dynamic. The people---mostly punkish twenty-somethings, but also some older folks--are not being tortured or hunted or executed. They are being contained. And more than that, they are given just enough of the basic necessities--shelter, showers, bathrooms, free food--that it’s actually understandable why many of them, who have been chosen as prisoners because of declaring themselves to be unemployed, don’t want to leave.

There are two levels to the thriller aspect of the film. The first is the more action oriented stuff. Jimmy needs to get wheels for his car to be allowed to leave. He needs to find a way to get gasoline. He has to figure out how to get out of the main gate while evading the police and Thompson (Peter Whitford), the mild-mannered man who oversees the administration at the drive-in. Jimmy must also carefully navigate the various gangs and allegiances that have formed inside of the artificial society.

But another layer to it all is the split between how Carmen and Jimmy feel about their captivity. While Jimmy is bound and determined to escape no matter what, Carmen adapts incredibly quickly to their new circumstances. Within a day of their arrival, she’s already made friends with a group of girls she meets in the shower room and has had her hair styled. She adopts the voucher system of payment for food and goods. We don’t know everything about Carmen’s life outside of the drive-in, but there’s good reason to believe that she’s experiencing a mix of safety and community that she hasn’t felt before.

The whole situation does raise some questions: if the money is there to buy unemployed people three meals a day, provide hot water, etc, then why put them all in the drive-in as opposed to just . . . building some community housing? One obvious answer is that the purpose of the drive-in is merely containment--getting the undesirables off of the street. But most of the people don’t seem to be particularly violent or even all that prone to impulsive behavior.

Despite some logistics, the premise does manage to make some good observations about how people behave in situations of even the mildest scarcity. Groups start to break down along racial lines, with resentment being thrown at the Asian immigrants who share their space. There’s also something to the fact that despite wanting to break free, Jimmy isn’t given even a chance to argue his case or work towards liberation. Having been marked as unemployed, and therefore not fit for wider society, there’s no formal recourse for him.

The film does suffer a bit from Jimmy being a bit mild-mannered for a lead character. (To give you a sense of his personality, his nickname is “Crabs” because he thought he had crabs one time and then it turned out he didn’t.). While Thompson’s seemingly low-key manager makes for a good antagonist in his own way, the film feels like it needs more of a presence as an antagonist. I get that the real villain is, like, the system. But there’s a bit of grit that the movie could use that it lacks, even with the menacing police car that intermittently patrols the drive-in.

A good dystopian action thriller that delivers an exciting final act.

The Cars That Ate Paris, 1974

Arthur (Terry Camilleri) is on a vacation with his brother when the two of them suffer a horrible car accident. Arthur’s brother is killed, while Arthur requires rehabilitation in the hospital. Unfortunately for Arthur, his problems are only beginning. The small town where he had his accident, a rural town called Paris, works together to cause car accidents and then runs their economy off of what they scavenge from their victims. The town’s mayor (John Meillon) decides that Arthur can stay, and so Arthur must walk a fine line as tensions within the town mount.

Coasting almost entirely on odd energy and an endearing-yet-passive protagonist, this is an enjoyable low-key dark comedy/thriller.

I think that part of my enjoyment of this film came from my uncomfortable identification with the main character. Arthur is, in many ways, defined by his passivity. But for me, that gave the film an element of realism about how many people would react in such circumstances. On his own, having just lost his brother in a violent crash, Arthur decides to leave town. But when he does manage to walk to the edge of town, he encounters two revving, looming cars. Unwilling to find out what a confrontation would look like, Arthur turns around and walks back to town. He tries sitting at a bus stop, but it soon becomes clear that there will be no bus.

While Arthur might only have a vague sense of what will happen if he becomes too uncooperative, we the viewer know that a power drill lobotomy is the fate reserved for most out-of-towners who survive their wrecks. Therefore Arthur’s wait and watch approach feels more than prudent. And further, it allows us to observe the tensions that simmer in the town between different factions.

