With the inequities and potential abuses of our financial system on everyone’s mind thanks to the Occupy Wall Street movement, the debut feature from writer/director J.C. Chandor may have the luck of being released at just the right cultural moment. Margin Call assembles an impressive cast to tell the story of a Lehman-like investment bank as its employees realize it’s bound for collapse. That realization comes to one wiz-kid employee (Zachary Quinto), who’s still fairly low on the corporate totem pole, as he analyzes documents passed on to him by an outgoing risk management analyst, played by Stanley Tucci. For the 24 hours during which the film takes place, the power players at the firm (including Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, Demi Moore, and Kevin Spacey, in what some critics are calling his best performance in years) assemble to figure out how to deal with the impending disaster, even though many of them barely understand the math and business practices that form the crumbling foundation of their enterprise. Of course, the collapses have far-reaching consequences for people who never enter these high-rise boardrooms. The film doesn’t concern itself with those ramifications, but the pervasive greed and craven self-preservation should certainly tap into the anger on display in occupied streets throughout the country.
This weekend, the National Gallery of Art kicks off a new retrospective of films called Le Cinéma Fantastique—running from now until the end of the year—that examines renderings of the unreal in French cinema from some of the earliest silent films (a 1904 Georges Méliès short makes an appearance) through the early ’70s. The first program is one of the NGA’s occasional “ciné-concerts,” with live music accompanying silent cinema. Pianist Ben Model performs during a double feature from René Clair, starting with 1924’s Paris Qui Dort (literally, “Paris sleeping,” though the English title is the Crazy Ray), about a mad scientist who enjoys using the titular ray to freeze people in amusing positions, but manages to spark a bout of looting as a number of unaffected Parisians realize they can take from the motionless people without consequence. This is followed by Le Voyage Imaginaire, about three bank clerks who fall for the same typist, and how that conflict plays out in the fantastical dream world of one of the three. The fanciful setting allowed Clair to experiment with what at the time were cutting-edge special effects.
Antonio Banderas stars in The Skin I Live In, out this Friday. Photograph courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Spanish master Pedro Almodóvar tries his hand at medical horror in his latest film, which features Antonio Banderas as a reconstructive surgeon on the edge of sanity who keeps a young woman prisoner in his home and uses her as a guinea pig for creating artificial skin. Don’t let the new genre designation fool you, though: This is an Almodóvar film through and through, combining slightly squirm-inducing subject matter with his usual fascination with matters of identity, sexual roles and power, and secrecy. Rather than marking a return to his sometimes shocking, freewheeling early filmmaking, The Skin I Live In continues his progression as a director of meticulously controlled and gorgeously designed films; so much so, in this case, that the power of his craft helps put a clinical distance between the audience and the subject matter. While it’s an easier film to admire than it is to truly like, it remains essential viewing from one of the world’s greatest working directors.
If you’re not yet tired of the continued zombie frenzy, E Street has an excellent pre-Halloween midnight program this weekend: a film that may not be as well known to US audiences as the undead classics of George Romero but that is still high on the list for any horror aficionado. Released in 1979, Italian horror maestro Lucio Fulci’s film was marketed as Zombi 2, continuing a longstanding Italian horror tradition of trying to sell movies entirely on their well targeted titles. In this case, the intent was to make audiences believe this might be a sequel to Romero’s hugely successful Dawn of the Dead, which was released in Italy with the title Zombi.
There was no need for the subterfuge, though; Fulci’s work stands just fine on its own, notable for some fantastic gore effects realistic enough to get the film banned in the UK, as well as for a scene featuring a zombie fighting a real shark underwater, and one depicting hordes of zombies crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. Don’t get me wrong—this film is not notable for subtext, story, or acting. This is zombie exploitation at its most basic level—pure B-movie spectacle—and on that scale, it’s an absolute classic.
Russian director Aleksei Fedorchenko’s third feature is a road movie, of sorts. Its central journey involves a man and his comrade driving to the bank of a river in order to cremate the body of the first man’s recently deceased wife. This is a matter of tradition: These men are Merjans, descendants of a small Finnish-derived ethnicity based in western Russia, and this ritual is essentially part of the mostly dormant traditions of their ancestors. As they drive, the widower tells his traveling companion stories of his marriage, shown in flashbacks, as the companion matches them with memories from his own past. The result is a brief (70-plus minutes), visually evocative, and meditative look at memory and tradition.
Released in 1968 but rarely screened in the US before a brief theatrical re-release earlier this year, this masterpiece of quietly creepy Japanese horror receives its first stateside DVD release from Criterion this week. The film bears some basic similarities to director Kaneto Shindô’s somewhat more well-known Onibaba (also available on Criterion DVD): Both feature a mother and a daughter-in-law attacking passing samurai. But in Kuroneko (which translates as “black cat”), the pair are ghosts—the film opens as their home is invaded by a platoon of samurai who rape and kill them, and then burn down their house. The titular black cat arrives in the smoldering ruins to lick the wounds of the dead women, who reappear as corporeal ghosts on the edge of a forest often traveled by lone samurai, ready to take their revenge.
While the film has some carefully orchestrated action—including some nicely choreographed wire work to give the ghosts the power of flight—this is mostly a measured and minimal piece. The brief flashes of violence are accentuated by the long, quiet stretches in between, accompanied by spare, dread-inducing drumbeats on the soundtrack. Shindô’s regular cinematographer, Kiyomi Kuroda, shot the film in noirish black and white that is breathtaking in its eerie grace. Those painterly compositions, the evocative sound design, and the quiet menace of the plot make this an ideal film to see late on a dark and chilly pre-Halloween night.
Special Features: Interviews with Shindô and critic Tadao Sato; the theatrical trailer; a new translation for the English subtitles; and a booklet containing an essay from film critic Maitland McDonagh and an excerpt from a 1972 interview with Shindô by film scholar Joan Mellen.
View the trailer: