Capsule Reviews: April 13 – 22

Pi (Darren Aronofsky, 1998) – 3/5

“The Aronofsky touch” – percussive editing, obsessive concern for obsessive characters, repetition as narrative detail and thematic building block, and self-mutilation as redemptive technique – is fully on display in his first feature. Harboring a constellation of fascinating ideas both metaphysical and mathematical, and concerned with fleshing out precisely none of them, Aronofsky further blunders by shoehorning it all into a routine thriller straitjacket – save for the film’s transcendent finale. The scene where Max is pursued by a shadowy corporate rep threatens to collapse the film into a quantum singularity under the weight of its own obviousness.

Daughter of Horror (1955) – 2.5/5

Perhaps best known – if not precisely recognized – as being featured during the drive-in sequence in The Blob, this intriguing little creeper works best as a mood piece, conveying a sense of dread and discomfort through striking, oneiric imagery. Overblown, portentous voiceover (by, of all people, Ed McMahon), which is missing from the original cut of the film called Dementia, places it in the vein of ersatz educational exploitation films. Without it, the film would feel more in keeping with the Gothic horror of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which it obviously strives for.

The Long Riders (Walter Hill, 1980) – 3.5/5

Yet another iteration of the James Gang myth. What allows this version to stand out, and even to transcend its stunt casting (real-life brothers play the various sibling clusters), are a thoughtful script by stars James and Stacy Keach, solid performances all around (the Carradine boys and Randy and Dennis Quaid also appear), a keen eye for period detail, a terrific Ry Cooder score and the particularly Peckinpah-esque direction of Walter Hill.

Thankskilling (2009) – 1.5/5

Deliberately awful is as deliberately awful does. Admittedly, this bid for future holiday horror/cult classic status, the unsavory saga of a demonically possessed killer turkey, sports a few authentically funny gags. The rest is lackluster, low-rent incompetence.

The Devil’s Sword (1984) – 3/5

This Indonesian crowd-pleaser has something for everyone: sword-and-sorcery, horror, kung fu, and more than a smattering of bared bosoms. If you haven’t already guessed it from that genre-bending description, this is another winner from the Mondo Macabro cult DVD label.

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (Brothers Quay, 2005) – 3.5/5

The Quay Brothers return after a decade’s absence with this Magic Realism-tinged fable: A mad scientist murders, abducts and then revives an opera diva for a very special command performance at his island stronghold, which is occupied by a series of automata, rendered in the Quays’ signature stop-motion animation. Dense and dreamlike, deliberately paced, finally enigmatic, this is a far cry from linear, conventional filmmaking.

Hotel Monterey (Chantal Akerman, 1972) – 3/5

An early Akerman structural experiment that explores the spaces and denizens of the titular low-rent Upper West Side hotel in a series of extended takes – some feature a fixed camera, some track to-and-fro along empty hallways. The panoramic final shot across the surrounding neighborhood, taken from the hotel’s rooftop, dazzles the senses after almost an hour of claustrophobic confinement.

The Witch’s Mirror (Chano Urueta, 1962) – 2.5/5

Interesting more as a historical curiosity than as a genre exercise, this Mexican horror hodge-podge mixes elements of Universal horror films of the 30s/40s into a bouillabaisse of bathos, featuring some simple yet effective chiller effects.

Lorna’s Silence (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardennes, 2008) – 4/5

Eschewing the often distracting and disconcerting “over the shoulder cam” technique they favored in earlier films, the Dardennes Brothers continue their fascination with varieties of human exploitation in this tale of an Albanian woman participating in a scheme to marry and then overdose a Belgian junkie in order to obtain citizenship, which she can then sell to the highest bidder. Along the way, she develops a conscience. Moving from the city to the countryside, the film ends in an ambiguous, fable-like tableau. More “objective” in aesthetic and theme than previous films, this constitutes a significant advance in their technique.

The Name of the Rose (Jean-Jacques Annaud, 1986) – 2.5/5

Stripped of the bulk of its philosophical, semiotic and literary references, which make the Umberto Eco novel a perennial “intellectual beach reading” favorite, the film version still manages a modicum of entertainment – from its pungent set design (a labyrinthine library, in particular, stands out) to the overripe emoting of F. Murray Abraham as a Grand Inquisitor and Ron Perlman as a Quasimodo-esque hunchback. Sean Connery and a very young Christian Slater star.

The Molly Maguires (Martin Ritt, 1970) – 3/5

A big budget flop at the time of its release, this absorbing, deliberately paced historical drama unfolds against the well-rendered backdrop of a 1870s Pennsylvania coal-mining town, and stars Sean Connery as a miner who participates in a group of industrial saboteurs out of a desire to prove that he’s alive more than any overtly political motives, Richard Harris as a policeman who infiltrates the group, and Samantha Eggar as the requisite love interest.

The Hill (Sidney Lumet, 1965) – 4/5

A WWII-era British army prison in North Africa provides the setting for this searing exposé of military brutality and conformism. Lumet elevates what otherwise might have come across as a conventional filmed play through razor-sharp editing and a variety of cinéma vérité-derived camera techniques. Stars Sean Connery as a malcontent prisoner, Harry Andrews as the martinet Sergeant, Ossie Davis as a prisoner targeted for racial abuse, and Ian Hendry as the sadistic Staff Sergeant.

About Budd Wilkins

Budd Wilkins is a writer, film critic and instructor. He is a Staff Critic for Slant Magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Nordic Issue of Acidemic Journal of Film and Media. He is currently writing a chapter for an anthology on international horror directors to be published by Intellect Press and distributed by University of Chicago Press. Mr. Wilkins was born and raised in Hollywood, Florida. He attended Penn State for several years before moving to North Carolina in 1994, where he earned his Bachelor's in Religious Studies and a Master's in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Film Studies from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His primary focus is film history, film literacy and criticism, with the goal of bringing obscure, foreign and films that are labeled "difficult" to the attention of film aficionados of all kinds. Other interests and focus of critique include comparative religion, black humor, 19th century European literature, horror and graphic novels. Mr Wilkins lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with his wife, Tina. Follow @buddwilkins on Twitter.
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