The tensions within the town are probably the most interesting element of the film. On one hand, you have a young, wild crowd who drive around in modified, graffiti-marked cars, reveling in destruction. Then there’s the old guard, the people who keep up the pretense of a nice little town, where the murder and torment are politely ignored. It’s two different brands of evil, and we can only watch as Arthur is repeatedly put in the path of the conflict.

The acting is all a good fit for the story, with plenty of quiet menace to go around from the older folks, and plenty of swagger from the younger ruffians. Camilleri’s Arthur is exactly the tentative, soft-spoken person you’d expect in someone both coping with a trauma and trying to avoid confrontation. When you layer in a backstory that Arthur once accidentally killed an elderly man while driving, you can sense that Arthur might even believe that what’s happening to him is a kind of karmic retribution.

It is true that the ratio of uncomfortable interactions to actual horror/action might be a bit low for some horror fans, but I dug it.

The trick is not minding
I think it would make for an interesting double feature with A Boy and His Dog.
Still haven’t seen that one, even though I’ve been meaning to.
Instead, I’ve been watching classics such as Slugs, Sgt Kabukiman NYPD, and The Last Shark. Riveting stuff.

Dead Sands, 2013

After a strange new virus begins sweeping through Bahrain, a group of young people find themselves on the run from zombies. They travel through the night, searching for a safe haven and dealing with conflict within the group.

Dogged by many hallmarks of low-budget horror, this one is really best suited for an affable group watch.

There are some low budget films that just inexplicably get you rooting for them, and this ended up being one of them. I think that it comes from a film having just the right number of strange touches. In this case, that would be the seemingly random switching between English and Arabic (the film is kindly subtitled in whichever language is not currently being spoken), overt but somewhat ineffectual nods to iconic zombie films, and characters like the long-tressed Wolf (Bu Idrees Mughal) who may or may not be a hairdresser.

One of the people I was watching this film with--who is generally not a big fan of horror movies--expressed her surprise at how proactive the female characters were, and said that this was not what she expected from a horror movie. And while everyone in this film is, to a certain degree, kind of as dumb as a rock, she’s not wrong. The characters are all about on an equal level in terms of amount of story they’re given. There was group consensus that the best character by far was Samara (Miraya Varma), who not only has great hair, but also spends the whole movie talking about how much she loves being selfish, only to give a big speech at the end where she asks, “Do you think I like being this way?” Yes, Samara. We think you love it.

In terms of “so bad it’s good” stuff, this one has plenty on that front. The acting ranges from okay to pretty bad. (One actress seems to have all of her scenes filmed in isolation and feels incredibly disconnected from the whole film). The special effects are about 95% people looking up at the camera and opening their mouths to disgorge a mouthful of fake blood. There is one surprisingly competent gunshot to the head, weirdly not of any of the actual zombies. (And whether this is intentional or not, I find it very funny).

The only aspect of the movie that was bad in a not fun way was the audio. There’s a lot of shouting, and in many scenes you feel like you’re listening to the dialogue over a telephone call. The subtitles help, but the sound is the biggest impediment to enjoying the film.

Bonus points for the bizarre yet intriguing post-credits sequence that had our entire group asking “Who is Marion?!?!?!” and googling Bahranian folklore.

Harlequin, 1980

Nick Rast (David Hemmings) is a senator who seems poised to take on a more powerful position after another politician disappears in a mysterious accident at sea. Rast’s son, Alex (Mark Spain) is dying of leukemia, and his wife, Sandra (Carmen Duncan) is at the end of her rope watching her son suffering while her husband spends late nights with his mistress. Enter the mysterious Gregory Wolfe (Robert Powell), who enters the Rast household late one stormy night and through the power of touch seemingly cures Alex of his cancer. As Gregory starts to integrate himself into the household---especially with Sandra and Alex--Rast’s political advisors grow increasingly suspicious of him and his true motives.

Suffused with a mysteriousness and ambiguity that just crumbles in the last 10 minutes, this is an entertaining and thrilling fantasy drama.

