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Elle

Elle

2016.  Directed by Paul Verhoeven.

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Films are a complex gathering of essential ingredients, with each piece of the production working in concert to communicate a story and elicit an emotional response from the audience.  Rarely, a film will come along where the central performance is so overwhelming, so relentlessly powerful, that the other elements at play vanish into the ether.  Isabelle Huppert’s seminal performance in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle is such an animal, the elusive white rhino that haunts the boundaries of the medium, conjured into existence by an emotionally resonant and devious embrace of the material.  Using an uncharacteristic understanding of the pathos of victimization, Huppert delivers one of the most unforgettable performances in cinematic history before vanishing back into the void where the legends of film roam pathways of the soul.

 

Elle is a film that does not work without Huppert.  Her notorious style of risqué abandon harmonizes with Verhoeven’s explosive style to weave a thunderous tapestry of woe and desire.  Lesser talents require long scenes of exposition with quotable dialogue, to implant their personas within the viewer’s mind, a feat Huppert accomplishes with a mere glance of disdain.  At its core, David Birke’s script is about power:  Power in the workplace, in relationships, and in sexual encounters.  Huppert’s Michele is a victim, enshrined in the armor of an intimidating, sexually empowered executive who has built an empire of illusions around her.  The revelry is shattered when she is brutally raped and in the aftermath, casually goes back to her ruined kingdom, refusing to make the incident anything more than an apparent inconvenience, despite the concern from her friends and lovers.

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Verhoeven flirts with ideas of a victim’s revenge, but this is merely the surface of Elle’s harrowing intent.  As Michele attempts to bolster her surroundings, she understands her powerlessness, using the perceived weakness of her situation to an advantage, finding an advantage where none should exist.  This is a dark story that is definitely not for the casual viewer.  Aside from the disturbing depth of the story, there are brutal sequences of sexual violence along all of Verhoeven’s hallmarks.  His film is about a woman who finds strength in her victimization and chooses to embrace it, finding pleasure in the freedom of the idea of losing the basest notions of control, but yet never actually surrendering.

 

Stephane Fontaine’s suffocating cinematography keeps everything at the ground level.  Every look and each transgression of the flesh are on full display, peeling back the falsities to reveal the casual awfulness of everyday people which, when contrasted against the sexual deviancy at the center, appears almost worse.  This is the sheer brilliance of Elle.  Verhoeven sprinkles comic relief in the darkest corners of the narrative while flatly refusing to shy away from the discomfort.  Just when you think you’ve exhausted your tolerance and understanding of Michele’s plight she delves further into the darkness and you willingly take her icy hand, eager not only to explore the basement of the soul but ultimately, to decide where Michele’s limits end and yours begin.

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Verhoeven is notorious for violent exploitation with charm and Elle is the crown jewel in his gory pantheon of excess.  Every interaction is a negotiation and every scene of lust is a whispered rumor of scandal, overseen by a brooding and accusatory score by Anne Dudley.  Perhaps the best surprise of this sexual parable is that in the end, both the viewer and Michele find hope in her predicament, a wry admission that things that break us also strengthen and define us, a point that could only be made by Huppert’s flawless, tour de force performance.

 

Available now for digital rental, Elle is one of the best films of 2016.  Huppert received an Academy Award nomination for her performance, which given her fabled career is perhaps Elle’s greatest trick.  If you’re willing to explore a pitch black world of desire and control, in which the only escape is through self-acceptance via personal empowerment, Elle is an essential experience.

 

Highly.  Highly Recommend.

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Power Rangers

Power Rangers

2017.  Directed by Dean Israelite.

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2017’s first genuine surprise is here.  An outright refusal to slip into the creature comforts of the spandex universe, Dean Isrealite’s Power Rangers doesn’t redefine the superhero film, it makes it actually matter.  An intense, self-aware script plays to the strengths of a refreshingly diverse cast to deliver a crowd pleasing experience that is both playful and serious, mimicking the coming of age experience by telling a tale about self-acceptance and the importance of friendship.

