Film Journal: November 2018

Films seen in November, with at least one candidate for my 2018 top ten. Rewatched titles are starred.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?
It’s not so much that Melissa McCarthy is a revelation here as that she finally has a role that allows her to be more than just silly or weird (although she’s occasionally those things too.) The real-life story of Lee Israel, a struggling, middle-aged, alcoholic writer who fell into a brief stint as a literary forger, should be something that works better on page than screen, but director Marielle Heller (THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL) translates Israel’s own memoir as if it were a living, breathing, sincere re-creation of Manhattan in the early ’90s (credit the astute adaptation, co-written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty). Israel and her cohort-in-crime, aging hustler Jack Hock (a perfectly cast Richard E. Grant) are despicable, unapologetic misanthropists, yet they feel so well-drawn that you’re almost compelled to root for them anyway. Grade: A-

Atomic Blonde
Visuals aside, this is just ok, but Charlize Theron is an exquisite badass. C+

Boy Erased
I liked and admired this film, but I didn’t quite love it. It seems to check off all the right boxes: terrific lead performance from Lucas Hedges (and good work from Nicole Kidman), firm handling of sensitive, timely subject matter, a rewarding, effective narrative arc… but it comes across as a little numb at times–much like THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST, which I rated higher because it had a stronger, more deeply felt point of view. I don’t want to begrudge straight actor Joel Edgerton for his decision to adapt this particular real-life story, but it feels like the stakes aren’t as crucial as they should be. Everything plays out exactly as you’d expect and almost hope for it to, so it’s a crowd pleaser but alas, nothing revelatory. B-

Meet The Parents*
Still love Greg’s takedown of the flight attendant, which would’ve been unimaginable post 9/11; would probably like the rest of the movie more if not for the shitty sequels. B

Simon of the Desert
Making an effort to become more familiar with Bunuel, as I’ve only seen a handful of his films (and none in the last 15+ years.) This one is rich enough to suggest perhaps more directors should try making 45-minute-long features. The ending’s completely absurd, but it’s kind of the best part, too. B+

The Royal Tenenbaums*
I want to live in this film’s sad, absurd, elegiac world more than any other one. A+

From Here To Eternity
Probably one of the more… interesting casts of its era and holy shit, Sinatra could act. I’m not too big on war films, but until the last ten minutes, this is more a conflicted-about-the-military film with gobs of sex (or the limit of what they could get away with at the time) thrown in. B+

The Battle of Algiers*
Impressive as a large-scale recreation of actual events; even more affecting for its laser-sharp focus on faces and close-ups, as if Pontecorvo was trying to make a Carl Dreyer action film. A-

At Eternity’s Gate
In theory, Willem Dafoe seems a misguided choice to play Van Gogh, given the age difference, lack of resemblance, etc. Happily, he makes a stunning transformation without resorting to extravagant physical enhancements like Gary Oldman as Churchill–he becomes the man, mind and soul more than body; it’s as sharp a left turn as Dafoe could take from last year’s THE FLORIDA PROJECT. At times, Julian Schnabel’s film is a tad more pretentious than provocative, but his imagery is inspired, visually recalling the artist’s renown landscapes and portraits without coming off as mere copies–an impressionist take on a post-impressionist. B

Green Book
Cheesy for sure, but I admit I teared up at the end. What can I say, Viggo is both way too much and yet perfect. B-

The Edge of the World
Starting a deep dive into Michael Powell’s filmography as I make my way through his terrific memoir, A LIFE IN MOVIES. Made a few years before he teamed up with Emeric Pressburger and often cited as his breakthrough work (Powell himself agrees), it’s pretty sophisticated for its era. Filmed on the remote isle of Foula, north of Scotland, the cinematography is predictably stunning, veering between abstract landscapes and more intimate shots. It’s elegiac and soulful for a vanishing way of life, but it also avoids easy sentimentality. You can see why Scorsese is such a fan. B+

Border
From the writer of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, a contemporary fable about Tina (Eva Melander), a somewhat dumpy middle-aged guard for the Swedish border patrol who is excellent in her job, mostly due to her intense, visceral, almost superhuman sense of smell. One day, Vore (Eero Milonoff), a man whose unusual physical features closely resemble her own, walks through her checkpoint, and she immediately smells a rat…or at least, something that’s a tad off. From there, BORDER just gets stranger and more otherworldly, all the way to its utterly creepy but still kinda sweet final scene. While the film as a whole doesn’t quite scale the heights of its vampire predecessor, its blend of docu-realism and dark fantasy keeps it afloat. Melander is also a real find, giving one of the best, most original performances I’ve seen in recent memory. B+

