Saturday, December 10, 2011

Three dissolves from Thunder Bay (Anthony Mann, 1953; photographed by William Daniels, edited by Russell F. Schoengarth)

Despite my distaste for Steve McQueen's new movie Shame, there are a a few things I do like about the film—most of which have more to do with McQueen's sense of film technique than the principles according to which he deploys it.

One thing I like—and which, of course, is part of the grand ambiguous design that's also the film's major flaw—is McQueen's conception of "private" spaces, all of which are made to resemble public or transitional ones. The apartment of the Michael Fassbender character is a great example: it looks like a hotel room (when he and the Nicole Beharie character check into a hotel later in the film, the suite they go to bears an uncanny resemblance to his apartment), with bare white walls and only of objects which could conceivably belong to anyone of his class and background (a record player and a prominently-featured paperback of De Lillo's Underworld, for instance). The look of Fassbender's home seems planned to indicate absolutely nothing about his character—other than, perhaps, a desire for anonymity, even in private life.

Contrast with Shame's future double-feature partner, American Psycho, where every apartment is decorated in Reaganite baroque—the private space as an altar to yuppie tastes and aspirations.

Friday, December 9, 2011

These 22 blurbs were written for the Chicago film weekly Cine-File. All of them originally appeared between June and December of this year.


Afraid to Talk (Edward L. Cahn, 1932)
A little-known but distinctive director of low-budget B films, Edward L. Cahn cultivated, in his '30s work, a style of pure straightforwardness: blunt "message" plots, linear progressions, and a head-on shooting style that would often place the rear wall of the set parallel to the camera. The no-bullshit anti-corruption movie Afraid to Talk is prime Cahn—not just a cracking introduction to the work of this obscure demi-auteur, but a lean, mean motion picture in its own right. Eagle Scout-type Eric Linden plays a bellhop who witnesses the murder of a gangster (a cast-against-type Robert Warwick) and then gets put through the political wringer—first tapped as the key witness, then secreted away to avoid a trial, then finally accused of the murder himself by crooked lawmen. The film moves with the efficient energy of an assembly line; Cahn, who started as an editor for post-Expressionist directors like Pál Fejös and E.A. DuPont, structures the movie in blocks of action, nearly every shot a self-contained chunk of dialogue, plot, and opinion. The script—by Tom Reed, who had several fruitful collaborations with Cahn and was also a former collaborator of Fejös—interjects a chorus of welders, bums, and prostitutes into the action, giving this man-crushed-by-society story the feel of relentless bargain-basement Brecht.

Cold Fish (Sion Sono, 2010)
Following his four-hour-long Love Exposure—a piece of conceptual art that often resembles a movie—noted fedora enthusiast Sion Sono returns to the plotty, grotesque kitchen-sink horror of Noriko's Dinner Table with this black comedy about a meek tropical fish dealer (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) who meets an avuncular psychopath (Denden) and gets bullied into becoming his accomplice. Sono's style is predicated on a mixture of overinflation—the performances, ideas and running times (this one clocks in at almost 2 1/2 hours) are all blown out of proportion—and speed; his talent for maintaining a steady clip is what keeps most of his films, including this one, from ever feeling bloated. Sono has the interests of a social realist—inter-generational conflict, repressed emotions, family, alienation—and the sensibilities of an art-punk; Cold Fish's nasty, funny caricature of a very particular kind of middle-class ambition—this is, after all, a movie about pet store owners who turn to serial-killing to get by—skirts the line between social commentary and provocation. There's a lot of sex, gore, and gory sex, but, as is usual in Sono's work, the most unnerving stuff comes from the writer/director's juxtaposition of the nightmarish and the mundane.

Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa, 2006)
Pedro Costa's entrancing, nearly three-hour feature solidified his Stateside reputation, transforming the Portuguese filmmaker from a critical cause célèbre into a bona-fide cinephile mystery religion. It's not hard to see why: though Costa's guiding principles are as old as (or in some cases older than) cinema itself, his techniques and choice of marginalized subject matter—in this case, Cape Verdean immigrants preparing to move into a Lisbon housing project—feel completely new. For all of the film's evocations of classicism (Jacques Tourneur and Johannes Vermeer being two big points-of-reference), its production would've been impossible without digital technology; the distinctive cinematography—largely lit, like the studios of Renaissance painters, with reflected sunlight—represents the high-water mark of MiniDV as a shooting format. A cast of non-professionals play fictionalized versions of themselves, but instead of using these actors to lend the film a sense of naturalism or verisimilitude, Costa pares down their performances into a series of controlled movements and recitations; the result is a heightened, poetic sense of purpose, aptly summed up by Nathan Lee in The Village Voice as "raw existential intensity."

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Tsui Hark, 2010)
Ready your thesis proposals, armchair film scholars! Puppets and ventriloquism (literal and political) are a recurrent motif and plot point in Detective Dee—so much so that it's hard not to read too deep into this madcap live-action cartoon. But whether you think the talking deer and buzzsaw-armed automatons represent the Cultural Revolution (as Ferroni Brigadier Christoph Huber believes) or the plight of Cantonese-language filmmakers in an increasingly Mandarinified Chinese film industry, we can all at least agree that: 1) Tsui Hark is in fine, elastic form here, stretching history and logic as he sees fit, and 2) the result is a lot fun. Tsui has never met a law of physics he didn't want to break; here he's given the perfect canvas: a wuxia mystery about an outbreak of spontaneous combustions (!) in 7th century China. Painting in broad, crazy strokes, he fills it up with color, movement, special effects, and enough ridiculous plot twists to make Raúl Ruiz blush.

Deux Hommes Dans Manhattan (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1959)
The first of Jean-Pierre Melville's two US-set films finds cinema's premier hat nerd / purveyor of somber cool at his dorkiest, acting out a fantasy of scuzzy Americana; for better or worse, this is the only Melville flick to replicate—rather than be informed by—the style of American B films. The plot centers on two French journalists (Pierre Grasset and Melville himself) trying to find a missing UN delegate over the course of one very long night; this threadbare story is little more than an excuse to string together scenes set in all-night diners, strip joints, recording studios, and Broadway dressing rooms, all represented by anonymous, windowless sets that are more evocative of the Poverty Row backlot than of anything in New York. Peppered throughout are touristy, handheld location shots which—together with the sparse production design and an awkwardly-placed (though pretty darn good) musical number—make for a convincing imitation of American low-budget technique circa 1956, albeit with some nudity and overt lesbianism that could never pass an American censor board. It's no big surprise that Deux Hommes was a flop: Melville's appropriation of the style is totally unironic, and his fondness for shoddy filmmaking is sometimes indistinguishable from the real thing. But the film doesn't deserve the obscurity it's been consigned to; Melville's single-minded obsession with constantly moving the two lead characters from one place to another gives the whole thing a zippy sense of momentum and a lightness that's uncharacteristic of his work. This is a great eccentric's take on termite art.

Don (Chandra Barot, 1978)
Amitabh Bachchan, who's probably played more dual roles than any lead actor in the history of cinema, stars as a ruthless gangster and as the lookalike employed to take down his gang in this classic of sublime camp. The score by brothers Kalyanji and Anandji Virji Shah is the main attraction at this 21+ music-themed screening (which will be followed by a DJ set), though the film's charms extend beyond its occasionally Surreal musical numbers; Bachchan—dressed, runway-like, in clothes no human being would ever actually wear—manages to make wearing a clownish bowtie with ultra-bellbottoms look super-cool, thanks in no small part to his trademark effortless charisma. Director Chandra Barot's style is '70s Bollywood rococo: a hot mess of smash zooms, reaction shots, and visual punctuations. The every-color-of-the-rainbow production design gels well with the everything-but-the-kitchen sink plot, which eventually comes to involve several different layers of mistaken identity.

