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Review: ‘Cosmos’

dfn-cosmos_ver3_xlg-300Watching an Andrzej Zulawski film can be quite an adventure. Before his sudden death earlier this year on the eve of the New York Film Festival premier of Cosmos, Zulawski’s career spanned five decades…. a career that resulted in 13 highly idiosyncratic and propulsive features that not only quite often enraged the censors of his native Poland and got him banned from working there, but endeared him to the hearts of cult film purists around the world. 

His most recognizable film came in 1981 with Possession, starring Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill in what has to be the most perverse and uncomfortable exploration of marital deterioration ever screened. My personal favorite Zulawski film is On the Silver Globe, an epic three hour science fiction effort adapted from a novel by author and granduncle Jerzy Zulawski (written in 1901!) that he started working on in the mid 70’s and then had production shut down when a new Minister of Culture took over in the late 70’s. Finally released (albeit in a truncated form) in 1988, On the Silver Globe is a mammoth achievement of mud, grime, blood, allegory and feverish vision whose aesthetic and tone firmly clenches the senses and never lets go. 

And feverish is the best word to describe all of Zulawski’s films. There’s a certain madness that infuses his work. His characters volley from high laughter to crushing depression in the span of a few seconds. Speech is a toy, often mutilated and toyed with, such as the bank robbing gang of hooligans in Mad Love (1985), whose aphorisms and long monologues barely even make sense with the subtitle option selected. And in Cosmos, all of these characteristics are present, although unfortunately, it’s a film that feels disjointed, labored and worthy of the jabs of pretentious artifice intermittently tossed at Zulawski throughout his oeuvre.

More of a chamber piece than Zulawski has attempted in the past, Cosmos follows young Witold (Jonathan Genet) and his friend Fuchs (Johan Libreau) as they retreat from their confusing early twenties lives and stay at a French guest house run by Madam Wotis (Sabine Azema).

Hardly any less overwrought than the outside world, Witold finds himself immersed in Wotis and her family’s hectic existence. Led by the Madam’s own bouts of sudden statuesque-freeze-frame- freakout when she gets too excited, the other problem is Witold’s unrequited affection for her daughter, Catherine (Clementine Pons), recently arrived in the household with her new husband. Seemingly happy, Witold holds a quiet fascination with Catherine and their relationship grows in weird and unexplained mannerisms. 

In a dual role, Pons also plays maid Ginette, the servant of the household who seems to understand and know more of what’s happening inside this quaint estate than she lets on. Coupled with all the internal melodrama, Zulawski also tosses in mysterious gestures outside the home as well. On his daily walks, Witold begins to discover dead birds hanging in methodically constructed tableauxs. Ginette’s cat — never one to be found easily — seems to have also gone missing permanently. Needless to say, there’s a lot of heavy stuff going on in Cosmos. Would one expect anything less with a film of such a grandiose title?

Perhaps my disappointment with the film lies in the hollow performance of lead character Witold. More of a cipher than a flesh and blood entity, Genet looks confused and introspective and dark, but nothing truly resonates. In so many previous Zulawski films, he’s needled tortured and seismic performances from his (mostly) female leads that become larger than life. I didn’t get that feeling here. In fact, Witold comes off as something closer to Zulawski’s faded idea of the ’emo’ generation.

Leaden performances aside, Cosmos also suffers from an abundance of ideas, emotions and armchair psychology that feels less like plot and more like extraneous fluff around a story that, ultimately, comes down to Witold and Catherine sidestepping the static of their world and connecting on a basic level. The final few minutes, oblique and perhaps the most worthy portion of a repeat viewing, aims for the lofty goals of its title, but too much of Cosmos dwells on the tweaks and twerks of its characters without providing a solid base of affection for them.  

This criticism could be levied at any of his films. Even though Cosmos failed for me personally, Zulawski’s film (and other films when they can be found on sparse home video options) should be celebrated and seen regardless of the derision. Anyone who so defied his country’s censorship deserves that small patronage.

Cosmos opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area at the Texas Theatre on Friday, August 5.

Review: ‘Closer to God’

'Closer to God'
‘Closer to God’

Turning a hot-button issue into a dramatic soap opera would be the easy way out.