Wonder Boys*
Apart from the instrumental score, this has aged beautifully; I suspect its cult will continue to grow.
“Sometimes, people just need to be rescued.” A

The Favourite
The three leads are all great and it has delectably bitchy dialogue (only THE DEATH OF STALIN bests it in that category this year), but on the whole, it feels a bit… empty, I guess. As with THE LOBSTER, I need a second viewing to be sure. B

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Film Journal: October 2018

Movies seen in October, including three from Japan and two of the year’s best–both of the latter seen at IFFBoston’s Fall Focus mini-festival and slated for release before year’s end. Starred titles are re-watches.

Shoplifters
Naming a favorite film by Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda is like doing the same for his closest progenitor, Yasujiro Ozu–nearly impossible, given their tendencies to revisit and refine themes of domesticity and humanism while maintaining a higher-than-average consistency. SHOPLIFTERS may have finally won Kore-eda the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, but I could name at least three earlier titles of his equally deserving of the prize.

This film hues most closely to one of those three, NOBODY KNOWS in its focus on an impoverished family; only here, it includes adults and children and stretches the notion of what a “family” is. With that in mind, SHOPLIFTERS explores the concept of give and take and how illegal activities such as the titular past time are weighed against both their moral implications and whether or not they serve the greater good. You sense Kore-eda sincerely pushing for the latter but also keeping in mind the former’s importance, which is what makes the film so heartbreaking once its increasingly precarious house of cards begins to topple.

A graceful overview of the human condition via fully recognizable, relatable characters and situations is one of the film’s most admirable qualities. The cast is typically solid for a Kore-eda picture; the standout, as usual, is Kirin Kiki as the family matriarch–her character arc here is especially poignant, given the actress’s recent passing. But there’s so much to love about SHOPLIFTERS, not least of which its kindhearted but fair depiction of how ordinary is, flawed people attempt to survive. On occasion, they may even seek solace in each other; often, the real tragedy occurs whenever one is unable or unwilling to reciprocate. Grade: A

Freaks and Geeks: The Documentary
A total lovefest, but few TV shows deserve one more. B

Heaven Knows What
I no longer feel bad I took so long to see this, as it now plays like a mere warm-up to GOOD TIME, albeit an interesting one. Admittedly, Arielle Holmes annoyed the hell out of me at first, but I grew to appreciate and eventually love her performance–thank the Safdies? B

The Happiness of the Katakuris*
“Like a cross between a slasher film and an all-singing, all-dancing episode of THE LOVE BOAT” is how I described this back in the day; it’s much weirder than that. A tad longer and misshapen than I remember. Perhaps HOUSE (which hadn’t yet been rediscovered in 2002; see below) has supplanted it somewhat in terms of batshit crazy Japanese horror comedies, but it’s still a hoot if you just go with its demented glee. The karaoke homage remains my favorite of the musical numbers; the typhoon climax’s still as giggle-inducing as the best of slapstick Keaton or Allen. A-

A Star Is Born (2018)
As modern Hollywood musicals go, *slightly* better than LA LA LAND, and much better than any umpteenth remake of this hoary old tale has a right to be. If Cooper finally wins his acting Oscar for this, I won’t be disappointed. Questionable camp value aside, I can imagine choosing to watch this again long before BURLESQUE or MAMMA MIA! B

Shaun Of The Dead*
A romp in every sense of the word. Bonus points for sneaking “They’re coming to get you, Barbara!” in there. B+

Beautiful Boy
Another great performance from Timothée Chalamet (CALL BE BY YOUR NAME was definitely no fluke) and a good one from Steve Carell (despite him generally being better suited to comedic roles such as BATTLE OF THE SEXES). Along with the perpetually underrated Maura Tierney, they elevate the material in a way Glenn Close’s impressive work couldn’t quite save THE WIFE. In this case, the problem’s less the material than some heavy-handed direction from Felix van Groeningen (THE BROKEN CIRCLE BREAKDOWN). As any movie-of-the-week will show you, melodrama’s not an ideal fit for depicting drug addiction (nor is an overwrought musical score.) While this will undoubtedly comfort those with a loved one going through it, for the rest of us, it’s just an endurance test in watching other people’s misery. B-

