Mediocre: A Real Young Girl

A Real Young Girl (1976)
Directed and written by Catherine Breillat
Produced by Guy Azzi, Pierre-Richard Muller, André Génovès
Starring Charlotte Alexandra, Hiram Keller, Bruno Balp, Rita Maiden, Georges Guéret, Shirley Stoler
Misanthropy, sadistic seduction, bodily exploration and esthetic indulgence were still fresh themes for Breillat when she adapted her fourth novel as a drab debut feature to the revulsion of French viewers ere its proscription. On holiday with her stodgily bourgeois parents (Balp, Maiden) at a squalid rural locale, a sulky adolescent (Alexandra) broods idly, swoons over tacky pop songs, hatefully lusts for a hunky prole (Keller) employed in her father’s sawmill and introduces a farrago of foreign articles to her love canal. No stranger to scabrous characterization, Alexandra’s aptly cast and uninhibited as the pretentious and farouche flirt, a prototype of Breillat’s many dallying protagonists consumed by libido and whimsies. As bold as boring whenever it isn’t peevingly comedic, Breillat’s first film is effectively evocative of teenage ennui and concupiscence…often at the expense of any intentional entertainment.
Recommended for a double feature paired with Nocturnal Uproar.

Palatable: Cronos

Cronos (1993)
Directed and written by Guillermo del Toro
Produced by Arthur Gorson, Bertha Navarro, Francisco Murguía, Bernard L. Nussbaumer, Alejandro Springall, Rafael Cruz, Julio Solórzano Foppa, Jorge Sánchez
Starring Federico Luppi, Margarita Isabel, Ron Perlman, Claudio Brook, Tamara Shanath, Daniel Giménez Cacho
Hematophagous cravings are but one of many archetypal symptoms suffered in exchange for perennial life by those who utilize an ovate biomechanical contraption crafted by an alchemist of the early sixteenth-century in Del Toro’s handsome, inspired premier picture. In the 1990s, the respective ages of a meticulous antiques dealer (Luppi) who discovers the sanguineous device and his cute niece (Isabel) are contrasted, as is their affectionate relationship to that of a moribund and hermitically sequestrated industrialist (Brook) fixated on his prospective acquisition of the widget and his brutish, churlish nephew (Perlman), who loathes this senior patron yet acts as his proxy for a fulsome inheritance that’ll fund the rhinoplasty for which he longs. At his first directorial post, Del Toro neither pulled punches nor stretched dollars; this bloody, beautifully shot, consistently engrossing variation on vampirism was produced with a professionalism evidencing its $2M budget (a record high for a Mexican production in ’93). Transmutation realized by the expert application of marvelously macabre makeup effects and gallows humor alike here underscore the inhumanity of immortality: that titular instrument enables interminable subsistence, but only subject to its user’s irrevocable forfeiture of their humanity.

Sublime: Innocence

Innocence (2004)
Directed by Lucile Hadzihalilovic
Written by Frank Wedekind, Lucile Hadzihalilovic
Produced by Patrick Sobelman, Geoffrey Cox, Alain de la Mata, Paul Trijbits
Starring Zoé Auclair, Bérangère Haubruge, Lea Bridarolli, Hélène de Fougerolles, Marion Cotillard, Olga Peytavi-Müller
Foucault would surely have thrilled to anatomize the passive means by which the cloistered orphans of a remote boarding school are constrained by competition, selective obscurantism, dissemination of scuttlebutt and the accordance of authority in this moony reflection on aberrant childhood. Less an adaptation than a subtilized impression of Wedekind’s novel Mine-Haha, Hadzihalilovic’s analytic celebration of juvenile vim and natural splendor resonates with the unlikely realism resident in equivocacy: unlike too many of her peers, she treasures and masterfully exercises diegetic enigmas. Never pampered, little sylphs skylark within their orphanage’s forested, halcyon grounds, autonomous whenever unattended by their chief pedagogue (Fougerolles) or ballet instructor (Cotillard). Their ages are chromatically denoted by ribbons securing pigtails, and the eldest preteens among them are empowered the charge of their juniors – a representation that exhibits how maturation commences as a facile mimicry of adulthood. An aqueous significance exceeds rural and recreational contexts as an emblem of transience, incandescence and danger. Metaphors interspersed for the attentive gracefully reveal and prefigure implications abundant, as the callow whims, perturbations and aspirations of budding filles chastened and conformed by reliance and peer pressure vividly recall the wonder and impetuosity and impenitence of youth. By so acutely yet gently presenting childhood as a cowing landscape, festive yet fugitive playground and microcosm of adult exploitation, Hadzihalilovic’s crafted a picture as mature as her subjects aren’t with scrupulous framing and performances of allusive nuance. She’s as complete a filmmaker as any presently active.