Skipping over the procedures and processes that would be involved, Closer to God goes directly to the creation of a clone and then asks, “What now?” As opposed to the army of movies that imagine clones in the future, writer/director Billy Senese wrestles with the essence of the issue, right here, and right now.

Victor Reed (Jeremy Childs) is a scientist who is obsessed with cloning. He’s not a “mad” scientist, though his obsessive behavior is certainly reminiscent of Mary Shelley’s famed scientist, Dr. Victor Frankenstein. What this modern-day Victor exudes is devotion to his important work and single-minded focus on success. He conducts interviews, but he is not at all interested in promoting himself. He is so caught up in his experiments that he neglects those in his household, including his wife and two young daughters.

But there is every reason for him to be so obsessed. Beyond the very personal toll on Victor and his family, and far beyond the financial risk to his backers, there are the larger issues of morality and the impact of cloning on society as a whole. Some protest that the scientist has broken the laws of god and man; though Victor and his backers think they have a legal loophole that permits their operations, the voices of religious protesters shout loudly in opposition.

Outside Victor’s gated estate, protesters gather, both those in opposition and those in favor. What they share in common is anger. Utterly exhausted, frustrated by the unprecedented medical challenges he faces, and apparently without much in the way of emotional support, Victor stares at the protesters at night, as private security guards stand watch and the protesters shout and scream.

It all feels very real, especially as the tone of the protests becomes more insistent and shrill, and Victor’s support system weakens and begins to fail. And Victor must also deal with more pointed complaints from his wife and small household staff, which consists of a husband and wife who are also past the point of exhaustion, for reasons that can all be pinned on Victor.

While Closer to God may sound like a straight social drama, rest assured that genre elements emerge, eventually, pitching the anxiety levels upward, as well as the complexity of the issues that are raised. Up to that point, it’s a smartly-executed film that exercises a good deal of restraint, which makes its accomplishments seem more modest than they are.

Even as events become more unhinged, their relationship to reality remains, sadly, uncomfortably tight. This is not an issue that will go away anytime soon; before we get to the cool clones in space doing cool things, we need to figure out how to reconcile ourselves to the idea in the first place. Scientists aren’t going to wait on the rest of mankind, and they may not all be as conscience-stricken as Victor is in Closer to God.

Review originally published at TwitchFilm.com. The film opens on Friday, July 3 at the Texas Theatre. It will also be available to watch via various Video On Demand platforms.

Review: ‘The Duke of Burgundy’

'The Duke of Burgundy'
‘The Duke of Burgundy’

Director Peter Strickland is a very textual storyteller. His breakthrough 2012 film, Berberian Sound Studio, employed an unnerving sound-scape to communicate the slow fissures of a lonely film engineer working on an Italian giallo far away from his English home. In his latest effort, The Duke of Burgundy, narrative again takes a slight backseat to Strickland’s visual and aural panoply. The high-pitched crinkle of a candy wrapper between fingers, close-ups of soap bubbles, or the grating swish strokes a scrub brush creates against a hardwood floor are heightened effects within the first five minutes of the film, establishing the unique universe we’re soon plunged into. Technically, The Duke of Burgundy is above reproach. It’s disappointing the rest of the film doesn’t live up to these lofty standards.

The Duke of Burgundy tells the story of Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) and Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), two ornithologists in an unspecified but clearly ‘unmodern’ era via their sprawling, moss-covered mansion, dress, and exclusive travel by bicycle. Evelyn is the younger of the two women, and we observe as she pleasantly arrives at the mansion and is surreptitiously put to work by the older Cynthia, cleaning her floors and then forcefully coaxed into providing a foot massage.

The questionable relationship of rich woman and uncomfortable housemaid quickly darkens when Cynthia then takes Evelyn behind closed doors, where more deviant acts take place between the women. A dominant/subordinate lesbian relationship is soon understood, fetishistically observed by Strickland’s camera in a series of slow pans, gentle dissolves and double exposures, as if he were conjuring the best moments of films by Tinto Brass or Jean Rollin. No image of a leather boot being zipped up or corset being squeezed into is left unobserved.

