For Reel

Belladonna of Sadness (1973)
April 29, 2017, 7:05 pm
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Director: Eiichi Yamamoto
3.5 Stars
Belladonna of SadnessAt the time of its release in 1973, Belladonna of Sadness was such a financial disaster that it bankrupted the pioneering Japanese animation studio that released it. Now, with its reissue over four decades later, the film remains… well, equally inaccessible. At once a psychedelic, orgiastic sexploitation film in which genitalia morphs into animal forms and a deeply disturbing rape-revenge story, Belladonna of Sadness is loosely modeled on Jules Michelet’s 1862 study of medieval witchcraft. Shortly into the film, a peasant woman is brutally raped by a king and his henchman. The act is as disturbingly rendered as has been put to film, and expressionistically honors the unthinkable violence of the act—in the film, the perpetrators are little seen, but rather the victim is depicted as being torn in half in pulsating rips. After the brutal act is committed, the woman is visited by a phallic devil that becomes her abuser and mentor, and before long her powers create a plague in which images of decaying bodies and obscene sexual acts coexist. These later scenes, which would make the LSD-addled flora of Pink Floyd: The Wall blush, are the film’s weakest. If they have a hypnotic quality, they largely exist by the merits of their surface-level pleasures, harmonizing pleasure and pain in increasingly absurd images. But the first half, upsetting as it is to watch, is genuinely moving, and the way that the film conceives sexual pleasure as a means of thwarting oppression and sexual violence makes it a radical, under-seen feminist film of the period. Director Eiichi Yamamoto’s intentions are occasionally questionable—Satan’s seduction of the protagonist is eroticized to the point where the invasiveness becomes kinky—but the way he depicts open female sexuality as a literal demonic force plays as sharply satirical, turning erotic art into something that is decidedly anti-authoritarian in nature.

Fantastic Planet (1973)
April 24, 2017, 8:08 pm
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Director: René Laloux
3 Stars
Fantastic Planet.jpgOn the planet of Ygam, a subservient race of pint-sized humanoids known as Oms are both kept as pets and eradicated by the ruling Draags, colossal cyan beings who frequently engage in unusual meditations. By the end of the film, an educated Om comes to learn that the Draags intend to completely eliminate their kind, and so the Oms must fight against their rulers until a harmony between the two races can be reached. The way the film deals with fascism, genocide, and racism gives it broad, worldly relevance, but Fantastic Planet is moreso known for its wholly unique visual style. Aside the straightforward narrative are the numerous cutaways to Ygam’s plant and animal life—in one scene, a reptile-like creature emerges from an egg and is quickly met by an approaching beast that maternally cleans it with its tongue just before devouring it. Similar, bizarre plant life reaches with tentacles to attack passing creatures, and in settling disputes the Oms attach beaked monstrosities to their chests as their choice of weapon. Roland Topor, the Polish animator who designed the universe, had teamed with Alejandro Jodorowsky in the 1960s with the ambition of creating a new surrealist movement, and in framing this bizarre, hugely allegorical story in an animation style that resembles the moving picture books of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the film became a vision that remains easily identifiable by any snapshot.

Lady Snowblood (1973)
November 21, 2016, 3:08 pm
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Director: Toshiya Fujita
5 Stars
lady-snowbloodAlthough this revenge saga has a familiar story, it is full of consistent surprises in both its visual style and in its fatalistic attitude towards its character and the world she inhabits. It opens with a birth and a dying mother as snow falls outside the bars of a Meiji prison. Not long after, a young woman in an elegant kimono walks through the snow twirling her purple umbrella, which shortly becomes a tool to exact a spectacularly violent murder. If director Toshiya Fujita is an unabashed formalist and brings a certain level of class to the pulpy framework, his style isn’t restrictive on the story—it’s not an imposition, rather something that seems to come through the action. Whereas imitators imagine the fascination with violence as something to be gawked at, the killings in Lady Snowblood are never freed from the inherent tragedy of a woman giving her life to something she ultimately never had a choice to retreat from—she is born as a demon, an exactor of revenge. Fujita’s groundwork in establishing a political context convey that, just as Snowblood has no will of her own, the increasing threat of Westernization is rendering the Japanese civilians as pawns in a larger political game.

