Wednesday, July 31, 2019


A comedy of the upper classes with a “they’re just like us” message knotted together with a “but they’re also rather perverse” chastisement. Based on a stageplay by W. Somerset Maugham (Of Human Bondage), Our Betters is a fun trifle, a bit meandering and at times stiff, but generally entertaining thanks to a diva turn by Constance Bennett (Topper). She plays Lady Pearl Grayston, an American socialite who married into her title, but who is quickly turned hard by the discovery--on her wedding day, no less--that, for her husband, it is a union of convenience and not love. Accepting this fate, Pearl is fine to have her husband go on an extended vacation and, in his absence, twist England to her will via fashionable outings and well-curated parties.

Directed by George Cukor (The Women) and released in 1933, before Hollywood adopted the Hayes Code and started minding its manners, Our Betters is a rather frank look at the trysts and turns of high British society. From a rich older woman keeping a much younger lover (Violet Kemble Cooper and Gilbert Roland, respectively), to Pearl’s own sister, Bessie (Anita Louise) pursuing her own place in the upper classes, everyone in Pearl’s circle has some kind of affair underway, ones we are to surmise are pursued out of loneliness and convenience, but never love. This is shown to us via the bewildered American boy Fleming (Charles Starrett, a.k.a. The Durango Kid), who has been jilted by Bessie and yet hangs around to marvel at the freak show.

Our Betters is essentially a string of loosely connected vignettes, following several gatherings, flitting in and out of the various relationships and breaking off couples on their own to give us time to get to know them. Occasional moments of despair seep through as lifestyle choices backfire. Bennett is the glue holding it together, not just arranging the parties but manipulating the aftermath to keep her little circle from disintegrating. It’s very light stuff, even if Cukor’s direction is often weighed down by the material’s theatrical origins. Unfortunately, as enjoyable as the individual bits may be, the conclusion fizzles. The final scene doesn’t feel very final, making Our Betters come off more like an episode in a larger narrative than a wholly formed entity unto itself.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019


This review was originally written in 2014 and published on

Camille Claudel was a French sculptor from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. She has been portrayed on film before, most notably in a popular 1988 film starring Isabelle Adjani. Where Bruno Nuytten's biopic, simply titled Camille Claudel, concerned itself with Claudel's long relationship with Auguste Rodin, this new effort by another Bruno, director Bruno Dumont (Twentynine Palms), chooses a few days in her life twenty years after she and her famous lover had split.

Camille Claudel 1915 finds the artist, played this time around by the marvelous Juliette Binoche (Trois Coleurs: Blue [review], Flight of the Red Balloon [review]), exiled to an asylum in the countryside. In the time since she left Rodin, she had increasingly sequestered herself, succumbing to delusions and paranoia. Dumont constructs his film from Claudel's medical records and her letters with her brother Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent), zeroing in on a trio of days at the institution. The first two are Camille waiting for a promised visit by Paul; the last day is Paul's visit, when we learn that he is a deeply religious person who masks his failure to be accepted into seminary with a strident self-righteousness. What he presents as compassion and kindness for his sister could also be seen as cruelty.

Except she also has real problems. The tightrope Dumont attempts to walk here is between the perception and reality of mental illness. Between how Camille sees herself and how others see her. It tugs at our sympathies and our allegiances. There is an immediate discernible difference between Camille and the other patients at the asylum, which is run by nuns and priests rather than doctors. The patients are hunched, inarticulate, possessed of a certain childishness, most with bad teeth; and Juliette Binoche is, well, Juliette Binoche. She is tall, beautiful, and above all, able to express herself. She can go to the head priest and make a case for herself and how she does not know why she is there. She can also undermine that with her insistence that Rodin is having her poisoned, rich men are stealing her art, and the frequent crying jags that cripple her.

Binoche is, unsurprisingly, spectacular. Much of Camille Claudel 1915 is dialogue free. With few people to talk to, Camille can only listen, react, and feel. Binoche can command any camera to watch her with just her face. She is in her element here. Dumont also casts the rest of the parts well. I am unaware of the backgrounds of the supporting players, but they portray the mentally ill with convincing empathy. It sometimes borders on the grotesque, as if the filmmaker is stacking the deck, but this is also likely historically accurate.

