January 2017 Capsules

Dog Day Afternoon
A much stranger film than I expected, but the most concrete criticism I have is that it feels tame. More accurately, its ambitions and wildly clashing tones feel like they require the touch of a far more skilled director and writer, one more attuned to a sense of rhythm and character. Dog Day Afternoon wants to be a black comedy, a city film, a character study, a ticking time bomb of a heist, and much more all in one, but fails to fully achieve any of them. There is no doubt a sense of real feeling in more than a little of the film, and Pacino and Cazale absolutely nail their feverish robbers. But, so much else feels like the overheated flop-sweat that accumulates over the course of this film, which feels like it ages every character 20 years.

Always Shine
Almost too obviously fiendish in its presentation; from the opening shot and frenetic credits Takal makes it clear how confrontational much of the film will be, perhaps to the detriment of the film as a whole. Of course, Always Shine is anchored by two phenomenal performances, and to some extent they anchor the film, overriding the needlessly spiky edits and grounding it in a believably acidic relationship. The final third does feel like a bit of a misjudgment, dragging out the obvious “persona swap” premise for all its worth, but the last scene brings it back home.

January 19
The Other Side
It is naturally dangerous to say that one film or the other is necessarily “important” or “essential”, but I’d have relatively few qualms considering The Other Side as befitting both of these adjectives. The movie performs its act of documentation almost frighteningly well, to the point where the scenes occurring before the viewer bear a stronger resemblance to a drama than the conventional ideal of documentary. It is this quality that makes the film one of the most heartbreaking works of 2016 for me; there is such a strong tenderness in such desolate and obviously destitute places that it feels fully and beautifully human. In many ways, the final quarter seems to be both a misstep and an essential part of the documentary (for this reason I feel like I’m underrating it), a sort of other side to the other side. It is utterly of this moment and thus, timeless.

Café Society (rewatch)
What seems most striking (especially on a rewatch) is Café Society‘s overwhelming sense of nostalgia. From Allen’s vigorous narration opening with an explicit reference to the film being set in the 1930’s to the general, ever-so-slightly starstruck perspectives of Bobby and Vonnie, there is a melancholy and a longing for the times and stars that seem just out of reach (notably, no movie stars are ever shown, apparently just off camera). The second half set in New York, prolonged as it is, still retains a shade of that glamour; there is no doubt that Café Society would benefit from tightening but as is, the restrained opulence of Storaro’s cinematography and the reservedness of the main performances make this film into something truly intimate.

January 24
Valley of Love
It’s almost passé at this point to say that Isabelle Huppert gave a great performance in 2016, but the magnificence of her and Depardieu’s performances can’t be overstated, especially since the film is almost exclusively a two-hander. As a byproduct of this extreme, the supporting characters acting mostly as provocations to the main characters and, intriguingly, a reflection and sort of critique of Americana. But Valley of Love‘s full dedication to the grief of this reunited couple consumes the film in ways both welcome (the pair of long letter readings, shot with so much compassion) and more unnerving (the strange encounters with ghosts that seem to rise out of the landscape). Perhaps the almost non-ending of the movie is fitting for a work of such single-minded obsession.

January 30
Happy Hour
Even more than most long movies, I find it extremely hard to do Happy Hour justice. By design it seems to announce itself as both a small, intimate film and a sweepingly large movie, down to the opening scene, one of three sequences (which probably do take up half the film but don’t necessarily feel that way) that features all four principal characters interacting. Hamaguchi’s skill and the unified magnificence of seemingly every actor in the ensemble, especially the main actresses, ensure that the film feels exactly pitched in the right way, making the most mundane exercises and casual conversations (especially during the absolutely extraordinary workshop and subsequent hangout sequences, probably the greatest stretch of filmmaking I’ve seen released in 2016) seem monumental. Of course, it is ultimately a drama, and all the time spent with the characters makes the final 30 minutes absolutely devastating in the unraveling of so many relationships. And yet, there are so many delightful moments, so many odd things that make this film compulsively, achingly able to be experienced.

January 31
Red Sorghum
Just from my conventional understanding, Zhang Yimou seems to have always straddled the line between the commercial and arthouse, and Red Sorghum certainly feels as if it belongs in that vein. As frequently bawdy as it is “transcendental” (in a Malickian sense), the film seems to move in fits and starts in a way that seems both intended and unintended; the true through-line is Gong Li, and she doesn’t even function quite like that. The only connector is the evocative feeling engendered by Zhang’s images, which are stunning even on an incredibly poor transfer. The shots all come from an earthy beauty, and in a way accentuate the film’s eventual emphasis on tradition and celebration, even in the face of destruction.

Don’t Think Twice
Simply put, this movie annoyed the hell out of me. It feels toxic in so many ways, especially towards the main characters themselves. Even though Birbiglia is essentially one of the lead characters, there is an undeniable self-hatred that is played off as “just another thing to be solved.” So much faux-compassion is present in the face of so little sincerity, and Don’t Think Twice frequently devolves into watching as a great deal of talented actors move around in circles, making fools out of themselves without ever creating a sense of a collective that they so obviously want to make. By the time Amy Schumer is brought in for no purpose than to drive home the shallowness of the whole enterprise, Don’t Think Twice is intolerable.

A Monster Calls
A Monster Calls succumbs to that all-too-common problem of attempting to tackle far too much with inferior material, but even more mystifying is how it comes to that point. Bayona almost single-handedly rescues the film, with “conventional” scenes that manage to be unnerving by the little touches added by his off-kilter visualizations and, of course, the truly spectacular dream/story sequences. The animations are beautiful enough (as a side note, the opening credits are entirely welcome) but even more wonderful is the way it weaves Conor and the Monster into the stories, combining a hand-drawn style with live-action and CGI. Nevertheless, merely stunning direction can’t entirely compensate for a subpar script. Attempting to stuff bullying, grief, disease, and mythology does little to give any of them weight, doubly so when the characters feel as shallow as they are and the actors feel this limp.

Indignation
The long debate between Lerman and Letts is as great as advertised, but it oddly feels like it has been airlifted in from a very different film. Most of Indignation focuses on the relatively less interesting romance between Lerman and Gadon, but even there there is a wonderful sense of purposeful sterility that stems from the climate of the 1950s that Schamus is trying to evoke. It feels old-fashioned in an appealing way, and if it occasionally feels less purposeful than it ought to be, it is continually interesting in the way it displays secrecy and transgression.

Split
Utterly bizarre in nearly every conceivable way, starting from the very first shot, a slow dolly zoom on Anya Taylor-Joy. Putatively a horror film, it plays far more often as a drama of sorts, relegating the locked-room struggle of the three girls to the backburner. Yes, there ultimately is a climax that the film is clearly building up to, but much (almost too much) time is spent negotiating the strange condition that James McAvoy’s character has. Nevertheless, Shyamalan’s direction is continually stunning, a flurry of off-kilter and perfectly menacing frames that never let up, and the final shot is a provocation that feels successful to me.

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