Cold War
Pawel Pawlikowski’s follow-up to IDA is cut from the same fine-polished glass: set in post-war Poland and shot in 1:33 black-and-white by cinematographer Łukasz Żal, it spans a fifteen-year period (leading up to roughly the time of the previous film) over which jazz musician Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and younger singer Zula (Joanna Kulig) have an on-again, off-again love affair. They first meet in a sanctioned troupe meant to spotlight traditional Polish song and dance. Wiktor, disillusioned as the Communist government transforms it into a propaganda vehicle, finds himself wanting to defect from his homeland, while the strong-willed, gregarious Zula has other designs.

Using his own parents as inspiration for the leads, Pawlikowski recreates a culture in the throes of a severe political takeover, drawing implications from the minute to fully societal as he limns his focus onto two very different people who nonetheless are drawn to each other. Each frame is a lovingly crafted tableau, strikingly rendered in high-contrast black-and-white and deep focus photography. The mostly diegetic soundtrack, ranging from hard bop jazz to hymn-like folk songs is a character in itself. I’m not sure if this is ultimately as deep or clever as IDA was, but in the end, it resonated with me a little more. A-

The Silence of The Lambs
Last tried watching this in a dorm room 20+ years ago at 3:00 AM, falling asleep ten minutes in (duh), so it’s great to finally see this on a big screen ALL THE WAY THROUGH (turns out I remember the last twenty minutes, but little before it.) Foster and Hopkins are both career-best, but credit Demme for rendering this more profound than your average horror procedural; even better, it still totally works as an entertaining and smart horror procedural. A-

Mid90s
I’ll go to bat for Jonah Hill as an actor, but Rick Linklater he’s not. He’s assembled a pretty good cast and the skateboarding montages are nice but the clumsy pacing reveals someone with more enthusiasm than talent for this sort of thing. C+

House*
Nothing compares to this glorious, insane mashup of THE HAUNTING, POLTERGEIST and Hello, Kitty! sensibilities. Also, I had to laugh when one of the girls says, “This is like a horror film!” and another (probably “Prof”) dismissively responds, “That’s out of date.” A

Film Journal: September 2018

Movies watched in September; starred titles are re-watches.

Battle of the Sexes
Not particularly innovative for a 2017 film—it plays like a good old fashioned crowd pleaser more than anything else. Granted, it likely would not have been made on such a scale twenty years ago (much less in the 70s). Stone’s not a natural choice for King, but she pulls it off (while King’s sexuality is explored with sufficient nuance); Carell, on the other hand, is perfection as Bobby Riggs—I’d rather see him in roles this well-suited to his comedic talents than stuff like FOXCATCHER. B

The Wife
Close is terrific, acting without quite ACTING! and if this is what finally gets her an Academy Award, so be it. As for the rest of the film, the scene where her younger self describes a manuscript as possessing wooden characters and unrealistic dialogue gives the game away (and that’s not even mentioning an eye-rolling deus ex machina the likes of which I haven’t seen since THE DEBT.) C+

Key Largo
Not really the florid love story a certain 1980s soft-rock standard would have you believe, but a claustrophobic nail-biter, 90% of which unfolds in a hotel lobby overrun with gangsters (from Milwaukee, hah!) led by the film’s true star, a magnetic Edward G. Robinson (who just won’t let poor moll/lush Claire Trevor have another drink, for Christ sakes!) Bogie and Bacall each do that thing no one else does so well together, but this is pretty minor compared to THE BIG SLEEP and TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. B

Lean On Pete
Expanding his palette beyond the more contained worlds of 45 YEARS and WEEKEND, English director Andrew Haigh adapts a Willy Vlautin novel for his first American feature. The protagonist, transient 16-year-old Charlie (Charlie Plummer) unexpectedly finds solace when he stumbles into assisting a curmudgeonly horse racer, Del (Steve Buscemi, ideally cast) and in particular, caring for the young horse whose name is the film’s title.