5th Avenue Girl (Gregory La Cava, 1939)
Gregory La Cava, a virtuoso at combining pleasantly airy patter with New Deal liberalism, directs a Leftist-rhetoric-heavy script by Rogers-Astaire specialist Allan Scott (with uncredited work by A Night at the Opera screenwriter/HUAC turncoat Morrie Ryskind, a onetime Marxist of both varieties). The result feels more 1932 than 1939: a comedy of presumed infidelity, mild social critique, Wodehouseian upper-class idleness, and innuendo that borders on pre-Code. With the exception of My Man Godfrey, La Cava's films don't have quite the reputation that they deserve; though he never displayed a control of form that equaled his similarly-concerned contemporary Ernst Lubitsch, La Cava was arguably the finest ensemble comedy director of his time and developed a distinctively unostentatious visual style—favoring a largely immobile camera that only gave way to gliding dolly shots out of absolute necessity—that played off of the dynamics of his casts. This cast (Ginger Rogers, James Ellison, Tim Holt, Franklin Pangborn, Louis Calhern) in particular is pretty damn good, and it's a testament to La Cava's abilities that 5th Avenue Girl is probably the only movie that Walter Connolly isn't at least somewhat annoying in.

5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (Roy Rowland, 1953)
One of the greatest children's films ever made—and possibly the weirdest—this fanciful, delirious nightmare is a triumph of art direction, imagination, and visual wit (fittingly, it was one of the last films shot in the rich primaries of three-strip Technicolor). Every color, shape, and texture imaginable seems to have been deployed in designing the sets and costumes; the whole thing alternately recalls mid-period Dali and a melted three-scoop ice cream cone. Written by Dr. Seuss, it delves into the taffy-like dreamworld of a young boy who falls asleep during piano practice; there, Wizard of Oz-style, the piano guru whose lessons he is following becomes a vain autocrat and the boy's widowed mother is transformed into the dictator's kidnapped bride. Enslaved children play a gigantic piano, dungeons are serviced by cross-eyed elevator operators in executioner's hoods, and duels are fought through a combination of dancing and hypnosis; as Jonathan Rosenbaum once wrote in the Reader, "If you've never seen this, prepare to have your mind blown."

Independence Day (Roland Emmerich, 1996)
Roland Emmerich—the preeminent stealth Pop artist of big, loud Hollywood movies—came into his own with this alien invasion blockbuster, which allowed the writer/director to pander to all kinds of wish-fulfillment fantasies (couples reuniting, national pride, honorable presidents) while giving him plenty of reasons to obliterate landmarks of American culture—a template he would subsequently repeat in Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, and the batshit-crazy apocalypse smorgasbord 2012. Part macho weepie, part buddy picture, part special effects extravaganza, it'd probably be a really dull mess if not for Emmerich's compulsive showmanship and his penchant for identifying and isolating pop-cultural touchstones, from West Coast earthquakes and Area 51 to crop dusters and Jewish humor. This might seem like the apex of crass commercialism, but only if you don't look too closely; the tone is so playful that it could almost (almost) be viewed as subversive, and—as always—Emmerich's sidelines as a kitsch collector and gay rights activist (no surprise that Harvey Fierstein shows up as Jeff Goldblum's boss) sneak in.

Love Crime (Alain Corneau, 2010)
The final film by the late Alain Corneau—a deftly minor director if there ever was one—is, appropriately, a pragmatic thriller. Centering on the elaborate vengeance exacted by a hard-working executive (Ludivine Sagnier, playing up her gawkiness) upon a manipulative boss (Kristen Scott Thomas, playing up her iciness) and her crooked lover (Patrick Mille), the movie seems to have been scrubbed clean of all extraneous details, colors, characters, and emotions; the only flourish Corneau, a former jazz pianist, allows himself is a hypnotic Pharaoh Sanders cut on the soundtrack. This barren-looking, fatalistic movie is a fitting end to his career; it's so stripped down that it barely seems to have been shot and directed at all—the whole thing just proceeds according to its own bleak logic. The big point-of-reference—for both the plot and the mise-en-scene—is another "last film:" Fritz Lang's final American production, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.

