Commentary on Movies and TV by Brian Holcomb

Saturday, July 27, 2019


by Brian Holcomb

SYNOPSIS:Quentin Tarantino’s "Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood" visits 1969 Los Angeles, where everything is changing, as TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) make their way around an industry they hardly recognize anymore.  The ninth film from the writer-director features a large ensemble cast and multiple storylines in a tribute to the final moments of Hollywood’s golden age.


Once upon a time there was a place called Hollywood. Once upon a time there was Charles Manson. At first these two things seem to be completely unrelated but in actuality they were quite connected. During the twilight days of the "Old Hollywood" Charles Manson and his "family" lived on the fringes of the film industry-The dream factory. They ate the scraps of food tossed out by those who lived and worked there and made an abandoned movie ranch their home. The Spahn Ranch was an illusion of course. A fake town used in countless movies and TV shows to present the myth of America and Hollywood over and over. Manson, a failed singer-songwriter, was himself one of the many disillusioned dreamers in the Hollywood myth.

But unlike most of the others, Manson would use his disillusionment to fuel something much more sinister.

In 1969 Hollywood was in the midst of a major tidal shift. The myths were no longer believable. Bloodless gunfights on Gunsmoke were unfolding on the same televisions that brought home the war in Vietnam. In the cinema, Easy Rider sent shock waves to the sleeping studios proving that they had lost their audience. Film and acting had changed. Movie stars now looked more like ordinary people and appeared in stories filmed in real places.

It was in the summer that the separate but parallel tracks of Hollywood and Charles Manson finally collided. On August 8th, 1969. In the city of Los Angeles, California. On Cielo Drive, the home of director Roman Polanski and his pregnant wife Sharon Tate. You probably know the rest.

It's now both history AND myth.

It's from these real and mythic elements that Quentin Tarantino built his latest film. I say "built" because in some ways this is a very mechanical film. For all of its loose shaggy dog qualities, the screenplay is quite rigidly constructed via two storylines in two separate parts held together by the ticking clock of August 8th. Tarantino lets his characters wander more than ever before but only to reveal the invisible leash that pulls them back to the narrative center. Tarantino is not Robert Altman. Random and seemingly trivial elements repeatedly reveal to be important to the overall narrative. Even when that importance sometimes turns out to be trivial.

The film is filled with all of the filmmaker's fetishes. To call it self indulgent is less a criticism at this point than a label to its contents. There are moments in the film that are probably meant to entertain no one but Tarantino or as Billy Wilder once said, "Six friends in Bel-Air". Like many other great filmmakers, Tarantino does not reach out to the audience so much as to try to absorb them, swallow them whole, consume and infect them with their passions and obsessions. To show the audience "reality" through their own eyes.

Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood presents this "reality" on two separate tracks as well. On the one hand, the physical reality of Hollywood 1969 is presented in painstaking detail by production designer Barbara Ling. Characters move through a physical space that appears to be completely authentic. Spahn Ranch itself is also perfectly recreated. If you want a comparison, watch the rare documentary Manson by Robert Hendrickson and Lawrence Merrick. Made in 1973 at the actual ranch and featuring interviews with family members still living there, it is an amazing historical document.

The audio reality is just as impressive. Tarantino selects some great tunes from the era but this is largely heard as ambient sound, coming directly from the speakers on car radios, or televisions nearby. It's an effect Orson Welles intended to achieve in Touch of Evil and used extensively by Walter Murch in George Lucas' American Graffiti. This effect immerses us in a 360 degree reality of space and time.

On the other hand,  the narrative reality is one step removed. Of course neither Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) nor his show Bounty Justice actually existed (Not yet at least. Tarantino claims to have written three episodes of the half hour western and is considering actually making it for Netflix). But there was a Steve McQueen and his Wanted Dead or Alive is the type of show that Tarantino is referencing. Dalton himself is meant to be an amalgamation of the many male actors from the era who were desperately trying to make the leap from TV to films and a career in the "New Hollywood" represented by Roman Polanski in the movie. Rick watches Polanski and his beautiful wife Sharon (Margot Robbie) from his house next door desperately hoping to be invited over so he can meet them and be accepted as an equal. But the gates to their home remain closed.

Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) doesn't exist either. The character was probably inspired by both Tom Laughlin and Burt Reynolds' stuntman/director buddy Hal Needham but Cliff is definitely his own man. Cliff represents the masculine ideal of old Hollywood with all the baggage that comes with it. One can look at this movie and see elements of the western in it as well. Seen through that lens, Cliff is definitely the cowboy hero. Despite some moral ambiguity, Cliff is as loyal, tough and honorable as his own beloved dog.

Both DiCaprio and Pitt do some of their best work in this film. Rick Dalton is a whining character full of self loathing which could've easily been off-putting if DiCaprio didn't know exactly how to play it. He leans right INTO the character's shallowness for both humor and genuine emotion. His scenes with the fantastic Julia Butters as a precocious 8 year old method "actor" (not "actress" as she says) are some of his best in the film.

As usual for Tarantino there are many cameos by actors from Hollywood's past and present. Among these, former TV Spider Man Nicholas Hammond as director Sam Wanamaker, Margaret Qualley as Pussy, a flirtatious member of the Manson family and Dakota Fanning as Squeaky Fromme are the most impressive. But it's Pitt who really runs away with the film. He is completely at home in the character and one could imagine a great TV series featuring Cliff Booth as an out of work stuntman investigating crime in 70s Los Angeles. At the very least, it would've been better than Mannix.

Tarantino handles these various threads of reality and fictionalized reality playfully. When Sharon Tate goes to the movies to watch herself in the new Matt Helm picture The Wrecking Crew it's not Margot Robbie we see onscreen but rather the actual Sharon Tate. Brian DePalma would love this deep dive into metafiction which features an actress playing an actress watching the real life actress playing a character onscreen. Robbie nails this moment and the fusion of fiction and reality makes it all the more touching.

Although the film seems plotless for the most part, drifting from one episodic situation to another, Neil Diamond's Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show reminds us that it's a " august night and the leaves hanging down and the grass on the ground smelling sweet...". We know that it's all going to intersect soon. We are drifting toward something ugly and nightmarish so the second part of the film has an atmosphere of doomed inevitability. The sword of Damocles hangs over the entire movie and it's with this terrible inevitability that Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood reveals the sad irony hidden within its title.

As expected, Tarantino plays games with history. In Inglorious Basterds killing off Hitler did not give many pause but in this case Tarantino risked crossing the line into incredibly bad taste. But he solves this problem with great creativity and even humor delivering us some satisfying (and of course incredibly violent) wish fulfillment. Everything works out for the best and even Rick gets what he's always wanted. The gates finally open for him. But the lie of this Hollywood happy ending leaves us feeling bittersweet. By granting this collective wish, Tarantino leaves us even more haunted by the sad truth that contradicts the fairy tale title onscreen: Once Upon A Time...


Tuesday, January 31, 2017


By Brian Holcomb

While everyone has been off talking about Ti West and Adam Wingard, Yam Laranas has been working quietly and steadily making some of the most effective thrillers in recent years. ABOMINATION is a mind bending puzzler that makes you question the reality of the narrative you are seeing.

Rachel(Tippy Dos Santos) is found unconscious in a city street and claims to be another person who was brutally murdered two months earlier. She escapes from a psychiatric hospital in order to prove her identity and find the truth about her life, her death, and her murderer.

This is the kind of story that's a tightrope walk for a filmmaker-one which many fail to cross. These are tricky stories which are hard to pull off without creating confusion or being instantly obvious. If you plant too many clues then the audience will get ahead of you and the film will be laughably predictable as some of M. Night Shyamalan's films have proved. Plant too few and the audience will be scratching their heads as the end credits roll wondering if anyone involved in making the film could explain the mess onscreen. Laranas handles this expertly by focusing on character and family drama so that it becomes inseparable from the mystery. Laranas is one of the best filmmakers working in the thriller genre today and this film is a perfect example of his understanding of cinematic craft.


Available on iTunes

Sunday, October 14, 2012

V/H/S "FILM" Review

by Brian Holcomb

"New Wave" Horror anthology is way too long, tiring and for some-nausea inducing-to watch on the big screen. Forget all the complaints of The Blair Witch Project being too shaky to handle, this film assaults the senses like Clockwork Orange's Ludovico Treatment.

