Film Journal: January 2019

This entry concludes an entire year of movie reviews posted on this blog. Going forward, I direct readers to my Letterboxd page, where all of this writing first appears. As usual, starred titles are re-watches (I also saw COLD WAR again, but have nothing more to say about it.)

Support The Girls
Building on the underrated RESULTS, Andrew Bujalski’s sixth feature might be his most satisfying one to date. Using a Hooter’s-like restaurant called Double Whammie’s as its unlikely setting, he portrays what amounts to a makeshift workplace family that comes across as genuine and nuanced as one you might’ve actually been a part of.

As its matriarch/general manager Lisa, Regina Hall delivers one of the year’s best performances, but the ensemble is terrific as well, especially Shayna MacHayle (a real find in her film debut) as her right hand/confidante, the great Lea De Laria as an adoring customer and Haley Lu Richardson (COLUMBUS) as an extremely energetic young waitress.

Over roughly one day, we see the careful ecosystem Lisa has fought to maintain in the restaurant and how it all too easily devolves into chaos in her absence. While a few scenes could’ve been edited even more tightly (such as the rooftop finale), I can’t think of another recent film so perceptive and engaging in its depiction of contemporary working class America. Grade: A-

Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things
A philosophy I can get behind, presented in a thoughtful, if unexceptional package. B-

Love, Gilda
Gilda Radner may not have been the most original or technically accomplished comedienne, but she was unquestionably one of the most likable–as the cliche goes, she lit up whatever room she entered. Lisa D’Apolito’s sympathetic documentary gets this across beautifully, making a case for Radner’s accomplishments and effervescence. As an analysis, however, it’s somewhat choppy, never forging as a complete or illuminating an assessment of its subject, as, say, WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR did for Fred Rogers. Still, it makes the case why Radner, her life tragically cut short by ovarian cancer in 1989, should not be forgotten. B-

Minding The Gap
Man, this movie… it just *wrecked* me, even though it’s not a tragedy. It captures both the euphoria and turmoil (and every emotion in-between) of everyday life via three young male skateboarders in Rockford, Illinois, one of whom is the director. I’ve seen this kind of documentary before, but never has it felt so honest or carried as much weight this effortlessly. The cinematography and editing are both superb. It’s on Hulu, so go watch it already. A

Andrei Rublev*
Tarkovsky’s stab at a historical epic naturally has more poetry in it than the Hollywood equivalent; I still think his subsequent, stranger films more fluently make the case for him as one of the best filmmakers of his time. A-

Never Goin’ Back
Less the Gen-Z GHOST WORLD it wants to be than a distaff, sillier, low-budget SUPERBAD. Upped half a notch for inspired use of a certain Michael Bolton song. Camila Morrone, however, is nearly as good as a young Scarlett Johansson. B-

Shirkers
As a 19-year-old student in her native Singapore, Sandi Tan wrote and starred in an independent feature film she made with her friends and her much older male mentor, but it was never finished, as said mentor absconded with the film reels and just disappeared. A quarter century later, Tan has made a documentary about the experience, complete with a good amount of footage she eventually recovered from the earlier project. Purposely disorienting and chockablock with fantastic imagery, especially when it reverberates between past and present, the story SHIRKERS recounts is almost as wild as that of THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS; it’s also more nuanced and artfully assembled. B+

Detour*
“That’s life. Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.”
(BTW, this would make a wicked double feature with MY WINNIPEG.) B+

Burning
I like films that aren’t entirely knowable, where motivations and intentions are obscured and shrouded with mystery and yet, the whole satisfies, inviting one to perceive the world differently after the credits roll. BURNING firmly falls into this category; that its intentions aren’t apparent until the very last scene nearly puts it up there with MULHOLLAND DR. and CEMETERY OF SPLENDOR in the canon of slippery, unknowable cinema.

