June 2017 Quick Capsules

The Wolfpack
Curiously distended and aimless, despite the inherently compelling and dramatic subject matter. At times it almost feels as if Moselle is stalling or simply too endeared with an observational mode of filmmaking, content to simply record the scattered observations and retellings of her subjects rather than provide any sort of motivating force – aside from, that is, her actual physical presence with her camera. This dovetails, unfortunately, with one of the other significant aspects that was truly unexpected on my part: the particular brand of cinephilia that the Angulos’ exhibit as depicted in the film is far more elemental and basic than I had anticipated. Moselle shows shockingly little interest in it except when it is deemed essential to the story (the movie theater visit, a reenactment here or there) and otherwise abandons it. The Wolfpack has its own small share of pathos, but otherwise feels rather inert and lifeless.

Troll 2
Indefensible in damn near every conventional way, and yet Troll 2 has a strong tinge of the unassailable to it. There is something to the general competence of the technical aspects – some extraordinarily odd camera choices, editing, and special effects aside – that casts all of the totally incompetent plotting and acting in a different light. Not to say that I view this as some sort of high-trash masterpiece, as it manages to become dull roughly an hour into its ninety-minute runtime, but it remains so consummately dedicated to its weirdness, its transparently demented and malicious environment, and its bozo logic that it occasionally becomes mesmerizing.

Appeals so greatly to that sense of the elemental tale as old as time that I seem to gravitate so strongly towards, and yet I think that Tabu is putatively something that does not fall into that. By way of parallel construction, Murnau sets the idyllic island and the hustle and bustle of a more modern way of life in direct opposition and manages to find more than a little bit of resemblance. But what matters most, and what the lovers on the lam seem to miss, is the sense of community and ritual among the beaches and the palm-frond villages, and the evident guilt and fear that they hold becomes so much more than just forbidden love under the watchful eye of Murnau. They attempt to resist nature itself, swimming against the tide of time to no avail. Such a doomed struggle is handled with the most simple of techniques, and yet a whole world is alchemically conjured in the dissolve from a written language to English, in the refusal to use an intertitle. In the land of Murnau, the emotions howl just as strongly as the waves.

To the Wonder
Putatively, this is one of Malick’s most modestly pitched films – a love story centering on a couple, with a priest in the periphery and a former flame even further from the center – very likely the least ponderous film he has made since Badlands. But almost everything else about it feels like a kind of next step for Malick, albeit one that looks back. Every character feels like a variation of one of his previous characters: Kurylenko to Pocahontas, Tatiana to Manz, Affleck to Jack etc. and Malick’s style pushes Lubezki’s rushing camera movements even further. What is different is the lack of any inhibition, as his characters dance around each other, coming together and breaking apart as quickly. Kurylenko’s status as an outsider seems key here – as does Bardem, their voiceovers in their “native” languages are among the loveliest aspects of To the Wonder – something only deepened by the sense of this vaguely defined but distinctly modern and American milieu. Unlike Knight of Cups or Song to Song there is no society to be commented on; this culture simply exists, much in the same way that it has for decades and as it likely will for years to come. So what changes are the relationships, the people as they grow and wane in their passion, in their sense of inner life, something which Malick explores with an aching, unmistakably poignant passion.

Knight of Cups (rewatch)
Several orders of magnitude more fractured and aimless than what I can recall from the rest of Malick’s oeuvre, for a number of fairly apparent reasons. Almost certainly the main problem is built into the intertitle-separated structure. This wasn’t an issue for the only other Malick I can remember having clear delineations such as this, the extended cut of The New World, but where that movie even gained a hint of the novelistic, this film feels like it loses something in the blitz of characters that remain fairly confined to their own segments. It certainly doesn’t help that Bale’s presence is (whether through his performance or Malick’s realization of it) near-absent in ways that do and don’t feel productive. And the spiritual allegories here feel unmoored from the moment in which Rick lives, foisted upon the narrative rather than organically developed.

But it must be said, few directors could handle such an unwieldy, risky text nearly as well as the deft hand of Malick. His conjuring of awe, of the lightness of movement, character, and narrative is almost wholly sui generis; the signposts may be clear (an earthquake as the inciting incident, the virginal woman as redeemer) but they feel both otherworldly and grounded, rendered in pristine shimmering that flows in the light and dark. The result is nothing short of awe, something that Knight of Cups holds more of than it should have any right to possess.