Most films with this basic plot would strive to maintain some mystery around whether Wolfe is really magical or whether he’s just a great con artist. But in this film, we watch Wolfe perform unquestionably magical feats that in no way could be explained away as illusions or the result of a good power of suggestion. Instead, the mystery is around his true motivations.

For the most part, this works incredibly well to generate suspense, and particularly because it is so emotionally grounded. As Wolfe devotes hours and hours to spending time with Alex and befriending the boy, it at first seems clear that he’s simply manipulating the child in order to integrate himself into the household. And the same holds true of his seduction of Sandra, who bitterly recounts that her marriage to Rast was arranged as a political maneuver by her parents, and that even having a child was something she was pressured into as a political move. But as the film goes on, we see moments from Wolfe that appear to be actual, unguarded affection for both Alex and Sandra.

Until the last minutes of the film, I was not totally sure whether Wolfe was a force of good, evil, or somewhere in between, and I loved that tension. A little over the halfway point in the film, a young woman who works in the Rast household tells Sandra that Wolfe sexually assaulted her after finding her alone in the bathtub. We the viewers were shown a part of this interaction: Wolfe wandering through the house and finding the young woman, her being alarmed at his presence, but then suddenly transfixed by him and undoing her bathrobe. Nothing further. We are given hints both ways. What we see does have some elements of a consensual encounter, but we also understand that Wolfe seems to have powerful, hypnotic power over others, so who is to say that the young woman’s actions were actually her choice? When Sandra refuses to believe that Wolfe would do such a thing, as a viewer I genuinely didn’t know if she was right to trust her instincts, or if she was a fool to let her own infatuation stand in the way of believing a pretty credible report of an assault.

Powell’s portrayal of Wolfe is on the exact right frequency. At every moment he seems balanced between intimacy and remove. He could either be some otherworldly angel, guiding the family down a certain path, or a devious schemer who is playing them all like pawns through feigned affection and vulnerability. Duncan’s Sandra is a great match for the character, because Sandra has spent years as basically a trophy wife, and then three years watching her child deteriorate while her husband sleeps with his press secretary. Her frustration at her circumstance makes her cling all the more fiercely to someone who offers her actual attention, actual affection, and who can do something to help her dying child. Duncan gives Sandra the boldness of someone who is done putting up with neglect and humiliation and will dig her heels in if someone tries to push her in a direction she does not want to go.

The only downside for me was the ending, which can’t pull together all of the threads and ends up feeling rather messy. A number of plot elements are simply dropped. The young woman who accused Wolfe of rape? Well, we see her suffer a serious “accident” that disfigures her, and then we don’t learn anything else about the character’s fate. An older, politically powerful woman has an encounter with Wolfe that seems very important, and yet she is also simply dropped as a plot point. We are given an answer, of sorts, about Wolfe, but the aftermath of the final climax was somewhat confusing to me. The film trades a controlled, thrilling ambiguity for an ambiguity that is muddled and a little irritating.

Despite the relatively weak ending, the majority of this film was very fun and engaging, and a neat mix of fantasy and political thriller.

The Missing Picture, 2013

In this narrative documentary, Rithy Panh uses clay figures and real historical footage to recount his family’s harrowing experience of forced relocation and labor under the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s in Cambodia.

A compelling story makes for arresting viewing, even though the man behind the film at times seems to be kept at a distance.

There is a lot to like about this film, which effectively accomplishes big picture and small pictures storytelling as Panh recounts the specific events of his family’s tragic experiences against the backdrop of what was happening in all of Cambodia at the time.

The staging itself is very strong, with detailed and loving dioramas portraying sequences that range from homey and warm to brutal and despairing. At the beginning of the film, we watch as Panh carves and then meticulously paints a figurine of his own father, and the realization of the emotional intensity that would come from processing through such a recollection really hits home.

Panh goes on to detail the fates of his parents, his siblings, and himself as they grappled with a miserable life after being forced to leave their homes and become agricultural workers. Panh often uses the simple but effective trick of presenting his own memories---memories like watching people starve to death or listening to a pregnant woman beating her stomach until her fetus died--contrasted against the propaganda put out by the Khmer Rouge.

