Film Journal, May 2018

Movies seen in May; starred titles are re-watches.

RBG
Extraordinary subject, average execution but at least in this case average doesn’t mean boring or even fawning, exactly. The only real misstep is that opening voice-over litany of dissent against Justice Bader-Ginsburg, rattled off as if to get it out of the way. Once you get past the expected stuff about her being a meme and pop culture icon, there’s considerable substance about what she actually accomplished and the lengthy, painstaking process she went through to get there. And let’s face it, political sympathies aside, a film called SCALIA! would never have been as much fun as this. Grade: B

God’s Own Country
An impressive feature debut for writer/director Francis Lee, who has a real feel for depicting physical intimacy, both sexually and in terms of relation to one’s own environment. The shame-free gay love story he constructs almost feels revolutionary in a film that’s otherwise about the ins and outs of carrying on a traditional way of life that’s increasingly challenging in the modern world. A-

Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown*
One of Almodovar’s best, and easily his most realized screwball comedy. There’s nothing gazpacho can’t fix (if you mix it right.) A

The Meyerwitz Stories (New and Selected)
A great ensemble cast (yes, even Adam Sandler) with the lesser-known Elizabeth Marvel the MVP, however sparingly she’s used. As Noah Baumbach films go, not quite up there with FRANCES HA (which was just as much Greta Gerwig’s, particularly in light of LADY BIRD), but I’d much rather sit through it again than anything else he’s put out since. B+

Let The Sunshine In
Leave it to Claire Denis to open her latest by saddling Juliette Binoche with one heck of a blowhard beau and close it on an extended conversation between Binoche and Gerard Depardieu, decidedly *not* her beau (his actual role’s too good to disclose here.) In between, Denis’ seemingly ageless lead, playing a divorced, middle-aged artist continually pivots from one man to another in search of The One, only for it to slowly dawn on her maybe, (to paraphrase Rachel Bloom) the situation’s a lot more nuanced than that? Simultaneously confusing and enthralling like any good Denis, but also not quite like any of her other films (also typical for Denis.) B+

Strike A Pose
A profile of the male backup dancers on Madonna’s 1990 Blonde Ambition tour, notable not only for the where-are-they-now contrasts but also for the exposure afforded them via the infamous tour doc TRUTH OR DARE, which proved a double-edged sword. There’s an excess of great footage here, but it lacks focus scene-to-scene (all the disparate modern-day stuff doesn’t help) which is crucial in order for the overarching chronology to work. Still, the participants’ reunion near the end is lovelier than most of that trope. B-

The Misfits
The objectification of Monroe here hasn’t aged well (especially when you consider her husband wrote it!); otherwise, fascinating for what it represents about a dimming Hollywood, as it was the last film for two of its stars, and two of the other three principals would also be dead within a decade. If you have any qualms about Monroe’s acting, just watch her transformation from coquettish, adoring girlfriend to a raw maelstrom of devastation in the horse-wrangling sequence. B

First Reformed
I believe any work of art has the potential to be both ridiculous and sublime, however rarely one achieves such a tricky balance. To its credit, FIRST REFORMED is often firmly the latter—the austere opening credits sequence with its extended zoom-in; the simple, profound economy of the editing; tonally, how the dread keeps building, almost becoming constrictive but not altogether suffocating; and of course, Ethan Hawke, perennially underrated as he ages but arguably never better in a role he nearly disappears into.

The ridiculous stuff comes at the hysterical finale, but it’s to be taken seriously because it’s not silly and not played for camp or irony (just as the last fifteen minutes of TAXI DRIVER were outrageous and totally plausible.) The score gets to be a little much in the last third, but the straight-faced hymn accompanying those final minutes is perfect. Themes of climate control and corporate influence place the film firmly in the here and now, but otherwise, it feels as timeless as the work of director Paul Schrader’s old hero Carl Dreyer. A-

Flirting With Disaster*
Maybe not the best screwball comedy of its era as I once thought, but pretty damn close.
“We love you very much. If you were Jeffrey Dahmer, we would still love you.” A-

Back To The Future*
What I wrote upon my previous viewing on October 21, 2015: Influence of childhood nostalgia aside, it’s still the best blockbuster of its era, and now looks like one of the more audacious ones, too—would the oedipal stuff between Marty and his mother even be thinkable in a studio film today? A

Liquid Sky
Loved the striking visuals, time-capsule fashions and Anne Carlisle (more so as Jimmy than Margaret); didn’t much care for the rampant misogyny and numbingly awful score. Not nearly as essential a cult film of its time as REPO MAN or EATING RAOUL, but I’d happily watch Paula E. Sheppard spitting out “Me and My Rhythm Box” on a ninety-minute loop. B

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Film Journal: April 2018

Grace_Jones_Bloodlight_Bami_720_432

Movies seen in April; starred titles are re-watches.