Best to go into this one knowing little else, as the unsentimental journey Charlie takes is surprising, unsettling and increasingly bleak. At times difficult to watch and occasionally unshapely, there are three constants that sustain the film’s momentum: Haigh’s perceptive direction, Magnus Joenck’s gorgeous cinematography (esp. in the second half) and Plummer’s heartbreakingly naturalistic performance. It’s an effective (if tonally dissimilar) analogue to Andrea Arnold’s AMERICAN HONEY and it reiterates Haigh’s status as a filmmaker to watch. A-

Through A Glass Darkly
Here’s my issue with Bergman: PERSONA and everything after it intrigues me, but I’m left cold by the revered 1950s films. This is the first one I’ve seen from the period between those two eras and I’m confused. At times, I wanted to yell out, “Oh, just lighten up, you miserable Swedes!” However, as it went on, I found myself more and more pulled into Karin’s peculiar struggle and palpable pain, so much that by the end I was left speechless and near-shattered. Bergman proves a master of silence and what’s (very occasionally) left unsaid, so perhaps I should watch THE SILENCE next. B

Madeline’s Madeline
An admittedly frustrating but always fascinating puzzle box of a film. On the surface, it appears to be about teenager Madeline (Helena Howard), her antagonistic relationship with her single mother (Miranda July) and her after-school participation in an experimental theater troupe led by Evangeline (Molly Parker). But there’s so much more going on here—actually, I’m not entirely sure what’s all going on here: A meditation on the creative process? The danger of making art out of one’s own personal experiences? Or is it all just the unfiltered, interior state of a troubled, possibly mentally ill teenaged girl? Whatever it is, I was fully on board for all its madness. Whether you love or hate what director Josephine Decker has concocted here, it’s essential viewing for Howard’s blistering performance—she’s almost terrifyingly great. A

The Thomas Crown Affair
Sure, it’s a triumph of style over substance, but my god, what style… Boston never looked as cozy as it did in the Beacon Hill scenes here, or that chess match. Split screens, imaginative editing, Michel Legrand scores—all catnip to me. B+

Blow-Up*
Appreciated this a lot more now than on my last viewing about twenty years ago. Whereas the final iconic scene once left me utterly baffled, it’s now my favorite moment in the film, perhaps because of the weight of everything preceding it. Still not even the third or fourth best Antonioni, but, at the very least, an invaluable artifact of 1966 London as viewed through a singular lens. B+

Blaze
An unconventional biopic with a trio of notable performances, one expected (Alia Shawkat, more impressive with each role she appears in) and one unexpected (musician Charlie Sexton is pretty great as Townes Van Zandt.) Then, there’s first-time actor Ben Dickey as the title figure, a 1980s larger-than-life Texan “outlaw country” singer/songwriter who never found fame and was murdered before he turned 40. He’s genuine and engaging in a way that’s hard to fake: a better-known, more seasoned actor might’ve been technically better, but not as interesting to watch. I still prefer Ethan Hawke’s acting to his directing (this could’ve easily been a half-hour shorter), but his enthusiasm and sincerity proves a decent fit for this kind of shaggy, elegiac story. B

Ace In The Hole*
A damning, wholly effective precursor to NETWORK in many ways, only Billy Wilder’s much more fun than Paddy Chayefsky (and far less blunt.) I’d take a walk over to Kirk Douglas’s house just to hear him sneer at floozy Jan Sterling, “WHY DON’T YOU WASH THAT PLATINUM OUTTA YER HAIR?” A+

Colette
Colette was such a fascinating figure for her time it would take a concerted effort to make a boring film about her. Typically, Keira Knightley is neither miscast nor an exceptional lead; she does what’s required of her, and that’s fine. Fortunately, Dominic West practically bubbles with joie de vivre as her hubby Willy–you’d almost root for him if he wasn’t ultimately such a deplorable cad. This automatically loses points merely for being in English rather than French, but director Wash Westmoreland’s (in his first film without now-deceased husband Richard Glatzer) sympathetic in crafting more than just a pretty picture, even if this is a long way off from something like A QUIET PASSION as films about female literary pioneers go. B-

A Fantastic Woman
An Important Film regarding trans lead characters, which alone doesn’t make it compelling, especially given the realistic but constant brutality depicted towards her. But Daniela Vega is a compelling enough presence to make it work—in a perfect world, she would’ve received the film’s second Academy Award (after Best Foreign Language Film.) Bonus points for brilliant use of Alan Parson Project’s dramatic, soft-rock chestnut “Time”. B+

Film Journal: August 2018

Movies seen in August: a few less than in past months, but still a mostly solid ten. As always, re-watched titles are starred.