As the partnership deepens between the women — and we even begin to wonder who’s really in charge here — bouts of typical relationship hurdles arrive. Evelyn becomes attracted to another woman (Eugenia Caruso) in the ornithology society they belong to. This drives a wedge of jealousy between Evelyn and Cynthia. There’s a very odd, almost David Lynchian meeting with a character simply called The Carpenter (Fatma Mohamed), who speaks to the women about the possibility of building a “locking bed” for Evelyn’s upcoming birthday. When that fails, there’s talk of another extremely kinky item available. It’s certainly controversial for the supposed era. Then again, perhaps the entire film is a lark, part of some magisterial role-playing the women have indulged upon for far too long, forgetting who they are and losing themselves in the process. After all, even their S&M sessions are planned out, written on note cards and acted out as if their romance were one giant screenplay.

Regardless, from that point on, The Duke of Burgundy escalates into a weird, dream-like two-hander between Evelyn and Cynthia as their varied hopes and harmonic aspirations about their love affair begin to take divergent paths.

Essentially a warped love story, The Duke of Burgundy failed to completely absorb me. As the repressed and searching lovers, D’Anna and Knudsen (both regulars of Strickland’s small output so far) are terrific, yet it felt as if writer/director Strickland didn’t trust the elemental aspects of his story, losing himself in the pastiche of recreating atmosphere and cumbrous themes. The relationship between Evelyn and Cynthia is interesting enough without the pretensions and repeated use of butterflies, both in conversation and visual touchstones. Yes, the theory ingrained within a butterfly’s transformative beauty easily lends itself to the riches of cinematic allegory, but in The Duke of Burgundy, it not only confuses, but it obscures the possibilities of exploring this relationship in more realistic and incisive terms. Like the worst attempts at homage — something imminent from the opening title sequence — The Duke of Burgundy becomes so enraptured in imitation that it forgets originality goes a lot further in exploring genre.

And honestly, who knew the local Ornithology Society was a hotbed for S&M hook ups?

The Duke of Burgundy opens Friday February 6, at The Texas Theater.

Retro Scene: ‘The Beyond’ at Texas Theatre

Lucio Fulci's 'The Beyond' at the Texas Theatre
Lucio Fulci’s ‘The Beyond’ at the Texas Theatre

Eternally perched between low-class, weirdo schlock – think Manhattan Baby (1982) or Sodoma’s Ghost (1988)- and gloriously macabre thrillers, at the very least, Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci is never boring. The Beyond, beginning a repertory run at the Texas Theater this weekend, is one of his best.

Originally released in 1981, the film concerns a portal to hell in the basement of a Louisiana hotel that unleashes some particularly gruesome events on its modern inhabitants. True to Fulci’s hallucinatory vision, gross-out theatrics and ‘video nasty’ vibe, The Beyond was rescued from obscurity a few years back via Grindhouse and Rolling Pictures and now its excess can be viewed on the big screen. Starring Catriona MacColl and David Warbeck.

Presented in 35MM at the Texas Theater Friday January 9th and Saturday January 10th. Check theater for exact show times.

-Joe Baker

Review: ‘Life After Beth’

'Life After Beth' (A24)
‘Life After Beth’ (A24)
Mention the word “zombie” and, immediately, a multitude of cinematic conventions pop into mind. Especially since George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead began scaring the wits out of moviegoers in the late 1960s, we’ve come to expect people who come back to life after death to be rambling, shambling, brain-hungry creatures.

Jeff Baena, who wrote and directed Life After Beth, opening at the Texas Theatre, is obviously aware of all those conventions, and so for his movie, he sidesteps the obvious, at least at first. In the opening moments, Beth (Aubrey Plaza) is seen hiking alone on a hillside. Next, her wan, putative boyfriend Zach (Dane DeHaan) is seen mourning her death. Details are scarce, but as Zach wavers between appearances at Beth’s home and his own, it becomes clear that Beth died on her solo hike.

Zach is inconsolable, whether he’s commiserating with Beth’s parents (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon), being ignored by his own father and mother (Paul Reisser and Cheryl Hines), or being bullied by his brother Kyle (Matthew Gray Gubler), a neighborhood security guard. But then Zach sees Beth, apparently alive, in her parents’ house, and he goes fairly mad until he can speak with her again.

Beth’s parents keep telling Zach to calm down, until finally her father takes the boy aside and explains that Beth showed up on their doorstep after the funeral, without explanation, and without all her recent memories. Zach is too overcome with emotion to give the situation much thought; it seems that the couple broke up before she died, and now Zach is obsessed with the idea of reconciliation, no matter her somewhat scattered state of mind.