Mission: Impossible (Brian De Palma, 1996)
In contrast to the James Bond movies—clean, steady work for largely interchangeable journeymen—the mutable Mission: Impossible series has eschewed any semblance of "house style" in favor of putting strong, distinctive personalities at the helm (in order: Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams and, for the upcoming fourth film, Brad Bird, making his live-action directing debut); it's America's premier crypto-auteurist action franchise. Considering its status as the first blockbuster of the contemporary variety—based on an established property, budgeted at the modern equivalent of $110 million, and released to over 3,000 theaters on opening day (the first film to do so)—De Palma's Mission: Impossible is a surprisingly old-fashioned movie: talky, leisurely-paced, with extensive use of complex sequence-shots, zooms, anachronistic slow dissolves, and playful 'scope framing. The major set piece—Tom Cruise's high-wire infiltration of CIA headquarters—is a classic of meticulously-ratcheted suspense, but the film's got more going for it than well-made thrills: De Palma clearly had the time of his life stuffing the movie with screens-within-screens, tearaway masks, subjective flashbacks, and POV shots while also adding in a touch of his Europhilia and political pessimism. If Woo's Mission: Impossible II felt like another go at Face / Off, then this is De Palma's first draft of Femme Fatale: giddy, shifty entertainment that's much smarter than it seems.

Mr. West in the Land of Bolsheviks (Lev Kuleshov, 1924)
Lev Kuleshov is better known today as a film theorist than as a director, which is why it's surprising how un-dry, un-academic and un-exercise-like his early films—all, ostensibly, "experiments in film form" as much as movies—actually are. Like Kuleshov's best film, the Alaska-set Jack London adaptation By the Law, this broad gag-a-minute comedy has a fantasy of America at its center: Mr. West, a YMCA president from "Brecksville," travels to the USSR accompanied by his faithful cowboy servant Jeddy (played by Boris Barnet, of all people); there, he meets a group of no-good counter-revolutionaries who try to fool him into believing that life in the USSR is actually as bad as Americans believe it is. Kuleshov is chiefly known for his theories about editing, but his sense of framing and mise-en-scene was equally impressive, and here he makes great, comic-strip-like use of deliberately sparse sets and (not to sound too dry and academic) negative space; the empty, snowbound Moscow streets eventually begin to resemble blank sheets of paper across which the doodle-like characters madly dash after one another.

My Joy (Sergei Loznitsa, 2010)
Shot by a Romanian, edited by a Lithuanian, costumed by an Estonian, produced in Ukraine through Dutch and German funding, and directed by a Belarusian-born German citizen, My Joy is—from a production standpoint—anything but a Russian film. And yet, despite these unique disqualifications, Sergei Loznitsa's first narrative feature is stubbornly, suffocatingly Russian. That's not just because Loznitsa makes Russia's past and present the ostensible subject of the film, but because—in the storied tradition of great, self-pitying Russian art—he presents it a culture-sized metaphor for the grim human condition. More or less a ghost story, the film slides through time, following a truck driver (Viktor Nemets) who gets hit in the head, loses his memory, and becomes a near-catatonic vessel for the troubled history of the landscape that surrounds him—a human echo chamber. This is bleak, assured stuff.

Night of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur, 1957)
Like many great directors, Jacques Tourneur cultivated a style that's essentially paradoxical: predicated on a sort of controlled and heightened indistinctness, it is, for lack of a better term, unambiguously about ambiguity. Instead of being merely suggestive, Tourneur puts imagination—as much the audience's as the characters'—front and center. At one point in this late masterpiece, the urbane Satanist villain (Niall MacGinnis) even asks the psychologist hero (B-movie man's man/trouble magnet Dana Andrews) how he can "differentiate between the powers of darkness and the powers of the mind;" it's as close to a statement of intent as J.T. ever offered. The movie's got a lot to offer besides Tourneur's head games ("a rational apprehension of the irrational," per Dave Kehr); it's potent "weird fiction" stuff, steeped in creepy atmosphere. Despite the cheesy-looking rubber monster (added by the producer against Tourneur's wishes), it's still the greatest horror film of the 1950s.

