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. *****

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