Con Air
Graded generously for Nic Cage at his Genius Dumb best, even if it’s Jerry Bruckheimer at his over-the-top worst (best?).

“I’m going to show you God does exist.” B

BlacKkKlansman
Nice to know Spike Lee can pull it together to make a great movie again after years of ehh. Almost deserves to be 2018’s GET OUT, and not only because Peele is a co-producer. Consistently entertaining and focused, with excellent period production design. As noted in my recent review of DO THE RIGHT THING, when Lee’s good he can be tremendous, and the Charlottesville footage at the end is brutally effective but essential. A-

The Godfather*
Better than I remembered (and I had forgotten a lot in the eight years since my last viewing.) I guess you could call it critic-proof at this point, but that shouldn’t detract from its many attributes (Pacino showing restraint! Gordon Willis’ lithe but unshowy camerawork!) or its compulsive watchability. A

The Miseducation of Cameron Post
APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR is one of the better directorial feature debuts of this decade; for her follow-up, Desiree Akhavan eschews the earlier film’s explicit biographical feel (she also starred in it) for an adaptation of Emily Danforth’s novel about a gay-conversion therapy camp for teens in 1993. As the title character, Chloe Grace Moretz superbly carries the film, but with the help of a solid ensemble, particularly Sasha Lane and Forrest Goodluck as the likeminded fellow attendees she bonds most closely with, and also Emily Skeggs (best known from WHEN WE RISE) as her sympathetically deluded roommate.

Akhavan handles the sensitive material well and not without nuance, but some stretches are almost a slog to sit through—you feel as if you’re in this purgatorial state along with teens, which I know is the intent, but it somewhat quells momentum. Fortunately, when Moretz finally articulates, out loud, what you’ve been waiting the whole film for her to say, it has the desired effect even if it comes out more somberly than you’d expect. I’d like to see the engaging Akhavan back in front the camera again, as well as behind it, but this is still a thoughtful, quietly unnerving film. B+

Girls Trip
Uneven and overlong, but man, Tiffany Haddish is to this film what Melissa McCarthy was to BRIDESMAIDS; thanks to her, in a few years time, I bet it will be as ubiquitously quoted/referenced too. B-

Written On The Wind*
What do I love more about this most Sirkian of Sirk films: The child on the hobby horse, rocking with glee as if *laughing* at Robert Stack after he’s found out he’s shooting blanks, or Dorothy Malone’s egregiously wide hat in the courtroom scene? A

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
More-than-adequate Period Brit Comfort Food, even if it nearly turns into a Hallmark Channel movie by the end. Lily James is almost as charming as Emily Blunt, but not Emily Mortimer. B-

Crazy Rich Asians
Enjoyable, well-crafted fluff whose derivative rom-com tropes barely matter when they support such stunning locales and likable performances. Do I need to see OCEAN’S EIGHT now, because the heretofore-unknown-to-me Awkwafina is Everything? B

BPM (Beats Per Minute)
The documentary HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE is still the essential AIDS film, but this could be a close second. What’s most effective and ultimately devastating about it is how gradually and expertly it narrows its scope: beginning with a wide overview of the Paris chapter of ACT UP at the early ’90s height of the epidemic, it throws well over a dozen characters at us (much like THE CLASS (co-written by this film’s director, Robin Campillo), only without an obvious lead), giving us a thousand-foot view of the proceedings. Naturally and almost casually, a central couple slowly comes together and emerges as the film’s heart. If their trajectory is predictable, it’s no less affecting, perhaps because their growing intimacy in the face of inevitable destruction is raw and painfully real. A-

Juliet, Naked
This was my favorite Hornby novel since HIGH FIDELITY (he’s at his best writing about music), but as film adaptations go, it’s no HIGH FIDELITY. It doesn’t fall flat, exactly—how it could it with such ideal casting as Ethan Hawke (as a washed-up musician) and Chris O’Dowd (as his biggest, possibly most annoying fanboy)? Perhaps it could’ve had Melanie Lynskey or Rebecca Hall in the lead instead of Rose Byrne, who’s a bit too beautiful/likable for the part. This is affable and thoughtful enough, but maybe a little too restrained. Still, between this and his radically different performance in FIRST REFORMED, Hawke is on quite the roll. B-

Film Journal: July 2018

Films seen in July, including two of the best new(ish) ones right at month’s end. As usual, starred titles are re-watches.

