May 2017 Quick Capsules

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
A fascinating film in many ways, both when taken in extratextual contexts (its odd relation to the other Marvel films) and in the tug and pull of the filmmaking itself. Gunn seems almost too eager to trip over his plotting, jumping with alarming inelegance between planet to planet. Also present is an inconsistent and befuddling attitude towards emotion and melodrama; half the time the characters seem to be taking the piss and the other half they’re almost too sincere. But none of these (or maybe all of these) account for the weirdness of the whole enterprise, of arcade machines that become weapons of death, of tender reconciliations taking place in the stars or in front of a fiery crashed ship, of a joy in violence that only somewhat feels gratuitous. And somehow, this contains some of the most resonant, beautiful, and emotional scenes in the superhero genre.

The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki
Very likely went into this with entirely wrong expectations, but I certainly didn’t expect something this subdued. But it certainly isn’t correct to call this minor-key in any way; this is a fairly lively, if not energetic, film, thanks to a wonderful combination of Kuosmanen’s always moving (in legible fashion) mise-en-scéne and, even more importantly, Lahti’s pensive yet magnetic performance. The way he moves is key, a sort of loping and hunched gait that does little to disguise a measure of playfulness and overall sincerity that makes him a joy to watch. Perhaps the greatest stumbling block for me was the actual narrative, which seems too anticlimactic for its own good (leaving aside all intentions) and predicated on a relationship that doesn’t feel adequately emphasized, but this film is absorbing nonetheless.

Tawdry and relentless in all of the feverishly anticipated ways, but it really should be emphasized how much this film moves. It bears down on its main character and the audience like a freight train carrying the inexorable will of fate, as the immensely woeful voiceover couples with whiplash editing to produce all the kinetic energy that Al cannot muster. And it feels so noxious it becomes intoxicating, as fatalism crashes headlong into nihilism, pragmatism suffocates flights of fancy. And above all, the artifice makes for simple, intensely evocative images: silhouettes in fog, looming neon signs, rain-spattered windshields, furtive eyes in rear-view mirrors, fantasia in shadows.

Inland Empire (rewatch)
So much of this seems to be about a universal sort of decay, that spreads throughout Hollywood, Poland, and Nowheresville, USA. Ghosts, curses, and other such hauntings are in plentiful supply, but they must jocky for space with the utterly fearful, indomitable visage of Laura Dern in many guises. Perhaps less consistently terrifying than I remembered and contains many, many more musical stings, but it remains a vision in totality, unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and to see reality, the body, and film contorted and distorted in such a way is truly haunting and moving.

Something Wild
Love how this film is essentially constructed from two highjacked narratives, the first by Lulu/Audrey and the second by Ray. It lends a strong irreverence to the whole affair, as Demme and company never stray far from the road and keep a rapid pace. But each character is given such a wonderful sense of presence, in large part to the genius performances and gradual character transformations by all involved – including, of course, the multitude of background characters. It is because of them that this movie thrives, as optimism and pop culture are rendered into something beautiful and lively. Charlie travels into two essentially alternate realities that dissolve into his own, with Audrey as his guide, and finds something more.

Far less stupid (on an actual narrative basis) than I was led to believe; there is a wisely executed rather strong foundation in a sense of exploration and mounting dread that comes to a head in the jaw-dropping succession of infections and contaminations that somehow occur simultaneously. But what feels more important than the inexorable narrative drive are the figures and the space in which they move. This is a plainly gorgeous movie, even as it descends into the dark and dank environs, as Scott revels in both the sterile spaceship and the wet, oozing surfaces of the unknown. Prometheus may be mostly surface, though it deals with the shades of religion and mortality in oblique but fascinating ways, but the surface is more than compelling and fun enough.

Act of Violence
Perhaps it’s the ever present influence of Sarris speaking, but it seems that I have an aversion to Zinnemann’s view of his characters. They seem to be flattened in a way, transformed into simple narrative motivators instead of fleshed out into fully-fledged figures. High Noon was especially afflicted by this, and while Act of Violence‘s noir textures do much to justify his view, it doesn’t compensate for the remorseless nature of Joe or the hopelessly abstruse Frank. Only Janet Leigh really makes something of her character, as she represents the closest thing to reality; all else is murky, which only satisfies for so long.

