For Reel

Roar (1981)
December 11, 2016, 8:18 pm
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Director: Noel Marshall
5 Stars
roarIt has become increasingly uncommon to see something in a film that one can genuinely say they’ve never seen before. As computerized special effects have become more seamlessly integrated into filmmaking, grandiose spectacles have become the norm. Watching Roar, then, is a humbling experience for the viewer. It is immediate and fascinating at every turn. If, in any given movie, one can predict how an actor might perform a scene or how a filmmaker might block a sequence involving an animal, Roar is something else entirely. The pace and sense of danger in the film is dependent entirely on the whims of sometimes indifferent, sometimes threateningly curious beasts. That the film argues for harmony between man and big cat is about as convincing as director Noel Marshall’s insistence that everything is okay when he’s on screen—one is hardly in a position to announce that their cast and crew is safe when they’ve just been tackled by a lion. If Roar is sometimes incomprehensible as a narrative—the sense of space is often confusing due to how much editing was necessary to get the animals to behave as needed—it is downright Herzogian in the way that it documents one man’s attempt and ultimate failure to tame the frenzy of nature.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981)
February 27, 2016, 5:34 pm
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Director: Karel Reisz
2.5 Stars
The French Lieutenant's WomanMeryl Streep was the new Queen of Hollywood when The French Lieutenant’s Woman was released in 1981. Although she had won the Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer just two years before, she had never starred in a true leading role prior to the risky adaptation of John Fowles’ postmodern novel. The film casts her in the dual roles of Sarah Woodruff and Anna–or, the character of the Victorian romance that makes up the bulk of the screen time and the actress that’s playing her in a filmed adaptation of the material. Similarly, Jeremy Irons plays her lover in both timelines, with the intercutting between worlds often serving to show an ironic contrast in the similarities and differences of their affairs. Streep’s acting challenge is in bringing a contemporary performance to the modern story and something more theatrical to the character of Sarah Woodruff, and at least in the later timeline, it’s a dismal failure. At this point in her career, Streep is all technique, and each line she delivers doesn’t seem so much like it is coming from within the character, but rather read from a script and delivered with entirely-too calculated mannerisms. The sequence in which she reveals the tragic story of Varguennes in a forest is a disaster–Streep gives the lines no feeling, and as a result, Irons is left dead in the water, his reaction shots automatically rendered unconvincing due to the scene’s very unnaturalness. Of course, Fowles’ novel was known for its distancing techniques, and perhaps director Karel Reisz and screenwriter Harold Pinter were just as keen on revealing the falsities of the love affair at the center of the story. But, even as a story about illusions, it is never seductive enough make any of them convincing or, worse yet, compelling.

Scanners (1981)
December 17, 2015, 5:18 pm
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Director: David Cronenberg
2.5 Stars
ScannersDavid Cronenberg had succeeded in bridging the psychological and visceral gap with The Brood, a film in which a woman’s rage against her family manifested as murderous offspring. With Scanners, the film in which Cronenberg first achieved mainstream success, he continued that pattern by focusing on telepaths whose “scanning” plays as a disturbing violation with gruesome consequences. The thought that humanity is forcibly evolving into a hive mind where people are connected through their nervous systems plays as slightly prophetic in a time when the internet and social networks have complicated what it means to be an individual, but unfortunately Scanners has not aged well in other ways. By the time Scanners really gets going–in the aforementioned suggestion of a dehumanizing corporation instigating these psychological changes; in the brother vs. brother climax–it peters out (albeit with an admittedly memorable finale). And if Cronenberg is more than the sum of his visceral thrills, it is nonetheless disappointing to see such a visually imaginative surrealist simply have actors stare at each other and convulse. Telekinesis, as it turns out, is not the most cinematic of powers, and relying on Stephen Lack’s mask-like visage to tell the story of these mental encroachments is a severe handicap.