The Little Hours
Can’t go wrong with Aubrey Plaza as a profane nun, or even Dave Franco as a fake deaf-mute sex slave. I wish it was all a little more than it was; perhaps the cast should reunite for another Pasolini remake? (Not SALO.) B-

Damsel
The Zellner Brothers’ previous film, KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER, may end up on my top ten list for the decade, so this is a slight comedown. The less one knows going into it, the better, so I’ll just complement Mia Wasikowska for continuing to make smart choices and Robert Pattinson for being open to exceedingly weird ones. Not so much an anti-Western as an anti-Rom-Com. Stunning to look at, leaves one with much to ponder, but it also induces whiplash and it could’ve been a bit shorter. B

Leave No Trace
Although far less prolific, I’d like to think of Debra Granik as the American Mike Leigh for her depiction (consideration, even) of the rural working-class without condescending to them. Not as seminal or all-out engrossing as WINTER’S BONE, but teenager Thomasin McKenzie’s every bit the find Jennifer Lawrence was, even if her contained performance is entirely different. Ben Foster exhibits the right amount of restraint in what could’ve been a showy role and Dale Dickey as always is a welcoming presence in a smaller, not to mention kinder part than her WINTER’S BONE matriarch. I’m somewhat torn on the gutsy ending—at the very least, Granik doesn’t opt for an easy way out of the conundrum she’s set in motion. A-

Apocalypse Now*
Not a fan of war films, but I could return to this one again and again more than any other of its genre (except maybe ARMY OF SHADOWS.) A

Zama
Apart from her debut feature LA CIENAGA, all of Lucrecia Martel’s films have left me cold and damned if I can pinpoint why. As a big fan of stuff like Tarkovsky’s STALKER, it’s not like I abhor slow cinema; I just feel a disconnect, something in her narrative approach that prevents me from giving myself over to whatever she’s putting across. This one, centered on the titular Spanish magistrate in an 18th century South American colony is beautifully shot and laced with mordant humor but it seems to just circle and circle without going anywhere—that is, at first, for something genuinely shocking happens in the last fifteen minutes. In retrospect, the film had been building to that moment, if obliquely, and I’d bet a second viewing would make this clearer. I can’t say ZAMA suddenly clicked with me at that point, but I admit it jolted me into attentiveness and raised my grade a notch. B-

Three Identical Strangers
A stranger-than-fiction doc even *more* fun than but nearly as disturbing as CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS? No wonder it’s the feel-good-then-feel-bad indie hit of the summer. The first half hour or so is immensely entertaining; the increasingly wacko plot twists that follow sustain that excitement, heightening the impact as things turn tragic. However, a lack of resolution keeps the film from transcending its novel hook—it attempts a definitive argument at the age-old question of nature vs. nurture, but its conclusions aren’t entirely convincing or nuanced enough. B

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot
Wildly uneven like a lot of Van Sant: at worst, the stuff about John Callahan’s pre-accident drinking and post-accident love life threatens to slide into a mawkishness of near GOOD WILL HUNTING proportions. On the other hand, nearly all of the AA scenes are golden—I haven’t seen another contemporary film go so deeply or thoughtfully into the minutiae and philosophy of 12-step recovery. So many terrific performances here: Phoenix, of course, but also Jonah Hill wonderfully exhibiting restraint while portraying a flamboyant character and decent smaller turns from Kim Gordon, Jack Black (esp. in his scene late in the film) and musician/model Beth Ditto, whom as an actress turns out to be a delight. B

Winter Kills
First heard about this in Charles Taylor’s indispensable book on ‘70s genre cinema, OPENING WEDNESDAY AT A THEATER OR DRIVE-IN NEAR YOU. Not convinced it’s an underseen masterpiece like BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (the book’s centerpiece), but definitely worth a look, if not just for a physically-in-his-prime Jeff Bridges and wacko cameos from the likes of Dorothy Malone, Toshiro Mifune and (briefly) Liz Taylor. An almost chillingly prescient satire, you’d only need to update the dates and change the answering machine motif to a smartphone to remake it verbatim for the present day. B+

Do The Right Thing*
First viewing in 20+ years. I’ll just note that when Spike Lee is bad, he’s atrocious, but when he’s good, like in PASSING STRANGE, MALCOLM X, 25TH HOUR and especially this film, he can be fucking tremendous. Resonates more today than any other film from 1989, I’d bet. A

