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-

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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

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

Film Journal: February 2018

Mudbound

I’m making an effort to write about every movie I see – an average of 100 words per title, sometimes more, often less. Reviews will appear on Letterboxd as I write them, and then get posted here monthly with starred ratings. Titles with a star next to them are movies I’ve re-watched.

There Will Be Blood*
Still one of my favorite films of the previous decade—revisiting it for the first time in over six years was like returning to a beloved novel, anticipating certain passages, but also feeling the brisk rush of joy in rediscovering others I’d totally forgotten, like the second restaurant scene with Plainview’s exquisite sourpuss expression at first sight of his rivals, or when he discloses more of his soul to Henry than he ever will to anyone else, or even “drrraiiinage!” Paul Thomas Anderson has made three features since—at least two are brilliant, but neither of ‘em sweeps up the viewer’s consciousness and embeds it within a fully realized world as seamlessly this one does. Rating: *****

Into The Inferno
The first Werner Herzog documentary I’ve seen since Cave Of Forgotten Dreams (2010) (which left me cold, perhaps because I didn’t see it in the intended 3-D format.) Naturally, you get all the opera-and chorale-accompanied staring-into-a-volcano’s-fiery-maw you’d expect, which Herzog renders as both startling and meditative. Even more startling is his undiminished knack for finding and showcasing odd, intriguing personalities, from a positively Owen Wilson-esque paleoanthropologist to volcanologist and co-director Clive Oppenheimer, who is more friend than foil. Encompassing Indonesia to Iceland, Ethiopia to North Korea, it’s a mirror-image, globe-trotting companion to his great Antarctica film from a decade before in which he just happened to visit a volcano. ****

Mudbound
Much as I’d prefer a Dee Rees film to receive a theatrical release, who knows how buried it could have ended up if it did? Along with Okja, it’s a key title in getting cineastes (myself included) used to the idea that essential cinema isn’t solely available in one. For a narrative about neighboring Mississippi families (one black, one white), after years of post-Civil War settings, the 1940s feels refreshing, particularly in how in sets in motion a change in perception for one black character. The cast, from Garrett Hedlund and Carey Mulligan to a near-unrecognizable Mary J. Blige is excellent, and the multiple narrator device is deftly employed. Rees’ trickiest feat, however, is in her graceful depiction of an unlikely but authentic friendship that develops between two men, which sounds commonplace until you remember how rarely you actually see it onscreen. ****1/2

I, Tonya
I admit to being entertained—how could I dislike an ideally-cast Alison Janney with those ginormous eyeglass frames and live-bird-on-shoulder? And Margot Robbie with her nails-on-chalkboard voice is everything you’d want from a Tonya (even if she’s a tad old for the teen years). And yet, as much as this strives to and at times succeeds in making Harding sympathetic, that it does so at the expense of doing pretty much the same for her abusers is just a bit problematic. The overbearing soundtrack choices and unbecoming pacing (this could’ve easily been 90 minutes long) do the film few favors, either. **1/2

The Insult
As a primer on the decades-long clash between Lebanese Christian nationalists and that country’s Palestinian refugees, this is great, and given the current worldwide refugee crisis, exceedingly timely. As drama, however, despite all good intentions, it comes off a little hackneyed. It believably constructs the initial conflicts that snowball into national turmoil, but the subsequent legal stuff (which includes a twist best kept secret here) sacrifices the film’s realism for soap opera. Still, the idea that words carry consequences is most pertinent right now—has any recent American film explored such a topic with this much depth? ***1/2

Beach Rats
Much has been made of Eliza Hittman’s second feature being directed by a woman, even though the protagonist is a Brooklyn male teen who, when not hanging out at Coney Island with his loutish buddies, visits gay chat sites in private, meeting men he has sex with. Also, he’s trying to date a girl, and his father is in home hospice care for terminal cancer. It’s a lot to unpack, but the beauty of Beach Rats is in Hittman’s direction—she approaches the tale with enough care and generosity as if it were her own, even if it’s obviously not. Her feel for lived-in intimacy and everyday (but potentially transcendent) poetry reminds me a little of Andrew Haigh (Weekend, 45 Years); also, she coaxes a stirring lead performance from British (!) actor Harris Dickinson. ****