The Filmmakers should've been made to consult one another regarding their content-one more segment with a group of A-HOLES carrying on like the cast of JACKASS and my head may have exploded. It isn't surprising that the two best segments feature characters who are at least vaguely likable. Ti West's segment "Second Honeymoon" is most effective in this regard. West merely knods to the "found footage" concept while making sure that his story is as effectively told as a more conventionally shot movie. It works both because and despite the fact it is supposed to be someone's home video. It also contains the single most frightening and tense moment in the entire 2 hours of horror movie sound and fury-a scene that is also as quiet as a whisper.

Five stories and a wraparound is the classic anthology structure but so much is repetitive here due to the "found footage" concept. There are only so many ways to toss a camera into the action and keep it running plausibly. As it stands- I would rate them like this-Ti West's is the best, followed by Radio Silence and Joe Swanberg's in a statistical tie. The other two could've really just been erased.


Tuesday, July 17, 2012


By Brian Holcomb

PROMETHEUS is only vaguely related to the Alien franchise being more or less a remake of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. It's also co-written by Damon Lindelof of Lost fame and like that program, Prometheus devours cool ideas as fast as it ignores or contradicts them. That said, the film is not bad. I don't know if I would say it's any good but there were moments of suspense, moments of shock and grue, and moments of laughter. Not many of those laughs were intentional but leave it be that Guy Pearce provides quite a few of them doing his impersonation of "Keir Dullea" in 2010: The Year We Did Not Really Make Contact. Ridley Scott does his impersonation of "Ridley Scott" circa 1979 and this is a good thing. It's been a long while since he trusted his ability to actually frame a shot and leave it alone.

Still there are enough good things in the film to recommend it. The cast is uniformly good-with Michael Fassbender in particular doing some fine work as an android.

NOTE: Fassbender's penis does not make a cameo in this film.

Finally, I don't know if I like the idea of man's creators being "roided up" versions of ourselves. Imagine going to a planet at the far end of the universe only to find out that we are really the descendants of the cast of "Jersey Shore". I mean, why bother?


Saturday, December 03, 2011


by Brian Holcomb

At one point in the middle of one of the many whispered conversations in this very "wink wink nudge nudge" narrative, someone says that the real problem is that she has been feeling "severely underfucked" these days. One could say that for the entire cast of old men who run Great Britain's spy division. All of whom would seem to be better off seeking the occasional carnal pleasure over a life of whispers, shadows, isolation and liquor. George Smiley (Gary Oldman) above all of them.

Smiley is "retired" from his official position working for the British Secret Service, an organization which appears to be 5 aging men sitting in the back office of an anonymous office building. But he's soon asked back. Commissioned to find out just who the mole is within their department. Apparently it goes all the way up to the top.

This is the kind of movie where the lead character gets involved in a narrative so labyrinthine that he should eventually suspect himself at some point. For those unfamiliar with the work of the nuclear serious John Le Carre', the constant time shifting and deathly stares may even have them wondering if they themselves are the mole. But this is really a finely crafted film with some absolutely wonderful performances from its sterling cast.

Oldman in particular is absolutely fantastic, much in the way Gene Hackman was in Coppola's The Conversation. Both actors are not known for their subtlety and when forced to play a character so unassuming and internalized, there is an amazing tension that seems to exist right under the surface. So although George Smiley seems to be all deadpan stares and soft tones, there is always the sense that something violent and emotional is percolating within. It makes the most quiet scene into one of suspense. This is the main difference between Oldman and the late Alec Guinness' interpretation of the role. Guinness had a retiring and calm personality which was rolled into a kind of tired, distant but benevolent father figure. Oldman feels more genuine in a way, just the kind of nobody that would make a perfect spy. The man in the room you would instantly forget.

Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) directs the film with an almost mathematical precision. Framings are never less than SPECIFIC and much use is made of the width of the widescreen to separate characters and alienate them from one another. The direction is so controlled that it begins to feel as though the characters are not just trapped in a cold "dog eats dog" world but trapped literally in a glass jar. The time shifting structure is perhaps one level of narrative conjuring too many. When the events of the linear story itself are more complex than Chinatown(1974),jumping around in time may not be the best choice. That said, Alfredson manages to create a nightmarish atmosphere on the level of Polanski himself. He merely lacks the master filmmaker's understanding of narrative economy. The film is very much worth the effort but a few cups of coffee beforehand may be in order.


Thursday, August 18, 2011

TREE OF LIFE Film Review

By Brian Holcomb

The only thing I can tell you about this movie is that it's less than meets the eye and that if you quickly scan all the images in the above poster and think about them for a minute you will have pretty much the same experience as you might by spending the 12 plus hours it takes to run in the theater.