Mean Girls
Damn right Lindsay Lohan could’ve had Emma Stone’s career, if not for, well, you know. Fitfully funny in a John-Hughes-for-millennials-way, but despite the great cast (Tim Meadows, where have you gone?), it should be noted that screenwriter Tina Fey is celebrated for reinventing the sitcom rather than the teen rom-com. B-

Big Night*
Twenty years ago, this felt like an ideal of American indie cinema, in a much higher echelon than all the Tarantino knockoffs and sub-Jarmusch navel-gazing. On my first viewing in well over a decade, it seems a little quaint—pokey, even, in spots (anything having to do with Minnie Driver’s undeveloped would-be love interest) and unnecessarily flashier in others (the chef-literally-on-fire is a good sight gag that holds no meaning.) And yet, much of this gets by on charm, and charm usually holds up. Tony Shaloub adds depth and shading to what could’ve been a stock eccentric and Ian Holm, Campbell Scott and a young-ish Alison Janney are all wonderful (Stanley Tucci, who co-directed with Scott is adequate as a lead—he’s more effective in supporting parts.) And yes, the final scene remains one of the simplest, most affecting and perfect of all time. A-

Love, Simon
Greg Berlanti’s aesthetic (or lack thereof) is perfect for his CW teen shows, so it follows this feels like a competently made, supersized TV episode (albeit a far less interesting one than NATHAN FOR YOU: FINDING FRANCES.) Still, as someone who would have appreciated/longed for this film when I was in high school, I’m happy it exists. B-

Tokyo Story*
This was my first Ozu, watched in a film studies class with through-the-roof expectations from its Sight-and-Sound-poll-placing reputation. I didn’t know what to make of its style, simultaneously old fashioned and radical; it got lost in the shuffle of all the other ten-to-fifteen films per week I had to absorb. I’d go on to see at least a dozen more of his films over the next two years (including an entire class on him), and I responded more strongly to many of them (in particular, OHAYO, LATE SPRING and EQUINOX FLOWER.)

Nearly two decades on and I haven’t viewed any Ozu since the early 2000s. Seeing this again was less a revisit than looking at it with new, older, (hopefully) wizened eyes. After adjusting to the still-undiminished ingenuity of his pacing and composition, the narrative slowly but surely drew me in, all the way to the last half hour which left me devastated but hopeful. Many would say nothing happens in an Ozu film, but they’re wrong—everything happens, or at least everything that’s truly important in view of life itself. His uncommon humaneness and honesty are both summed up in its famous, unwavering exchange near the end:

Kyoko: “Isn’t life disappointing?”

Noriko: “Yes, it is.” A

You Were Never Really Here
As a resolute devotee of Ramsey’s first two features, I’ll allow that her guidance renders this watchable (as does Phoenix, astonishing yet again) and her willingness to turn a crime thriller into a kaleidoscopic puzzle box is often fascinating (especially visually). That doesn’t mean I don’t feel a little churlish complaining that the difficult-to-parse story prevented me from unabashedly giving myself over to it. And though I appreciate a good campy sound cue or two, here, they come off as slight miscalculations, distracting from Greenwood’s tactile, enveloping score. B-

The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Probably the weakest of the director’s last four features but still worth a look. I winced at the make-or-break opening shot but I also kind of admired it, especially once I fully understood its context. Surely a more ridiculous premise than even THE LOBSTER, but you can’t argue Lanthimos and his cast (Barry Keoghan, you have arrived) aren’t fully committed to it. What it lacks is an element of surprise, those inspired, my-god-what-did-I-just-see narrative leaps which elevated his previous films into more than academic misanthropic exercises. B

The Trial
Talk about batshit insane production design—at times, it outdoes even CITIZEN KANE. Maddening in (mostly) the best ways. B+

Isle of Dogs
First viewing: I already prefer it to FANTASTIC MR. FOX, but I’m a dog person, so there you go.

