Palatable: I Believe in Unicorns

I Believe in Unicorns (2014)
Written and directed by Leah Meyerhoff
Produced by Heather Rae, Vinay Singh, Katie Mustard, Josh Hetzler, Hannah Beth King, Frank Hall Green, Aly Migliori, Mark G. Mathis, Allison Anders, David Kupferberg, Castille Landon, Robin Leland
Starring Natalia Dyer, Peter Vack, Julia Garner, Toni Meyerhoff
Nary a sketching, fanciful, moody, morose, bauble-garnering teen won't relate to the troublous protagonist (Dyer) of Meyerhoff's semi-autobiographical drama, who's burdened daily by her care for an infirm mother (Meyerhoff), and seeks passion and flight from her onerous routine in a raucous skater and aspiring rock star (Vack) with whom she bonds forthwith. Their inevitable road trip from flat familiarity to nowhere in particular finds them initially enraptured with one another, but sours upon her realization that's he's violently unstable, she's too tender and neither possess a modicum of the maturity imperative to sustain any sort of relationship. Technically, Meyerhoff's first feature's beyond reproach: richly photographed by one Jarin Blaschke, cut carefully for cadence by Rebecca Laks and Michael Taylor, and attractively bedight throughout with glimmering filters cleverly applied, quixotic stop-motion animation allegorically imaging the unspoken whims, frustrations, perturbation and jubilee of Dyer's hypersensitive schoolgirl, and a production design littered with the cards, Christmas lights, figurines, doll parts, Polaroids, paintings, beads, stickers and sparklers, stuffed animals and chintz with which her imagination and interiors are so amply bedizened. Their directress exploits both Dyer's and Vack's mutual chemistry and basic yet potent faculties for unarticulated expression as adeptly as one may expect from a neophyte; they're plausible enough to overcome her occasionally stiff dialogue and narration, and the range and realism of Dyer's performance clearly indicate a player of considerable potential, yet whose reliance on skilled direction has since been evidenced by her distinctly less impressive turn as the weakest histrionic link in Stranger Things. Footage from Meyerhoff's 16mm homemade movies effectively preface the production in a fictive context, consolidated by the presence of her disabled mother in both, underplaying her role without really acting at all. Beneath trappings of gewgaws, representational phantasmagoria, and some beginner's missteps, her depiction of adolescence vividly kindles all its transcendent excitation, ceaseless dubiety, sudden angst punctuating every other hour's oasis, euphoria and agonies of first coitus, that joyous abandon attending infatuation and the crushing anguish in its wake, and more individually, the sad millstone of a maturing offspring's obligation to caretake for her incapacitated parent. More significantly, Meyerhoff never flinches from her recognition of adolescence as an ephemeron, and its fleeting innocence as a phase soluble upon contact with experience.


Mediocre: It Felt Like Love

It Felt Like Love (2013)
Written and directed by Eliza Hittman
Produced by Eliza Hittman, Shrihari Sathe, Laura Wagner, Tyler Brodie, Molly Gandour, Hunter Gray, Gill Holland
Starring Gina Piersanti, Giovanna Salimeni, Ronen Rubinstein, Richie Folio, Nugget, Kevin Anthony Ryan, Nick Rosen, Jesse Cordasco, Case Prime
Languishing in summer tedium and the shadow of her popularly promiscuous best friend (Salimeni), a pretty, pouty, terminally timorous teen (Piersanti) ravenous for amatory attention assumes orbit about a handsome, thuggish billiard hall's clerk (Rubinstein) in pursuit of his affection. She's as incoordinate in proximity to her crush as when flailing unsynchronized as a member of her friend's silly terpsichorean quartet, and painfully obvious when professing the erotic experiences of acquaintances as her own to her closest confidant, a prepubescent neighbor (Folio) neither convinced by nor impressed with her flagrant falsities. Notwithstanding a few instances of stiff delivery, Hittman's debut feature's satisfactorily played, cut and shot, but adequacy can't compensate for the climatic languor that suffuses her narrative, or the revolting condition of middle-class Brooklyn's vapid degeneracy, manifest as parental neglect, troglodytic male posturing and ubiquitous hip-hop. A littoral metaphor on loan from Truffault's estate hardly enlivens an affair merely (if capably) belaboring its tenderfoot's boredom and heartache, without exploring the full detriment of her deceased mother's absence. Hittman wrangles her photogenic cast with varying success, generating the best of many contemplative moments when they're muted. Still, Piersanti's promise and presence almost belie her age; she may someday prove a reliable leading lady under the auspices of a better filmmaker.