John From
I’m tempted to separate this neatly into halves, the first being an exceedingly well-developed hangout film and the second a considerably dreamier and fantastical endeavor. But to do so would rob John From of its more impressive distinguishing traits, particularly its actual justification for this switch. The pivot isn’t truly a pivot at all, but a rather organic (literally) metamorphosis, as the film evolves before the viewer’s very eyes in ways both expected and unexpected, visible and invisible. Much of the credit must go to the immensely fluid and always engrossing guiding hand of João Nicolau; the closest analogue in my limited knowledge is Linklater (at least for the first half), but his sense is more rigorous but with the same sense of looseness, containing a plentitude of rather dramatic tracking shots. Utterly pleasurable.

The Day He Arrives (rewatch)
Went into this particular rewatch with all of the praise and love that this receives from some of the most fervent Hong admirers in mind (especially Kevin B. Lee’s video essay), but that can only account for some of my drastically altered perception and immensely greater love for this film. The Day He Arrives feels like, among the seven Hongs I’ve seen so far, the clearest summation of what makes his body of work so immensely special and beguiling. Even though it feels in some ways like an oddity – the black-and-white, the pointed use of voiceover – it manages to marry the immensely playful structure with a certain looseness, a use of dialogue that at first glance seems somewhat unrelated to the plight of the central character. Of course, nothing is throwaway and everything is important in Hong’s world; the slightest bit of difference in who enters or doesn’t enter the frame, the change in the type of zoom he uses, the reappearance of figures in entirely different contexts. And it moves along with such grace, such melancholy drive, pinballing off of slightly different characterizations and conversations, that it achieves its own kind of sublime.

Daughter of the Nile
Moves with astonishing fluidity (in the span of a single cut) between a slightly narcotized, dreamy feeling among nocturnal settings and the comparatively harsh, glaring light of day, but what remains predominant is the extent of Hou’s reserved intimacy. Though his camera floats far less than I expected, his locked down frames consistently stun, bringing the viewer closer with a medium shot than most filmmakers could accomplish with a long shot, and the mood remains so warm, even as the characters fall closer and closer into the depths of the modern world. Perhaps the story is too small for its own good, but the scenes in the night school and KFC (admittedly, the ones I was most interested in) act as marvelous embellishments, and the commitment in Daughter of the Nile is apparent from beginning to elegiac end.

More than a little worrying and dangerous, simply by virtue of the degree to which it displays and even glorifies the culture that forms its center. Despite the supposed objections that Nerve has towards Nerve, there is a very certain glamor given to the foolish daredevils, a seductiveness in the admittedly gorgeous oversaturated lights and the slow-motion shots of its heroes walking through crowds of admirers. This extends to the fantasia of the Internet, all touchscreens, flashy pans, and flowing data, something which perhaps wisely extends to the “real world,” which itself is a series of disembodied streets and unmoored building. Someone much more dedicated to this could easily make a case for this as high art (certainly there’s something interesting in its brazen commitment to a despicable culture) but I am content to both appreciate and feel wary at this, with whiplash regularity.

Split (rewatch)
It was much more apparent to me on this viewing just how meticulous and unnerving Shyamalan’s direction was, and I do think I originally did it a disservice by questioning how much of the film truly functioned as a thriller. For this does truly feel like a tightly coiled spring that expertly unravels over the course of the film; even Betty Buckley’s scenes carry a charge with how unsettling Kevin’s intentions remain. And of course, McAvoy and Taylor-Joy hold the screen, he with his multivalent, rapidly switching personas and she with a hypnotic intensity, projecting fear and will with the same glance.

Game of Death
It’s difficult to ascertain whether Game of Death benefits or suffers from the inclusion of actual Bruce Lee footage. On the one hand, it substantially raises the level of overall interest in this otherwise half-hearted effort, and even makes the viewer scour the other segments for other moments that actually feature the legendary martial artist. But it also highlights just how shoddy many of the other fight scenes feel, which themselves seem nothing short of brilliant (thanks to Sammo Hung’s choreography) when placed next to stiffly performed, rote conspiracy machinations. The film certainly improves as it becomes more and more about Billy Lo’s revenge, but when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has more screen presence in one scene than the Bruce Lee doppelgangers do in the entire film, it spells trouble.

The Great Wall
Explicitly calls itself a legend at the very start, which Zhang Yimou uses as essentially a carte blanche to create his own alternate version of Imperial China. And like a legend, The Great Wall feels almost too barebones, moving from one great feat or hurried conversation to another, with little time to truly delve into the characters. But the actors all perform their parts ably, and this truly is a kind of showcase for Zhang, a fluidly grandiose and thrillingly fun series of daredevil tricks, using more in one introductory battle than many would in entire films. There is much power to be found in the well-timed close-up or the particular body movement, and like many of the other actually competent and sometimes genius directors Zhang realizes this, and uses it to no small effect in this flawed, endearing work.

