For Reel

The Brood (1979)
December 17, 2015, 5:11 pm
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Director: David Cronenberg
4 Stars
The BroodAs is often the case with David Cronenberg’s early work, The Brood addresses a certain kind of violation, its dramatics hinging on a type of metaphorical rape. Shivers, Scanners, and Videodrome addressed this penetrative action more bluntly, but The Brood suggests that Dr. Hal Raglan’s (Oliver Reed) method of “psychoplasmics” is unethical and exploitative, forcing his patients to surface their most repressed emotions and thereby distorting and perverting them all the more. That the film concerns the physical manifestations of one woman’s anger makes it play as the preeminent Cronenberg from this period, beautifully doing justice to the director’s sense of the delicate bond between the cerebral and the physical. It is perhaps Cronenberg’s obsession with violations and destroying this barrier between the body and the soul that make his films so unyielding in their disturbances–as with the fetishistic tape in Videodrome, his films’ unique ability to repulse is linked very much to one’s fascination with their own physical selves. The Brood is also a great breakup movie–the climax, which plays like Village of the Damned in the drama of trying to “hide” ones emotions from the villain, is not so much a championing of repression as a damning insistence that to be in a relationship is to be withdrawn and deceitful.

All That Jazz (1979)
September 6, 2015, 12:26 pm
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Director: Bob Fosse
3.5 Stars
All That JazzGiven the accusations regarding his self-indulgent impulses, it’s curious that Bob Fosse modeled his quasi-biopic after Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2–a move that suggests that Fosse isn’t merely touting his singular talents, but trying to seek validation by placing himself alongside the great artists who have come before him. More than the sum of its grandiosities, All That Jazz is a film that feels desperate, sometimes even pathetic. Fittingly, Roy Scheider plays the chain-smoking, speed-addled Joe Gideon as a man just barely hanging on, his “It’s showtime, folks!” serving as a mantra that feels less truthful each time it leaves his lips. In a great scene, dancers are rehearsing a number that isn’t quite working. Gideon, conscious of all the eyes looking to him for guidance, tells the dancers to simply repeat what they had just done before turning his back to the rehearsal. The scene summarizes both Gideon’s selfishness and the tremendous anxiety of directing–of knowing something isn’t working, but not knowing how to solve it. Even in the spirit of flamboyance, the editing can sometimes be a bit much–both the camera and the film’s editing suggest dance, but on occasion the editing distracts from the actual dancing on screen–but even skeptics of the film are likely to be won over by the sheer extravagance of the final, phantasmagorical number.

The Black Stallion (1979)
August 17, 2015, 12:01 am
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Director: Carroll Ballard
4.5 Stars
The Black StallionThe Black Stallion is a film comprised of two distinct halves: first, a fable about a boy and a horse stranded on an island; and second, a slice of American mythmaking involving a trainer’s redemption and a boy’s glory. It is the first half, where cinematographer Caleb Deschanel creates panoramas as breathtaking as any in cinema, that garners the most attention. The beauty of the images of so ludicrous, in fact, that it risks becoming invasive. Yet it seems like a deliberate aesthetic choice to revel in the loveliness, suggesting the childlike idealization of ultimate freedom and self-sufficiency. The boy’s (Kelly Reno) reaction to being stranded shows an unnatural calmness, but director Carroll Ballard is clearly operating in the realm of myths, typified early on by a story of Alexander the Great’s horse Bucephalus. Once the picture returns home, the world of domesticity and civilization is treated as alien–even a simple scene set in a bathroom is shot through the corner of a mirror, dwarfing the boy in distorted porcelain surroundings. It seems problematic that, although the film begins with a poker game and ends on a race track, the victory at the end is treated as a continuation of the boy’s (and horse’s) sense of freedom. The world of capital exchanges would suggest anything but. Nonetheless, Ballard and Deschanel manage to make even the familiar elements feel viscerally thrilling and new, and even the played out device of the “big race” strikes emotional beats that feel completely authentic.

Real Life (1979)
September 12, 2012, 4:02 pm
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Director: Albert Brooks

Albert Brooks’ disarmingly prescient first feature is a biting response to PBS’ groundbreaking reality series An American Family, a program often credited as being the first of its genre, and one tinged with controversy due to its dalliances with the topics of divorce and homosexuality. With confrontational sarcasm, Brooks argues that the act of documenting reality is a myth – inevitably, even the most careful of filmmakers are intruding, and the subject’s knowledge of the camera leads to behavior that perhaps best reflects the ways that man acts under surveillance. Beyond the blanket satire, Real Life is a prophetic look at filmmaking in the digital age, with the feature’s longest running gag involving the ridiculous helmeted digital cameras that the crew members wear. Filmmaking is not only more mobile, but it is also unrestricted by personnel (or lack thereof) – early on, Brooks dismisses his gaffers and assistant directors, favoring a small crew for the intimacy he needs. Fascinating as the feature is, it stops just shy of masterpiece when the admirable concept wears thin. Regardless, the picture marked the emergence of a major figure in contemporary cinema – a much grittier, manic Woody Allen, never afraid to make the audience wholly unsympathetic towards his self-aggrandizing alter-ego.

Life of Brian (1979)
May 16, 2011, 6:03 pm
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Director: Terry Jones

While it may not be, joke-for-joke, the funniest feature effort by Monty Python, there hasn’t been a religious satire of this quality since its release and, even broadening the context into the world of satire at large, one would be hard pressed to find many films worthy of belonging within the same conversation. What makes it so rewatchable, as is the case with the other Monty Python works, is not just in its humor, but also in the surrealist tangents that Jones incorporates along the way. Even while anticipating its arrival, the alien abduction scene still catches me off guard and subverts every expectation I have about the narrative and the nature of the comedy. Appropriately, that particular formula of unpredictability is precisely what makes comedy, and particularly Monty Python’s comedy, so successful.