Panh notes that what allows a real revolution is cinema, and he also remarks upon the fact that the Khmer Rouge documented many of their own executions and other acts of violence. Thus the film becomes a triangle between the government’s propaganda, their documentation of their own actions against the people, and Panh’s memories of his childhood. While I knew about the violence in Cambodia during this time, I was unaware of the extent of the violence and death, with almost a fourth of the country’s population dying in those few short years.

Where the film does feel like it’s missing something is in the absence of the filmmaker himself. Of course, the words are his words, and the story is his story. But the voice speaking those words belongs to an actor. And aside from his hands at the beginning, we don’t see Panh very much. This creates, in a strange way, a bit of distance and occasionally it abstracts the story a little. The scenes are staged, not animated, and it all feels maybe a bit as if it’s been compartmentalized.

This is a minor complaint, though, as Panh’s story would be compelling no matter how it was told. I think that this film would be a good starting place, actually, for someone who doesn’t know much about the Khmer Rouge.

Finally: I would note to any animal lovers that suddenly in the second half of the film we get a series of real video footage excerpts showing some very cruel animal experimentation on living animals, something I wish I’d known about before watching. The scenes are archival, created by the Khmer Rouge to show off their scientific prowess, so not created for the film. But very disturbing, nonetheless.

Viva Riva, 2010

Riva (Patsha Bay) returns to Kinshasa from Agnola with a truck full of stolen gasoline. Thrilled at the huge profits he’ll make from the sale, he seeks out former flame Nora (Manie Malone), who is now the girlfriend of gangster Azor (Diplome Amekindra). As if that doesn’t introduce enough danger, Angolese gangster Cesar (Hoji Fortuna) believes the gasoline was rightfully his, and is hot on Riva’s tail, blackmailing a local woman, Malou (Angelique Mbumb) into helping him track Riva down.

Stylishly shot with plenty of twists and turns, this crime thriller is a bit weighed down by some overly generic set-pieces.

This film looks really good, which in a noir-ish thriller is half of the battle. The sequences at night are real standouts, with dark nightclubs full of people in outfits that shimmer and pop in the artificial lights. I also really enjoyed the look of Nora in the day time in her sequined dress, a sense that the nightlife has been dragged into the daylight.

The relationship between Riva and Nora is developed in an okay way, and the movie does a decent job of developing a love triangle between Nora, Riva, and Azor. I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of character work done with Malou, who believes that Cesar is holding her sister hostage and must help him or risk her sister being tortured or killed. Malou is in a relationship with a local military commander, (Marlene Longange), and the two work together to track Riva down. Cesar himself is a decent villain. While some of his dialogue and threats are a bit by-the-book, Fortuna gives him just the right amount of wild-card energy to make him feel dangerous and unpredictable.

I don’t know anyone from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and I’m not overly familiar with the details of their political situation, but I was still able to follow some of the film’s critique of the instability caused by the transition out of being colonized. In this film, the power has simply shifted from exploitative foreign powers to exploitative local officials. Cesar makes frequent remarks about Kinshasa’s lack of class, at one point even telling Malou that they’d have been better off staying colonized.

I also have to give major props to the last 15 minutes or so, in which the action and the plot developments are amped way, way up. There are deaths, betrayals, double dealing, explosions, people you think are dead who aren’t dead, more betrayals, and a perfectly cynical last image.

The only thing I didn’t enjoy about this film was the overuse of sex scenes, which ended up diluting some effectively staged sequences that did feel like they belonged. The best of the sex scenes, one that is memorably staged around a barred window on a balcony, doesn’t even employ any nudity, and yet manages to be both inventive, erotic, and says something important about the relationship between the characters. Sadly, the same can’t be said of the five or six other sex scenes, which feel like they’re in the movie just because they can be. (We’re shown a long sex scene between the lesbian characters, but a male character who is gay is rendered completely sexless. Gosh, wonder why?). So much sex might work if it helped us understand the bonds between the characters, but with two exceptions they don’t really, and it’s a case of “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” Defining Riva by who he’s having sex with ends up making him feel like a shallower character than I would have liked.