The Thief of Bagdad
Begins quite literally with a melting pot of influences – the Koran, Arabian Nights – and this is reflected in the otherworldly place where this film takes place. The Thief of Bagdad is from a place out of time, magical without end, and yet the world feels totally lived, as if it exists just beyond the pale. Of course, the main attraction here is the immense physicality and charisma of Fairbanks, and he is something approaching transcendent in this, making his grandstanding raconteur seem like the most natural thing in the world. But it would be much pooer without the towering, gloriously artificial sets, or the gorgeous Rimsky-Korsakov inspired score, or the immensely heightened special effects. It is “A FILM” in totality, a work of magic and immense romance. Perhaps it suffers a little bit in the final third, as the focus is taken off of Ahmed to some extent and the heartbreakingly beautiful romance is put into the background, but it matters little when Walsh makes a man fly and love with all of his soul.

Alien: Covenant
For a while, this plays, probably unintentionally, almost in counterpoint to Prometheus to me. It is a film fundamentally centered around professionals thrust into an eerie-turned-terrifying environment, and as such its tone is pared down into a subdued hum. Yet there is exploration and humanity aplenty, something that Scott wisely parcels out slowly, so that the impact of a death hits unexpectedly hard. And there is naturally much death; Alien: Covenant feels like a haunted film, as much by its predecessors (from which it liberally extracts strands of DNA) as the dead that are strewn in its wake. From those bodies, it delivers terror to the viewer, that ebbs and flows with unnerving, wonderfully intelligent power.

Procedural – quite literally for about half of the film – to a fault. T-Men comes close to cold-blooded throughout its entirety (and just plain bloodless during the utterly stone-faced intro) but there is something to be said for how frankly it depicts these men on a mission, especially as it leads them closer and closer towards their prey. And it would be entirely remiss of me to not mention Alton’s rather stunning photography and Mann’s punchy, visceral approach to violence.

The Dreamers
I’m entirely uncertain if Bertolucci is at all self-aware when he manages to cram both the musical score of The 400 Blows and a quotation and film clip from Breathless into the same scene, whether he is being arrogant, brazenly confident, or just plain misguided. That being said, The Dreamers, after the first fourth of wall-to-wall rock music and blatant, sometimes contradictory cinephilia – it makes no sense to me that the three would try to imitate Band of Outsiders, a film that came out just a few years before) – settles down into a more straightforwardly dramatic groove, for better and for worse. But the entire affair feels overbearing, its cinephilia far too sincere and blatantly obvious, using the most obvious signposts (the most egregious being the simultaneous use of archival and contemporary footage of Jean-Pierre Leaud). Perhaps it’s just my particular sensibility, but I would have liked to have seen less Godard, more Mizoguchi. And for the love of God, fewer film clips.

The Marriage Circle
There is of course a good deal of value in the simple telling of a simple story, and Lubitsch executes this bedroom farce with a wonderful amount of precision. But something holds me back; maybe the lack of screwball dialogue, maybe a sense of obviousness about the multiplicity of pairings, or just a lack of truly fleshed out characters. Regardless, consistent pleasures are to be had in the world of the rich and covetous.

Your Name.
More than anything, Your Name. seems to be about timelessness placed in the context of a very specific time. Rooted unambiguously in the present, modern world – iPhones, LINE, digital billboards on skyscrapers, rapid transit, and virtual diaries figure prominently in Taki’s Tokyo – the film nonetheless continuously goes back to the past, typified in Mitsuha’s hometown and in the Shinto religion so heavily featured. But there is a commingling of sorts; to my eyes the entanglement of time is implicitly described in quantum mechanical terms, and jargon is used to describe the fateful meteor comet on the news without any explanation to the characters or the viewer.

All of this is to say that the characters yearn for connection, and not, it should be noted, any stated romantic longings. Taki and Mitsuha try to meet more out of a sense of curiosity, and yet their rendezvous seems to be of paramount importance, not only because of the surrounding context but because of their separation by time and space. That Your Name. manages to work at all, let alone as well as it does, is near-miraculous. An emotional crucible of sorts, that unfolds exactly as it shouldn’t, yet in a way that feels right.

Mulholland Dr.
Still remains my favorite film, even though and perhaps because it doesn’t overwhelmingly fulfill any one “criteria”: it is not the most moving or soul-rendingly sad film I’ve ever seen, it is not the most gorgeously shot or the most technically proficient, it is not a masterfully plotted and supremely well-paced and scripted work, etc. And yet it is all of these things in its own particular manner, in the way the streets of Los Angeles are only glimpsed as lights speeding past a car window, in the way language and reality seem to bleed into one another, in the way that sincerity shines through artifice with the slightest bit of movement on Naomi Watts’ face. To wit, it is a film in totality, one that I love because of its flaws, because it beguiles me to no end.