Favorites: Freaked

Freaked (1993)
Directed by Tom Stern, Alex Winter
Written by Tom Stern, Alex Winter, Tim Burns
Produced by Stephen Chiodo, Harry J. Ufland, Mary Jane Ufland, Alex Winter
Starring Alex Winter, Michael Stoyanov, Megan Ward, Randy Quaid, Keanu Reeves, Brooke Shields
Massive, murderous Rastafarian eyeballs, a vermicious zoologist, transgendered Mr. T and a grisly menagerie of faunal hybrids are among the multifarious choleric, conflated, fanged, feral, foul, gawky, ghoulish, gratuitous, grungy, malign, meshuga, mutinous, nauseant, obstreperous, outrageous, perverse, precipitous, pugnacious, savage, shameless chimeras who run amok in this theatrical follow-up to Winter’s and Stern’s goofy televised sketch series, The Idiot Box. A contumelious, acquisitive actor (Winter) and his obnoxious buddy (Stoyanov) are whisked to a fictional Latin American nation by an unscrupulous multinational to endorse an inexplicably ruinous toxic fertilizer they’ve disseminated for a $5M paycheck. After befriending a pretty yet peevish environmental activist (Ward) under starkly false pretenses, both the reprobate duo and their censorious acquaintance are seized by a redneck mad scientist and theme park proprietor (Quaid) who bestows the aforementioned goop to metamorphose his many captives into themed monstrosities. Stern and Winter sustain the brisk pace of this unabashedly antic farce with an abundance of sight gags, hammy acting, recurrent tumult and nauseating special effects. Alas, Peter Chernin spoiled this picture’s potential success by slashing its post-production budget and limiting its distribution to a paltry pair of theaters in the worst executive sabotage of a substantial project since Dawn Steel undermined Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, but even the debased theatrical cut reflects more inspiration (in the style of Mad magazine) than a score of contemporary comedies. It’s as ludicrous as humor comes, but if you care to gauge your maturity, just try to suppress your giggles through its duration.

Execrable: The Night We Never Met

The Night We Never Met (1993)
Directed and written by Warren Leight
Produced by Michael Peyser, Robert De Niro, Rudd Simmons, Mary Ann Page, Janet Graham, Daniel Rogosin, Susan Seidelman, Sidney Kimmel, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein
Starring Matthew Broderick, Annabella Sciorra, Kevin Anderson, Justine Bateman, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Tim Guinee, Michelle Hurst, Christine Baranski
Leight’s insipidly indirect contribution to the surplusage of charmless, unfunny, independently produced romantic comedies that glutted American theaters in the ’90s contains all the earmarks of its genus: smarm substituted for sarcasm, painfully proportionate protraction and predictability, and an abject absence of agreeable characters. Obstructed and repelled by the slovenly roommates with whom he shares a flyblown apartment, a precious, superficially cultured delicatesseur (Broderick, at his career’s nadir) employed at Dean & DeLuca who harbors a restauranteur’s aspirations sublets more comfortable and commodious lodgings from a scummily sexist broker (Anderson) biweekly, as does a miserably married dental assistant (Sciorra) who luxuriates only in her painterly avocation. Both men (and the audience) tolerate dismal women: ever a milksop, the fromagier dotes on a dimwitted performance artist (Tripplehorn, burlesquing an atrocious French accent) who works him like her personal punch press, while his piggish landlord’s engaged to magisterial and neanderthaloid dullard Bateman, who couldn’t be more suitable for the role of a dense virago. By correspondence and favors, both of the desperate leaseholders (who repeatedly, adorably miss one other) establish a remote sympathy, but enduringly discommodious misapprehensions characteristic of a plot belabored during a sitcom’s seventh season separate them until a distinctly underwhelming conclusion. It’s far worse a rigor than most flicks of its subgenre: plodding formulaically through its three hoary acts — every development of which any child could readily presage — character development is advanced an inch in toto through wearily dilatory sequences clumsily punctuated by ill-timed fades and lousy editing to the jazzy twee of Evan Lurie’s unbearable score, all parading the inefficiencies of the writer-director and his post-production staff. An apish, clamorous tantrum provoked from Bateman briefly dispels supreme tedium, but cameos from Garry Shandling and Louise Lasser only remind viewers that they could instead be watching something worthwhile, or at least humorous. Impressively, Leight fulfilled what ought be an impossibility by raising the funds to produce an ostensive comedy void of a single amusing scene.