Noir City: Chicago 3
Skimping on the gumshoes in favor of prisoners, newspapermen, and psychiatrists, this year's Noir City presents a glut of overlooked grit, all programmed in double features; it's telling that the two best-known films here (which are screening together) are Jules Dassin's Brute Force (1947) and Anatole Litvak's Sorry, Wrong Number (1948).

The standouts of this strong bunch include Crashout (1955), a prison escape movie by the prolific and underrated Lewis R. Foster, and The Mob (1951), by the only-slightly-better-known Robert Parrish. Driven by some crackling William Bowers dialogue and pushy, muscular camerawork by longtime Frank Capra cinematographer Joseph Walker, The Mob stars Broderick Crawford as a bearish cop who lets a murderer get away; disgraced in front of his colleagues ("You should be patrolling vacant lots," the police commissioner tells him) and the public, Crawford is given the unenviable task of going undercover to bust up a waterfront racket. In his wrinkled dock worker clothes, Crawford bears a striking resemblance to Günter Lamprecht in Berlin Alexanderplatz, and the actor brings to the role a similar mixture of aggression, vulnerability, and ordinariness.

Leaner and meaner, Crashout begins abruptly with a tense daylight escape sequence and manages to keep its desperate clip until the end, even as the action moves inward from the physical to the psychological level.

The Story of Molly X (1949, 82 min, 35mm), a tough-as-nails women-in-prison flick by prison-movie specialist Crane Wilbur (Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison), is another discovery; not only does it feature some fine brassiness on the part of the leading and supporting dames, but it also lets the overlooked Wilbur get his Metropolis on during a hectic prison laundry explosion sequence.

Loophole (1954, 80 min, archival 35mm), a terse oddity by Harold D. Schuster (editor of Sunrise), begins like an industrial film about the banking audit system, complete with stilted camerawork and repetitive narration. Barry Sullivan plays a teller who is defrauded by a colleague from a rival bank; in a genre known for its stealthy artiness, Schuster's direction stands out for its unpretentious pragmatism, and the transposition of the resolutely working-class noir style to a completely white-collar milieu is effective.

Jack Bernhard's The Hunted (1948) is a prime example of shoestring art: shot on cardboard-looking sets, this inadvertently formalist gem deals in long takes and no-nonsense framings; it's about as close to Straub-Huillet as you can get without trying.

Curtis Bernhardt's High Wall (1947) cuts its drama with trauma, breaking out shocks of startling brutality (a man being knocked off a stool being a notable example) at seemingly placid moments; it's paired with the always-gloomy Robert Siodmak's Freudian thriller The Dark Mirror (1946), starring Lew Ayres and two Olivia de Havillands.

The Dark Mirror is one of Noir City's two evil twin movies, the other being Stuart Heisler's creepy pre-noir Among the Living (1941); there are plenty of thunderbolts and cobwebs in this one, but cinematographer Theodor Sparkuhl (La Chienne)—a man with a keen eye for sweaty roughness—seems more interested in the crowds and dance halls, peppering what's essentially a Gothic horror film with some surprisingly kinetic images of post-Depression American life. Sparkuhl and Heisler also collaborated on the Dashiell Hammett adaptation The Glass Key (1942); Heisler does ably with the big-city wheeling and the romantic material, but Sparkuhl steals the show again with the seedier stuff, including a particularly violent strangulation scene that makes good use of a swinging lamp.

The Blue Dahlia (1946), directed by George Marshall, has Veronica Lake and Raymond Chandler's only original screenplay (and it's a damn good one at that), while Russell Rouse's ultra-rare New York Confidential (1955) has Richard Motherfuckin' Conte, which is reason enough to go see it. Also screening are George Sherman's Larceny (1948), Richard Brooks' Bogart-starring Deadline USA (1952) and Lewis Allen's cult item Chicago Deadline (1949).