Speaking of seeing it in the theater, I had the most amazing experience just buying a ticket to see this at my local multi-fauxartplex. Upon delivering the words "One for 'Tree of Life'" to the dazed box office attendant, I was immediately halted. She raised her hand as though she were a gypsy fortune teller warning me of imminent danger and began reciting some kind of prescripted statement.

Sounding like someone on a telethon reading a cue card, the girl said, "'Tree of Life' is an unusual film. It does not relate a standard narrative. If you find that 'Tree of Life' is not to your tastes or liking you have to return to this box office no later than 30 minutes after the start of the film in order to receive a refund. No refunds will be issued after the 30 minute limit."

It was the first time I have ever received a Surgeon's General warning about the dangers of watching a movie.

Malick needs to keep these films for his eyes only. This is the kind of film made to exhaust all patience. My patience has just run out writing about it.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest DVD Review

by Brian Holcomb

The third entry in Stieg Larsson's enormously successful series is perhaps the least thrilling but it's easily the most satisfying. For those who have spent two films suffering along with the almost cosmically tortured Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest will be particularly cathartic. As a film it's about as pedestrian as the others in the series but as usual it is Larsson's storytelling talents and the near mythic Salander character that keeps us engaged.

When we last saw Lisbeth and the Millennium Magazine gang, the brilliant hacker was trying to kill her abusive father, a old and rotting Russian defector. Oh and defend herself against his hulking bodyguard Niedermann, a blonde weirdo who was genetically impervious to pain. (Oh, and he turned out to be her half-brother, too! The plot does thicken a bit here and there!)

To read the rest of this review at click HERE

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


by Brian Holcomb


To call this very peculiar and original supernatural tale Buñuelian is doubly accurate. While it certainly captures the great surrealist filmmaker's sense of the mysterious within the mundane, it was also directed by an actual Buñuel, Juan Luis Buñuel, the master director's son and sometime assistant. The younger Buñuel had a tremendous hurdle to leap in order to establish his own directorial signature and I'm not sure if he ever really did. Jean Renoir had a similar situation as the son of the great impressionist painter but he, importantly, chose a different art form in order to create his own niche. Working in the same medium as his celebrated father, it was perhaps inevitable that Juan Buñuel would find his looming shadow difficult to escape . This was most obvious in his second film, "The Lady with Red Boots"(1977) which was filled with his father's trademarked jokes and familiar faces like Fernando Rey and Catherine Deneuve in the cast. While delightful in it's own right, that film was more like Buñuel "doing" a Buñuel . It was an accurate, studied facsimile. His first film, "Au Rendez-vous de la Mort Joyeuse" was far more original, spontaneous, and pure. A truly bizarre and disturbing horror film-black comedy that seems to have come much more naturally to the director.

The story is pretty standard but deceptively so: A family moves into a country estate and soon after are plagued by a series of paranormal events which seem to revolve around the teenaged daughter Sophie (Yasmine Dahm). Windows are smashed, furniture moves on it's own and ultimately a visiting friend is viciously attacked and nearly killed. Fleeing the house, they allow a TV crew to move in and attempt to solve the mystery. They do not.

As described, the plot sounds like any number of haunted house thrillers and narratively the film is, indeed, quite mundane. What's kept this movie on the fringes of cultdom, however, is that the filmmaking itself appears mundane and routine as well. There are no extreme long takes, unique and attention grabbing camera angles, or bizarre editing patterns. Visually, this looks no different from any early '70s television film but, once again, this is deceptively routine. A visual economy in line with the elder Buñuel's signature style which he always insisted was no style at all. This was true only in that having no style WAS his style. The economic staging, simple understated framings and consistently objective viewpoint provided the perfect vehicle for depicting his crazy content in an almost journalistic manner. Buñuel seems to have picked up much of this from the great French filmmaker Louis Feuillade, whose "Les Vampires" presents a similar swirl of insane events all photographed on location on the streets of WW1 Paris like some kind of twisted newsreel.

