My weekly movie reviews. You can also read these on letterboxd.
This week focuses on two films directed by Abel Ferrara and two directed by Paul Schrader.
The Funeral (1996)
Rating: 2 out of 5 Stars
During this period of Abel Ferrara’s career, which started with Bad Lieutenant, he made films with little to no subtext. It’s mind-boggling how praised some of these films are when they’re just superficial acts of self-indulgence.
The Funeral says nothing new or unique about gangsters, guilt, or god. Praised by some for its straightforward take on the mob, I’d argue that it is a senseless, dreary exercise, one that culminates in an ultra-violent tragic ending that serves no purpose. The film wastes one of the best casts of the 90s and the only actor who really shines in it is Chris Penn. His character could have been the focal point of the movie, a gangster struggling with his family’s violent legacy, but award-winning script by Nicholas St. John meanders and leads him into contrived scenes. As for Walken, my opinion is that he was bad for Ferrara and vice versa. Thus far, I’ve yet to see a fruitful collaboration between the two, unlike his later, wonderful partnership with Dafoe.
I am curious to see when Ferrara’s career starts to turn around. Will it be with my next viewing, The Blackout? We’ll see.
Watched on rarefilmm.com
The Blackout (1997)
Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars
Better than the handful of his film that came before it, The Blackout is still plagued by Abel Ferrara’s worst instincts of the era: long scenes of people yelling at each other, over-indulgent drug sequences, and moments of forced tragedy.
But like I said, this is a hell of a lot better than The Funeral, King of New York, and Bad Lieutenant. One big reason for that is the central performance from Matthew Modine. The actor gives it his all and Modine is a more cerebral fit for Ferrara than a tough guy like Keitel or an eccentric like Walken. It’s interesting to watch the filmmaker play with his preoccupations, namely the life of a filmmaker/actor, the struggle of addiction, trying to make a relationship work, and remorse over lost loves. He’s looking for something here and in Dangerous Game but wouldn’t find it till many years later with Tommaso.
With The Blackout, he inches closer to discovering it and unlike the films that preceded it, this one did move me at times, especially its haunting final shot.
Watched on Tubi
Light of Day (1987)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
I think Schrader is misguided when he judges this film for its lack of visual pizzazz following a string of stylized movies. Its simple visual approach is exactly what makes it good and returns it to the grounded reality of his early work such as Blue Collar.
It’s not a great movie but there’s a lot of good in it, specifically Michael J. Fox who proves here more than in Bright Lights, Big City that he could play serious, dramatic roles. His performance carries the movie while Joan Jett’s never quite comes together. Schrader blames this on casting but from my outsider perspective, it doesn’t seem like her character was scripted in a way that could allow the actress to succeed. Especially in the final act, I felt that Schrader’s story wraps up a little too nicely, choosing a fairy tale redemption rather than the tragic, and probably more realistic, fate of its characters.
Alas, Light of Day is still a good film and better than Schrader’s flashier efforts.
Watched on YouTube
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)
Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars
I am clearly in the minority of film viewers who feel that Mishima is not one of Paul Schrader’s best but one of his least successful pictures. Now, any of Schrader’s pictures are a fascinating watch and this one is no different but it’s reliance on stylized visuals and a splintered narrative ultimately cripples the movie.
The best parts of Mishima take place in the present and most grounded vision of the Japanese author as he assembles his men to lead a military coup. I wish the film had focused entirely on that day in his life. Mishima is a complex and confounding enough figure to address directly, without any flourishes, and played with grace and nuance by Ken Ogata, the film could have rested entirely on his performance. Instead it drifts into B&W flashbacks (sometimes successful) and highly-stylized visualizations of a few of the author’s works. I see why critics eat that material up: it’s dazzling, showy, and ultimately hollow. It reminds me of the worst of Scorsese, when he’s trying to show off.
As I go through Schrader’s filmography, I think he’s most successful when he tosses style to the side and presents a very simple narrative. We’ll see if I change my mind.
Watched on Criterion Channel.