Yellow Submarine*
The trippiest movie you could ever take the whole family to. Also probably the Beatles’ second best (certainly better than HELP!)—telling that it flags whenever they’re absent from the screen. The music in this latest digital restoration sounds absolutely sublime. B+

Blindspotting
As regional/provincial cinema goes, this is valuable enough—it depicts Oakland lovingly without sentimentalizing it. Diggs and Casal are also good together (and apart) and should each be in more films, please. However, the direction’s ham-fisted, the hipster house party is too satirically glib to mesh with the film’s stabs at “realism” and the climax hinges upon a coincidence I just didn’t buy. Grading generously, though, because it has something vital to say, even if it somewhat fumbles the execution. B-

The Women (1939)*
“Get me a bromide – and put some gin in it.” B+

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
Guessing this wasn’t a box-office failure because of the kinky threesome/bondage stuff as inspiration for the most popular female superhero of all time; rather, it didn’t connect because it’s possibly the first comic book-related film with brains, taking a deep dive into the psychological implications behind the character, which, if you’re open to it, is arguably more stimulating than the sex stuff. Also, I’d forgotten how good Rebecca Hall can be: she’s so abrasive, tart yet likable—sign her up to play a Mike Leigh heroine. A-

Sorry To Bother You
Unapologetically silly and more than a bit slapdash, but also weirdly convincing in what it wants to do and howlingly funny while doing it. I haven’t seen anything that felt so alive since THE DEATH OF STALIN; time will tell whether Riley’s bold, often-ridiculous, wildly entertaining debut ends up feeling strictly of-the-moment or like a premonition. A-

Film Journal: June 2018

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

MULTIPLE MANIACS
Easier to admire than unabashedly love—Waters would greatly refine and perfect his trash cinema aesthetic with his next two features (right now, it plays more like wacko Warhol.) Thanks to finally being available to watch in the privacy of your own home, it’s more effective in bite-sized pieces, esp. the rape-by-crustacean and most gleefully profane use of a rosary I can imagine. B

DUCK SOUP*
The multiple Grouchos gag is peak onscreen physical comedy only matched by Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle performing “Puttin’ On The Ritz.”

“Don’t look now, but there’s one man too many in this room, and I think it’s you.” A

WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?
It’s impossible for me to be too objective about Fred Rogers—like much of my generation, his was not only my favorite TV show as a toddler, but my first favorite show, period. Still, Rogers’ considerable genius came from the vast, previously unrealized potential he saw in educational TV (a far different path than SESAME STREET took)—and how *not* to talk down to his susceptible audience. While director Morgan Neville doesn’t utilize especially innovative techniques (the tiger animation seems a way of filling out time), he does probe deep into Rogers’ successes, but also his failures, anxieties, disappointments, etc., assembling a well-rounded portrait of a legendary figure whom most would be quick to call a saint and leave it at that. A-

MILDRED PIERCE (1945)
I’ve never wanted to slap a movie character more than Veda Pierce. Ida Corwin, on the other hand, I’d love to go bar-hopping with. A-

HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES
Whoa nelly, a *lot* going on here, much of it agreeable in theory: young punks in Croydon during the Queen’s 1977 Silver Jubilee, an alien cult into groovy vinyl costumes and freaky sexual positions, a near-glowing Elle Fanning as a girl-next-door variation on Scarlett Johansson’s extraterrestrial in UNDER THE SKIN, even a severely made-up Nicole Kidman as a beguiling cross between Debbie Harry and Patsy Stone. Unfortunately, it’s often an incoherent mess, which is not something you’d say about director John Cameron Mitchell’s other three features (as for Neil Gaiman, whose short story this is adapted from, I’m not familiar enough with his oeuvre to judge.) One can catch glimpses of what could have been in some of the punk stuff, and you can’t fault Mitchell for a lack of ambition; maybe Sci-Fi’s just not his forte. C

GENERATION WEALTH
What made photographer/filmmaker Lauren Greenfield’s THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES portrait of obscene wealth pre and post-recession so thrilling was its surgical focus on one couple’s hubris; here, as one piece of a multimedia project a decade in the making, she widens her canvas to explore how status symbol greed is far from an isolated phenomenon—more like an epidemic, really. While making ample points through a variety of subjects, it often feels like she’s hitting the same note repeatedly, which becomes problematic at a somewhat bloated-even-at-106-minutes duration. Unexpectedly, she’s most insightful when she turns the camera on herself, dissecting her own work-driven lifestyle and how it parallels the film’s other obsessives. B-

