Sunday, November 30, 2014

It is interesting that this year's two best horror films, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and The Babadook, were both directed by women.

Described as "the first Iranian vampire western," Ana Lily Amirpour's  A Girl Walks Home at Night feels like a finger in the eye of a patriarchal society, but more than that, of a patriarchal genre. It's no secret that the horror genre has always been male-centric; made by men, marketed to men, and featuring lots of scantily clad women in distress.

There is female nudity in A Girl Walks Home at Night, but here it doesn't feel exploitatitve, it feels revolutionary. This is, after all, an Iranian film, directed by an Iranian woman. Much like Haifaa Al-Mansour's Wadjda (2013), an essentially feminist tale that became the first Saudi Arabian film ever directed by a woman, A Girl Walks Home Alone at night is something of a landmark coming out of the oppressive Islamic regime.

Courtesy of Kino Lorber.
Plot-wise, there doesn't seem to be too much going on here. The film centers around a burqa-clad vampire stalking the streets of a fictional Iranian town called Bad City, preying on the lonely and predatory men. Lest you get the impression this is some sort of feminist revenge fantasy, think again. Our vampire is an equal opportunity blood sucker. But there is something about a sexually empowered Muslim woman preying on men in a historically patriarchal country that is hard to ignore. It's certainly an indelible image, one that makes up the film's haunting and unearthly center. But that's where any semblance of a conventional plot ends.

The vampire, it turns out, is lonely herself; starved for attention and in need of friendship. She finds that friendship in the form of another lonely soul. This is where Amirpour delves into more surreal territory. If you come to the film looking for a plot, you may find yourself confused or frustrated. But you would also be missing the point. Watching A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, I was reminded of the work of Jean Rollin, whose trademark brand of surreal erotic horror in films like The Nude Vampire, Lips of Blood, and The Iron Rose feels like a spiritual predecessor to Amirpour's film.

Courtesy of Kino Lorber
Rollin's films rarely made sense - but that wasn't the point. But this is no mere empty exercise in style. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night incorporates elements of the horror and western genres, then throws in some film noir for good measure, to create a truly unique genre synthesis. By upending audience expectations, Amirpour deconstructs then reconstructs her chosen genres in increasingly fascinating ways. There's just nothing else out there like it. Amirpour, along with Jennifer Kent, have muscled their way into the horror boys' club by giving us scares that go much deeper than the usual jump scares and gore. While Kent goes for psychological horror, Amirpour goes for something otherworldly, a creeping unease that completely eschews conventional ideas of fear, centered around a female character who serves as both antagonist and protagonist, monster in the dark and damsel in distress.

That's what makes A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night such a special film. Amirpour asserts her own singular voice with such staggering confidence that the film is impossible to ignore. It completely defies filmmaking convention, announcing the arrival of a towering new cinematic talent. A black and white Iranian vampire western directed by a woman may sound like the Loch Ness Monster of horror movies, but it's actually the best thing that the horror genre has given us in recent memory.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT | Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour | Stars Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Mozhan Marnò, Dominic Rains | Not rated | In Farsi w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Judy Irving, director of the 2005 documentary, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (which remains one of my favorite documentaries of the last decade), turns her attention to pelicans in this doc about an injured bird who was rescued from the Golden Gate Bridge and sent to a rescue center.

Pelican Dreams follows the bird, whom Irving names "Gigi," through her rehab, as well as other pelicans at the center, some of whom are eventually released back into the wild. Irving clearly cares a lot about this subject, and about birds in general, but unlike in Wild Parrots, that love doesn't necessarily translate into riveting cinema.

The film has a promising start, and it's easy to see why Irving chose Gigi's story as the subject of her next film. Unfortunately, the cards of reality didn't fall in place in such a way as to make this a particularly interesting story.