Adapted from a Haruki Murakami short story, it focuses on a peculiar triangle centered on Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo), a young, aspiring writer who runs into an old female friend from his rural village, Hae-mi (Jong Seo-Jun), who now lives in Seoul. They become involved romantically and all seems to go well until Hae-mi’s wealthy, enigmatic friend Ben (Steven Yeun, the standout performance here) enters the picture. To get further into the story would lessen much of the film’s mystique; only know that director Chang-Dong Lee, in his first feature since 2010’s great POETRY, sets up any number of expectations only to masterfully defy most of them without leaving the viewer feeling cheated. “Haunting” is word used far too often in film criticism, but that’s the exact tone BURNING leaves one with. A

Rodents of Unusual Size
Further proof that one can make a movie about *anything*–in this case, twenty-plus pound swamp rats (technical name: nutria) infesting coastal Louisiana and beyond. Fun, educational and not for the squeamish. B-

Disobedience
If you ever mixed up Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams before, just wait until the scene where they wear similar wigs. Weisz is great, McAdams is good and I hardly recognized Alessandro Nivola; a thoughtful, if bland picture that occasionally lapses into sexual and religious kitsch–I expect a little more from the director of A FANTASTIC WOMAN and GLORIA. B-

A Matter Of Life and Death*
Had forgotten so much about this (including that I hadn’t seen it in nearly a decade.) Has the most innovative use of switching back and forth between black-and-white and glorious color, but as with the best of Powell/Pressburger, the technical spectacle is always in service of a fable full of heart and substance. A

Roma*
ROMA depicts a large middle class family in early ’70s Mexico City as filtered through the perspective of its maid, Cleo. In direct contrast to the ever-expanding world beyond its characters that was a focal point of Alfonso Cuaron’s last Mexican film, the seminal Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN, this is far more interior, its lengthy tracking shots resembling visual attempts at re-creating memories and essences of a long-ago past. As yet, just as often ROMA feels as expansive as its predecessor; although individual scenes register as slice-of-life vignettes, their order and procession is key, for they build towards something both heartbreaking and life-affirming. Near the end, Cleo says to a co-worker and friend, “I have so much to tell you,” and it could be Cuaron’s own epitaph for this intensely personal, singular film. A

Saturday Church
Well, it’s fun to see MJ Rodriguez and Indya Moore in pre-POSE roles, and the young lead is good, but oy, this would’ve been so much more effective without those clumsy musical numbers. C

Favorite Films of 2018

I briefly thought about presenting an unranked list of ten or twelve favorites this year, but that wouldn’t be as much fun.

1. SHOPLIFTERS
As with his great forebear Yasujiro Ozu, it’s hard to say which Hirokazu Kore-eda film is the best, since he returns to familiar, familial themes across his discography with a rare consistency. So, place this well-deserved Cannes Palme D’or winner up there with NOBODY KNOWS and STILL WALKING and admire his ever-present humanism and kindhearted but fair depiction of what ordinary, flawed people do in order to survive while also seeking solace in each other (whether they’re able or even willing to reciprocate.) Also, take note of this year’s best ensemble cast, from the wonderful Kirin Kiki (in her final role) to Sakura Ando, whom in one devastating scene brings to light all of the narrative’s complexities.

2. ROMA
Concerning a middle class family in early ’70s Mexico City as filtered through the perspective of its maid, Cleo, this is in direct contrast to the ever-expanding world that was a focal point of Alfonso Cuaron’s last Mexican film, the seminal Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN: based on the director’s own life and heavy with memories and essences of a long-ago past, it’s far more interior. And yet, ROMA often feels as generous as its predecessor. Although individual scenes register as slice-of-life vignettes, their order and procession is key, for they build towards something both heartbreaking and life-affirming. When Cleo says to a co-worker and friend, “I have so much to tell you,” it could be Cuaron’s own epitaph.

3. MINDING THE GAP
A documentary rife with all the euphoria and turmoil (and every emotion in between) of day-to-day life via three young male skateboarders in Rockford, Illinois, one of whom, Bing Liu is the director. I’ve seen this kind of movie before, but never has it felt so honest or carried as much weight this effortlessly. Liu’s editing and cinematography are both exceptional for a film of this scale and budget, and it builds to a powerful finale without calculation. This little, handmade film could serve as a definitive portrait of its time and place in the decades ahead.

4. CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?
The real-life story of Lee Israel, a struggling, middle-aged, alcoholic writer whom in the early ‘90s fell into a brief stint as a literary forger, should be something that works better on page than screen, but director Marielle Heller translates Israel’s own memoir as if it were a living, breathing, sincere re-creation of a now forgotten Manhattan. Aided by top-notch work from Melissa McCarthy (who really should do more indies) and Richard E. Grant, Heller has crafted something so sharp and rich with nuance, I’m not surprised it isn’t dominating the awards season.

5. FIRST REFORMED
The ridiculous and the sublime remain inseparable (as they should) in Paul Schrader’s late-career miracle about a priest (Ethan Hawke, perennially underrated as he ages but arguably never better in a role he nearly disappears into) troubled by climate change, alcoholism, religion-as-business—all the big stuff (and more!) From its austere, slow-track, zoom-in opening credits sequence to an absolutely nutty ending, Schrader conducts a wild ride through the dark night of the soul; for once, he achieves the transcendence so favored by his longtime heroes Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson.

6. THE DEATH OF STALIN
Excessively funny and appropriately dark, I wasn’t entirely convinced by Armando Iannucci’s peculiar satire until a second viewing confirmed this was nearly as bold (and arguably more formally successful) as its great predecessor DR. STRANGELOVE. The elaborate “musical emergency” opening, the slapstick moving-of-the-body, a deliriously profane argument playing out in front of a small child—all great stuff, though nothing made me laugh so hard or proved so cathartic as Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi, unexpectedly perfect for the Iannucci-verse) bluntly sneering, “You fat fuck!” at the corpse of a slain politician.

7. EIGHTH GRADE
Nine months after seeing this, I still 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. I’ve also come to further appreciate what writer/director Bo Burnham has pulled off with his debut feature, his affection for the minutiae of this ultra-specific world (one most of us who’ve lived it would rather forget) apparent without distraction from nostalgia’s rose-colored lenses.

8. BURNING
Adapted from a Haruki Murakami short story, Chang-dong Lee’s first feature since 2010’s POETRY focuses on a peculiar male-female-male triangle; to get further into the story would lessen much of its mystique; only know that director sets up any number of expectations only to masterfully defy most of them without leaving the viewer feeling cheated. “Haunting” is word used far too often in film criticism, but that’s the exact tone BURNING leaves one with; the ending also secures its place in the canon of slippery, unknowable cinema.

9. MADELINE’S MADELINE
An occasionally frustrating but fascinating puzzle box of a film. On the surface, it appears to be about a teenager (Helena Howard—remember her name), her antagonistic relationship with her mom and her participation in an experimental theater troupe, but there’s so much more 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 inspired madness.

10. COLD WAR
Spanning a fifteen year period post-World War II, Pawel Pawlikowski’s follow-up to IDA recreates a culture in the throes of a severe political takeover, drawing implications from the minute to fully societal. He limns his focus onto two very different people (inspired by his own parents): a jazz musician and a younger singer who nonetheless are drawn to each other. Each frame is a lovingly crafted tableau, strikingly rendered in high-contrast black-and-white, deep focus photography. The mostly diegetic soundtrack, ranging from hard bop jazz to hymn-like folk songs is a character in itself.

TIED FOR 11th PLACE:

Border
If Beale Street Could Talk
The Rider
Scotty and The Secret History of Hollywood
Support The Girls

ALSO RECOMMENDED:

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
BlacKkKlansman
BPM (Beats Per Minute)
Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami
Lean On Pete
Leave No Trace
Loveless
Shirkers
Sorry To Bother You
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Film Journal: December 2018

More rewatches (starred titles) this month than usual–chalk it up to the Holidays, and also an unusually abysmal Oscar season at the multiplex (the indieplex, too.)