Lucky
No denying that the late Harry Dean Stanton was a rare breed of actor or that few nonagenarians are as deserving of an end-of-life vehicle than him. And this is full of unforgettable images and moments, from Stanton’s around-the-house wardrobe to his impromptu and utterly moving performance at a child’s birthday party. David Lynch, Beth Grant, Tom Skerritt and Ron Livingston are all also in this movie, and despite limited screen time, they each leave just as much an impression. John Carroll Lynch (Marge’s husband in Fargo) directs like an actor, which is to say, not all of the story scans as well as it could, nor does it cohere as much as you wish it would. But most actors would be so fortunate to receive such a fine, if a tad romantic farewell. ***1/2

Grizzly Man*
Genuine oddball Timothy Treadwell was the type of figure who could all too easily be made sport of, or, worse, cast in a sentimental light. And though you can’t help but both laugh at and feel for him, Herzog immediately sets the right balance of tone, knowing he has no use for reducing his found subject to cartoon or saint. His narration plays like the most incisive DVD (this is 2005, after all) commentary you’ll ever hear, and his selection from over 100 hours of found footage constructs a sharp but fair critical portrait containing multitudes—the most anyone really deserves, oddballs included. *****

Favorite Films of 2017

1. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
Indifferent to much of what I saw this year, this film’s late December arrival felt like a small miracle. Reining in the excesses that sometimes cheapened his earlier work while retaining his passion and drive, director Luca Guadagnino crafts almost an embarrassment of riches: Armie Hammer and his alternately swooning and dorky physicality… a monologue for the ages for the great character actor Michael Stuhlbarg… the exquisite modern classical/Sufjan Stevens score… and most of all, Timothée Chalamet, whose breakthrough may prove as iconic as, if nothing at all like Dustin Hoffman’s in The Graduate. No piece of art is absolutely flawless, but I’d not change a single thing about this beautiful, devastating love story—my favorite new film in at least a decade.

2. FACES PLACES
We’re just lucky at all to get one more major work from the 89-year-old Agnès Varda, but there’s a twist in the form of her co-director: 34-year-old performance artist JR, whose giant portraits plastered onto buildings drive this essay film’s narrative. As the duo travel around France, we see them for the kindred spirits they actually are. Varda charts her friendship with this younger co-conspirator while ruminating on her illustrious past and contemplating her own mortality. It’s this last facet that provides an elegiac undercurrent in step with her affection for both art and the human spirit, and it makes for a fond farewell.

3. PATERSON
Jim Jarmusch appears to have entered his twilight renaissance phase, first with the surprisingly sturdy Only Lovers Left Alive and now with this endearing, understated character study of a bus driver/poet with the same last name as the titular New Jersey city he lives in. Adam Driver has never been more attuned to a director’s sensibilities than Jarmusch’s but don’t overlook the film’s supporting cast: everyone from real find Golshifteh Farahani (as his wife) to William Jackson Harper (Chidi from The Good Place!) leaves deep traces that fortify an honest-to-god community. This late-January-in-Boston release proved a touch too quiet for last year’s Oscars, so call it an ideal future cult classic.

4. A QUIET PASSION
With director Terence Davies, you’d expect an unconventional biopic, and with Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson, you sure as hell get one—bet you never thought you’d see ol’ Emily impulsively smashing a dinner plate. Still, as he did with Wharton’s prose in his razor sharp adaptation of The House of Mirth, Davies does his subject proud while, with considerable help from Nixon, also humanizing her. They allow this venerated artist to be something of a mess, but an intriguing one, illuminating both her professional and personal struggles, most eloquently in conversations with her sister (a stunning Jennifer Ehle) and Nixon’s daringly agile, all-out performance.

5. PHANTOM THREAD
Yes, the retiring (we’ll see) Daniel Day-Lewis is predictably great (as is Mike Leigh-ster Lesley Manville), Jonny Greenwood may be only second to Mica Levi in innovative modern film scoring and the attention-to-detail, from costuming to period breakfast food is impeccable. And yet, it’s two other unexpected things that launch this into the upper echelon of Paul Thomas Anderson’s work. First, the odd confluence of tones he absolutely masters, particularly from the midpoint on. Second, the arresting Vicky Krieps, who is every bit DDL’s equal, her Alma shrewder and smarter than a Hitchcock heroine—expect more great things to come from her.