This was the basis of a certain strain of cinematic surrealism but in "Au Rendez-vous de la Mort Joyeuse" the younger Buñuel seems to have moved beyond his father's preference for constructing strings of shocking jokes in place of a narrative and gone back to the narrative as spectacle of Feuillade himself. The story is no longer merely a clothesline on which to hang a series of random vignettes but is actually the vehicle driving the movie itself. We not only watch to see what "will happen next", but to see just what in the hell COULD happen next as the events get stranger and stranger. The film has a hypnotic power that is not dream-like but rather dream-real. It's as though Frederick Wiseman was somehow sent into a madman's nightmare armed with a 16mm camera. There is a sense that anything can happen in this story, no matter how random, odd or inexplicable. What's most impressive, however, is the way these random and inexplicable events seem to occur naturally and out of some inner logic

At first, we are presented scenes in which the teenage daughter Sophie is seen carrying on in a very suggestive, enigmatic way with her parents and younger brother. Some of this is based on documented cases of poltergeist activity which often center on the trauma of an adolescent female entering adulthood. Sophie is seen to be at odds with her mother, possessive of her father, and completely dismissive of her younger brother's existence-which appears to be an annoyance at best. When the child complains of sleeping alone, he's placed into Sophie's room causing her to become irate. "I hate hearing people breathe. It's my room!" is her reaction.

One night, Sophie is seen observing with a mix of fascination and revulsion the sight of her parents making love. She slams the door on them to get their attention and storms off. Immediately following this, the windows all over the house begin shattering on cue. The image of Sophie standing in sillohuette at the end of a long hallway while a long line of windows shatter in front of her is one of the film's most powerful, both beautiful and disturbing at the same time. It's an image that almost seems too smart, too affected amidst the much more banal recording of daily events we've been subjected to thus far.

At this point in the story it still seems as though we are watching a rather ordinary case history of paranormal events. But it's the random that really defines the way the film unfolds and creates one of its most inspired ideas. In every haunted house thriller, believability is always stretched once the family realizes that the house is haunted. Why stay and face more terror? Lame narrative excuses are usually created in order to keep the family from just running off like they should. But here, they actually DO run off once the house goes haywire and only halfway through the movie!

Like Hitchcock did with "Psycho", Buñuel shifts gears from his main characters and introduces Perou (Jean-Pierre Darras ), a TV producer friend who presses Marc to allow him to send his crew to the house to see if they can record the phenomena on film. What follows is something that seems along the lines of later work like the BBC "Ghostwatch" or "The Blair Witch Project" as the viewpoint alternates between objective shots of the investigative crew and subjective shots from the point of view of a documentary camera. The focus shifts from Sophie and her family to the producer and his crew which includes a young Gerard Depardieu as a bearded and nervous soundman.

Bifurcated as it may seem, this half of the story is not a complete break from the first. Sophie shows up almost out of nowhere with her hair no longer in pigtails and wearing a very couture fur coat. She looks like the teen fashion model that actress Dahm really was at the time-Nabokov's nymphette. Her father shows up shortly after, but tellingly her mother never again appears in the film. It's as though Sophie has usurped her place in the household in some kind of mock-Freudian coup.

With her arrival things really get weird again. Everyone goes crazy almost immediately, Depardieu in particular. Preparing some homemade soup for dinner he suddenly feels compelled to place his hands into the boiling water. Which he does in a totally non-dramatic, matter-of-fact manner which makes it all the more hilarious and weird. After an eruption of vibrations and flashing lights the story looks to be settling into its new form as a paranormal investigation "thriller" in the vein of "The Haunting(1963)". But once again this new stasis is interrupted by the random: the sudden arrival of the local Vicar (Claude Dauphin) with his flock of young children. Never mind the "explanation" that the Vicar always brings the children to stay at the house for a night, they've now crashed this cinematic party. An elderly Priest and a rag-tag group of children who look like refugees from a touring production of Dickens' "Oliver Twist", they are allowed to stay the night and are immediately drawn into the general flow of the action.