Palatable: Criminal Law

Criminal Law (1988)
Directed by Martin Campbell
Written by Mark Kasdan
Produced by Robert K. MacLean, Hilary Heath, Ken Gord, Derek Gibson, John Daly
Starring Gary Oldman, Kevin Bacon, Karen Young, Tess Harper, Elizabeth Shepherd, Joe Don Baker, Michael Sinelnikoff, Sean McCann
Scruples are foisted upon rather than acquired by a complete, cocksure criminal defense attorney (Oldman) after the wealthy, pyromaniacal serial rapist and murderer (Bacon) for whom he’s wrested an acquittal resolves to retain his services in exchange for extravagant remuneration and an unbidden firsthand exhibition of his malefactions. Notwithstanding its universal critical scorn, Oldman’s performance is actually fine, albeit marred by a nebulously unconvincing pan-Atlantic accent. Neither are his co-stars at all deficient; as the demented recidivist, Bacon’s frightful, gazing conviction occasionally dwarfs Oldman’s own presence: both sustain an absorbing naturalistic tension whether delivering dialogue elegant or bromidicly ostentatious. Accomplished action director Campbell triggers some efficacious shocks with taut cuts, clamant foley and tight close-ups and zooms, but this flick’s proficiently depicted morbidity and violence hardly composes its most intriguing scenes. A curious contradistinction between the counselor’s most dramatic exchanges with two detectives of his reluctant connivance (Harper, Baker) and a victim’s acquaintance (Young) with whom he’s romantically involved, and those allusive with an avuncular law professor (Sinelnikoff), his brooding client and his frigid mother (Shepherd) divulge the pathologic key to both the murders and their motive, impel narrative and characters alike, and reflect the duplicities immanent of the culprit, his counsel and jurisprudence itself. Alas, the novel story is burdened with implausibility: Young and Oldman produce terrific chemistry together, but the amorous aspect of their relationship is as absurd as a gaping hole in an otherwise tidy plot: the most fledgling investigator would have solved this case within minutes of the aforementioned key’s inculpative disclosure; one can only assume that Mitchell’s trenchancy’s been much reduced by crapulence. Campbell’s slick direction is buttressed by the alternating grime and floridity of Curtis Schnell’s sensational production design, best evidenced in a wooden, subterranean bedchamber of a nautical theme. Its many flaws don’t overcome this prepossessing (if occasionally preposterous) crime drama’s strengths, chief among them an antagonist whose personal depth and deplorably thoughtful proposal of retributive incendiarism and murder as both a perquisite and moral obligation have few cinematic similitudes.