Second viewing: I’ve concluded this is second-tier Wes Anderson—technically more dazzling than his previous foray into animation, but not as emotionally resonant as his best (the growing bond between Chief and Atari comes closest.) But its not without complexity: for all the appropriation fracas, this is lovingly crafted (both in depictions of Japanese and canine culture) and thematically rich, with political implications more of the moment than you’d expect from this filmmaker. B+

Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami
Director Sophie Fiennes’ vacillating back and forth between concert and cinema verite footage is initially somewhat jarring, particularly for those who know little about Jones’ life offstage (i.e.-most viewers). Fortunately, the latter’s contrast with the former grows more compelling as they further complement each other via hotel rooms, recording studios and behind the scenes of a must-be-seen-to-be-believed television appearance. She has the kind of dynamic personality and uncommon force conveying she was absolutely made for a project like this and Fiennes is correct in letting Jones speak for herself. As one woman shouted out loud at the very end of the screening I attended, “We’re not worthy of her!” A-

Eighth Grade
I can’t understate how terrific Elsie Fisher is as Kayla, an awkward, average fourteen-year-old who’s quirky enough to stand apart from any other similarly-aged protagonist you’ve seen before and also recognizable to an almost painfully universal degree. Delectably cringe-funny, this would be as discomforting as WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE if not for writer/director Bo Burnham’s humanism—his affection for the minutiae of this ultra-specific world (like the boy-athlete crush who nonetheless loves to make fart noises with his arm) is omnipresent, thankfully without nostalgia’s rose-colored lenses. B+

The Rider
At a time when filmmaking is more accessible than ever, it’s heartening to still see real talent emerge. Chloe Zhao has such a firm handle on what she’s trying to depict and express in this film about Native American rodeo cowboys in South Dakota that I was immediately attuned to both its poetry and authenticity. Had I not already known that most of the cast were playing versions of themselves, I might not have ever guessed it—that’s how strong Zhao’s direction is. The story itself one can surmise wholly from the trailer, but that barely diminishes its power. A-

That Summer
The unearthed pre-GREY GARDENS footage of the Beales (shot by Joans Mekas and Andy Warhol for a shelved project) is worth seeing for anyone who finds the gals adoring instead of annoying (I’m in the former camp), complete with musical performances, tales behind beloved old furniture and more raccoons. The rest, narrated by Peter Beard with some voiceover from Lee Radziwill gives ample context, but in the end, this is still more a collection of B-sides than anything revelatory. B-

The Third Murder
A legal thriller from a director best known for his Ozu-worthy family dramas? It slots more neatly into his oeuvre than you’d expect, primarily because the mystery per se is steeped in familial relationships, only this time with heavier implications and consequences. Although Kore-eda has delved into darker material before (the abandoned family of NOBODY KNOWS), he’s a little too intellectual here—extended musings on judgement and guilt are examined to the point of exhaustion. But the world he depicts is as rich as ever, full of scene-stealing (but not in an obvious way) characters and lovely, uncomplicated but effective imagery (most memorably, an overhead shot of three figures making snow angels.) B

Film Journal: March 2018

The Passion of Joan of Arc

Movies seen in March, now with letter grades because I feel like it. Starred titles are re-watches.

The Unknown Girl
This would be Dardennes-by-numbers if not for the new wrinkle of embedding a murder mystery within their usual neorealism; the problem is they don’t have the knack for the former, as its continual presence threatens to drag down the rest of the film (reportedly seven minutes shorter than the 2016 Cannes cut; perhaps they could’ve cut it down further.) Thankfully, Adele Haenel (whom I didn’t recognize from either Water Lilies or Nocturama) gives the film something of a center—her youthful doctor, fixated on responsibility and guilt, contains enough layers and flaws to make her more than a narrative construct. Grade: B-

Patti Cake$
It has all the clichés you’d expect from the Rocky of overweight, working-class, female New Jersey rappers, but I liked it anyway. Credit Danielle Macdonald in what should have been a star-making turn (a cliché, I know, but it really applies here) but also Bridget Everett, who is immense and devastating as the alcoholic, failed rocker mother who refreshingly turns out not to be the film’s villain. Hardly anyone saw this Sundance hit, but if they had, Everett might’ve given Allison Janney some stiff competition at awards season. B+

Thoroughbreds
Starts off a little boring and leaden, with two rich girls (Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy, both very good) in a passive-aggressive pas de deux. It achieves some focus once the what-to-do-about-the-creepy-stepfather problem is established—a narrative we’ve seen too many times before. Despite all that, first-time director Cory Finley proves a talent to watch. The camerawork, the immaculate suburban, Old Money mansion setting and the almost avant-garde sound design all cohere to bring about an almost thrilling sense of dread which builds to an unforgettable, extended long shot that’s like nothing else I’ve seen. B