The Legend of Hell House (1973)
October 29, 2016, 12:15 pm
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Director: John Hough
3.5 Stars
the-legend-of-hell-houseRichard Matheson scripted this film from his original 1971 novel Hell House, which dramatically sought to provide a logical explanation for supernatural phenomena—rather than involving hapless victims in an old haunted house, Matheson’s characters not only know what to expect, but it is their task to understand the apparitions. The matter-of-fact presentation of the manifestations makes them horrific in their own unique way in that they are not dependent on cheap shocks. When the believed ghost of the son of mass murderer begins tormenting the researchers, the psychic played by Pamela Franklin is hardly phased. This is key to the film’s horror—if the victims in a haunted house movie often don’t know exactly why they’re upsetting the spirits, in The Legend of Hell House the audience witnesses the characters willingly placing themselves in harm’s way, with the ghostly apparitions ultimately serving as a catalyst to let sexual frustrations and rivalries come to the fore. The film has much in common with Robert Wise’s masterpiece The Haunting, similarly utilizing an impressively detailed set and reveling in the atmosphere—a barely clothed bust in the main hall both foreshadows the sexual furies to come and ominously stands as a symbol of the house’s ghostly occupancy. A disappointing climax all but removes the tension from the film—the final twist adds more information to the notorious killer Emeric Belasco, which is just about the least interesting element in the narrative (the film’s biggest pleasures come in the conflicts of the living, particularly the sex-crazed, possessed Gayle Hunnicutt). Regardless, the superior production design and the chilling cinematography by Alan Hume makes it a worthy successor to Wise’s classic.

Nothing But the Night (1973)
October 29, 2016, 12:05 pm
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Director: Peter Sasdy
2 Stars
nothing-but-the-nightIn the early 1970s, Christopher Lee and fellow Hammer veteran Anthony Nelson Keys attempted to start their own studio with Charlemagne Productions. If Nothing But the Night, their first feature, lacks in budget, it does show Lee’s interest in moving him and Peter Cushing away from the familiar grisly gore and into territory that is decidedly more procedural and psychologically based. In the film, a group of wealthy benefactors of an orphanage on an isolated Scottish isle begin to appear dead. Meanwhile, a young girl who survived a devastating bus crash (Gwyneth Strong) is haunted by an image of fire, attracting the attention of both doctors and investigators. Director Peter Sasdy contributes a handful of memorable images and in the climactic scene develops a surreal tone established by the contrasting images of horrific violence and a celebration, but the entire second act barely drags along with an uninvolving investigation and a ludicrous performance by the over-the-top Diana Dors. The material, based on a novel by John Blackburn, plays too close to the chest for much of the running time, leading one to wonder what exactly the dramatic through-line is from scene to scene—none of the characters are given clear, understandable goals. A director like Brian De Palma could have brought out the underlying tensions, but Sasdy is barely competent at articulating the psychological through image and character action.

American Graffiti (1973)
October 23, 2016, 11:16 am
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Director: George Lucas
5 Stars
american-graffitiThat George Lucas mindfully sought the approval of audiences with this unabashed crowd-pleaser is a sentiment that becomes complicated when one considers its formal inventiveness. While Lucas’ current reputation would suggest he’s a man who became increasingly tone-deaf throughout his career in attempting to cater to all audiences, American Graffiti found Lucas directing a picture for the masses that they didn’t even know they wanted—if the soundtrack full of pop hits was a draw, the film’s lasting impression is how well it deals with a specific period in history. It’s a film about the mood of a place more than it is about narrative, and even in that regard it is deceptively complicated. The universality of the film has much to do with the fact that any viewers past their teens remember what it felt like when adolescence came to a close. This summer night in 1962 is filled with aimless cruising, where young white men chase elusive prizes and ponder about the man on the other end of the radio. Whether or not one has filled a night with conversations at stoplights, the texture of the film feels lived in—if American Graffiti is a remarkable historical document, its greatest success is in creating a mythical, universal evocation of what nostalgia feels like.