Sublime: Cul-de-Sac

Cul-de-Sac (1966)
Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by Roman Polanski, Gérard Brach
Produced by Sam Waynberg, Gene Gutowski, Michael Klinger, Tony Tenser
Starring Donald Pleasence, Françoise Dorléac, Lionel Stander, Geoffrey Sumner, Renee Houston, Jack MacGowran, Iain Quarrier
A marital mismatch’s lifestyle of reputed repose is disrupted by twain waves of welter when a jittery, retired industrialist (Pleasence) and his beddable, whimsically wanton trophy wife (Dorléac) residing in an ancient manse of the Northumberland seaboard suffer imposition first by an injured couple of crooks (Stander, MacGowran), then an unheralded party of the retiree’s intolerable friends. Polanski’s jet-black comedy first pits natural nebbish Pleasence against raspy Stander’s buirdly barbarism, but both the characters’ and audience’s sympathies are twisted by actions wholly dictated by fancy and umbrage, relating a common superficiality between perpetrator and bourgeois. Keenly scripted and shot by one of but a few filmmakers to exploit both Dorléac sisters effectively, this hysterical specimen of Polanski’s perfect pacing and inconspicuously painstaking images merely demonstrates that necessaries are more relative and less overt than most might imagine.

Favorites: The Flower of My Secret

The Flower of My Secret (1995)
Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Written by Dorothy Parker, Pedro Almodóvar
Produced by Agustín Almodóvar, Esther García
Starring Marisa Paredes, Juan Echanove, Carme Elias, Chus Lampreave, Rossy de Palma, Manuela Vargas, Imanol Arias, Joaquín Cortés, Kiti Mánver
One can always expect eclat from an ensemble at Almodovar’s command, and his histrions hardly disappoint in the umbra of Paredes’ powerful performance as a genre novelist deluged by passions: torrid longing for her absent husband (Arias), a NATO lieutenant-colonel dispatched to belligerent Bosnia, concern for her spry and morbidly voluble mother (Lampreave), and diversion from the authorship of popular lightweight fare for which she’s grown weary by a furor scribendi freshly inspired by chastened rancor. Cinematic melodrama has seldom if ever felt so plausible as when wrought by one of the medium’s few remaining great storytellers, whose diegesis subtly predicates willing purblindness as a result of anonymity and rigidity. Secrets regarding authenticity, identity and infidelity are implied with gestures and aspects shortly preceding their revelations, but these are mere MacGuffins designed to conduce far more substantial realizations of love incipient and unrequited. Paredes’ middle-aged resemblance to Lauren Bacall is terribly felicitous to their affinities of charisma and nice delivery; she emotes a sweep of elation, resentment, reflection, heartbreak without overplaying a frame. Brazilian DP Affonso Beato lenses Almodovar’s characteristically gorgeous visuals with pizzazz, despite relatively muted hues (in contrast to his collaborations with José Luis Alcaine) to suit his story’s diminished levity, most of which resides in the squabbles of the author’s mother and nettled sister (the invariably divine de Palma). Pedro’s devotees will immediately recognize the sordid premise of a purloined manuscript and a provincial Almagran locality, both of which were reused in one of his best ulterior movies.
Recommended for a double feature paired with Volver.