MAPPLETHORPE
Slightly above average biopic—Matt Smith is solid (and at times, transformative), although John Benjamin Hickey’s more soulful as his older lover/benefactor Sam Wagstaff. Director of one of the best music docs ever (DiG!), Ondi Timoner’s well-suited to this material and her use of Super 16 film feels just right. Could’ve delved deeper into why Mapplethorpe found such inspiration in sexual taboo and transgression, but it ably celebrates the innovation and compositional beauty of his best work. Can only hope the eventual adaptation of Patti Smith’s JUST KIDS fleshes out the encouraging sketch begun here. B

SCOTTY AND THE SECRET HISTORY OF HOLLYWOOD
Never a movie star but definitely a character, Scotty Bowers’ life was inadvertently custom-built for a documentary. He ran a brothel inside a Hollywood Blvd. gas station in the years following World War II, one that infamously catered to same-sex shtuppings for closeted stars, as detailed in his scandalous 2012 memoir FULL SERVICE. Matt Tyrnauer’s film finds him still feisty at 94 and decidedly unapologetic about what many would perceive as a sordid past, but that’s exactly what’s refreshing and fascinating about the guy. His tenacity seemingly knows no bounds, from his obsessiveness (he’s a hoarder, with at least five or six homes/garages overflowing with memorabilia and assorted random junk) to an almost crippling need to do everything himself, much to the chagrin of Lois, his long-suffering second wife. Essential viewing for Hollywood Golden Age devotees and, in the end, kind of a weird but celebratory companion piece to THE CELLULOID CLOSET. A-

REAR WINDOW*
First viewing in over 15 years, this time at an outdoor screening (Coolidge At The Greenway.) The meant-to-resemble-ambient sound design proved both a blessing and a curse here: neat happy accidents came about from interactions with the urban environment but it was also difficult at times to pick up on the film’s subtleties, which are crucial to getting caught up in its suspense mechanisms. Still a top ten Hitchcock for me—might’ve been top five if it had more Thelma, less Grace.  A-

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY*
The score, the light show, that jump cut—all of it arguably unmatched fifty years on. However, what really struck me this time (my fourth viewing at the Coolidge, and first in 70MM since 2002) was the use of silence and isolated sound (think heavy breathing) and how chilling that repeated, stationary close-up of HAL 9000’s orange “nipple” is—talk about effective contrasts in composing such an immersive experience only cinema allows. A+

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ANDRE
Fairly pedestrian for a profile documentary—more worthy of CNN than a theatrical release, really. But Andre Leon Talley’s personality is welcome in almost any setting. Just as he nearly stole the show from no less than Anna Wintour in THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE, his (increasingly) larger-than life presence always entertains and intrigues—the capes and caftans are a sight to behold, but so is his trajectory from rather humble origins to renowned cultural critic. B-

WILD AT HEART
I think I skipped this one back in the day because I heard it was excessively violent; apart from that whopper of an opening scene, it’s not like a Nicolas Winding Refn film by any means. Certainly Lynch’s loopiest and possibly broadest feature (haven’t seen DUNE and LOST HIGHWAY) but neither as convincing nor as whole as BLUE VELVET or MULHOLLAND DR. Cage and Dern, however, are for the ages—archetypes as seen through that ever-idiosyncratic Lynch filter. It blows my mind to compare Ladd and Dern here to ENLIGHTENED, where they were a decidedly different mother/daughter combo. B+

HEARTS BEAT LOUD
I’m always a sucker for films about creating your own art—even this film’s “dad rock”. Not as affecting as Brett Haley’s last film THE HERO, in part because Nick Offerman as actor and character is no Sam Elliott, but at least his affable, shyly goofy presence is put to good use; his onscreen daughter Kiersey Clemons also has a terrific voice. Did not recognize Sasha Lane from AMERICAN HONEY as her girlfriend, and was simply delighted that she had one. B

PARIS IS BURNING*
Rewatched due to POSE, which already rivals THE AMERICANS as my favorite TV show this year (yes, really.) Essential, of course and also invaluable—although still very much a cult documentary, can you imagine how different drag culture and its impact would be without it? A

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