On Wednesday 13th July, Lee sat down on his day off from work and watching six films: Casablanca, Psycho, Insomnia (2002), The Skeleton Twins, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and The Babadook. Time for some quick, on-the-fly reviews!
An almost perfect movie. At once timeless and yet very specifically set and based in one terrible time of human history; its commentary on refugees, on the horrors of war, on political activism, on political, clerical, police, human corruption; on separation, on self-importance, on minimalism, on utilitarianism, the list goes on and on – it all still works.
A critical fiction like no other, setting political unease and class-divide as the ground with which to layer a romance; it tells a perfect arc for every character involved by having each play a significant part without overstaying their welcome. It reads like a stage play, almost criminally so at first, but its nuanced view of a losing battle was so far ahead of its time it could still teach us today.
Charming and funny where it could be, thrilling and tense where it should be, heartbreaking and just where it must be; a classic worthy of the title.
Contextually, this is miles ahead of its time. A true character study, as well as a cinematic study, that plays with the very ideals of tension by subverting your expectations. The tells we know today, such as the prolonged wide shot that gives us every inch of the background from which the murder can appear from, is still perfected here because it’s obscured: we don’t consider the murderer behind the shower curtain because we see it as a wall. The allusion to an entry comes too late for the mind to adjust, another second and the sheet is pulled and it’s murder.
And while it could have been so easy to spend the whole movie getting into the head of our killer, we surprisingly spend much more time getting into the head of our victim. Marion’s back and forth over whether to quit while she’s ahead is infinitely more interesting than Norman’s condition, and her death only feels inevitable at the last instant because she decides, after a long and tortured intro, she had made the wrong call after all.
It’s the latter half of the movie that drags down the overall piece. An interesting look into the killer’s clean-up efforts, with relief and motives all shown not told, makes for interesting cinema but momentum and narrative-wise it drags the film to a bizarre act-end halt. Meanwhile, Norman’s investigations and eventual capture seem a little inevitable, and while his ability to evade capture works for a few slight twists, there’s no topping that middle-of-the-second act curve-ball.
It experiments so well it still looks experimental today, and credit should be given where due, but history will regard this as a collection of great early examples (with a few masterstrokes interspersed) rather than an overall untouchable masterpiece in itself.
Smooth cinematography can’t guise an unfinished field of thought. An exploration of self-sacrifice vs. self-serve, it does a good enough job keeping us strung along but ultimately I couldn’t shake the sensation that the writing was just inventing loops to jump through to distract us from simple solutions.
Pacino’s performance is good, not great, as he brings his usual bark and growl to scenes that just don’t require it; Williams does a good job investing in the character who thinks he’s smarter than he is; Swank does a brilliant job with the tame nothing of a character she was handed. The moral sapling, shaken on the branch by the two jabbering tits of ‘reprehension’ and ‘who cares just make your mind up already’.
It’s a mixed bag. Some real highlights, like the underwater scene, really shine for brief sparks of tension. Others, like the many shoot-outs and the tedious forced metaphor of sleeplessness, weigh the film down with unnecessary pomp. Most will enjoy it, but I would find it hard to choose this over ‘Silence of the Lambs’ in any given scenario.
The Skeleton Twins
The indie dram-edy really found its foothold in history. Quiet character studies have been consistently in theatres, often backed by big stars of both past and present. Here, we take another look at depression and suicide, this time from the eyes of two detached siblings with a substantially fucked up childhood, now grown up without a place to call their own.
It is funny in the darkest sense, in that the only laughs come from scenes that usually mean bad news for the characters. Their relationship is understandably human, and relatable in quite a number of ways. The exploration of fitting in at an adult level, whether by marriage or obsession or sex or hobbies, and how the system rejects what it doesn’t need is shown a lot more than told, and a good portion of trust is given to the audience to fill in the blanks and make up the ending they want.
It does err too much on the side of both characters being unlikable pricks however, which makes sense, as why should they be relatable when that’s clearly one of the problems? But it’s a downer to see them pick on random people, and self-medicate often to predictable ends, which leads to a sensation that the writing is inventing more issues than actively helping the characters deal with the ones they have already. The message conveyed then ultimately becomes something like ‘damaged people can be assholes too’, which any savvy audience could probably work out for themselves.
I don’t think I learned much, or cared much. I was interested to an extent, I wanted to see whether Wiig’s character would turn things around, and she kind of doesn’t, which was great to see on a risk-taking level. I understood the twins, I just rarely supported them, and at that point you have to question the writing.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
True psychological horror, with the exploration of a simple concept that everyone can understand: what if being you is the threat? Paranoia instilled simply because it never fully explains what we should be afraid of, and so we logically conclude we should be afraid of everything. If everything looks the same, and acts the same, and is the same, and yet isn’t, then everything is wrong and we’re trapped. It’s wonderful, and with a snappy 70-or-so minutes to get into it, it’s perfect summertime watching.
Cinematography is great: we get in tight when we hide, we pull out when we’re exposed; simple stuff. Every action can be seen, every thought explored, it’s all quite nuanced for a sci-fi horror from the era of trashy sci-fi horror. The ending is a bit of a cop-out and the love story never very convincing but you can’t trade that tone for mere salt.
That’s a saying, right?
How utterly damning of conventional horror this film must seem. The child isn’t evil or possessed or even purposefully malicious. The threat isn’t tangible or inherently damaging but actively tries to warn of its corruptive intent, making it somewhat pathetic. All that and it’s smart, exploring endemic human issues on a simple, expressive level to symbolise the true damage one can do to themselves and others when they ignore what truly eats away at them.
Yet it is certainly horror, right down to the body deformations and good-old fashioned fear of the dark. It reinvents old fears for its own narrative purposes, reworking them to actually aid the story and just maybe coincidentally terrifying the audience as it goes. We can say it makes characters perhaps too skewed and irritable, but all the more the purpose; nothing’s comfortable, everything has an edge, which builds and builds until, finally, we get catharsis at the end that isn’t just necessary but also justified.
It’s surprisingly bold, with an understated art style (something between Gothic and Georgian? Is that just Gothic?), some incredible fantasy scenarios, wonderful use of lighting and a endearing respect for its audience, never feeling the need to over-explain or reiterate its themes or intentions. All that and a hopeful, well-intentioned message that can barely be missed and shouldn’t outright be spoiled. A total success.