The birds are rescued, they receive treatment, the humans grow attached to them. That's about it. Criticizing the film feels a bit like kicking a puppy, because it's undeniably adorable, and will doubtless win the hearts of people who enjoy movies about cute animals, but there's just not much meat here. Irving attempts to pad out the scant 80 minute running time with facts about pelicans and some heartbreaking footage of birds that have been affected by oil spills and other environmental damage. But it's all so brief that it just feels like an afterthought. I'm not sure that the subject at hand really warranted its own feature film, it feels like a documentary short stretched out to feature length.

As it stands, Gigi's story is not that remarkable on its own. I'm not so cynical as to dismiss a film about cute birds, but it never really asserts itself beyond that. The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill was such an emotionally enriching experience, and you can feel Irving reaching for that same kind of compelling emotional hook, but nothing really sticks. It's diverting enough on its own, the birds are fun to watch, and it mostly serves its purpose, but you can probably see more engaging work on the Discovery Channel. Maybe pelicans just aren't as interesting as parrots, but documentaries are meant to observe life as it actually is, and in this case, life didn't give us a story that makes for great cinema.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

PELICAN DREAMS | Directed by Judy Irving | Not Rated | Now playing in select cities.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

From The Dispatch:
“Birdman” is about meaning, about leaving a legacy, about asserting to the world that we did something worth remembering. It’s about a group of really screwed up people searching for truth in a world of artifice, where the only honesty they ever know comes in a performance on a stage. There’s a strange current of melancholy pulsing beneath the surface of “Birdman,” and that’s what makes such a singular and incredible achievement. This is bravura filmmaking, a jaw dropping directorial feat for Iñárritu, but most importantly, a soulful film, an intelligent film, the kind of rich and hearty grown up movie that Hollywood has seemingly forgotten to make, which was the whole point all along.
Click here to read my full review.
There's something uniquely breathtaking about watching Leon Poirier's silent 1928 docudrama, Verdun: Looking at History, a film made to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the end of what was then known as The Great War.

It's something that takes a while to sink in while watching the film. We seem so far removed from WWI, much more so than we do from WWII. Most of us have known someone who fought in or lived through WWII, its history as been thoroughly covered in movies and TV shows for decades. But WWI seems more foreign, less glorified. Its history is less glorious and heralded. It was a pointless war born of secret alliances and childish posturing, leading the deaths of millions in the first modern war, where old fashioned military tactics ran headlong into the new industrial machinery of death. It is much harder, then, to look at WWI through the heroic lens that we usually look at WWII, because no one really remembers what we were fighting for, and I'm not sure the people fighting it knew either.

It is difficult to fathom that Verdun was a film made by people for whom WWI was still a fresh reality. And indeed, the film feels shockingly authentic, as if it were shot directly on the battlefield of Verdun itself. It wasn't, of course, but Poirier meticulously recreated it using actors like infamous playwright Antonin Artaud and Maurice Schultz (who also co-starred with Artaud as a villainous priest in Carl Th. Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc that same year). While the film as a whole is no great artistic achievement, its authenticity is nevertheless notable. It plays like a series of loosely connected scenes depicting the war without any real through line to hold it all together, but it is filled with stunning set pieces and haunting imagery. It is clear that Poirier took his cues from D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) in his staging of the battles, although his cinematography is much more static than Griffith's.

That's what really keeps Verdun from being the truly great film that it could have been. It is fascinating as a historical artifact, but it is never more than that. It feels as though we are watching history unfold before our very eyes. It doesn't even feel like a movie really, it feels like an accidental eyewitness to history, as if someone just happened to have a camera with them when WWI broke out and captured the whole terrible affair for future generations. It is a film with individual flashes of greatness that structurally never add up to a satisfying whole. Still though, its historical importance can't be denied, and Kino Lorber should be commended for making it available on DVD for the very first time. As a historical document, Verdun is absolutely essential. Watching it is an undeniably moving experience, knowing that this was a document of one of the most terrible human conflicts of all time made by the very people who lived it. It feels fresh and vital even 86 years later, a chilling and unforgettable reminder of a war that has been largely forgotten through time and distance. In Verdun, all that time and distance is searingly erased.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Now available on DVD from Kino Lorber.