The Passion of Joan of Arc*
Utterly shocked and transfixed when I first saw this on a 19” TV screen circa 2001; viewing it again on a giant movie screen in 2018 was no less powerful, even as I knew exactly what to expect. Understandably radical when it was made, it still feels as such today—I can’t name another film (at least one I’ve recently seen) that utilizes faces and close-ups like this. Uncertain whether an alternate universe where the invention of sync sound was decades away would’ve been a good thing, but this late-silent film’s rare achievement makes me wonder. A+

Frantz
Genre magpie that he is, I don’t believe Francois Ozon has shown this much restraint in any of his previous work, from Swimming Pool to Potiche; I debate whether this is a positive, for the story, a loose remake of Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby cries out for some melodrama. Still, this is sweet but unsentimental, with gorgeous-not-glossy cinematography (including selective, interesting shifts between black-and-white and color) and period design, but also uncommon kindness and introspection over how people process the aftermath of something as traumatic and life-disruptive as war. B

Loveless
Not as sharp a political allegory as Leviathan, nor does it possess that film’s necessary gallows humor (which might’ve been out of place here, anyway.) However, Zvyagintsev remains a necessary critical voice for his country and the petty squabbles between the two never-should-have-married leads are relatable to an almost uncomfortable degree. It’s bleak, but not unrelentingly so—brief, lyrical touches, like Alexey’s swirling red-and-white ribbon or the unremitting duty of volunteering citizens point towards a humaneness lurking within the director’s rigorous worldview. B+

Aguirre, The Wrath of God*
Third viewing and I’m still a little more baffled than seduced (although this time the guitar portions of the score made me swoon.) Here’s the thing: it could use even *more* Aguirre—apart from that immense, justly celebrated opening shot, the film only comes alive whenever Kinski’s glowering mug is onscreen, as if to say, “Well, of course the cameras should be on me! Why would you *dare* look away?” B

The Death of Stalin
Excessively funny and appropriately dark, from the “musical emergency” opening to the slapstick moving-of-the-body to a deliriously profane argument playing out in front of a small child. I may need a second viewing to determine whether this is really of a piece with In The Loop and the best of Veep. Still, Steve Buscemi hasn’t fit so snugly into a role since Ghost World, and that I never even considered him for the Iannucci-verse is just one of many things that keeps this from feeling like a retread. A-

Viva
Notable for actually being shot in Old Havana (a peek into a one-of-a-kind setting) and for its RuPaul’s Drag Race-worthy cabaret performances, which alone are essential viewing. The estranged father/son relationship is fine but takes too long to develop into something involving. Apart from the setting/culture, it has nothing on any Almodovar melodrama. C+

Snow White and The Hunstman
Sillier than the Disney version while also taking itself way too seriously. Kristin Stewart looks so uncomfortable that I’m relieved she and Olivier Assayas found each other. D+

Uncle Howard
Howard Brookner was a promising filmmaker who completed three features before succumbing to AIDS in 1989 (days before he would’ve turned 35). Directed by his nephew, Aaron, (whom he strikingly resembles), this is about average for a dead relative documentary, but the breadth of Howard’s unearthed, archival footage is a treasure trove—not just the numerous outtakes from his William Burroughs doc but also his own artful, affecting video diaries. B-

Nathan For You: Finding Frances
Feels less like a supersized television episode (even though technically it is) and more like a made-for-TV movie due to its uncommon seriousness. Nathan Fielder has always attempted a tricky balancing act between sincerity and satire, and he’s never threaded that line so carefully—at least for the first hour, before you’re almost certain he’s picked the former over the latter. Almost. A-

Talk To Her*
First viewing in a decade with almost unreal expectations—always considered this my favorite Almodovar, his mature masterwork. It’s still one of his best, but more challenging than I remember: the first half feels so slow and subdued, even compared to All About My Mother. But its themes of longing and companionship solidify after the scene whose dialogue provides the title, and rarely since has the director constructed such a tender (if twisted) scenario between two men. Also, Geraldine Chaplin is a hoot here. A

Foxtrot
Despite the title-referencing dance step, where one always ends up in the same place where one started, this is continually unpredictable to a degree most other films are not. The extended mid-section swaps the bookending domestic melodrama for David Lynch/Jim Jarmusch light surrealism, but it’s jarring, as if it was dropped in from another movie. This irritated me as I watched, but I admit the imagery (in particular, the sinking cabin, the outsized spotlight and that darn camel) and unusual pacing has stuck with me. B