Sunday, October 15, 2023

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1998: Death to Death

It is October, so why not get into the spooky season with tales of death, ghosts, family secrets, witchcraft - why, even two actual horror movies!

What Dreams May Come
release: October 2
winner: Best Visual Effects
nominee: Best Art Direction

A man dies and explores the afterlife, but still feels a pull to his widow in the living world. The sets and visual effects are, indeed, awesome: the conceit that everyone designs their own afterlife that others may visit makes for an incredible array of visuals: one world made of paint, down to layers of blotch in the walls; one a diorama/mobile come to life, people soaring through the air; and the vision of Hell as a sea of crying zombies leading to a beach of decaying ships and a cliff of trapped faces and... Well, it's cool, is what I'm saying. A little long, a lot finger-waggy about suicide, as though people tempted to kill themselves don't have enough to feel bad about, and there are three "reveals" that, each time they happened, had me rolling my eyes - are they so necessary? Weird race stuff. Overall, it's beautifully made and well-acted, but it is not the meaningful meditation it wants to be.

The Celebration
release: October 9

Lauded as the first of the Dogme '95 films, a movement among Danish filmmakers that saw the young auteurs eschew Hollywood "tricks" in favor of handheld cameras, hissing soundtracks, natural (sometimes poor?) lighting, and intimate narratives, all in the name of realism and purity. Here, Thomas Vinterberg uses this bare-bones aesthetic to make us part of a large gathering at an isolated hotel in honor of its wealthy owner's 60th birthday. Family and friends are gathered, but the festivities take a turn when one toast becomes an opportunity to air secrets. The effect on the party and the fallout throughout are surprising and surreal...and frustrating, enraging. Given the subject matter, it's a surprisingly watchable film, not the endurance test one would suppose. The Dogme style enhances the experience.

release: October 16
nominee: Best Costume Design (Colleen Atwood)

Film adaptation of Toni Morrison's classic novel about a woman haunted by spirits, finally visited by a figure of trauma and guilt who feeds on her energy. A ghost story that addresses Southern Blacks' work to make lives and communities in the aftermath of war and the new Freedom, about the horrors they never really left behind. Jonathan Demme once again proves himself a master of horror and of people's stories. Really impressed with Oprah Winfrey's work here...and with Thandie Newton's, too, she is going for the madness and is not worried about being off-putting...and with Beah Richards' sermons...and Kimberly Elise's watching, thinking, judging. What a cast.

Bride of Chucky
release: October 16

Chucky's girlfriend Tiffany revives the doll-trapped serial killer, and she in turn winds up trapped in a companion doll. They leave a trail of bodies as they make their way to a graveyard where an amulet is buried that will get them back to human form. It's more involved than that, honestly, but most of the movie is devoted to horror-comic antics like impaling lovers with a mirrored ceiling or finding 1,000 ways to stab a victim or a goth doll sex scene. Jennifer Tilly and Brad Dourif are having fun, isn't that nice. I'd say this is either your cup of tea or it isn't but, honestly, I can understand being neutral, too. I am, after all.

release: October 16

Three sisters form the core of intertwining stories about miserable people and their attempts to search for something in their hollow lives that will make them feel fulfilled. Infamous for one subplot focusing on a suburban family man who has frank sexual discussions with his son and also happens to be an unrepentant pedophile. The openness, the bluntness with which writer-director Todd Solondz approaches such a topic - in addition to rape (and fantasies thereof), dismemberment, sexual harassment, public masturbation, domestic violence, suicide, and many other taboos, should be off-putting. It is off-putting. But it's oddly funny and strangely...I guess human? You don't sympathize, you don't defend, but you do feel the chill of recognizing a monster in human form.

Practical Magic
release: October 16

Every woman I know messaged me when they found out I saw this for the first time to wax rhapsodic over its merits. Now, I don't begrudge anyone a good time. And the actresses are all great. And the set is incredible, a perfectly cozy witch's cottage that I wish I lived in. But it takes a choppy, clunky, all-over-the-place twenty minutes to get to the story, the midnight margaritas sequence is fun but stylistically and narratively out of nowhere, there are jarring edits galore to get us through's a mess. Yet I get the appeal: if you're going to have a sloppy good time, you'd want it to be with these women in this house. In the end, the Midnight Margaritas scene turns out to be the most emblematic of the film's style. And frankly? Flaws and all, I want to watch it again.

release: October 23
nominee: Best Dramatic Score, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Costume Design (Judianna Makovsky)