Favorites: The Ninth Configuration

The Ninth Configuration (1980)
Written and directed by William Peter Blatty
Produced by William Peter Blatty, William Paul, Tom Shaw
Starring Stacy Keach, Scott Wilson, Ed Flanders, Jason Miller, Neville Brand, George DiCenzo, Steve Sandor, Joe Spinell, Moses Gunn, Richard Lynch, Robert Loggia, Tom Atkins, Tonsi
Only the toughest, gentlest agape could bear and prevail in spite of the rigors suffered by a decorated USMC Colonel and accomplished psychiatrist (Keach) assigned to analyze unhinged military personnel cloistered at a disused castle in a Pacific Northwestern forest -- the last installation of a network constituted to probe the mystery of psychoses shared by officers whose high IQs are their sole commonality. His charges encompass the multiple personalities of a captain (DiCenzo) compelled to assume vestments of nuns and pirates, two squabbling lieutenants (Miller, Spinell) planning Shakespearean plays cast with canines, and an atrabiliar astronaut (Wilson) whose mind snapped during the final countdown of his lunar mission's launch. With quiet gravity, Keach's unorthodox counselor attains advancement with his raving patients by confiding as much in them as in the sardonic chief medic (Flanders), stolid sergeant (Atkins) and furious, frayed major (Brand) under his command, but the arcana of his own pathology and identity threaten to unravel far more than his progress. His directorial debut adapts to the screen Blatty's eponymous rework of his novel Twinkle, Twinkle Killer Kane with copious quotas of spectacle and substance, humor and horror, lunacy and humanity to illustrate the Christian postulate of benignant sacrifice as a manifestation and evidence of God. During the first hour, Keach plays an especially sedate straight man to co-stars portraying the madmen in his care, each yattering inspired tangents and amusing non sequiturs whilst chaffing with one another and Flanders' ballasting, quipping colonel in scenes as arresting as hysterical. Blatty's brilliant syntheses of comedy and profundity urge his story along while occasioning bounteous unforgettable moments: eyeballed by a scowling Moses Gunn, Loggia's lieutenant sings and dances to Al Jolson's There's a Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder in blackface; Miller's beleaguered director manqué berates his star puli (Tonsi) while propounding a theory concerning The Bard's brooding Dane from which one of his analyst's most successful apercus issue; in a static shot recalling Blatty's early comedic projects (especially his collaborations with Blake Edwards), stationary Keach observes the passing, progressively wacky trumpery of his screwy segregates with silent aplomb during a propitiatory phase of their therapy, during which they're encouraged to reenact The Great Escape and stage a production of Macbeth starring a doggery. Most famed among this picture's iconography is the culmination of a wildly subversive oneiric scene wherein an astronaut plants the American flag on the lunar surface, then turns to apotheose the Crucifixion as Keach's narration controverts a fundamental theory of macroevolutionary origin. The directorial greenhorn's stylistic simplicity relegates in close-ups and wide, confrontational shots focus and rightful encumbrance to his players, and those allotted monologues in service of exposition and insight do them justice with a plausible, impassioned subtlety that never clashes with daffy antics always but a few minutes removed. In discourse as much as sequence, so much is expressed in shrewd subterfuge and allusion that the ingenuity of Blatty's dialogue and prefiguration can only be best appreciated during a second viewing. In contrast, one of the most powerful slow burns yet committed to film depicts a failed, formidable struggle by Keach's colonel to peaceably rescue an inebriated and despondent Wilson from a flamboyantly sadistic gang of bikers (Sandor, Lynch, et al.) as riveting as the flare of a fuse crawling to its dynamitic detonation. A veteran of Hollywood, Blatty's superior aesthetics and cognizance of his medium's secular terrain inhibited any ply for sanctimony; he knew full well that homilies and catecheses can't survive beyond the bounds of ecclesiastic milieus, and that evangelism in entertainment can only succeed in a mundane context. His message of divine redemption through mortal sacrifice obliged by a distinctively Christian love is packaged as rapid-fire badinage, slapstick comedy, compassionate drama, thrilling violence and a conclusive epiphany that even nullifidians can accept as an inspiring axiom: that individual rectitude matters in a fallen and ignoble world. Whether it signifies absolution, atonement or providence is a question of faith.