Execrable: Chocolat

Chocolat (2000)
Directed by Lasse Hallström
Written by Joanne Harris, Robert Nelson Jacobs
Produced by Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Alan C. Blomquist, Meryl Poster, Michelle Raimo, Kit Golden, David Brown, Leslie Holleran, Mark Cooper
Starring Juliette Binoche, Alfred Molina, Lena Olin, Johnny Depp, Victoire Thivisol, Judi Dench, Hugh O’Conor, Peter Stormare, Carrie-Anne Moss, Aurelien Parent Koenig
Viewers affected by glycemic disorders aren’t advised to view the most successful and saccharine of Hallström’s many syrupy features in a single sitting; conceivably, anyone prone to horripilation may also suffer convulsions of a severity thitherto unimaginable when subjected to this foul fable of a periodically migratory chocolatier (Binoche) whose animacy and perceptivity regarding her vendees’ adversities and sweet teeth endear her to the less subdued residents of a rigidly religious village in postwar France. Throughout Harris’s puerile story, every conflict is contrived, each character a caricature: a latitudinarian society of Mary Sues comprising Binoche’s errant artisan, her cute daughter (a heinously dubbed Thivisol), one battered housewife (Olin), a miserably cynical old bat (Dench) and her morbid drafter of a grandson (Koenig) resist the provincial proprieties imposed by the hamlet’s stuffily overbearing mayor (Molina) and the gauring, pusillanimous priest (O’Conor) under his thumb who assay the reclamation of a churlish publican (Stormare) to curb his domestic abuse by dint of penance and catechesis. A maternal bitch (Moss, presumably manifesting internalized patriarchal oppression) and daffily debonaire Irish Gypsy (Depp) merely incorporate another implausible clash and prerequisite love interest. Hopelessly trifled away by a director whose unceasing and seemingly obstinate ignorance of dramatic rudiments befuddles even the most hardened cinephile on an incorrigibly risible script, a respectable cast are reduced to the weirdly stilted yet hammy delivery now omnipresent in televised and cinematic productions: odious drama club theatrics revisited as professional pabulum. Launching the drearily perfunctory phase of his career that’s yet afoot, somnambulant Depp’s silly flourishes prove particularly peeving as yet another bathetically romanticized Romani — a portrayal of galling and specious political correctness proposed to patronize we Roma who know far better for the entertainment of whites who should. Numerous hokey hallmarks of Hallström’s glorified Lifetime picture wantonly layer treacle upon his unpalatably overproduced glop, especially shopworn narration paired with Rachel Portman’s cloying score to augur whichever few plot points aren’t predictable during the first act. A shred of depth is implied by the protagonist’s perpetuation of a ritual no more fruitful or righteous than those of her papal antagonists, but even this is enacted and duly resolved in as artless and obvious a manner as one could expect. Therewithal, whenever common flaws of a conservative society — which here hardly reflect the ethos of Gallic parochial life — are demonstrated in a work exuding typically trite Anglo-American convictions, deleterious phenomena such as spousal abuse and groundless xenophobia are trivialized, only addressed to safely vilipend a majority. This particular stamp of heterodox allegory might’ve been marginally subversive during the commercial culmination of Stanley Kramer’s popular propaganda forty-odd years prior, but by 2000 it was long since as dated as banal, another tired stab at Catholic tradition to propitiate aging suburban boomers and their guileless offspring, all weaned on the dissent of a counterculture long since expired and reanimated by corporate media entities. Yet to ostentatious hausfrauen, civilization began circa 1960; the Weinsteins craftily baited yet another hook for the gaping maws of a lucrative target demographic. Confections prominently snacked and snarfed appear ambrosial, but the contemptible subtext that Harris, Hallström, etc. peddle here is nothing save nauseous.

Mediocre: Savage Streets

Savage Streets (1984)
Directed by Danny Steinmann
Written by Danny Steinmann, Norman Yonemoto
Produced by John Strong, John L. Chambliss, Michael Franzese, Cleve Landsberg
Starring Linda Blair, Robert Dryer, Johnny Venocur, Debra Blee, Scott Mayer, Marcia Karr, Luisa Leschin, Sal Landi, Linnea Quigley, John Vernon, Lisa Freeman
A trashy high school coterie in filthy Hollywood trifles with a slaughterous trio of drug dealers to their terminal peril until the baddest (Blair) among them snaps, gussies herself up and exacts her requital with bear traps and a crossbow. Nary a single silly shot of Steinmann’s late exploitation thriller doesn’t divert — not the derision, pranks, catfights or combat — and all present are serviceably typecast as confiding rape victim (Quigley), meshuga malefactor (Dryer), rugged yet ineffectual authority figure (Vernon), et al. Blair’s coked to her tingling teeth, consonant with her castmates, and consequently unable to render her role with the deportment of a sane human, yet she nails the frenzied furor of her character’s vigilantist break with fantastic panache, spouting cheesy, deliciously dynamic dialogue. Yonemoto and Steinmann imparted to their script meager logic but liberal requisites of its genre, blazoned with lascivious nudity and equally gratuitous gore. For all its inane engagement, Streets still can’t prompt a moment’s boredom, but it might’ve been bettered by less ribbing in interchange for more action; howbeit, ladies are never so delightfully daffy in B-fare as when so patently scripted by men!
Recommended for a double feature paired with The Warriors.