Kuroneko (1968, Kaneto Shindô): 68
Plays to my love of the overtly theatrical in an otherwise naturalistic context—it's often hard to tell where the actual forest leaves off and the set design begins, in part because those are the spindliest damn trees I've ever seen. One uncanny effect in particular I can't recall ever seeing elsewhere, though it's so striking you'd think people would have pilfered it like mad: motionless medium shot of a dude sitting in a house, but the view through open doors to his left (taking up roughly the right third of the frame) is a traveling rear projection through the woods, carefully composited to make it appear (though not at all realistically) as if the house itself is moving. And Shindô finds numerous other ways to enliven what's really a pretty pedestrian ghostly-revenge tale, complicated by carnal interludes that seem to presage a heady reckoning that never quite arrives. Or it does, sort of, but for the wrong character, and entirely offscreen. Given all that conjugal intensity, the climactic mother-son battle feels like a non sequitur, albeit one involving the awesome sight of a middle-aged woman performing proto-wire-fu with her own severed cat arm clutched between her teeth. (I may also have been slightly distracted by Mom's method of getting Junior to let her inside, which is only one step up from the land shark's "Uh...candygram!") Stronger on atmosphere than narrative, in short, which tends to be a liability of the genre; I'll have forgotten the story a few years from now, but will vividly remember the woman's ponytail that flips back and forth in a way unmistakably suggesting a feline readying for the pounce.
Margin Call (2011, J.C. Chandor): 58
Intelligent, gripping, utterly persuasive...except that roughly every ten minutes Chandor fears we might not be getting it and applies the sledgehammer, to severely alienating effect. At times I started to wonder whether the self-aware monologues were intended as comedy, given the absurdly specific figures being casually tossed around: Paul Bettany knows off the top of his head precisely how much money he's blown on hookers and strip clubs in the past year ($76,520), while Stanley Tucci has no trouble mentally calculating that the bridge he once built has to date saved residents of the communities it spans 1,531 man-years of driving time. It's as if every so often the movie plays a game called But What Would This Character Say If Briefly Possessed By The Spirit Of Paul Krugman? Just let them be venal and short-sighted (yet human) and allow us to fill in the part about how the country's wealth has been almost completely disengaged from goods and services. When Chandor actually does so, which is much of the time, Margin Call makes the spectre of economic annihilation look both perversely thrilling (Scott Tobias aptly called it "the Fail-Safe of our time") and discomfitingly beautiful, bathing tight-lipped recriminations and hasty cost-benefit analyses in the dim purplish light of the firm's glowing monitors. As in Contagion, one gets a sense of the frightening swiftness with which lives and livelihoods can be demolished, in this case by the self-interested decision of a single individual*—admittedly one who looks like Claus von Bulow and sounds like Scar from The Lion King. And speaking of the uniformly fine cast, who woke Kevin Spacey up? His final speech to the troops is stupendous, blending sincere respect and concern with barely concealed self-loathing until you can't distinguish between the two; it's the least showboat-y, most delectably nuanced performance he's given in at least a decade (in a theatrical release, anyway—I haven't seen Recount). If only the screenplay had been so firmly committed to impassioned understatement.
* The implication that Lehman Brothers or Bear Stearns or whoever this is meant to be could have prevented the current crisis by behaving more ethically at the eleventh hour seems pretty untenable, though I should note that I've never really been able to comprehend how the market works and had trouble following even the parts of this film that were clearly dumbed down expressly for the sake of folks like me.
Paranormal Activity 3 (2011, Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman): 62
Suffers, like Beats Being Dead, from being part of a weak triptych—had this been a stand-alone film (minus the retcon prologue, of course), I'd be even more enthusiastic. Granted, most of its best bits are derivative: Toby's straight out of The Shining; babysitter stalked by thing wearing a sheet nods to Halloween (and one-ups that particular scare, if you'll permit me a moment of blasphemy); finale plays like Rosemary's Baby as shot by Brakhage, etc. But Joost & Schulman, despite owing this gig to a movie that demonstrates zero formal expertise, prove far more adept than their predecessors at exploiting the surveillance-camera conceit to maximum effect. Everybody's crazy for the fan-cam, with good reason—nothing more effective than being forced to look away from what you're frightened to see—but that's only the most spectacular example; placement of the camera in the girls' room renders it magnificently useless (it's as if Zapruder had been in the limousine's front seat, trained on the road ahead), and even simple, obvious ideas that had been inexplicably ignored in the earlier films, e.g. having people in danger obscure the view with their bodies, do the job quite nicely. A pleasure to see wit make an appearance, too, in such knowing touches as the Teddy Ruxpin doll (introduced early so that we'll be eyeing it suspiciously throughout) and the tea party (with our hero indulgently patting his invisible tormentor on the shoulder by way of chumming it up with Kristi). Knowledge of how various elements fit into the series' mythology renders them less unnerving than they would have been in a vacuum, alas, and once again we can relax to a certain extent because we know both girls will survive to be haunted anew as adults; I'm not eager to see Paranormal Activity 4, by any means. Nice to see that even a mediocre franchise like this can be redeemed by intelligence and fundamental craft, though.