Modern Romance (1981)
September 12, 2012, 4:07 pm
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Director: Albert Brooks

Unlike Woody Allen, there is little that is charming about Albert Brooks’ on-screen persona. Like his East Coast counterpart, he is neurotic, self-obsessed, and delusional, however whereas Allen was identifiable through his humorous observations (he made you believe that everyone else was crazy and he was the sane one) and a knowing awareness of his faults, Brooks’ characters seem oblivious to the fact that they’re walking disasters. In Modern Romance, his second outing as a director, Brooks tests the limits of his audience’s patience as he chronicles the journey of a man who never realizes his faults, rather the contradiction of his neediness and his unwillingness to commit is always in play. Yet, the spectacle of his self-destruction is something to behold – early in the picture, Brooks stumbles through his apartment drunk and on Quaaludes in an extended take, indecisive as to what his next move will be and making conversation with a cockatiel and various inanimate objects. Without frequent cutting and restricting the space by having the camera strictly following Brooks, one can’t help but feel claustrophobic – not trapped so much by space as by a man and his embarrassing downfall.

Possession (1981)
June 30, 2012, 7:40 pm
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Director: Andrzej Zulawski

With a nihilism towards marital unions that would make even Lars von Trier blush, Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession is an unrelenting assault, so deliriously excessive that one is left feeling maniacal themselves. Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill play an unhappily married couple who seek a divorce. Not before long, the jealous Neill has become a seething mad man, and Adjani takes shelter in a squalid apartment where she has housed an octopus-like creature that she routinely makes love to. Zulawski has said that the screenplay was written while he was undergoing a bad divorce, which should come as no surprise – this being a film where a divorce is the means of an apocalypse, where all the self-loathing and every unspoken bitterness towards a partner is manifested in nightmarish extremes. The title does not seem merely to refer to the growing lunacy of the ex-lovers, but of marriage as an act of possession in itself. Neill’s every violent outburst seems to stem from his desire to own Adjani, whereas she seeks liberation from him (and the human male populous at large, it would appear). Few films reflect such a singular, uncompromised vision – the visuals are flamboyant, using intense close-ups, exaggerated camera movements, and editing that jumps radically in time and place, and they are matched by Neill and Adjani, both uninhibited in unforgettably frenzied performances. The film’s most lasting image is a long tracking shot wherein Adjani begins convulsing in a subway station, violently writing against the wall in hysterics and suffering from an apparent miscarriage that results in blood and white ooze leaking from her every orifice.

Serpent’s Poison (1981)
May 27, 2011, 9:32 pm
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Director: Frantisek Vlácil

Following the death of her mother, a young girl seeks out the father she never knew in a small, blue-collar village. Initially appearing to be little more than a film about the emotional awakening of a sullen laborer, the father’s alcoholism becomes the central conflict of the latter half of the film. Although such a premise is at the risk of becoming implausibly over-sensationalized (as is the case with Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend), Vlácil’s stark realism knows no ends and the father ultimately sinks further and further into his demons, never to be redeemed. Most memorable about the film is the black-and-white photography of the wintry, snow-swept landscapes, serving to cruelly taunt the father’s inability to thaw from his crippling disease.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981)
March 18, 2011, 2:55 am
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Director: Bob Rafelson

Bob Rafelson’s handling of James Cain’s novel is much more explicit than the 1946 noir with John Garfield and Lana Turner. Whereas the previous film was restricted due to the Production Code, this adaptation revels in it’s frank depictions of sex and violence. Jessica Lange’s casting most differentiates Rafelson’s version from the original, as while Turner was a glamorous femme fatale, Lange is portrayed as being of a lower class – often sweaty and wearing a frayed, scuffed dress. The film’s ending provides a more ambiguous, provocative closure than Tay Garnett’s version, however despite such improvements the film is overlong and poorly paced. With the collective talents behind the scenes – Rafelson directing a Mamet adaptation with Nykvist in charge of the visuals – one would expect a more significant work.