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

Advertisements

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