On the Bowery (Lionel Rogosin, 1957)
A fascinating dead end in American film history, Lionel Rogosin's debut represents a one-off convergence of classically American humanist muckraking, the techniques of Dutch painting (namely Rembrandt), and Flaherty-style "documentation." A sort of Pedro Costa movie avant la lettre (though much more boisterous than that makes it sound), it's a work of consciously painterly portraiture, with a group of tramps rounded up to play themselves in a fictional framework that echoes the harsh realities of their lives. Populated with friendly swindlers and gloomy drunks, and photographed in chiaroscuro black-and-white around the cheap bars and sweaty flophouses of Manhattan's now-gentrified Bowery neighborhood, it earned Rogosin an Oscar nomination; after a half a century of obscurity, the film has been restored and rescued from unjust neglect.

Oxhide (Liu Jayin, 2005)
Liu Jiayin made a name for herself on the festival circuit with this no-budget chamber piece; Monday's Doc Films screening marks its long-overdue first appearance in Chicago. Despite Oxhide's popularity with a certain theoretical-formalist crowd, it's one of the few films from the last decade to feel like the work of an outsider; Liu's use of the 'scope frame, for example, is a genuinely original: instead of using the wider aspect ratio to expand the horizontal, she cuts off the vertical, reducing the actions of a Beijing family (played by Liu and her parents) to hands, torsos, and the movement of objects across a table. There's only one location, the camera is always static, the lighting is non-existent, and there are only 23 shots in the whole thing—but instead of being some dry postgraduate exercise, Oxhide is nervy and sometimes surprisingly energetic, thanks in part to Liu's sophisticated sound design; few recent films have been able to do so much with so little.

The Rock (Michael Bay, 1996)
Depending on which critical/cinephilic narrative you follow, Michael Bay is either a purveyor of crass, overlong indoctrination-athons or an idiot-savant experimental filmmaker whose colossal, colorful dumbassery occasionally lapses into capital-letter ART. The truth isn't somewhere in between, but in both places at once: Bay is a militaristic, neurotic, brand-obsessed "confused libertarian" with a quintessentially kinetic sensibility and a predilection for visual and narrative cartooning that transforms everything into a steady stream of color, shape, movement and noise. Bay's second feature — about an FBI egghead (Nicolas Cage) and a British spy (Sean Connery) breaking into Alcatraz to thwart a renegade general (Ed Harris) — borrows liberally from Tony Scott, especially Scott's borderline-Expressionist submarine thriller Crimson Tide (which, like The Rock, features a Hans Zimmer score and uncredited rewrites by Quentin Tarantino). But unlike Scott, Bay doesn't put any sense of drama or character behind the relentless wisecracks and intercutting; everything is at once heightened and flattened, making the doomsday action seem strikingly, comically unreal (think Dr. Strangelove if Dr. Strangelove wasn't a satire). The result is one of the most abstract and entertaining Hollywood films of the 1990s: a great, big, stupid, beautiful movie.

Showgirl in Hollywood (Mervyn LeRoy, 1930)
Mervyn LeRoy brings his typical punchiness to this pre-Code musical, a sort of dry run for Gold Diggers of 1933 sans Busby Berkeley. The largely-forgotten Alice White—whose career was effectively ended by scandal only a few years later—plays the lead with a considerable bit of moxie and sass, and LeRoy keeps things going in his unencumbered, zippy way. This is, however, resoundingly a Hat Movie, with White outfitted in a variety of fashionable cloches that accent her unusually large eyes (on the menswear front, a beret is very effectively worn by John Miljan). Come for the music, stay for the millinery.

