The Cat's Meow is set in 1924, but it might be Peter Bogdanovich's most personal film: a glamorous but melancholy look at the destructive lusts and quests for glory that prove irresistible in the land of Hollywood. The characters we see here are larger than life, but their dramas are painfully human: to behold the unrequited loves and power struggles enacted here is to witness gods and goddesses fall to earth.
No one would confuse Boardinghouse for a good movie, but it is one-of-a-kind—and sometimes, that's a more remarkable achievement. Made in 1982, Boardinghouse was the first horror feature shot on digital video, which would be a notable landmark even if the movie's plot, performances, and dialogue didn't match its grade-Z aesthetic. As it is, director John Wintergate (who cowrote the screenplay with his wife Kalassu) apparently uses the rough visual format as an excuse to embrace all things crude and nonsensical. The intentionality of the movie's ludicrousness is debatable—there's a fine line between surrealism and inanity—but the end product is the same: a vision of primitive digital sleaze that seems to have drifted in from an alien dimension (or perhaps just from early '80s California).
Ad Astra suffers from an identity crisis: it's a visceral, sometimes jaw-dropping piece of genre cinema, ricocheting from action to sci-fi to horror, in the guise of a ponderous male melodrama. This is a common ailment for movies desperate to prove how important they are, as if weighty backstory and solemn voiceover narration automatically lend a film greater value. It's a shame that Ad Astra feels the need to obscure its propulsive, exciting vision through pseudo-profound rambling about the nature of man in an unknowable universe; if the film had embraced what it truly is, it could have been a thunderous success.
White Dog is part of "my canon," a totally arbitrary and subjective list of my 100 favorite movies. For reviews of other movies on this list, look for the Top 100 category on the right sidebar.
Nearly forty years after it was made, Samuel Fuller's White Dog is timelier and more sobering than ever—an outraged depiction of how white supremacy pervades a society, rotting it away from the inside. That such an indictment takes the guise of a visceral, pulpy thriller only adds to its intensity, though it's probably also (in part) what led to accusations that the movie was racist upon its release. (Calling this movie racist is like calling Fox News progressive; it's antithetical to their very reasons for existing.) The movie's central metaphor is overt but no less profound: it bears witness to the destruction of an innocent creature for the sake of domestic terrorism.
Mrs. Miniver is propaganda; there's no doubt about that. This is the film that Winston Churchill claimed did more for England's war efforts than a fleet of destroyers, with a rousing, climatic speech that was reprinted in Time and Look magazines, broadcast on Voice of America radio, and excerpted in leaflets dropped over ally and enemy nations alike. As Joseph Goebbels admiringly wrote, "its refined, powerful propagandistic tendency has up to now only been dreamed of." The extent to which Hollywood was and is part of the war machine, clamoring for public support as a cog in the military-industrial complex, remains unsettling even in the context of the so-called Great War. But propaganda can't be flatly dismissed for its ethical conundrums—to do so would require throwing out everything from Battleship Potemkin to I Am Cuba—and Mrs. Miniver should be remembered for what it is: a moving, richly interwoven, powerfully constructed drama about war intervening in the unspectacular lives of a stolid middle-class family.
I Walked with a Zombie is part of "my canon," a totally arbitrary and subjective list of my 100 favorite movies. For reviews of other movies on this list, look for the Top 100 category on the right sidebar.
In its 69 minutes, I Walked with a Zombie packs a dense and fascinating allegory for the damning effects of slavery and the tenuous coexistence of cultures. Like many of the B-grade horror films produced by Val Lewton at RKO Studios, it began life with a certain set of parameters and expectations: saddled with the title I Walked with a Zombie, Lewton was tasked with adapting an American Weekly Magazine article about plantation workers in Haiti who are turned into "zombies" through rampant drug use, an insidious form of ongoing oppression. (One imagines RKO execs were mostly attracted to the title; such a storyline would have been hard to get by the Hollywood Hays Code at that time.) Instead, Lewton decided to make, as he called it, the "West Indies Jane Eyre," and concocted, with screenwriters Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray, a story about the coma-stricken wife of a plantation owner and the Canadian nurse who believes that voodoo magic may help cure her. There are no actual zombies in the film and it's often closer to romantic melodrama than horror (like the Brontë novel that inspired it), but these numerous conflicting forces make for Lewton & Company's most haunting film.
Warning: major plot spoilers below!
In February 2017, in the unfathomable first months of Trumplandia, Jordan Peele's Get Out was released to nearly unanimous praise. Here, many critics said, was a film disturbingly indicative of where we were at as a country: simultaneously fetishizing and fearful of black culture, our social institutions engineered to segregate and oppress, with even supposedly progressive ideologies like white liberalism complicit in the exploitation of black manhood. It was indeed the bold, stylish introduction of a vital new voice in American cinema, and it reiterated what fans of Night of the Living Dead have known for years: the most audacious social and political ideas can be smuggled into the horror genre with relative ease and tremendous power.
Certain Women is the kind of movie that seems simple on the surface, but beyond the most obvious narrative level, its scope is almost limitless. This is director Kelly Reichardt's typical approach, to express complex ideas and social mechanics through stories that feel low-key and tranquil at first glance. Old Joy (2006) follows two estranged friends as they reunite on a hiking trip, but the growing rift between them speaks volumes about class inequality and notions of responsibility in American life. Wendy and Lucy (2008) observes the relationship between a woman and her dog, but it's one of the most shattering portrayals of how financial hardship can affect and endanger the bonds we hold most dear. Even Meek's Cutoff (2010), a pseudo-Western in which a band of travelers becomes lost and faces mortality in the arid Oregonian desert, is closer to the observational cinema of Chantal Akerman than a survival drama. Now, Certain Women, a triptych of stories following women living in modern-day Montana, is so reserved and open-ended in its storytelling that the stakes feel low at times, but that imperturbable surface hides a firestorm of emotions and ideas.
There are countless cases of Hollywood producers meddling with directors' artistic vision, as the crude demands of commercialism ruin ambitious creative endeavors. But it must be admitted that, sometimes, the push-and-pull between bottom-line moneymen and iconoclastic artists results in fascinatingly rich cinematic texts. Case in point: The Curse of the Cat People, which was marketed by RKO Studios as a sequel to the 1942 chiller Cat People, though the filmmakers—among them producer Val Lewton, directors Robert Wise and Gunther von Fritsch, and screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen—instead created a fantastic world ruled by childlike imagination, as well as a bewitching ode to the power of storytelling.
Most American movies about motherhood seem obligated to portray it as a blissful, transcendent experience: your life as a woman doesn't truly begin, these movies seem to imply, until you've had a child. While that may ring true for some mothers, it ignores the vast number of women for whom parenthood is an ambivalent, anxiety-ridden, life-defining ordeal, or who felt pressured (by their partners, by society) to have children in the first place. Mainstream comedies like Knocked Up and Waitress, ostensibly about unwanted pregnancy and the pressures facing first-time mothers, inevitably end with the realization that parenthood is what these characters wanted all along, the ultimate vocation that will give their life meaning. Even something like Bad Moms (not surprisingly) avoids commenting seriously on the trials of motherhood in favor of a generic, "let loose and live a little" vibe, in which the stresses of nine-to-five jobs, indifferent husbands, and upper-crust PTA boards can always be solved by finding a sitter and indulging in a night of debauchery.