One doesn't want their view of a film to be defensive, but I've heard some, if not exactly nay-saying, at least some underwhelmed yawns thrown Pleasantville's way, usually comparing it unfavorably to the similarly-themed The Truman Show (and sometimes, too, Dark City). Now, they're all good films, but Pleasantville has the edge for me just due to its idea that great, thriving, exciting communities are built by interesting, open, colorful individuals. It's not an "everyone is against me" story, it's a "why are we against ourselves" one. I love that it clearly has affection for the squeaky-clean 1950s sitcom trappings, but appreciates them for what they are: facades from another time; a fantasy, not a portrait of how things used to be, not even a goal for how things ought to be. Perfection is sinister and dull, there is life and drama in not being home at the same time every night, at doing something different with your hair...and, yes, in experiencing the physical pleasures that God in His wisdom made our bodies capable of feeling. Pleasantville is optimistic about our future together, even as it warns us to veer away from the trap not just of complacency but of fear of the new. It doesn't have to be prescient, because it is always relevant.

American History X
release: October 30
nominee: Best Actor (Edward Norton)

I remember when I was young, this was the daring film everyone breathlessly recommended - friends, teachers, classmates. And why not, with its depiction of neo-Nazis in modern America, looking at how those quiet remarks said at the dinner table ("I'm no racist, but...") lead to a warped ideology that is then passed down, enabled by the passive and frightened among them. Tony Kaye directs and also acts as cinematographer, striking black-and-white of the past juxtaposed against the colorful and complex present (maturity!). Is it problematic doggerel, style over substance, something less complex and just shy of the mark than its sweeping score and visuals seem to suggest? Friends, maybe I'm too easily swayed, but I thought it was a true enough portrayal of hate as an easy intoxicant. Once you realize "they" are inferior and yet conspiring against you - you, the truly exceptional! - all your inhumanity is excused. Is Edward Norton's arc from racist murderer to conscious convert a little unbelievable? I don't know...I think he makes the conscious choice to stop being an idiot, the reason may be stupid but it's perfectly his. And whatever happens after doesn't prove the futility of change, but rather the pervasiveness of what came before - it's hard to stop the bleeding when you make sure the wound doesn't heal.

Living Out Loud
release: October 30

Holly Hunter is a recent divorcee internally monologuing her way through this new life of hers, befriending the elevator operator Danny DeVito, frequenting a jazz club headlined by Queen Latifah, full of insights like, "I can't stand those terrorists, they're so mad at everybody, I wish they'd just get over it!" Give Holly Hunter some sharp lines and let her loose for two hours and you've got a good movie - plus this has a dance number in a lesbian club! Great story about ruts and the friends we find there with us.

Gods and Monsters
release: November 4
winner: Best Adapted Screenplay (Bill Condon)
nominee: Best Actor (Ian McKellen), Best Supporting Actress (Lynn Redgrave)

A fiction about the last year of James Whale, director of Frankenstein (and Show Boat and The Bride of Frankenstein and Waterloo Bridge and The Invisible Man and on and on) and an openly gay man in Golden Age Hollywood, now retired and not not bitter about his reputation and career. Buoyed by Carter Burwell's score and a mischievous Ian McKellen performance. Mostly fine, I wouldn't exactly call it formulaic but I wouldn't call it a fresh take either - fictional character meets and befriends eccentric historical figure is a tried-and-true biopic spin, after all.

Velvet Goldmine
release: November 6
nominee: Best Costume Design (Sandy Powell)

Ten years after a bad stunt, a journalist dives into the rise, fall, and disappearance of glam rocker Brian Slade. Todd Haynes' tribute to the androgynous stars of the 70s with their various modes of artistic expression (beautiful! hideous! theatrical! raw!), their music and personae influencing culture and pushing a generation of queers into realizing and embracing who they are. Incredibly sexy, of course. That costume nomination is, oh my goodness, perfection; couldn't one have been given to the makeup, to any of the original songs?

I Still Know What You Did Last Summer
release: November 13

Having survived the previous entry, Jennifer Love Hewitt takes a trip to the Caribbean with her new friends - but death follows. A panicked, bad entry. I don't want to waste my time here.

Meet Joe Black
release: November 13

Death comes to Earth in human form and falls in love with the daughter of the man he's meant to escort to the Beyond. Generally well-made if overlong. Makes some curious choices, like deciding every now and then that Death is almost infantile in his understanding of the world (you're telling me Death is unfamiliar with the concept of peanut butter? is there another Angel of Mercy that handles allergies?), or suddenly introducing the idea that no one is dying while Death remains on Earth and not exploring that beyond an elderly Creole woman in the hospital. It's overthinking the world-building so far that it's gone right back to underthinking it. All that said, you want me to tell you a movie where Anthony Hopkins looks back at the life he's had, the 65 years on this earth, the successful business, the family he both adores and takes for granted, you want me to tell you this drama about a man trying to define his legacy at the end of his life isn't worth seeing? Because I can't. I found peace of mind watching this movie.

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