Sisters (1973)
June 29, 2016, 4:28 pm
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Director: Brian De Palma
4 Stars
SistersIn the opening moments of Sisters, a blind woman enters a locker room and is about to strip down while a man watches. Cut to the same scene, now played in the context of a game show—contestants are asked to guess what the man will do, and inevitably they guess wrong because he does the gentlemanly thing and walks away. Everything about the opening sequence is ludicrous, but its brilliance is that it conditions the viewer of the film how they should be watching. In these earliest moments, director Brian De Palma incorporates much of what follows—the trope of voyeurism, the eroticism of the image, and the standoff between victim and the potential culprit. Then, when the scene is revealed to be a game show, De Palma takes an equal interest in showing that his film will not only be a perceptual exercise (it’s ironic that a film about questioning what you see involves a stubborn, Nancy Drew-like figure who can’t shake what she’s seen), but that it is constructed to be a experience that is both pleasurable and shameful, fixating on the audience’s fascination with the grotesque. Sisters is among De Palma’s purest and most deliberate Hitchcock homages, but while he does ape on certain images and scenarios from Hitchcock’s films, the most constructive homage is in transferring the sense of oppression. In the eyes of both Hitchcock and De Palma, oppression is synonymous with modernity, and both filmmakers become similarly obsessed with characters who push the boundaries regarding what is expected of a citizen—not just the murderers and crooks, but the protagonists who alienate themselves from others and use shady tactics as a means of uncovering the truth.

F for Fake (1973)
April 10, 2016, 2:52 pm
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Director: Orson Welles
4 Stars
F for FakeWith F for Fake, Orson Welles steps in front of the camera and exchanges the title of director for master of ceremonies. Aside from his frequent direct address to the camera, the film also finds Welles in the editing room, at one point apologizing for the film itself before splicing together new footage. By itself, F for Fake is a hugely intoxicating essay about illusions and the ever-shifting definition of truth, but Welles’ self-reflexivity makes the viewer equally nostalgic. Welles retraces much of his career, from the famed War of the Worlds broadcast to his work on Citizen Kane. As the man looks back, so too does the audience reflect on these projects as the films of a man who, above all, considers himself to be an illusionist. What are the formal innovations of Citizen Kane if not the equivalent of sleight-of-hand—simple tricks that plays off of an audience’s expectations regarding space and the completeness of an image? The self-aware formalism of F for Fake suggests that Welles is a man who hasn’t only devoted his life to performance, but to fakery itself. In the twilight of his career, this sentiment gives the film a melancholic touch, becoming an autobiographical confession as much as it is an essay on truth.

Day for Night (1973)
March 30, 2016, 4:34 pm
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Director: François Truffaut
4 Stars
Day for NightA fictional director played by François Truffaut summarizes the practice of filmmaking as follows: “Shooting a movie is like a stagecoach trip: at first you hope for a nice ride, then you just hope to reach your destination.” In Day for Night, the director’s job is perceived as being not just the head of a precariously balanced forced community, but a person who must field a constant onslaught of questions he doesn’t have the answer for. And yet, as maddeningly as Truffaut paints the practice of moviemaking, it is as warm and affectionate as any in Truffaut’s ouevere—by this period of his career, he was an artist unafraid to deal with the overtly sentimental (including 1976’s Small Change and even, a year later, appearing in a significant role in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind). On three occassions throughout the picture,Truffaut cuts to a black-and-white dream sequence in which a young boy steals Citizen Kane advertisements. Later, the same glee is seen when the film’s director receives a shipment of books about filmmaking, serving as a roll call of the most touted filmmakers of North America and Europe. It would be a simplification to suggest that Day for Night is obsessed with quality cinema. It refers to an obsession of the very art of filmmaking, where to be on set—ANY set—is the ultimate goal for a film lover.