Five misfits find mystical colored coins that turn them into the Power Rangers, a legion of larger than life soldiers who are charged with defending life.  They begin training in an attempt to unlock their “morphs”, powered armor that not only protects them, but uses their mutual bonds as a weapon against the ultimate evil, a fallen Ranger with designs on Earth.  John Gatins’ outstanding script checks every box on the list for a film like this, but rather than simply hitting the note and moving on to the next fight sequence, the story remains grounded in the plight of the young adults at its core.  Featuring the first autistic and LGBTQ superheroes and a wonderful mix of campy and somber themes, Power Rangers takes it time, making you care about these personas as they discover who they really are.

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Matthew J. Lloyd’s cinematography, particularly during the first two acts is sensational.  It begins with a dizzying car accident sequence that sets the tone before transitioning into crisp close ups of the stunning and beautifully imperfect cast.  These are real heroes, not pristine statues and the camera masterful captures their inner struggles while keeping the fantastical elements of the story present, but in the background.  There’s an inverted underwater sequence offset by slick lighting that is the standout, a telling whisper that the genre can be so much more than what it currently is.  There are moments of horror sprinkled throughout, with Elizabeth Banks’ Rita Repulsa obtaining gold in unspeakable ways, which is a reminder of the narrative’s refusal to be categorized.  The pacing and gliding between themes may be a turn off, however it is indicative of the comic book brand.  Many films of this type double down on the gritty or lighthearted side of the action, while Power Rangers asks “Why not both?” and it mostly works.

Sadly, the final act devolves into the standard destruction of the city/world ending scenario in which the heroes must save the day, but the fact that there is essentially only one fight sequence is astounding, and it doesn’t transpire until well over 90 minutes into the story.  Isrealite’s faith in the material and his cast is evident in every scene.  The matter of fact acceptance displayed by each character when confronted with their mortality is the centerpiece.  Where other films chronicle the journey of a flawed hero to greatness, the Power Rangers use their flaws to strengthen their bonds through self-love and mutual respect, with their intimate knowledge of their compatriots being the key to their survival.  Brian Tyler’s synth score encapsulates the teenagers vs. weirdness experience with pulsing tones and mysterious rhythms, touchstones to films where wonder and imagination are the real weapons against oppression and greed.

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The CGI is well done and the lack of fight scenes allows it to not overstay its welcome.  The television show involved big robots fighting big creatures, concepts that beg for this kind of treatment and the film delivers, not only showcasing interesting vehicles, but using slick editing to allow the viewer to actually comprehend what is happening once the mayhem begins.  Banks’ villain is underdeveloped, which is a hallmark of the genre, but her presence is menacing to the point that the final confrontation will have your attention, if only for her dedication to the melodrama.

In theaters now, Power Rangers is a welcome injection of fun and maturity to the blockbuster experience.  It’s not a perfect film by any means, but its patient storytelling, exceptional camera work, and perfect cast more than compensate for its expected shortcomings.  The studio has a six movie arc planned and if this film is an indicator of the possibilities for the franchise, viewers can expect great things if it succeeds.

Highly.  Highly Recommend.

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A Week of Monsters – Creature from the Black Lagoon

Creature from the Black Lagoon

1954.  Directed by Jack Arnold.

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As the 3D fad of the early 1950’s was dying, studios opted to film Creature from the Black Lagoon in the medium in an effort to draw out its welcome.  Despite failing in that endeavor, the film features stunning underwater cinematography that has inspired horror films since its debut.  Unable to extricate itself from the romance angle, Creature from the Black Lagoon spends the majority of its time building suspense, presenting the man vs. nature conflict as a forefather of the slasher film.

Scientists searching for the missing link intrude on the lair of an amphibious humanoid holdout from the prehistoric age.  The creature begins to stalk its hunters in an effort to defend its home while simultaneously becoming enamored with the expedition’s lone female member.  Even for the time, the premise was overdone, but The Creature from the Black Lagoon is not defined by its plot.  It is the sum of an engaging fraternity of technical achievements that support one another to cement Creature as a subconscious definition of terror.