The Silence of the Sea (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1949)
Jean-Pierre Melville, the most compulsively eccentric of all great filmmakers, made his feature directing debut with this ultra-low-budget chamber drama. It's at once Melville's most austerely minimalist film, and his most outrageous: while later Melville flicks would merely fetishize laconic cool, this goes as far as to have two main characters who don't talk at all for most of the film, and a third—a pathetic, tragic figure—who finds his ideals undermined by his own incessant chattering. Using the meager resources available to them—a single house, an ominous ticking clock, a handful of actors, and a lot of voice-over—Melville and his future right-hand man, cinematographer Henri Decaë (also making his feature debut), construct a stifling, cramped world of shadows, low-angle shots and empty stares. The black-and-white plot—about an artistically-inclined German officer (Howard Vernon, who bears a passing resemblance to Boris Karloff) who grows disillusioned with the Third Reich while lodging with a standoffish French family during the Occupation—may be Melville's least complex and ambiguous, but it also reveals a different, idealistic side of a director better known for his melancholy murkiness. Meanwhile, a few quintessentially Melvillian themes—mutual respect between opponents, resolve as the highest moral calling—make their first appearances.

Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, 2011)
A front-runner for the coveted title of Most Jacques Tourneur-esque Movie of 2011, Jeff Nichols' second feature stars Michael Shannon as Curtis LaForche, an Ohio construction worker with a family history of schizophrenia who begins having nightmares and hallucinations about an apocalyptic thunderstorm. Hinging on what's probably the most sympathetic portrayal of mental illness you'll ever find in a psychological horror film, it's a patient, uneasy movie that—paradoxically—derives most of its ambiguity from its straightforwardness; instead of playing is-he-or-isn't-he games with LaForche's sanity, Nichols makes his protagonist aware of his condition—and then turns his struggle to lead something resembling a normal life into the center of the film. Shifting the brunt of the ambiguity away from LaForche's nightmares (which resemble outtakes from a Richard Kelly film, in the best way possible) to his ability to deal with them is a bold move; that Nichols is able to pull it off is a testament to his deft control of form. The non-anamorphic widescreen images (by Adam Stone, David Gordon Green's second-unit DP during the director's "arthouse cred" days) have a disquieting evenness, and Nichols knows how to stitch them together to make an unnerving sequence.

The Terror ("Roger Corman," 1963)
Roger Corman is the credited director on this 1963 horror cheapie (it was shot on sets left over from Corman's own The Raven and The Haunted Palace), though he only worked four days on it. The rest of the film was directed by a team of young unknowns: Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Hill (who co-wrote the screenplay with character actor Leo Gordon), Monte Hellman, and second-billed Jack Nicholson. In a bizarre bit of casting, Nicholson plays a 19th century French officer, giving the role the old disinterested post-beatnik treatment (his delivery of the line "Come with me to the stables, Stefan, I wish to attend to my horse" is kind of a classic of disengaged acting). However questionable some of the performances are, though, the film has a certain charm, due in part to its second-hand opulence. This is a lot more cohesive than you'd expect, though there's still enough of a noticeable difference scene-to-scene to make for a good game of Spot the Auteur.

The Ward (John Carpenter, 2010)
Previously consigned to a suburban multiplex, now playing (briefly) in the city proper, John Carpenter's first feature in nine years finds the filmmaker saddled with a low budget, an uneven cast and a routine script. And yet, despite these shortcomings, Carpenter ends up accomplishing a victory of form; his masterful control of negative space, overhead shots, and foreground framing overpowers a by-the-numbers haunted asylum story—which bears a striking resemblance to Sucker Punch before it starts bearing a striking resemblance to iShutter Island—through the sheer power of its stark, creepy sadness. So meticulously structured and composed that the actual twists and scares become irrelevant, this is an object lesson in the difference between plot and construction—and arguably Carpenter's most formalist work since Christine. Amber Heard plays the ostensible lead, but the film's real stars are a few well-chosen objects—a burning farmhouse, a ticking metronome, a pair of horn-rimmed glasses—and the Newbeats' vaguely unsettling 1965 single "Run, Baby, Run (Back Into My Arms)."