The Big Heat
So pared down it becomes mesmerizing; at its core The Big Heat is an archetypal story through and through about a detective who goes up against the mob. However, Lang and company imbue it with such personality, so many odds and ends that it works to a T chugging along up through some of the most memorably nasty moments I’ve seen in a noir. Lang’s direction feels more fluid than in something like M in a way that suits this active investigation, relentlessly following both the pursuer (Glenn Ford) and the pursued. But the film never feels labored or unfittingly cold-blooded, instead moving with remarkable precision between a certain brand of sentimentality in Ford’s immensely well-played scenes with Jocelyn Brando, which conjure a kind of domesticity that feels nothing short of blissful, with the kind of hardboiled sordidness that is much more de rigeur. Attention must also be paid to the uniformly fantastic cast; there is nary a part that doesn’t feel out of place, and all of this contributes to a feeling of immense satisfaction. Karmic retribution figures heavily here, but so does a profoundly wonderful tenderness.

Nanook of the North
Seemingly against the modern consensus, this played much better to me as a straightforward documentary than a drama. Flaherty’s eye is for spaces and figures rather than any sense of narrative propulsion, and many of the most pleasurable moments (the trader’s post, the igloo building) act as simple but wonderful scenes of documentation. And there is a very real feeling of collaboration; one could conceivably watch Nanook of the North without ever figuring out that the eponymous figure is consciously acting in staged scenes, but there is never the feeling that Flaherty condescends to his subjects or overtly exoticizes them. He is fascinated, held in thrall, and he manages to convey that feeling to the audience in a profoundly intimate and, occasionally, immensely moving way.

Kiss Me Deadly
Intentionally or not, Kiss Me Deadly seems to embody in its conception all of the anxieties and contradictions that figure prominently in its plot. It is immensely uneven and often incredibly opaque, as its ostensible protagonist strong-arms his way through seemingly all of Los Angeles – and, notably, through a veritable cross-section of racial groups – but ends up only muddying the waters further. What is clear is the aggressive, punchy, disquieting style of Aldrich, who seemingly couldn’t find a scene here that was inadequate for visual subversion; even the opening credits are immensely intrusive. And the ending is as troubling, as unexpectedly horrifying as anything I’ve ever seen, a burst of inspiration that threatens to consume all. No wonder the main references that the characters are epochal and universal.

A Quiet Passion
A complete oddity in its tenuous status as a hybrid, at least to my mind. A Quiet Passion is an English film about one of the most famous American artists (with what felt like immensely English stylings), a rendering of a time long past with modern implements, and most off-puttingly a movie that moves (at least to my eyes through much of the film) occasionally with grace, the kind I expected from the director of Sunset Song, but often with a kind of lurching momentum. It took me quite a while, perhaps into the final twenty minutes, to even remotely grasp what Davies was trying to achieve beneath (and with) the barbs, the static and anachronistic quick framings, and the almost breathless sense of recounting a great artist’s life.

Like many wonderful character studies, A Quiet Passion seeks to depict how a person can subtly change over the course of their lives. This film simply happens to depict a notable person’s notable life – the use of almost exclusively interior scenes in the second half fits like a glove with Nixon’s alternately immensely interior and defiantly exterior performance – and in a way that only reveals itself slowly, parceling out this change with each moment in Dickinson’s life. It is something to ponder, though it must be said that this otherwise entirely natural film contains two genuine acts of magic, truly stunning and near-monumental moments of sublimity. The rest may reveal itself to be the same in time.

The Act of Killing
Astounding for many of the obvious reasons: the extraordinary access to the actual perpetrators, the candor and glee with which they recount their deeds, the emotional trajectory and its visceral effect on both subject and viewer. But The Act of Killing is just as remarkable in its rigor and penetrating depth, managing to fit in between the reenactments a distinct dissection and indictment of the entire government and society, top to bottom, as being complicit in the mass killings; even regular citizens, by dint of acting in the recreations, seem somewhat implicated. At the same time, Oppenheimer takes great care in maintaining the fundamentally odious feeling of watching these aging boogeymen glorify themselves while making it still feel watchable and only intruding at a few crucial moments. And most shockingly of all, the reenactments, only some of which are consciously choreographed, feel genuine and upsetting, and Oppenheimer is able to observe exactly when this boundary between truth and fiction, past and present is broken. Over all, the knowledge of the massacres lingers (as introduced in the shrewd “mission statement”), a specter that, figuratively and literally, no one can escape from.