The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant
Somehow missed this one when I was going through Fassbinder’s filmography in grad school (easy to do, given the quantity.) Not quite up there with ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL, but gets exponentially more entertaining as it goes along. Would love to see Trixie and Katya in a remake (though I don’t know which RuPaul alum would play Marlene.) Also, best wallpaper ever? B+

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest*
Not saying Jack’s not iconic, but he does occasionally suck all the air out of the room. It’s really the ensemble that makes the film: Louise Fletcher (casting a relative unknown in that part was key), baby Danny DeVito, shaved-head Christopher Lloyd, Will Sampson (perfect as Chief) and all the rest. Lovably meandering like most of ’70s New Hollywood Cinema, but those last twenty minutes just destroy me, more so now than when I first saw this at age 16. B+

Maria By Callas
As an opera singer, Maria Callas had an undeniably great voice, but in her time she was also unmatched as to how she embodied her roles onstage (and offstage as well.) Tom Volf’s documentary is a lovingly assembled treasure trove of archival performance and interview footage; I suspect there’s no better introduction for those such as myself who know next to nothing about Callas or opera in general. My only complaint is that it left me wanting even more, like actual footage of her only film, Pasolini’s MEDEA, instead of just an interview conducted during the filming of it, or some of her practicing/perfecting her craft through rehearsals or recording. Still, this is easily a deeper, classier “intimate portrait” than what you’d see on Lifetime TV. B

Dawson City: Frozen Time
Liked the concept far more than the execution, which felt endless and repetitive. Loved the musical score, even if I kept dozing off to it. B-

The Shop Around the Corner*
The last twenty minutes or so of this is what all romances, comedies and rom-coms should aspire to. “You know, people seldom go to the trouble of scratching the surface of things to find the inner truth.” A+

Bombshell (1933)
My, that was a large baked potato. But seriously, Harlow is terrific, as is Frank Morgan and, in an uncredited minor role, Ethel Griffies, best known for her salty amateur ornithologist in THE BIRDS nearly three decades later. B

My Man Godfrey*
To me, William Powell will always be Nick Charles, but this is a genuinely eccentric but not unpleasant alternative that might’ve sustained another five-or-six-film series. A-

The Bells of St. Mary’s*
Schmaltzy but effective. About fifty minutes in, it features the best Christmas pageant ever, and I’d like to think Bergman won the Oscar for her boxing technique more than her tearjerking scenes. B

Holiday Inn*
So effusively charming and fun: edit out the regrettable number in blackface and you have the perfect classic Hollywood Christmas movie. A

Roma
It would’ve been great to see this in a theatre, but don’t let that deter you from streaming it at home. I could list all of its imperfections, but the cumulative effect is transformative. In terms of directorial vision, no one else comes close at present. Planning on catching this again in 70mm in a few weeks. A-

I Know Where I’m Going!*
A fine companion to THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, with added Pressburger to flesh out the narrative. Also, who could possibly resist Roger Livesey? A-

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Pretty consistent for what amounts to six separate stories only related by genre; also solid for a Coen Brothers film, given how scattershot the last one was. Not as fully realized as NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (or FARGO, for that matter), but it has a lot of beautifully shot, misanthropic fun. I appreciated how much deeper and bleaker it got with each chapter (christ, “Meal Ticket” could be a Bergman film), with the stagecoach ride at the end a brutally funny/eerie one-act play. Also, Tom Waits was born to portray an old, grizzled prospector. B+

Mon Oncle
Plays like a dry run for Tati’s next (and best) film, PLAYTIME; still hilarious, however, and he’s wise to let Daki the dachshund repeatedly steal the show. B+

If Beale Street Could Talk
Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to MOONLIGHT is nearly that film’s equal in how it further showcases his considerably humane approach to character and story even as he adapts someone else’s text (in this case, a James Baldwin novel.) The leads (Stephan James and Kiki Layne) are both good, but so is the ensemble, especially Regina King, Colman Domingo, Brian Tyree Henry–even Diego Luna (though maybe not Dave Franco.) Jenkins’ mastery of tone and pacing makes palatable what could too easily be a miserable, anguished narrative; if it ends up lacking that singular, personal touch that made its predecessor so special, it doesn’t detract from an effective, emotionally satisfying whole. A

Happy as Lazzaro
File this under “What the heck did I just watch?”, but in a mostly good way. The break occurring near the halfway mark is thrilling and really this film’s purpose for being; the ending’s also well-orchestrated. Less convinced about some of the second half’s logistics, but I was often so delighted by other absurdities (like the gas station scene) that they ended up not mattering so much. B+

The Thin Man*
Nick and Nora (and Asta) Forever. A

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

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-