The only question is: what's it all for? Very little happens in the short span of time. Camille Claudel 1915 is literally just three days in the life of a famous woman with mental problems, and outside of a surprising knife twist at the end, not even a very remarkable three days. If Dumont's goal was to show us the harsh conditions of mental health facilities one hundred years ago and communicate the despair of one unhealthy woman then...yay? Success? One can extrapolate that he is attempting to shed light on modern society's current treatment of the mentally ill, suggesting that we similarly shun people with mental problems and lock them away rather than deal with their unique issues, and if so, then okay, I get it. Camille Claudel 1915 is, in that light, a quiet, sparse portrayal of a very challenging scenario. But many, including this reviewer, might feel that explanation is a stretch. Camille Claudel 1915 ends up feeling like sadness just for the sake of it. Dumont is too removed, too intent on saying nothing and only showing, and it means his film ends up feeling as cold and isolated as...well, damn, I guess as Camille Claudel herself. Again, yay...?

Wednesday, July 10, 2019


This review originally written in 2009 for

"Love is a feeling."

"So is a toothache."

So is watching this movie! Not love, but a toothache. Long, agonizing, painful. The cover declares that Jack Cardiff's 1968 wankfest The Girl on a Motorcycle is a "A film that encapsulates the sixties." You mean it's a bunch of nonsense and self-indulgence followed by a cop-out ending?

Hmmmm...probably not what you meant, but it'll do.

Words are really wasted describing this snoozer, but I'll give it a go anyway. '60s chanteuse Marianne Faithfull stars as Rebecca, a bookseller's daughter who is one night liberated by a sneaky professor named Daniel (Alain Delon, Le samourai [review]). Moments after she rejects her fiancé's pre-marital advances, Daniel climbs in her window and makes mad, passionate love to her. As if that weren't enough, for her wedding present, he gives Rebecca a Harley and teaches her how to ride it. He is her liberator, whereas her future husband, the meek and bookish Raymond (Roger Mutton), is stifling. His idea of her being free is never putting his foot down, always saying, "Whatever you want, dear," whereas Daniel is cruel, disinterested, and selfish--in other words, manly. He is a professor who teaches grown-ups and so he does grown-up things; Raymond is a school teacher, working with children, and a child himself.

All these thoughts, all the details of her affairs, run through Rebecca's mind as she rides her motorcycle from Switzerland to Germany for the last time, determined once and for all to leave Raymond and give herself to her macho, macho man. Spurred on by a laughable psychedelic dream, she zipped her naked body into a leather jumpsuit. Once it's unzipped, look out world! Rebecca's going to make it after all!

I have no idea if Jack Cardiff and crew really had it in mind that they would create a liberated portrait of the sexual revolution, but one look at the groovy theatrical trailer for The Girl on a Motorcycle should make it pretty clear where they ended up. Marketed as exploitative trash, full of sex and co-opting the counter culture (such as it was), whoever put the campaign together really understood what they had to work with. Though Cardiff is a legendary cinematographer, he was really out of his depth with this movie. The journey on the open highway is hard to take seriously when half the time it's shot with blatantly awful rear projection and in most of the other half it's obvious the actors are being towed. The trippy scenes are silly, and the sexual innuendo even more so. It doesn't take a diabolical sex fiend to figure out what we're supposed to get out of seeing Marianne Faithfull straddle the front wheel of her bike. (Personally, I prefer the shots of her leather-clad derriere bouncing on the seat.) What about when that man sticks his gas nozzle in her tank? When is a cigar not a cigar, Mr. Freud? When it's anything in The Girl on a Motorcycle!

For fans of Ms. Faithfull, it's hard not to be curious, seeing her so young and, well, shall we say full of life? She is definitely an alluring woman, and this movie was obviously designed to exploit that. Jack Cardiff's photography skills really pay off when it comes to long, lingering shots on her visage. I have some doubts of how much we're really seeing her naked, though, since a lot of the more exposed shots are framed so we don't really see her face. In terms of acting, I suppose she pulls off a decent job. There isn't really all that much for her to do. Most of the movie is just long scenes of her riding her motorcycle, accompanied by trite voiceover (which apparently took a third writer to come up with). On the male side of things, Mutton barely distinguishes himself, and Delon pretty much sleepwalks through the picture. He probably knew what most people would be looking at and smartly decided not to waste the effort.