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William Snyder’s aquatic cinematography is timeless, building off preceding legends to form a sinister foundation for the future.  The underwater sequences are terrifyingly evocative, with compositions reminiscent of Night of the Hunter that later would be used by Spielberg in Jaws.  The black depths are offset by natural light flittering through the surface to illuminate a world unknown to man and yet essential to mankind’s evolution, symbolizing the dark symmetry of the story.

The creature’s design was conceived by Disney animator Millicent Patrick, though lead makeup artist Bud Westmore claimed credit for several decades.  Constructed by prosthetic artists from World War II the creature is an original amalgam of myth and legend that is not text based, another stark difference from the other Universal Monsters.  Ben Chapman remained in the body suit for over 10 hours each day.  Unable to sit down, he spent down time in a lake near the shooting location in Florida to stay cool, a real life parallel to the primordial onus endured by the beast.

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At its core, Creature from the Black Lagoon is an exploration of animalistic survival.  There are environmental underpinnings, but the film is best when taken as a horror story about confronting the unknown and the dangers of scientific discovery.  Many of the Universal films deal with the pathos of their monstrous leads and Creature side steps this in favor of focusing on the excitement of the reveal.  Whether it involves an innocent swim or an ill-advised showdown, Creature aims to unsettle with its simplicity and it mostly succeeds.

Available now for digital rental, Creature from the Black Lagoon is one of the greatest horror films ever made, if only for its undeniable influence on the genre and its memorable cinematography.  Featuring remarkable costuming and makeup effects, this is the cornerstone of the Universal Monsters and a hallmark of American horror films.

Highly.  Highly Recommend.

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A Week of Monsters – The Invisible Man

The Invisible Man

1933.  Directed by James Whale.

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The Universal Monsters pantheon has a central theme of loss, with all of the stories focusing on a creature’s bereavement, be it from an errant loved one or surrendering to the murderous side of their nature.  James Whale’s The Invisible Man breaks this trend by focusing on the narcissistic aftermath of the protagonist’s transition from mild mannered scientist to preternatural madman.  A groundbreaking display of special effects enhances a sordid tale of discover gone awry, departing from traditional romantic Gothic themes and delving into the realm of criminal mayhem.

Claude Rains stars as the titular villain, a promising scientist whose experimentation with pharmaceuticals renders him invisible and unhinged.  R. C. Sheriff’s script weaves a farcical tale of madness and murder, with Rains’ interpretation of the material hearkening back to Lang’s Dr. Mabuse films, foreshadowing the eventualities of a certain Clown Prince.  The Invisible Man works best when the serious and slapstick combine, keeping the horror and pitch black comedy in harmony while never taking itself too seriously, but also never submitting completely to the satire.

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John Fulton’s special effects are vintage wizardry of the highest form.  The Invisible Man’s presentation and the use of wires to simulate obfuscated hijinks are jaw dropping considering the time.  While other films had the luxury of a visible monster, Fulton capitalized on the lack of a physical being, allowing the viewer’s mind to conjure the wickedness, making the film’s first act an unforgettable sequence of smoke and mirrors not often replicated to this day.  Una O’Conner’s squeamish innkeeper contrasts the underscored menace of Rains’ mysterious patron, leading to one of the film’s best, and absolutely hilarious scenes.  Despite the laughs, the film maintains an edge, staying loyal to the blackness that pulses through the heart of the story.

Murder is a complex undertaking.  Pre-code Hollywood was unrestricted, allowing Whale to take H. G. Wells’ novel into a realm of anarchy that continues to inspire cinematic villainy to this day.  This is reflected in several monologues that highlight Rains’ sinister transition by way of his relationship with an unwilling colleague, expounding upon the nebulous morality at the heart of Wells’ classic novel.  While it is the experiment that fractures the Invisible Man’s mind, it is the absence of identity, the unfettered freedom of true anonymity which calls to the dark heart of indulgence.

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Available now for digital rental, The Invisible Man is one of the strongest entries among the Universal Monster films. A maniacal central performance, a layered script, and cutting edge special effects work in tandem to allow Whale’s directorial prowess to deviate from narrative conventions to produce a chilling film that explores greed and mental duress, both of which are bathed in the shadow of gallows humor that infuses every scene of this essential film.