An Autumn Afternoon
Went into this expecting a “standard,” devastating drama about the impending marriage of a father’s daughter, a frame of reference I had codified despite a lack of almost any experience with Ozu, and found something much more rewarding. An Autumn Afternoon is fundamentally quotidian and free of any significant conflict, almost perversely so, though the final twenty minutes carry the exact amount of emotional devastation that they should. Narrative strands and characters are introduced, dropped, picked up, and dropped again with a glorious lightness; even Ryu’s immense performance is absent from a good chunk of the film. It forms a flowing – I had forgotten how natural Ozu’s style feels, with its distinctly frontal camera placements and quick edits – meditation upon a particular way of life at a very particular time. It is at once modern and not modern, in the city and apart from it – much of the film takes place in houses and apartments that could be anywhere. And there is so much tradition, so much history that feels lived-in, in the continual bowings, in the celebratory reunions, in the intimacy that remains unspoken. Gentleness and kindness overflow, with nary a cross word said, and Ozu carries the viewer into something approaching the sublime with each lingering moment.

After the Storm
Charming, but Koreeda’s approach in this case (melding the quotidian with a very clear-cut central conflict) doesn’t work in any unexpected or even predictably revelatory ways. It moves along, with some rather lovely moments and a mostly enjoyable exterior, but there isn’t much that isn’t on the surface.

Suspect that my lack of foreknowledge concerning the events of the book going into this was not ideal, given that the emotional journey of Maurice feels a bit flat after the intensity of thwarted passion between him and Clive. I had anticipated a more conventional pathway, focusing on the two, so the introduction of Alec as an additional key figure –
complete with his own set of complicating factors, especially class – was unexpected. But it is all very expertly well done, remaining immensely close to all of the characters and using them with a neat precision. Maurice never truly escapes its period trappings, but it is more than pleasant all the same.

Branded to Kill
Branded to Kill manages to exist simultaneously as the gonzo, aggressively odd and experimental work it is often touted as and a hypersimplified, stripped-down crime thriller that continually sheds its accoutrements over its 90-minutes. The noir foundational elements are well apparent, as are the innovations spearheaded by Suzuki, no more so than in the gorgeous masks in the form of butterflies, birds, and other such invasive flying objects, but just as key seem to be Hisashi’s intense paranoia, the shift from the cold-blooded day job to the frenzied existence that takes over a man’s psyche, the cold, modern architecture.

Sweetly (and never saccharinely) told, and the whole affair has an undeniable cuteness and attractiveness as personified in Clara Bow, but that doesn’t truly salvage the film proper. It, despite its short running time, meanders and feels fairly inert, sputtering to life whenever Bow appears on the screen and dying down just as quickly when she is off. A legendary screen presence and sex appeal, however well conveyed (and it is admittedly conveyed quite well), can only go so far.

Yourself and Yours
It’s immensely odd to say that I “get” or more fully understand a filmmaker seven films into his oeuvre, but then again Hong Sang-soo is no ordinary filmmaker, or even any ordinary great filmmaker. Perhaps it is just that this feels like his most cogent summation of the relationships between men and women (which is a barrier that is, surprisingly, broken down) or that it contains every single tone that I love of his: playful, earnest, caustic, romantic. Or I might just be finally attuned to his rhythms, accepting the internal repetitions as vital strengths rather than just features inherent to his scripts. Regardless, it is gorgeous, wonderful, and funny in typical Hong fashion, to the highest magnitude I’ve yet seen.

Devil in a Blue Dress
Perhaps it’s a little unfair to castigate a film for its loving and quite well-done homage to a particular mood, but Devil in a Blue Dress both overplays and underplays its hand with regards to the platonic ideal of the film noir. All of the tenets are readily apparent, in a manner that recalled Chinatown, especially and egregiously during a crucial scene late into the film, but Franklin seems unwilling to dive into the thornier, more complex ideas inherent in the shadows and the underworld. The movie moves with far too much slickness, though the value of this confidence on all levels cannot be fully denied, especially considering the remarkable, wonderful lightness of Tak Fujimoto’s camera.

The Final Cut
It’s probably not entirely correct to say that this specific premise and narrative could not be made into an altogether satisfying film. But leaving aside The Final Cut‘s bland, almost treacly direction (that reflects the films that Alan himself makes), the whole venture seems intensely misguided, a jumble of narrative concerns which don’t truly cohere and late revelations which reflect absolutely nothing about the world which they are meant to comment on. Almost certainly the only redeemable facet of this is Williams, who for the most part channels his excess into a repressed concentration that is rarely broken; it is no accident that the scenes where this mode is broken are among the worst in the film.

The Big Sick
I kept vacillating between dislike and a grudging respect for The Big Sick; it doesn’t help that it feels so uneven and lengthy yet curiously compressed. Kazan in particular is given rather short shrift in both runtime (perhaps necessarily, but still) and characterization, though she does do her best to pull it off. But what won me over was the ultimate sidelining of the risky and potentially maudlin sickness plot in favor of a more rewarding exploration of Kumail’s relationships, in how it forces all around Emily to come to terms with themselves. It is immensely flawed, sometimes funny, but earnestness oozes out of every pore, and a wholehearted belief in dedication can be rather lovely.

