Weekly Round-Up: May 15-21, 2016

Last week, I saw:

  • Woman in the Dunes (1964) – At its best, this demented love story is an absolute thriller, chronicling the kidnapping and imprisonment of one man by a rural Japanese village. Unfortunately, this intriguing premise loses momentum and is all but buried by its 2 1/2 hour running time. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Descendants (2015) – I adore this movie, to the point where my friend Albert and I recorded an audio commentary this week (to be released soon) analyzing the film even further. The Disney villains’ kids go to high school together – what more could you want? RECOMMENDED.
  • The Witch (2016) – Even better on home video than in theaters, thanks to subtitles! I even watched it with audio commentary which provided additional insights. Nearly six months in, this might be my pick of top movie of 2016. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Blue Hawaii (1961) – Silly but enjoyable Elvis musical about a young man torn between his destiny as a pineapple heir and staying a beach bum with his friends. Great songs and Angela Lansbury are icing on the cake. RECOMMENDED.
  • The New World (2005) – Spectacular historical drama exploring the intertwining lives of John Smith, Pocahontas, and John Rolfe. From what I’ve seen, this is by far my favorite Malick film. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Black Moon (1975) – Surrealist trashfest that is equal parts Valerie and Her Week of Wonders and Godard’s Weekend, but with none of the wit or purpose. I get that there was something about a battle of the sexes, but couldn’t grasp how hordes of naked kids running about or old ladies talking to pet rats contributed to this idea. NOT RECOMMENDED.

Blue Hawaii (1961)

Blue Hawaii is a romantic western Hawaiian dream come true: a rejection of traditional  western values and customs in favor of the (supposedly) carefree lifestyle of native Hawaiians. Elvis plays Chad, an heir to a pineapple company, who returns from two years overseas in the Army. His parents want him to take on the family business, but he wants to make his own way, working as a tour guide with his girlfriend Maile (sounds like “Miley”) and hanging out with his “beach boy” friends.

Glad to be home?

I’m not sure if we’re supposed to feel this way, but Chad comes across like a bit of a jerk. When Maile first picks him up at the airport, he kisses the airline stewardess on his way out of the plane to make her jealous. To calm her down as they drive off, he assures her (through song) that he was almost always true to her. Even when he meets up with his friends, they ask him all about life overseas and what girls he met, but he doesn’t ask them any questions in return. They missed him, but he didn’t miss them?

But this is an Elvis movie, and Elvis movies are all about the music. The songs in Blue Hawaii are top-notch, with the highlight ballad “Can’t Help Falling in Love” as well as “Rock-a-Hula Baby” (performed during his welcome-home party at his parents’ estate) and “Slicin’ Sand,” a bizarro song Elvis sings with his tour group.

The real scene-stealer, however, is Angela Lansbury as Chad’s mother. From the very first scene when she’s serving an unnamed cocktail to the countless Mai Tais she clutches, she simply can’t keep the drinks coming fast enough. Of all the non-native Hawaiians, she is the most unabashedly racist (calling her Asian servant “Ping Pong”) and classist, though she is nothing like the monster she portrays in The Manchurian Candidate. She is barely even a villain, her greatest fault being ignorance and not hatred or even evil.

One of the film’s Mai Tais in action

Blue Hawaii comes from a very different time and place, but is a delightful journey for anyone who revels in the romanticized vision of the islands so common in the 1950s & 60s. (I know I do!) Filmed on location, we get some great exterior shots of beaches, hotels, restaurants, and even the interior sets are gloriously mid-century modern. This is a vacation to a dream world you “can’t help falling in love” with.

Leon Morin, Priest (1961)

Léon Morin, Priest is the excellent character study between a young widow and a priest during the Nazi occupation of France. She, an atheist, is practically forced into the church to convert to Catholicism and avoid persecution from the Nazis.

While she does follow through the nominal process of conversion, she is a reluctant party, with many serious doubts and critiques of the Church and of religion in general. The priest, surprisingly, both shares and understands many of her questions, with himself combating his own fears and concerns about religion. We get many superb scenes of intelligent, yet realistic, dialogue between two strong-willed and sharp-witted parties.

The performances are excellent as well, with Emanuelle Riva as the heroine and a handsome Jean-Paul Belmondo as the young priest. They play their characters with the fullest, bringing them to life both with charisma and insecurity. The subtleties of their performances are so impressive, it’s easy to forget we are watching a movie.

Director Melville is heavy on “showing, not telling,” (which he exemplifies in his minimalist Army of Shadows and Le Cercle Rouge, neither of which I particularly enjoyed), but it works here – we do see their friendship develop over the course of two hours. When they must part at the film’s end, we do feel their sadness and the loss of their relationship. Léon Morin, Priest is a solid, entertaining and stimulating film that maintains our attention and breaks our heart.

The Innocents (1961)

The scariest horror film I’ve seen in some time. It follows all of the elements of your typical Gothic horror feature (spooky old house, creepy kids). What makes this one so striking, however, is that in this movie, things go bump in the night, day, and everything in-between. We never get a moment of rest.

From the very first scene, the exposition detailing the film’s premise (an uncle’s niece and nephew need a new governess in his house in the country), we can immediately tell something is wrong. The dialogue is all rather twisted (co-written by Truman Capote), and the plot goes in a disturbing, semi-incestuous direction.

Additionally, all of the scares are well-thought out and built up. No cheap “jump” moments in this classical horror movie. We don’t even get many close-ups of the scary action (so to speak) going on, which almost makes it scarier; it makes the events that much more objective, making it that much more plausible that you could also be watching it live, but from slightly afar.

Beyond simply the solid storytelling, we also get some stellar performances, especially from the two children. (And I usually hate kid actors, so that’s saying something!) The film is also shot beautifully and rather strangely; as seen above, we often get shots with characters in the foreground and background, both in focus. This is a fairly uncommon technique, rooted in medieval artwork, giving the film an additional layer of other-worldliness. Which, for a house full of spooks and spirits, fits perfectly.

While it is a bit of a slow build-up, this is a wonderfully effective and genuinely creepy horror movie. The ending was so shakingly haunting that I actually re-watched the last half hour or so. This is not as good as some other classic horror from this era (one could make countless comparisons to The Haunting, which came a few years later) but this certainly helped set the stage for a newer, smarter style of horror.