Overall an effective, stylish crime thriller.

Crumbs, 2015

In a far future, post-apocalyptic Ethiopia, Candy (Daniel Tadesse) leaves his pregnant partner Sayat (Selam Tesfayie) to embark on a mission to figure out how to get passage on a spaceship that has been orbiting Earth for a long time.

This low-key sci-fi drama is simple but effective in creating investment in its small cast of characters.

Perhaps one benefit of watching a lot of art films in a row is that it nudges your internal metric towards the abstract. This film---which clocks in at a very brisk 68 minutes--builds its characters and atmosphere out of some simple but effective sequences.

In this future, ninja turtles (called “samurai turtle” in my subtitles, which I’m not sure is an error in the transcription or an intentional joke about the name having been altered over the centuries) and toy guns are considered valuable artifacts. Candy and Sayat live in an old bowling alley, where Sayat is alarmed and intrigued one day when the bowling ball feeder suddenly comes back to life.

The population in this film is sparse, and further, Candy and Sayat are the only people we see who serve functionally as a couple. Everyone in the movie seems to live on the same edge between routine and aimlessness. Candy’s decision to leave Sayat behind to go on his quest invites the question of what he hopes to find on the spaceship and/or the spaceship’s ultimate destination.

Tadesse and Tesfayie have a good, soft chemistry with one another. The rest of the scenes outside of their home mainly consist of Candy interacting with the other characters in isolation. As he progresses on his journey, he grows more and more agitated seemingly from the pressure of the chance of succeeding or failing. Does he really want to make it to the spaceship, or would part of him be relieved to return to Sayat?

The only negative to this film is its low key nature. There’s a lot of silence and empty landscapes. We are given very little in the way of exposition, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but also doesn’t always give you much to hold onto in immersing yourself in the reality of the world.

With a short run time and a mostly engaging vision of futuristic Africa, this is an easy recommendation to anyone who enjoys this brand of low-key sci-fi.

The Garden, 1990

This largely dialogue-free narrative mixes religious iconography and the story of two gay men (Johnny Mills and Kevin Collins) persecuted by their community.

Perhaps the most direct in its messaging of Jarman’s films (or of those I’ve seen), this one delivers on emotionally evocative sequences and experimental use of video projection.

When a film goes to an unreal space to explore a theme, it can swing one of two ways. One direction is highly abstract, while the other direction is very overt. This film, for me, distinguishes itself from his other films in terms of how often it goes in that overt direction, and how well those sequences work as a mix with the more abstract, artsy sequences.

In one scene, a man in drag is hounded by some high society women and a man in a suit. When was this film made? Over 30 years ago? And we’re still quaking in our boots over a man in a wig? Just checking. In another sequence, the two gay men are detained and humiliated by a group of men. This follows on a scene where the two gay men, sleeping together in a bed, are surrounded by men dressed as Santa Claus pointedly singing religious songs. The message is clear: why do they care so much about these two dudes, who are doing nothing more than sleeping together? How can anyone see their obsession as not being completely deranged?

As with all of his other films, Jarman impresses with his ability to compose an image and get a lot of emotional mileage out of seemingly simple staging. For me, the stand out sequence is one in which a young man and a boy (probably his brother, possibly his son? I’m terrible with ages!) laughingly bathe in a washbasin in their backyard. This sequence is intercut with an eroticized version of such an interaction between two men in an ornate bathtub on a beach in front of crashing waves. Suddenly the image cuts back to the backyard sequence, where the older man grabs up the boy, taking him away from the view of the camera.