6. STAYING VERTICAL
Alain Guiraudie’s enigmatic follow-up to Stranger By The Lake follows a drifter (Damien Bonnard, hypnotic in his laconic befuddlement) who stumbles into a variety of not-so-pithy (and sometimes life-altering) situations, among them cruising, fatherhood, screenwriting and holistic medicine. Destitution, sheepherding and loud, vintage progressive rock also play into it, along with a birth, a death and a whole lot of sex (after those three things, what more could one want?) It occasionally feels like an Antonioni film scripted by Hal Hartley, but for all its quirks and unusual left turns, it builds towards a conclusion that’s powerful in its sobriety.

7. GOOD TIME
Wipes away any doubts you ever had about Robert Pattinson as a good actor—in accent, haircut and overall demeanor here, he’s scarcely the Edward he once was, and good on him. But the Safdie Brothers, whose work I’ve admired since their not-mumblecore debut The Pleasure of Being Robbed, have also evolved in sensibility and scope, drawing as much from Scorsese as they do from Cassavettes, only making it all their own thing (with ample help from Oneohtrix Point Never’s dense, thrilling score.) A slice of life far more nuanced than the somewhat overrated The Florida Project.

8. THE SHAPE OF WATER
I get that whether you find the fish-man arresting or disgusting is a possible make-or-break in enjoying Guillermo Del Toro’s ambitious spectacle; still, I immediately surrendered myself to all of it—the mid-century period design, the subversion of and alliance to classic Hollywood tropes, the great Richard Jenkins in his finest role since The Visitor, Michael Shannon’s most intense (and that’s saying a lot) villain ever and of course, Sally Hawkins, whom in a less competitive and politically charged year would win all the awards for her lovely turn as a mute cleaning lady consumed and redeemed by love.

9. WONDERSTRUCK
As Todd Haynes films go, I’d rate this below most others, but second-tier Todd is still pretty great, especially in how flawlessly he utilizes the dual structure narrative. Both the 1927 sequences, which pay close-but-not-fawning tribute to F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, and the 1977 stuff, which nails that particular New York minute far better than Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam ever did could each make a compelling film on their own. Still, it takes a master like Haynes to convincingly thread them together and an actress like the young Millicent Simmonds to push through all the conceptual stuff to express this tale’s heart.

10. LEMON
I can’t resist squeezing this curious little indie into my top ten. Falling somewhere between Todd Solondz and Quentin Dupieux, director Janicza Bravo’s aesthetic is certainly not for everyone (if anything, Michael Cera’s more deliberately mannered here than he was in Twin Peaks: The Return!) But, you couldn’t ask for a better showcase for Bravo’s husband Brett Gelman, who infuses his schmuck-everyman with a fearless, vanity-deficient gusto. Although it often plays like a series of absurd sketches (family sing-along “A Million Matzo Balls!” is my fave), his continued presence lets it coalesce into something more.

TIED FOR 11TH PLACE:

After The Storm
Columbus
Dunkirk
Get Out
I Am Not Your Negro
Lady Bird
Little Boxes
Strange Weather
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri
Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin

I don’t really need to say anything more about the four titles Oscar-nominated for Best Picture (or I Am Not Your Negro, a Documentary-nominated holdover from last year that opened theatrically in February here.) Strange Weather and Little Boxes (pictured above) are indie festival titles now streaming on Netflix, featuring great performances from Holly Hunter and the late Nelsan Ellis, respectively. Hirokazu Koreeda’s After The Storm is nearly up there with Our Little Sister (if not Still Walking); I hope that Jennifer Kroot’s delightful Maupin doc hits a streaming platform near you in 2018.

ALSO RECOMMENDED:

Abacus: Small Enough To Jail, Baby Driver, The Big Sick, A Ghost Story, God’s Own Country, Handsome Devil, The Hero, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, Kedi, Nocturama, Okja, The Red Turtle, The Salesman, T2: Trainspotting, Tom of Finland, Wind River, Your Name