Cap all of this palaver with a perplexing ending, and The Girl on a Motorcycle is a whole lot of nothing. Is this really a parable of female empowerment? A woman must choose between boredom and passion, between milquetoast and bitter whiskey? Or are we to assume that it's not up to her at all, and the big finale is the brazen hussy being neutralized. It's not possible Jack Cardiff had a psychic flash forward to the comedown that was just around the corner, the disappointing end of the it? He does beat the similar ending of Easy Rider by a year [review]. At least the aimlessness of Dennis Hopper's film was kind of the point, though; here it's the unfortunate side effect.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019


The Criterion Channel is back, and so is my review column focusing on short films presented on the channel. Periodically I will gather together my takes on the shorter films I’ve watched. One of the fun things is looking at the variety of subjects and styles available, since a shorter film also means a smaller budget but generally more creative freedom. Low financial stakes, high creative reward.

You can read the previous columns here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

Uncle Yanco (1967; USA/France; 18 minutes): The late Agnès Varda helmed this playful, rule-breaking documentary to chronicle meeting a distant uncle who, prior to this, had just been a legend in the Varda family. Yanco was a Greek immigrant who left the clan after a move to France, traveling to the United States and taking up residency in the years before World War II. Varda finds the painter--who previously had been mythologized by Henry Miller--living in an innovative aquatic community near San Francisco.

Blending fact and fiction, and exposing the cinematic process while doing so, Varda lets the natural raconteur share his experiences, indulging his idiosyncrasies, and giving him multiple takes to play around with the “happening.” It’s a charming time capsule, perfectly reflective of the time period, but also a great example of Varda’s propensity for improvisation.

[Also available in the Agnes Varda in California box, Eclipse Series 43.]

Saute ma ville (Blow Up My Town) (1968; Belgium;13 minutes): Avant-garde filmmaker Chantal Akerman’s debut, the initial spark of experimentation: a brief story about one woman, played by Akerman herself, living out her last night on Earth. She indulges herself, resorts to mundane tasks, and carries on a private internal conversation while slowly sealing herself in her apartment to isolate herself from the outside world, whatever it may hold. Akerman creates a disconcerting tone, seemingly at play within the visuals, but with an (intentionally?) fake sounding audio track distracting from the reality of the action. I am not sure Saute ma ville ultimately adds up to much, but is worthwhile for seeing a developing artist grappling with her craft.

[Also available on Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles; and previously reviewed which much kinder eyes here.]

All These Creatures (2018; Australia; 13 minutes): Charles Williams tackles topics as broad genetics and hereditary madness, parental disappointment, and one young man’s existential crisis over his place in this world that is both potent and fragile, and he does so in a self-contained, personal manner.

A teenager meditates on a time his backyard was overtaken by cicadas, a portent for his father’s imminent disappearance. In the boy’s head, he ties the two things together, theorizing that the insects were summoned by his father’s foolish attempts to dig a swimming pool in their backyard, a pointless scheme he was ill-equipped to execute. It is a metaphor for the father’s suicidal tendencies, digging a hole toward something he can’t find. All These Creatures accurately captures that childhood feeling that all things are connected, and where our parents go, so shall we go. As someone who has had to contend with mental illness in his own family, it’s something I can relate with all too well. How do we break the patterns? Are we meant to? Or is there a fundamental flaw in human design that means we don’t belong on this planet at all?

Williams picks his moments carefully, showing the father’s most dangerous and troubling actions in quick glimpses, a brief snatch at lucidity, answering no questions but offering a kind of closure nonetheless. All These Creatures is dreamy and heartbreaking, a prose poem captured on film. The images are compelling, even as they strain against the narrator’s grounded explanations, hinting at an unknowable psychology, the secrets that power us all.

Tidy Up (2011; Japan; 15 minutes): When his mother dies, Akira (Kan Takashima) decides that it’s time to clean out his childhood home. Only, when he arrives, he discovers his sister Moe (Misa Shimizu) is already there, and she’s insisting they keep the place as it is, piled high with trash and the detritus of the many years the family lived there.

A quiet battle plays out over an afternoon, with each sibling pushing his or her agenda. Akira has come with movers, so his argument is more forceful, but in the end, it’s the home movies that Moe discovers that brings the pair together. The power of cinema as memory evoked!

When it comes down to it, writer/director Satsuki Okawa takes no sides, even if it’s clear which one the audience will likely take--Akira evokes public opinion and social mores to suggest hoarding is crazy. What Tidy Up comes down to, though, is how each sibling processes grief and how they choose to remember what they’ve lost, and how the distance between seems shorter when they take the time to consider the woman to whom they are both there to say farewell.