Paranormal Activity 2 (2010, Tod Williams): 45
Same basic structural weakness as the original, but that proved to be of little consequence, because I wound up watching this not as a horror film but as a perverse extratextual mystery: How the hell can anything remotely terrifying happen to this family, given that Katie and Micah never once mention it just a few weeks later? That there is, eventually, an answer (both logical and ludicrous) to that question doesn't much mitigate the fact that I remained blithely unconcerned for the protagonists throughout, secure in the knowledge that the only real danger was a ferocious retcon. (Some of you may recall that I had the same basic issue with Ringu/The Ring—if I know you're not scheduled to die until Thursday, Monday's ostensible threats are gonna leave me yawning.) And while you'd think that the money angle in Hunter's nursery features a view of a mirrored closet door and a smaller mirror in a room across the hall for a reason, Williams can't be bothered with formal ingenuity—the cameras are strictly an established gimmick, employed in the most dully functional manner imaginable. (Honest, I was grumbling to myself about this even before seeing the new one, though admittedly I had caught wind of the fan-cam on Twitter.) Had I been watching this series in real time, I would have concluded that it's creatively exhausted (not that it had demonstrated that much creativity to begin with) and vowed to keep well away from any third installment. Unless of course they hire somebody interesting to direct...
Paranormal Activity (2007, Oren Peli): 49
Got briefly excited when the opening scene revealed that there would be no establishment of false tranquility: Spooky shit's already happening, that's why he bought the camera. Hallelujah! And I immediately dug both actors, who handle light improv quite ably. So hell yeah, bring on the terror. Or the emotional meltdown. Or the, I dunno, the far-fetched sociopolitical allegory, maybe. Something, fer chrissakes, other than just a monotonous rhythm of increasingly nervous conversation by day and standard-issue poltergeist shenanigans by night. Unlike The Blair Witch Project, which was essentially a brutal character study disguised as a found-footage horror film (perhaps not by design, but it doesn't really matter), Paranormal Activity has nothing on its mind except BOO!, and apparently works reasonably well on that level for many; I only get frightened by the utterly inexplicable, so the sole moment that truly creeped me out was Katie standing at the foot of the bed watching Micah sleep for several hours, which Peli found mild enough to place during one of the first few nights. (He does circle back to it for the finale, but that only raises inadvisable questions about the roundabout nature of this demon's three-week possession strategy.) Having the ghost expert return only to flee before he even gets in the door was a witty touch, but it's the only real divergence from the film's cycle of mostly banal visitations, which sorta kinda escalate in degree but are generally so disconnected from each other that they seem interchangeable. After a while it was just, Okay, what's tonight's booga-booga gonna be?
/Last Exit to Brooklyn/ (1989, Uli Edel): 43
This might have been my first experience with what we now call miserablism, though I can't for the life of me remember whether I saw it or before or after reading the novel. Either way, it was immediately clear that the power of Selby's work resides almost entirely in his use of English vernacular syntax as a battering ram, which has no analogue in Edel's thoroughly normative adaptation. (I'm not in love with Requiem for a Dream either, but Aronofsky at least made an effort.) Screenwriter Desmond Nakano, who would go on to write and direct White Man's Burden, threads the book's barely-related chapters into something approximating a single narrative, though characters still tend to appear and disappear at what seems like random—Georgette's story in particular seems baffling in this context, as (s)he's utterly forgotten once killed. Faithfully punishing and grim otherwise, to no real purpose except by way of noting that life sucks for the marginalized; the various downward spirals are staggered a bit here, rather than melding into one horrific montage as in Requiem, but the effect is still the same: POUND POUND POUND POUND POUND POUND POUND POUND. Even the comparatively lighthearted storyline involving the shotgun wedding seems despairing in this context, since it's effectively offered as a best-case scenario. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jerry Orbach manage to shove partway through the oppressive doominess, and there's a weird fascination, carried over from the novel, in the amalgam of open flirtation and contempt with which neighborhood toughs (including a very young Sam Rockwell!) regard the drag queens...as distinctly opposed to Harry's pathetic closet case, rendered a cliché before his time by bug-eyed Stephen Lang, desperately telegraphing everything. Can't say I'm sorry I've avoided Edel ever since, though.
/Beginners/ (2010, Mike Mills): 75
Raved about this previously (I really need to devise a format for repeat viewings of new films, of which there are gonna be a lot in the next few months), and am happy to find that it remains quietly affecting even when not subverting my low expectations. Amazing how many elements that sound nauseatingly quirky à la Gigantic on paper—the subtitled Jack Russell, Ewan and Mélanie's meet-mute, The History of Sadness—Mills manages to pull off just by taking them seriously, resisting his wife's penchant for quasi-comedic exaggeration. On the flip side, Ms. July gave her couple the considered estrangement they needed, whereas the corresponding crisis in Beginners gets rushed to the point of incoherence: Girl moves in, girl instantly starts crying, boy instantly feels miserable and says so, girl instantly moves out, boy instantly repents, the instant end. Having them confess their commitment-phobia during earlier pillow talk does not absolve you from dramatizing the actual dissolution, and neither does depicting the genesis of that fear on Oliver's side, however brilliantly. (Mary Page Keller remains my top pick for Supporting Actress.) Detail that had to come from real life: "You don't know what a camisole is?"