Here more than in Jarman’s other films, the camera itself and the people pointing that camera, are a part of the narrative. In the scene where the man in drag is being assaulted, a camera follows and records all of the action while another man wields a torch. The media itself has become part of the mob mentality. The first scene in the film involves a woman--in some plot summaries referred to as the Madonna (Tilda Swinton)--with a baby, but the baby is soon chased after by an intrusive camera. The film’s view on the intrusive camera fits with the film’s questions about why we make other peoples’ lives our business.

There are plenty of classic “art movie” moments, such as a group of older women seated at a long table, making the tops of glasses sing or a mixed-gender troop of people dancing around a sleeping man in a bed on the beach. But as always, these sequences are beautifully composed and make for a nice alternation with the more emotionally charged sequences that follow the persecution of the gay couple.

The anger and frustration in this film is palpable, and the visuals as engaging as ever. The continued relevance of both the sentiment and the actual political content is maddening.

BMX Bandits, 1983

Judy (Nicole Kidman) gets fired from her grocery store job after an accidental crash between her shopping carts and the bicycles of BMX riders PJ (Angelo D’Angelo) and Goose (James Lugton). The three end up as pals, and soon work together to illicitly sell some fancy radios they’ve found. Unfortunately for them, the radios belong to a gang of bank robbers, who are eager to recover their lost property.

This film evoked nostalgia for a very specific brand of live action kids entertainment, and I thoroughly enjoyed it as a gentle action/thriller.

If you’d have shown this film to my younger self anywhere from the ages of about 7 to 14, I would have been totally into it. (Okay, my 15 or 16 year old self would have also been totally into it, but maybe less vocally so). Some movies for a younger crowd manage to get the balance just right of having stakes and thrills, but not being overly scary, cruel, or crude.

This is just, at its core, a sweet little movie. The kind of film where bad guys in monster masks chase after our protagonists, and the film’s climax includes a lot of foam and wacky miscommunications result in someone dropping a steel beam on someone’s car. While it’s inevitable that a movie featuring a female character becoming friends with two guys would result in a love triangle subplot, there’s an ease to the relationship between the main trio that’s inherently fun and gentle.

I also really enjoyed a subplot where the local police are tuned into the frequency of the radios and thus end up eavesdropping on the conversations between the three main characters. There are plenty of knowing smiles, and it’s fun having a dynamic where the authority figures reacting to the kid protagonists are somewhat charmed by them instead of being dour and humorless.

Obviously the main downside is that this movie is aimed squarely at a younger audience. It’s a silly film, and that might not wash with some viewers. The movie is also a bit over-reliant on putting Judy in harm’s way so that the guys can come and save her. The love triangle element already frames her as a bit of a prize for the two guys, and making her the damsel in distress over and over is a bit dopey.

Good fun, and an easy nostalgia hit for the kid-oriented live movies of the 80s and 90s.

Edward II, 1991

Edward II (Steven Waddington) comes to power when his father dies, and uses his new power to bring back his lover, Gaveston (Andrew Tiernan) who has been in exile. Gaveston is a wild, unlikable man, and Edward’s devotion to him drives a wedge between Edward and others in his court. In particular, Edward’s wife, Isabella (Tilda Swinton) is at first depressed and then outraged at having been pushed aside. Isabella plots with military man Mortimer (Nigel Terry) to engineer Edward’s downfall.

Displaying once again Jarman’s talent for inventive staging that stays true to the spirit of an older play, this one is a thrilling, twisted tale of betrayals and unwise infatuations.

There were a lot of things that I liked about this film, but maybe my favorite element was just how terrible Gaveston is. Love may be blind, but it apparently also can’t hear that obnoxious clicking sound Gaveston makes while everyone is trying to sleep. Making Gaveston so easy to hate is a brilliant move, because it gives more dimension to the ultimate villain of the piece, Isabella.

Swinton’s turn as Isabella is pretty stunning, and it plays wonderfully off of Tiernan’s borderline demented turn as Gaveston. Were Gaveston just some guy, or even just some hot guy, Isabella’s motivation of jealousy would have felt a bit bland. But instead, we feel the way that her anger and humiliation build to something murderous and volcanic. It’s not that she’s been pushed to the side. It’s that she’s been pushed to the side for THAT?! Adding insult to injury is a scene in which Gaveston puts the moves on Isabella, seducing her in a corridor only to laugh in her face the moment she responds.