Friday, July 5, 2019


This post originally written in 2011 for

I'm not one that normally buys into the whole spoiler thing. It gets a little ridiculous. Some people assume any detail about a movie is absolutely crucial and act like you've spit in their popcorn if you get specific at all. Here's a spoiler for you: the internet could stand to chill.

That said, occasionally there is a movie so off-beat, so unpredictable, so mesmerizing, that I really want to reveal as little as possible, it's so much better if you go and find out on your own. The latest from Pedro Almodóvar, The Skin I Live In, is just such a film. It's very good, very creepy, and even if you've seen the trailer, most of the mysteries that this disturbing gem holds remain to be discovered.

The basics that I can tell you: Antonio Banderas has once again teamed up with the Spanish director who made him a star. Here he plays Robert Ledgard, a brilliant plastic surgeon who has been working in secret on a synthesized skin that is resistant to fire and insect bites. He lost his wife to burns resulting from a car crash, and he has been so intent on keeping others from suffering the same agony, he has been conducting taboo experiments in the private clinic he built into his mansion. He performs the skin experiments on one patient, a troubled young woman named Vera (Elena Anaya, Mesrine [review]) whom he keeps locked in the bedroom next to his and obsessively observes her via a giant-sized flatscreen, almost like he's looking through the wall itself.

Vera never leaves her room, and she never interacts directly with anyone but Robert. His staff sends her food and other things through a dumbwaiter. Most of Robert's affairs are run by the maternal Marilia (Marisa Paredes, The Devil's Backbone). She has been with Robert since he was a child, and knows him even better than her own son (Roberto Alamo), who grew up to be a criminal. No one else knows that Vera is there or has any inkling as to why. What Robert is doing will certainly have a questionable outcome, but he is blinded to the consequences by his tragic past. As more details of what happened prior become clear, what will happen next becomes even hazier.

The Skin I Live In is, essentially, a horror movie. It doesn't have ghosts or things going bump in the night, nor is it really a slasher flick. Almodóvar dabbles more in an unsettling, psychological brand of horror. I was reminded of both Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face and David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers while watching The Skin I Live In. All three of those movies made me uncomfortable in delightfully nasty ways. They all share a tradition of doctors with ice water in their veins who step away from conventional procedure in search of something more personal. The breach of ethics leads them down dangerous roads, and what they find is seriously gruesome. Banderas is splendid as the slimy scientist. His madness is in how clear his vision is. His private plan is exacting and thorough. The only thing he didn't count on is what the results stir up in himself.

Also very good is Anaya--though, again, it's hard to tell you exactly why without jumping too deep into the plot. Suffice to say, she handles the trickier aspects of Almodóvar's script (which is adapted from a novel by Thierry Jonquet). It's a credit to both the actress and her director that after we come to understand certain things about Vera, we never look at her quite the same. It's hard to say if she's really changed, but so much of storytelling is an invisible art. Perhaps Elena Anaya does do something different, perhaps she has just been different all along and our eyes are only just being opened to it.

It's an unimportant question, really. All that matters is how immersed you are in the going's on that wherever the trick lies, the illusion is imperceptible. Almodóvar's execution of the material is exacting, so meticulously designed, he could get away with almost anything. Robert's house is an incredible set, with every detail from the paintings on the walls to the seemingly limitless number of doors through which anyone could go, be they on the hunt or looking to escape, chosen in order to have as much of a visual effect on the audience as anything that happens in the narrative. It's not just about the particulars of what occurs, it's how it occurs and where. It's the pervasive mood of the piece.

The result is that The Skin I Live In does settle over the viewer like a second skin--albeit one you will quickly want to shed. It's going to be harder than you think, though. The movie will most likely follow you around for the rest of the day, if not longer. Which is exactly what you should expect from a good horror movie. If you aren't appropriately horrified, what's the point?


This review originally written in 2006 upon the theatrical release of Volver and published on (I would likely rethink those first couple paragraphs were I to write it now, but for posterity...)

Pedro Almodovar's new film Volver is a real women's picture. By that I don't mean the sudsy genre films of the '40s and '50s about the secret anxieties of housewives or the loves and losses of career girls, but a movie that is exclusively about women. I can only think of three speaking roles for men in the entire movie, and given that one of these men ends up dead barely a half an hour in, Volver was not the best script to have your agent send you if have a Y chromosome.