What transpires during this final phase of the film is a series of oddball vignettes as the narrative gives way to a freefall of inexplicable events and images. It's at this point that the film reveals that it has been setting up certain symbols throughout which were meant to re-appear in the final act in some subconciously logical way. The elder Buñuel had a personal distaste for symbolism. He felt that it reduced the power of mystery to a kind of intellectual code-breaking which is why his early films in particular, like "L'Age D'Or", are filled with obvious symbols used in nonsensical ways in order to confuse the pretentious. Juan Buñuel seems to have broken from this influence as his use of symbols in "Au Rendez-vous de la Mort Joyeuse" seeks to evoke a more private and self contained point of reference. In a more Kubrickian way, he creates a series of enigmatic and repeated images which clearly mean SOME-thing. Exactly what is open to wide interpretation. In "2001: A Space Odyssey", Stanley Kubrick used the monoliths to visualize something intangible-the alien influence on human evolution and progress. In "Au Rendez-vous de la Mort Joyeuse", there is a filthy old rope that's discovered several times, once in the bed of the younger brother and also the sudden appearance of mounds of dirt. The dirt is first seen smeared all over the drawings of Sophie's father. Later, Perou finds himself being seduced in the dark by what appears to be Sophie but in a precursor to the book and film of "The Shining" she is revealed to be a frightening old hag. When his crew come running after hearing his screams of horror, they discover him writhing in the bed, covered with the same mysterious mound of dirt.

The filthy old rope returns at the very end. The final act of the movie is not unlike Mario Bava's "Bay of Blood" in its harsh depiction of self-serving humans doing whatever they must in order to save themselves. As several of the crew try to escape including the wounded Depardieu, each finds themselves falling prey to something inexplicable. As if to remind us of the Lewis Carroll influence on this weird tale of burgeoning female sexuality, Perou tries to make a run for it and basically falls into a rabbit hole: he takes two steps and falls through the floor of the living room into a bottomless old well. Inexplicably, it seems that two of the crew's vehicles have become rusted and overgrown with weeds. Depardieu escapes to the only vehicle left undamaged, the mini-van. The children pile in and he and the Vicar get into a desperate physical battle for the driver's seat, the Vicar banging on his wounded hands and Depardieu finally beating the old man down with a crowbar. But soon after Depardieu loses control of the vehicle crashing it into a clump of trees on the property. Inexplicably, Depardieu is suddenly attacked by the children themselves. They put a blanket over his head, bind his arms, and finally strangle him to death with the filthy old rope itself.

The film ends with Sophie and her father again, just like in the beginning, staring at the idyllic country house. The father says that the house should be burned to the ground. Sophie doesn't answer but her strange expression seems to suggest she knows that the trouble was never really with the house at all. She goes back inside alone to find her drawing of the house. She depicted it covered with ivy as that's how she wanted it to be. The film ends on a series of lap dissolves on the house, as it is slowly covered by the ivy as she wished.

"Au Rendez-vous de la Mort Joyeuse" is the kind of film that seems simple on the surface like Kubrick's film of "The Shining" but rewards multiple viewings as it becomes clear that there is much significance in the smallest of details. It's a creepy film in the tradition of "Let's Scare Jessica to Death" in which the fear is not from a direct physical threat but rather in the whispered suggestions just below the level of consciousness. One of the film's most amazingly ordinary and yet powerfully surreal scenes involves "two" Sophies seen dressing and undressing at the same time. Reflected in a mirror, we see Sophie dressed in her stylish fur coat and turtleneck sweater as she begins to slowly disrobe staring the whole time at her "innocent" self in the room, dressed in a nightgown and starting to put on the very turtleneck sweater and fur coat her doppelganger has removed. The power of this short and strange scene is enhanced in that there is no music or sound effects to be heard on the soundtrack at all. This is an extremely quiet film which features no scored music and only the most subtle of sound effects judiciously used. Much of the movie has the power of old home movies in which the only accompaniment was often the whirr of the projector which gave the mute people and world on the screen a secret life of its own. It creates the uncanny feeling of something both impossible and magical that just happened to be recorded from reality. An uncanny mood that could be called Buñuelian.

Screenplay: Juan Luis Buñuel & Pierre-Jean Maintigneux
Director of Photography: Ghislain Cloquet
Director: Juan Luis Buñuel

Cast: Francoise Fabian (Francoise), Jean-Marc Bory (Marc), Yasmine Dahm (Sophie), Jean-Pierre Darras (Perou), Claude Dauphin (Father D'Aval), Michel Creton (Leroy), Gerard Depardieu (Beretti), Andre Weber (Kleber)

90 mins.

Monday, January 10, 2011


This amazing film is finally available on DVD in the Warner Bros. "Made to Order" store. Look at that chase scene embedded above. It's fascinating. As well photographed and staged as The French Connection or Bullit but there's another layer going on in the loose improvisation between Arkin and Caan as well as the Godard influenced God's eye views of the action which make everything seem more absurd through the wider context. If you need a higher recommendation than my own, this was highly praised as a masterpiece by both Francois Truffaut and Stanley Kubrick. Those are two giant "Thumbs up!". More about this film later.