The world that Jarman has constructed in this film is an incredibly visceral one. Unlike some of his films that trade more on sensuality, everything in this film is a bit more raw. The line between sex and violence is far more blurred. Sexual domination becomes part of the violence that the characters inflict on one another, and every main character is guilty of it. There isn’t much wholesome sex to be had here. Yes, there is affection between Edward and Gaveston, but at every turn we are reminded that Gaveston is a total nightmare.

It’s interesting to watch the way that the film navigates a story where there are very few people to root for. Edward is the main character, though more often than not he’s more of a hub around which the wheel of the story turns. His inability to see how annoying Gaveston is, and his cruel rebuffs of his wife’s affection make it hard to root for him. The only character who really evokes any sympathy is Edward and Isabella’s son (Jody Graber), who is ignored by all of the adults outside of their wanting to control him as the heir to the throne. The scheming Mortimer is presented as a villain partly through the fact that his military forces are seen violently clashing with gay rights protestors. On the whole, however, this film is a parade of villains, down to the sensual assassin (Kvein Collins, who was Jarman’s romantic partner) who is introduced in the last act. (Just a sidenote: the method of “secret murder” in this film/the play is so disturbing!). Normally I’m not a fan of “terrible people being terrible” movies or TV shows, but the layers of betrayal and scheming here are so compelling that the film had me from beginning to end.

A stunning, bloody drama.

The Mount, 2021

Philomena (Monica Ritchie) is a woman in her 60s living alone at the top of a large hill. Spending her evenings bantering with her daughter, Caroline (Chloe Loddo), over the phone, and indulging in flirtation with her neighbor Tony (Tony Loddo). But after she settles in for a Halloween night full of popcorn, pot, and sex, things go sideways when her home is invaded by a quartet of sociopathic young people who torment her.

After going to the trouble of building an engaging protagonist, this film devolves into a grim, glib mix of noise and torture that squanders the goodwill of its first act.

It’s always disappointing when a film surprises you by being better than you expected, only to crumble after thirty minutes. And worse, the film veers from being fun and different to being borderline unwatchable.

Ritchie’s Philomena is a fabulous lead character. She carves a gruesome face in a pumpkin, makes some microwave popcorn, and gets just the right amount of high with Tony on the couch before making their giggling way to the bedroom. It’s really rare to get an older character with a sex life where the whole concept isn’t (1) being disgusted about it or (2) it being a total joke. Instead, Philomena just seems like a really cool lady who is enjoying herself.

Now, if the quartet of obnoxious teens had shown up and the rest of the film had been a cat-and-mouse game between them and Philomena, fine. But what happens instead is that they show up, clonk her on the head, and then spend the rest of the movie tormenting her as she’s tied up in the kitchen and semi-conscious.

The teens themselves are stranded between two different types of horror villains. Villains that are over the top and absurd can be fun in their own way. Villains who feel really real can be very scary in their own way. The teens in this movie are a sickly dose of both categories. On one hand, they vamp around the house, saying weird stuff and doing weird things. One of them wears a mask over her face the whole night. One of them does weird body contortions. But given these characters, the film then frames the horror as torture porn. Philomena doesn’t match their over the top vibe. Instead, her half of the movie is the more realistic part: she’s hurt, she’s scared, and she spends the whole movie whimpering, moaning, screaming in pain, crying, or unconscious. Realistic? I guess. Entertaining? Hard no.

I’m not a fan of torture porn, and I was really disappointed when that was the direction that the film went. I don’t find people having their fingernails pulled off or their skin flayed to be scary. I just find it kind of generally upsetting and unpleasant. For me, it’s a horror subgenre that has no payoff. With no meaningful dialogue during these long, icky sessions, I found myself selectively fast-forwarding the seemingly endless minutes of the teens pulling out Philomena’s fingernails while she screamed in pain and they mocked her.