Perhaps did this a slight injustice by leaning heavily into the Before Trilogy parallels, something that seemed to be enforced by my initial impression that the film would take place over a period of less than 24 hours. But the one month later “epilogue” is approximately close to a third of the film, and as a whole this plays much closer to a version of Before Sunset than Before Sunrise, though the closest comparison my mind could come up with was The Young Girls of Rochefort in the push-and-pull between dreams and love, the hometown and the larger world.

All of that being said, Marius works entirely on its own terms as something well perched between melodrama and comedy; the narrative is fairly archetypal (save for the hilarious inclusion of Panisse) but the play of emotions is handled with precision. The situating of the film almost entirely in the three-walled confines of the bar may betray the theatrical origins, but it works rather well as a gathering place for men and women alike, and Korda does a skillful job of knowing exactly when to depict the outside world. And while all of the characters are delightful, César is something else entirely, a wholly compassionate and conflicted creation with equal parts pragmatism and optimism, keeping a waterfall’s worth of love behind a gruff exterior with exquisite poise.

Another Year
Enrapturing in part because of its unpredictability; aside from the basic structure of 13 long takes documenting 13 dinners, I was mostly unfamiliar with the other basic elements that formed Another Year. Even this central premise was somewhat inaccurate, as crucially the film depicts only some of the dinners (the first scene in particular only contains some of the preparation), and only the last to completion as it were. The change in setting also surprised me; the sense of interiority besieged by the outside world in both sound and talking point is preserved but otherwise a vastly different vision of the space in which this family (plus two guests, intriguingly) moves is conjured in these four scenes. But most importantly, I was unprepared for the focus, for the ultra-slow and observational mode that manages to hold my attention like few other types of filmmaking. It is an acidic, unhappy, and strident family, but Zhu manages to capture it with such unerring heart and distance that it becomes a little microcosm of a particular kind of unit that I only know all too well.

Entirely impossible for me to approach this in anything close to a fair review, but Solaris baffled me to no end. It is without question a beautiful film, if shot in an odd mix of the flighty – the long takes shot in constantly roving close-up, flitting between various faces in the same space – and the unmistakably earthbound. But the machinations of plot, narrative, and thematic below the surface seem muddled to me, predicated on the central act of resurrection via romance that doesn’t feel quite successfully executed. And yet there are glimmers and patches of profundity that feel just out of reach, hidden beneath the rundown exterior that I hope to discover sometime sooner rather than later.

Heaven Knows What
There’s certainly a sense of light at the core of Heaven Knows What, an obvious warmth and affection that the Safides have for the characters that they more than succeed in doing justice to. Just as paramount, too, is that benighted and seemingly endless city of New York City, often just beyond the margins of the intensely intimate close-ups. The passersby move pass but everyone involved (including the magnificent camera of Sean Price Williams) remains intently focused, as the electronic music swirls around in the sea of emotions and Holmes, Duress, and Jones manage to make the scene at once external and immensely internal.

By the Time It Gets Dark
Was entirely unaware of the explicitly metafictional aspects of By the Time It Gets Dark going in, and I’m not certain whether they were telegraphed at all in the first third – obviously apart from the throughline of a woman making a historical film/documentary. But there is a certain thrill and joy with which Suwichakornpong pinballs from story to story, as the fantasy of the cinematic overwhelms the brutality of the real world. As even the original storyline is replicated with only some precision and the same characters recur in both “reality” and fantasy, the viewer is invited to either succumb or be repulsed. For my part, I succumbed.

The Heartbreak Kid
Perhaps not as immediate and arresting as A New Leaf, which I’m tempted to attribute to Neil Simon’s hilarious but slightly more diffuse script. But the unmistakeable and uneasy touch of Elaine May is warmly felt here, no more so than in the absolutely despicable, obnoxious and plain awful character of Charles Grodin’s Lenny. It is a credit to everyone involved (including Simon) that he does not overwhelm the film with his rank hypocrisy and fakery, and instead becomes something approaching a sympathetic figure, if only because the movie is implicitly dedicated to degrading and breaking down his character. But of course, Jeannie Berlin and Eddie Albert are just astonishing in their own ways, one playing distress and sorrow to the hilt and one serving as the barely suppressed fury, with both representing the extremes of two very different cultures, something which is put just in the immediate background to great effect. The most surprising aspect to this very surprising and more than a little mean-spirited film is the end, played in terms so straightforward it becomes ambiguous.