As noted, writer/director Baena is careful to set up his zombie story with an extended focus on the characters and their families, which distinguishes it right off the bat. Baena, whose only other film credit came as a writer on David O. Russell’s 2004 comedy/drama I Love Huckabees, tells the story through Zach’s eyes but, unfortunately, actor Dane DeHaan comes across as far too weak and foolish in the role. From his rebellious actions, we’d expect more of a decisive personality, yet Zach is a spoiled child throwing a tantrum.

Of course, this Zach is over 18 and an adult, which explains why he is in a relationship with a 21-year-old woman who very much wants to have sex with him. Actually, Beth is a far more compelling character. As played by Plaza, she is obviously not the same person she was before she died; clearly, Zach and her parents are delusional, so drowned by their grief that they are not capable of thinking clearly about what is best for Beth.

What’s fascinating is that, while she was alive, it seems that she was a young woman seeking independence, first from her controlling parents and then from her indecisive boyfriend. In hindsight, one could easily imagine that Beth’s bold solo walk through the woods in the opening scene was intended as her first true adventure as a single adult.

Sadly, Beth did not survive her plunge into independence, but Plaza gives the dead character everything she’s got, at the first emphasizing the more comic aspects of the forgetful girl who’s been “resurrected,” in the eyes of her parents, and is now sexually aggressive toward her ex-boyfriend, who’s initially grateful. She’s gained power since her death, even if it is a short-lived development of her personality.

Life After Beth is an ambitious picture that can’t quite deliver on all the expectations that it builds up. It wavers too much between comedy and drama, resulting in a wishy-washy experience. Yet Plaza’s performance, and the support given, especially by Reilly, Shannon, Reiser, and Hines, pays off in the third act, with a nice variety of comic moments, making the movie an ultimately fascinating, if sometimes frustrating, one to watch.

The film opens exclusive at the Texas Theatre on Friday, September 5. Visit the official site for showtimes and more information.

Remembering JFK at The Texas Theatre

Oliver Stone's 'JFK' at the Texas Theatre
Oliver Stone’s ‘JFK’ at the Texas Theatre

The Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff will present a special day of movie screenings in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. All descriptions below provided courtesy of the theatre.

War is Hell. 1:20 p.m.
We will present a partial screening of War is Hell, the film that was playing the day that Lee Harvey Oswald sneaked into the Texas Theatre following the JFK assassination.

“During the Korean War, a glory-hunting sergeant leads his platoon on a mission against the enemy–not telling them that a cease-fire has just been declared–so that he can win medals. Trouble arises when some members of platoon begin to suspect that something is fishy.”

Cry of Battle. 2:45 p.m.
Cry of Battle was one of two films showing at the Texas Theatre on November 22, 1963.

“During World War II, the spoiled son of a wealthy businessman finds himself involved in the guerrilla movement fighting against the Japanese, and finds romance and adventure.”


At 6:30pm, the ticketed evening program begins with an on-stage theatrical re-creation of the Warren Commission interviews with the Texas Theatre’s employees, Julia Postal and Butch Burroughs, as well as John Brewer, the man who noticed Lee Harvey Oswald enter the Texas Theatre. Following the performance, the stage will be reset for an 8:00pm 35mm archival print presentation of Oliver Stone’s JFK.

A special preview to the film will be a short screening of archival footage from the Texas Archive of the Moving Image (TAMI): “Texas Responds to the Assassination.” Included is TAMI-exclusive footage of Texas Governor John Connally giving his own, very personal account of November 22, 1963, as well as home movies made in the immediate aftermath of the assassination, and interview footage from the filming of JFK.

The November 22, 1963, assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy shocked the nation and the world. The brisk investigation of that murder conducted under the guidance of Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren distressed many observers, even though subsequent careful investigations have been unable to find much fault with the conclusions his commission drew, the central one of which was that the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, acted alone. Instead of satisfying the public, one result of the Warren Commission Report was that an unimaginable number of plausible conspiracy theories were bruited about, and these have supported a sizable publishing mini-industry ever since. In making this movie, director Oliver Stone had his pick of supposed or real investigative flaws to draw from and has constructed what some reviewers felt was one of the most compelling (and controversial) political detective thrillers ever to emerge from American cinema.