Naturally, you spend the whole movie waiting for Philomena to turn the tables on her tormentors. When something like this does finally (finally!) arrive, it’s incredibly unsatisfying and the whole last act just doesn’t work. The teens are shallow, shrieking caricatures. They are evil, but in such a superficial way that any comeuppance they receive is only positive because you’re rooting for Philomena to survive and these creeps are the thing standing in the way of her safety.

After the first 15-20 minutes, this whole film feels like a betrayal of the good will built up around Philomena’s character. The filmmakers seem far more interested in watching the teenagers vamp and preen like a bad parody of theater kids with a murderous bent.

Every single molecule of a star rating earned by this film is for Philomena and the moment when she opens a box with a sexy lingerie slip inside and asks, “What am I supposed to do with this? Fly it like a flag?”.

Wittgenstein, 1993

An abstract, comedic biography of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (Clancy Chassay as a child; Karl Johnson as an adult) that includes a rough sketch of the events of his life and conversations that illuminate his evolving views on philosophy and his own place in the world.

Full of fun staging and engaging performances, this quirky biographical film absolutely flies by.

A perpetual problem with movies that are biographies or “based on a true story” is that they fundamentally invite questions about the validity of what is being put on screen, and also possibly what is being omitted. Jarman neatly sidesteps that problem by making it clear that he’s only interested in a basic framing of the events of Wittgenstein’s life, and instead wants to center the man’s ideas. From the start, young Wittgenstein has linguistic debates with an alien called Mr. Green (Nabil Shaban), and so there is no question that this is an interpretation of a life.

Still, the biographical elements do make an impact, especially a speech by young Wittgenstein in the beginning where he outlines the lives and fates of his family. Three of his four brothers died, years apart, by suicide. A fourth brother lost an arm in the war, yet went on to become a concert pianist. His family was exceedingly, absurdly wealthy, and that background colors the rest of his life.

A large part of the film focuses on Wittgenstein’s time at Cambridge University. This is where the minimalist staging of the film---often just a black curtain backdrop and a handful of props--intersects really wonderfully with the content. The philosophy classes are always the same: a handful of men in their early or mid-twenties, having abstract conversations about language and meaning. This staging enhances Wittgenstein’s growing discontent with the very idea of philosophical debate. When he tries to go out into the “real world”, however, he is rebuffed and sent back to the ivory tower of academia.

There are plenty of hints throughout the film that Wittgenstein might have some mental health issues, but the movie’s attitude towards this seems to be that there’s a line where this might not actually be a bad thing. While I personally have mixed feelings about the idea that brilliant people should be forgiven for the harm they do, I liked the film’s empathetic approach to its mercurial protagonist.

A lot of the enjoyment of this film rests on the performances, and they are all pretty great. Chassay, as the child Wittgenstein, has great presence and I really enjoyed the portrayal of what it’s like to be a child prodigy. Rather than show Wittgenstein as just being smarter than his teachers, or something else equally stereotypical, it instead shows him as being surrounded by adults spewing meaningless chatter.

There are also very good supporting performances from Michael Gough as Bertrand Russell, John Quentin as John Maynard Keynes, and Tilda Swinton as would-be friend Ottoline Morrell. They all show in turn an appreciation for, and an exasperation with, Wittgenstein’s intelligence and eccentricities.

But it’s Karl Johnson, as the adult Wittgenstein, who really shines here. Prior to diving into Jarman’s filmography, my only real association with Johnson was his hilarious turn in Hot Fuzz. But here he captures a dry humor and a deep dissatisfaction of the character. It’s a performance that is at once frustrating and sympathetic. Wittgenstein is terrible at taking criticism and often speaks or acts impulsively. At the same time, you sense that this contrariness comes from something deeply internal. Wittgenstein can reconcile neither his internal world nor the external world.

As is par for the course with Jarman, the film is full of great visuals and use of color. The staging might be minimal, but it’s all a delight to look at.

A brisk and charming biographical comedy, and an easy recommend.