Highly Recommend.

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A Week of Monsters – Dracula

Dracula

1931.  Directed by Tod Browning.

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A love story steeped in esoteric secrets, Dracula is the flagship of the Universal Monster films.  An awkward marriage of the silent era and “talkies”, layered set designs and hypnotic cinematography combine to build an arcane illusion around Bela Legosi’s dark caricature at the center of the story.

Dracula is a well-known story tinged with Gothic horror.  From Russell Gausman’s menacing sets to Karl Freund’s legendary cinematography, Dracula is filled with an acrimonious air that chokes every scene.  The first act, which focuses on Renfield’s mental corruption, features lonely wide shots of a crumbling manse, a prison of the Count’s design, simulating an memorable experience of dread, beginning with a superstition laced presentation that slowly subverts expectations.  The fatal flaw is in Legosi’s often ridiculous delivery, audibly overstating the obvious for perceived effect while his classically trained body language is more than adequate, delivering some of the most iconic scenes in the history of the genre.  A looming eye of psychic control and an intense standoff between the hunters and the vampire display a uniquely American take on the German Expressionist legends that Dracula builds upon.  This however, creates a source of frustration as the nuances of Stoker’s text are glossed over in an effort to give the ludicrous central performance maximum screen time.

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The beauty of Garrett Fort’s script is in how it captures the romantic flourishes of the novel, both in the pursuit of Mina and in the harriers’ delicate dance with Dracula.  The mirror sequence is a masterful example of classical blocking and almost serves as the centerpiece, until Legosi’s bravado derails the mood.    There is virtually no perfect film.  Flaws can be found in anything, however Dracula suffers because the flaws of its essential performance almost outpace the artistic design, with the Spanish version (made simultaneously on the same lot at night) easily eclipsing the American cut because the crew shot after the Americans, allowing them to analyze the choices made and improve upon them.  Atmosphere is everything in Dracula and this is where the film manages to break free of its campy constraints.  Shadows enshroud ominous carriages while cautious villages dispense Crosses and well wishes before the darkness falls, transporting the viewer to a time when faith and folklore were weapons of the righteous.

Available now for digital rental, Dracula is a flawed endeavor that is ultimately liberated by an exquisite display of world building that not only ameliorates the damage of Legosi’s near fatal performance, but essentially sets the bar for American horror films with respect to ambiance.  Yet another essential entry into Universal’s sinister catalog, Dracula is a nostalgic shocker filled with technical wonders.

Highly Recommend.

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A Week of Monsters – Frankenstein

Frankenstein

1931.  Directed James Whale.

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A definitive example of man playing God that moonlights as a tragic examination of how sons are defined by their fathers, James Whale’s Frankenstein is an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s legendary Gothic novel with a surprisingly dark adherence to the source material.  An unforgettable lead performance, unnerving set designs, and brooding cinematography combine to deliver a seminal film about the nature of identity and the dark wonders of parenthood.

Dr. Frankenstein creates a living being from harvested corpses in the European countryside.  His creation quickly gets out of control, setting off a pulse pounding, sorrow filled manhunt that forces the Doctor to confront his vain attempts at omnipotence.  Boris Karloff stars as the Monster, a role that would jettison him to the heights of horror character acting.  His ability to communicate childlike awe through the hideous filter of an abomination is both terrifying in its power and pitiable in its summation.  Colin Clive supports as Dr. Frankenstein, the mad genius who dares disturb the universe.  His chemistry with Karloff is not given enough time to grow, but the fundamentals of their relationship are abundantly clear, bordering on satire.  Fathers often defend the deeds of their offspring while failing to grasp how their own actions were essential to the process and the doctor is no exception.

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Arthur Edeson’s eerie cinematography is transformative.  The tight, bizarre framing of the laboratory scenes are contrasted by the sharp angles of civilization.  The black and white colors become more defined as the story moves to the doomed marriage of the second act, reminding the viewer that there is always a cost by making everything appear real when compared to the fever dream sequences of the beginning.  Jack Pierce’s makeup design eschews the inhuman appearance from the novel in favor of something almost human, giving the creature the appearance of a monstrous savant, an unholy man-child whose hulking form is encased in a Spartan, but unforgettable pauper’s ensemble designed by Mae Bruce.

The screenplay captures the high notes of the novel, allowing for some darker, pre-Hays code departures including an accidental drowning and a harrowing showdown amidst a burning mill that would eventually be censored.  Despite the astounding technical elements, Frankenstein never gets to the heart of Shelley’s material, with everything riding on the monster’s massive shoulders, overshadowing the moments in between by rushing to creature’s next chilling appearance.  Whale’s directorial presence is minimal, letting his cast do the work and coasting to each set piece without ever grabbing the viewer by the throat.  At its core, this is a tragedy masquerading as a horror film.  This initially seems like a minor flaw, but future offerings in the series would unabashedly display the terrifying (in)human elements that are possible for such a film, a reminder of Frankenstein’s flaws.

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Available now for digital rental, Frankenstein is a classic horror film whose importance to the medium remains relevant today.  While falling short of its follow up, Frankenstein spins a familiar, but satisfying tale of mad science and the anathema of its design.  Featuring outstanding set pieces and a soulful central performance, this is an excellent starting point for exploring the Universal Monster canon or a spooky trip down memory lane during the Halloween season.

Highly Recommend.

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A WEEK OF MONSTERS – THE MUMMY

The Mummy

1932.  Directed by Karl Freund.

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Remakes, reboots, and outright rip offs are something that has plagued the entertainment industry since its inception.  For the most part, these rehashes fail to rise to the level of their predecessors, however, once in a while, a unique take on the concept not only out paces its source material, it becomes a legend.  Karl Freund’s iconic Universal Monster film, The Mummy, takes the premise of Dracula and reskins it with an Egyptian location and a rag laden lover searching for his soul mate to present a tragic love story enshrouded in a noir horror package.  A nightmarish central performance, inventive lighting, and evocative cinematography combine to form a classic thriller that has been endlessly replicated over the decades since its debut.

 

Cinematic legend Boris Karloff stars as the eponymous character.  His portrayal of the cursed priest has become a cinematic foundation, with his determined eyes and stoic mannerisms drawing the focus whenever he appears.  His chemistry with Zita Johann, who plays both his past lover and her present incarnation, was initially treated as a flippant afterthought, an understandable byproduct of John Balderston’s hammy script.  However, there is a guarded sense of commitment to the material that shines through whenever both actors are engaged that ties into the tragic heart of the familiar story, mimicking love’s ability to create worlds of amorous abandon for those it ensnares.

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Jack Pierce’s gruesome make up design is an essential part of this film, both in its memorable appearance and the difficulty by which it was applied.  Karloff had to endure hours of application before filming his mummy scenes in the middle of the night.  For the bulk of the film, his appearance is more restrained, but the attention to detail, the research undertaken by Pierce for authenticity, is undeniable during each scene with the titular creature.

 

Freund, who was the director of photography on Dracula and Metropolis, uses a variety of lighting techniques to frame his world in dark silhouettes and deep corridors, drenching the screen with shadowy undertones that heighten the mystique while bolstering the sense of dread that harries the proceedings. These distinct visuals are highlighted by Charles Stumar’s cinematography, which uses close framing to give The Mummy a distinct appearance, separating it from both its previous and future monstrous colleagues.  While the story takes beats from Dracula, it purposefully strays from the arcane underpinnings and slowly builds towards a final occult overload.

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Available now for digital rental, The Mummy is essential viewing.  While the cheesy dialogue is initially a turn off, Karloff’s masterful performance and Freund’s outstanding technical command are able to unnerve and delight in equal portions.  A minimalist horror film that showcases elaborate make up and costuming effects, this is one of the classics.  If you’re looking to revisit your childhood or get acquainted with the original before this summer’s remake, The Mummy is a remarkable early Hollywood experience.

 

Highly Recommend.

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