I need to tread delicately here before I give you the wrong idea. Volver is not an anti-male movie. It's not like Waiting to Exhale or some other such film where gals sit around dishing dirt on the men who did them wrong, nor is it even a feel-good sisters film like Steel Magnolias (though the connection of sisters is explored). Rather, it's a film about a community of women where the men are absent, and in their place, the ladies have learned to get on without them. Fathers, husbands, boyfriends--they are either deceased or they have left to pursue some other agenda. There may be more men around than we see, a lot of the women don't tell their stories or explain who they've left at home, it's not really important. Almodovar has simply set his story within a segment of the population where the women rely on each other, where they trade back and forth and share.

One thing they share is secrets. Just about everyone in the movie has something they want to hide, a secret shame that is better kept to oneself lest it hurt someone else. The main one is the aforementioned dead body, the husband of Raimunda (Penelope Cruz, Sahara), who crossed a line with Raimunda's teenage daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo, The 7th Day), forcing the young girl to defend herself. Raimunda immediately springs to action to cover up the crime, stressing that if anyone finds out what happened, then Paula should say that her mother did it. The trade-off for this secret is another secret: Paco wasn't really Paula's biological father. Who really was is a far more important revelation than Raimunda is willing to let on.

On the same night, Raimunda's beloved Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave), for whom her daughter is named, also passes. Having to deal with her own crisis at home, Raimunda must send her sister to the funeral alone. Sole (Lola Dueñas, The Sea Inside) is reluctant to go because she is terribly afraid of the dead. This isn't helped by the fright she receives immediately upon arriving: she sees an apparition of her dead mother, Irene (Carmen Maura, 800 Bullets). The ghost follows her home to live with Sole, but is she actually a ghost, or is there something about the death of Raimunda and Sole's parents that the girls don't know?

It should be no surprise to any of the characters in Volver when the dead walk among them. Death is in every aspect of their lives. Everywhere they turn, there is some reminder that this existence won't last. In the village where the family comes from, the people are so aware of their own imminent demise, they buy their funeral plots while still alive and spend their lives caring for their future resting place. In fact, there is actually an urban legend amongst the villagers that Irene came back from the beyond to care for her ailing sibling. That's how important the bond of two sisters is, the mortal coil is easier to break.

Though Almodovar plays a lot of this for laughs, he never gets goofy about it. There are no spooky figures decked out in white sheets that cause things to go bump in the night. A person's connection to those who have passed is important. What has gone before informs what is happening now. No one is more aware of this than Paula's neighbor, Agustina (Blanca Portillo), a terminally ill woman who sees everything and yet remains calm in the face of it all. Her own mother disappeared on the day Raimunda and Sole's parents died, and she's pretty sure the two events were somehow connected. There is another secret at the center of that--plenty of secrets, to be more precise. Agustina is convinced that the departed hold the key to these unknown events, and if Irene is appearing to her family, it's because something has been left unresolved. Until it all comes to light, neither the dead nor the living can move forward.

For as complicated as it all may sound, Volver is tightly plotted. A real character piece, there are no extraneous scenes. Every chosen moment moves the story forward and exposes more about the players. The love of mother and daughter, of sister and sister, and of friends is the sealant that keeps the cracks from showing, allowing Raimunda to take on her daughter's crime and Irene to make her sacrifices. As more of these hidden things are uncovered, the women see that the troubles they all face are universal. One woman is connected to another. While you might be able to guess some of Almodovar's mysteries, it won't matter. The director teases them out with a sly hand, revealing everything at just the right time.

Penelope Cruz is remarkable in this film. The story goes that she was growing fed-up with thankless roles in mediocre Hollywood studio pictures, and she went back to Spain and to Almodovar and asked him to giver her something juicy. He wrote Volver for her, and she returned the favor by inhabiting his heroine with a forceful presence. As a mother forced into a position where she must protect her child, she is funny, sexy, and fierce, while also managing to stay vulnerable. Some of what she has to go through is emotionally scary, but Cruz firmly maintains Raimunda's strength. Her character earns the good things that happen to her, and Almodovar's ending is like a great gift to the audience, fading out on just the right note.

I'm not sure I've adequately summed up Volver. It's many things. It's both comedy and drama, and while not a mystery per se, there is some sleuthing that must be done to sort out the family history. And while, yes, it is a story about women, it is also the blossoming of one woman, of Raimunda, who finds that when put to the test, she has more to give than she realized. The title translates into English as To Return, and it has a greater meaning than just describing the return of the dead mother, it's also about a return to one's self, to a time before the secrets became secrets and changed everything. By letting the truth out, Raimunda can change it all back and become the person she always intended to be.