It can be ordered HERE

Friday, December 03, 2010

BLACK SWAN Film Review

The Black Shoes:
Or How Darren Aronofsky Became Trapped in a Powell-Polanski-Pressburger

by Brian Holcomb

Upon first glance Black Swan appears to be a psychological horror film about a ballerina who goes insane. But in reality it's a movie about a filmmaker who goes insane-in good ways and bad. Perhaps not the kind of madness that engulfs Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) onscreen. No, director Darren Aronofsky has become spellbound with aesthetic perfection. He takes this simple and clearly MINIMAL story and directs the very life out of it, subjugating everything to a dictatorial design concept. The concept is ambitious and fully realized with all the tools at his talented disposal. Only the tools are much too large and clumsy to get the job done properly.

In terms of content, Black Swan is a potpourri of ideas, themes, characters and plot devices from a whole range of horror films (Carrie, Repulsion, Cat People, Jacob's Ladder) and backstage musicals (The Red Shoes, The Phantom of the Opera, Showgirls). You have the shy but ambitious young ingenue(Portman)who gets her big break when the Svengali-like Ballet director (Vincent Cassell) decides to replace the aging company star (Winona Ryder) in his new production of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake". The ingenue, Nina Sayers, is a kind of sheltered child woman who lives with her very protective stage mother (Barbara Hershey) in a small stuffed animal and pink walled adorned apartment in NYC. Mommie Dearest and daughter have a disturbing relationship in a private world of their own making. Nina not only has an eating disorder (quite cruelly mocked by her mother with a large celebratory cake) but a history of "scratching" as well-a problem significant enough that mom sometimes has to put protective mittens on her hands.

Of course, Nina has a few other issues as well-one of them being the fact that she's probably schizophrenic. Once cast in the coveted dual role of "white swan" and "black swan" (see where this is going?), it becomes clear that she has problems conveying the rage and sexuality needed for the role. She begins to see Lily (Mila Kunis) her "alternate", as competition. The carnal Lily is very suited to the role of the "black swan" and Nina's desperate desire to find that side within herself sends her into a spiraling descent from sanity.

You can already see how LITERAL the movie is just from the description. "White Swans", "Black Swans", Lily is made Nina's "alternate" and of course mirrors proliferate.

The film is also literally black and white. Not shot on black and white filmstock, the film is in color but more often than not the screen is divided into blacks and whites. Wardrobe, locations, set dressings etc. are all defined by this design choice. Initially the visual command is very admirable but instead of allowing us to immerse ourselves into his carefully crafted world, Aronofsky has to push it into our collective face. So much so that it begins to grate on the nerves as yet another scene is surrounded by this Yin/Yang symbolism.

The desire to control the tiniest detail onscreen comes very close to the obsessive-compulsive and it's not long before the director's bag of tricks becomes extremely obvious. Instead of allowing a scene to breathe or allowing for Portman's raw and fragile performance to emerge on its own, Aronofsky is almost compelled to throttle the movie with expressionist devices right out of the film that haunts this one the whole time, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's nightmare fantasy The Red Shoes. In fact, there seems to be a stylistic collision going on throughout with Roman Polanski's trademark surrealistic realism being fused with the operatic ARTIFICE and theatricality of Powell-it's like oil and water. The story can be played either one way or the other but the two together work against the strengths of both. But with it's minimalist screenplay and realistic performances, the film should've been handled with more subtlety. The subtlety that uncharacteristically showed up in Aronofsky's last film, The Wrestler. That film allowed time to just watch Mickey Rourke's performance, to observe the process of his sport in a way this film does not do for ballet. Instead, Aronfsky's camera and scissors go into attention deficit overdrive and try to compensate for the minimalism with furioso-even going so far as to indulge in some really questionable CGI that makes the avian transformation also literal (Perhaps a brief shot of Nina seeing herself in a shadowy reflection would've been uncanny and frightening but what we get is very close to some cheap werewolf movie).He need not have worked so hard as his story was decent enough and his actors extremely able. What could've been something truly disturbing and memorable is reduced to an interesting, but failed experiment.

Nina Sayers is continually told that to play the black swan she must "let herself go", that true perfection can only come through the danger of spontaneity. Well, this could be advice Darren Aronofsky could take to heart.