First up, a couple horror flicks; then a WWII documentary covertly filmed behind Fascist lines in Italy; then a satire/adventure tale from the first Gulf War. Don’t say I don’t have range.
Stonehearst Asylum: A new asylum movie from the guy who brought us Session 9? Sure, I’ll eat it! And Stonehearst is a really solid horror flick, twisty and heartfelt and saddening.
It’s a period piece, set between Christmas 1899 and New Year’s 1900, at a remote asylum in… England? Scotland? Hogwarts? IDK. A starry cast, including Ben Kingsley’s cognac voice, although I did not really get anything from Kate Beckinsale, whom I super loved in The Last Days of Disco. Dr. Edward Newgate (a serviceable Jim Sturgess) arrives to find the asylum an unusually progressive place, where people cast out by their families can find a measure of respect and solidarity. But the asylum is hiding a dark secret….
This is a smart film. Some very fun dialogue: Why don’t you cure this guy who thinks he’s an animal? “And make a miserable human out of a perfectly happy horse?”… “Death cannot be prevented, any more than madness cured. You cannot cure the human condition.” There’s a bracing conservatism here: a recognition of the evils of revolution, the Animal Farm “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again, and already it was impossible to say which was which,” but there’s an equally ferocious understanding of the cruelty of the old regime. There’s a lot of talk about modern times and the turn of the century, and it’s completely earned.
ETA: There’s also a nice awareness of the cultural construction of madness/mental illness. It’s handled with a light touch, but e.g. there’s a woman whom the Victorian men diagnose with hysteria. Today she might get a diagnosis of PTSD. But the movie attempts to articulate her experience in a way that gets beyond labels and diagnoses, into her spiritual longings and her need to have her common human dignity recognized.
From the first shots of giant Stonehearst looming up through the fog you sense that the movie will be about powerlessness. It honestly plays like a reversal or counterpoint to the one thing I super hated about the otherwise-excellent Session 9 (or really, the thing I got intensely tired of after watching a series of horror flicks that all did it):
I also saw Session 9 around the same time I saw these two movies, and between the three of them, I got thoroughly sick of ‘being hurt by others makes you a bad person’ storylines. ‘I live in the weak and the wounded’–an idea that’s more cruel than it is true; anti-Christian; and, three movies in a row, just wearying.
Whereas in Stonehearst the good doctor’s only tactic is vulnerability, whether he’s apologizing or displaying his own wounds. Weakness is the source of his strength, his courage, and his kindness.
Toward the end it gets preachy. It even does the loathsome thing where a phantom voiceover repeats a preachy thing a character has already said, just in case we’ve forgotten it. I was also surprised, given how stunning Session 9 looked, to find that the movie is not especially visually-striking. But overall this is a memorable and unusual film. And I will say that it has exactly as many twists as it can bear, and no more. All the twists have meaning; none are cheap. Horror fans should check this out. On Netflix streaming (like the next film in this post).
Mr Jones: Maybe the most unusual setup for a found-footage flick that I’ve seen. A troubled couple heads for the remote woods, ostensibly to make an artsy nature documentary but actually to work on their relationship. But in the woods they discover bizarre, creepy artwork, totemistic sculptures made with antlers and bones and twigs. Penny (Sarah Jones) realizes that they’ve stumbled upon “Mr. Jones,” an elusive artist whose works bear million-dollar price tags. The couple determines to film Mr. Jones and his works, even if they have to break into his home….
The first hour or so of this film is phenomenal. Tense and tightly-paced (great jump scares), beautiful to look at, rich in character interaction–and then there are those seriously eerie sculptures. The art is just so spooky!
I found this movie via John Kenneth Muir, who defends the long, drawn-out ending sequence. I like the idea of it, the reality-warping, the twist. But this is a short movie that eventually starts to feel long. Plus the movie really spells out its twist–it doesn’t trust you to get what’s going on. Definitely worth a watch, but the air does start to leak out of the balloon toward the end.
Days of Glory: Filmed during and after the fall of Mussolini. (And not to be confused with the fictional WWII Jacques Tourneur flick Days of Glory, released one year before!) Its style and ethos are well within the Soviet sphere of influence. There’s a theme throughout of justice vs. vengeance. In the Italian context they argue that justice, the harsh exercise of power by a recognized human authority, will stave off vengeance in the form of escalating vendettas. But the movie gives plenty of evidence that telling the difference between justice and abuse of power is not that easy.
This is a powerfully grim film. It’s very clear on what the stakes are: A voiceover lists the death camps, Majdanek, Buchenwald. There’s this oddly flighty Mussolini version of the sieg-heil, the arm flying up like it should be wreathed in a feather boa. A woman whose testimony begins, “When they came to take my son-in-law away again….” The sacrifice of the Mass, which unites the separated people: The partisan men kneel by a makeshift altar in the mountains, and their mourning women kneel at the altars back home. The posters, with slogans like WE NEVER LOOK BACK, and a cursive signature M. for that personal touch.
Real corpses, real executions, real women having their heads shaved for sleeping with the enemy; and that last thing is glorified by the movie, that’s justice. Triumphant music as the camera pans over huddled POWs. Chop-licking voiceover as a woman holds her shaved hair in her hands, anxiously shifting the tufts of hair from one hand to the other, no idea what she’s supposed to do. Why does justice smell like metal?
Some sarcasm, some filming the lawyer defending a Fascist cop in order to make the lawyer seem ridiculous. The American audience I saw this with laughed when they were supposed to.
There’s a lot of singing in this movie: “The Internationale,” I think, and Italian patriotic songs. There was a time when all our replacement gods had hymns.
Three Kings: What could have been a phenomenal movie–and is phenomenal for most of its run time–gets Hollywoodized by the end.
The basic premise is that at the end of the Gulf War, a group of renegade American soldiers head out into the desert to find Saddam’s hidden Kuwaiti gold–and steal it. Their actions provoke a spiral of chaos that costs both them and a group of Iraqi rebels dearly. Also, it’s a comedy, or at least it’s funny and satirical for a long time, until the sentiment starts to take over. So basically, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre + Restrepo + hmm maybe Team America: World Police?
The good parts of this movie are fantastic. The low, low view of human nature; the horror and chaos; the slo-mo and close shots, making the audience feel how disorienting everything is for these characters. The ferocious humor: Don’t use racial slurs that are just repurposed slurs for black people, when “‘Towelhead’ and ‘camel jockey’ are perfectly acceptable alternatives.” There’s terrific use of pop music in this movie–pop music, the best soundtrack for violence, an ecstatic escape from the moral self and into the white darkness of the will. The great “What is most important?” shtik. The Rodney King video playing in the background on the stolen Kuwaiti tvs in Saddam’s bunker. The stripping of the POWs. The football helicopter trick. The cow.
But as the movie goes on it makes an increasingly sincere effort to convince us that these soldiers are the good guys. They won’t abandon the rebels! They won’t shoot their torturers! (They’ll survive, if you recognize the actors.) Suddenly we’re in a world of heroes and villains, not a world of chaos and sin. Self-justification gets replaced by pure motives. Things get feel-good and dishonest.
It’s not that I think American soldiers never do good things. It’s that I don’t believe these specific soldiers would do these specific good things, because these specific good things are self-comforting fantasies. I generally like stories where the “happy ending” is humiliation and worldly defeat (those zip-tied hands waving goodbye, what a great shot), but here, even granting the soldiers a moral victory feels smarmy.