The Unbelievable Truth
Nervier and looser than Trust, perhaps for good reason – even more than that film, The Unbelievable Truth is as compassionate and playful with its peripheral characters as it is with the duo at its center, and Hartley uses them to great, hilarious effect. Of course, there is a tension, borne not only out of Audry’s apocalyptic obsessions but from the inescapable feeling of patterns repeating themselves, bits of dialogue and situations playing out over and over, which feels comedic sometimes and tragic at others. And there is catharsis, melancholy, vulgarity, and connections broken and found aplenty, almost too much for one to bear. But it is glorious and true, beautiful in its overt yet unassuming way.

Stranger by the Lake
Was most astonished by how much inherent feeling Guiraudie manages to wrest from the anxiety-ridden climate that eventually develops in Stranger by the Lake. The cruising scene is depicted with an unspoken matter-of-fact attitude, completely unapologetic yet almost labyrinthian in the expanse of the woods (which contrasts with the wide-open, exposed vision of the beach), in a way that feels utterly refreshing. But even more gratifying are the distinct, discrete patterns of behavior, the locked down, tightly wound direction of Guiraudie, and above all the characters, particularly Henri. He radiates a gruff sort of care, a longing that feels cut from the same cloth as that of the various gay men looking for connection, and serves as a kind of conduit, a balancing point between the simple carnal pleasures and the sinister, the suspenseful, the genuinely shocking.

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.

April 2017 Quick Capsules

Two Lovers
Gray seems to be caught in the thrall of two paradoxically reconcilable traditions: the modern (cell phones, a clear sense of diversity, liberated and tastefully explicit sexuality) and the classical. But he continually finds ways to make the two work in tandem, in scenes that say so much with just The Shot. The screenplay itself is quietly effective, but what I’ll remember is the awkward, pained, yet cool movements of Phoenix, the smudged mascara of Paltrow, and the conversations conducted first by shouting, then by phone, across an apartment complex, all of which culminate in a wondrous, totally ambiguous ending. I was hoping that Gray would go the entire film without any overt romantic gestures between Phoenix and Paltrow, but what he did is nearly as heartbreaking.

Double Indemnity (rewatch)
Managed to forget nearly everything surrounding Edward G. Robinson’s and Jean Heather’s characters, which, while perhaps understandable, made my conception of the film just before rewatch largely flawed. There is an ocean’s worth of seediness and dirty laundry here, but there is also a great deal of humanity, and Wilder does wonders in making every character (except, perhaps, Tom Powers’) function as more than just a cog in the inexorable machine that signals Fred MacMurray’s doom. It is a world of hurt and pain, and yet there is some small hope of redemption, at least until it is silenced by a gunshot.

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April 2017 Capsules

April 3
Lumumba is remarkable largely for me because I saw it after Raoul Peck’s singularly focused documentary I Am Not Your Negro, and watching his similar confidence with fiction filmmaking had its own odd sense of pleasure. But this is solid and immensely well-done on its own terms, remaining immensely lowkey and almost wholly resisting any sense of valorization with regards to its hero. Patrice Lumumba, as depicted by Eriq Ebouaney in an intensely driven performance, is continually stifled in his efforts, and Peck observes with detailed attention as the government slowly but inexorably falls into chaos, but the prime minister remains nobly composed throughout. What lingers most is the sense of specificity and fidelity, one that rejects speeches in favor of actions, even ones that are ultimately for naught.

April 7
The Story of Qiu Ju
There is so much in this that should work, especially with the inherently comical premise, but judging from Zhang’s filmography as a whole and especially this film, his sense of comedic timing is lacking. To break one of my cardinal rules and invoke another film that I found very similar, Feng Xiaogang’s I Am Not Madam Bovary struck me as a far more successful manifestation of the central storyline, somehow functioning as both riotously funny and rather shockingly melancholy. Part of this difference lies I think in the fact that there is very little sense of development or dramatic investment in Qiu Ju’s actual plight, and the sense of repetition (visually and structurally) works more in a foisting of thematics on the film rather than as an interesting narrative device. Plus, for all her obvious talent, Gong Li really can’t pull off the po-faced absurdity that the film requires to be anything close to funny. There are some interesting documentary aspects, but not a whole lot more.

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March 2017 Capsules

20th Century Women
“Santa Barbara, 1979” is a place and time, but it is also a mindset. More accurately, it is a kaleidoscope of mindsets; chief among the great strengths of 20th Century Women is its utter fidelity towards representing the multiple perspectives of its five main characters. But it is so much more than that: its tone is part rebellious, part serene, and even part transcendental. In the struggle between generations that eventually comes to define the film, Mills recognizes there is no wrong answer, accepting each person warts and all. The viewer sees who these broken but valiant people as they were, as they are, and as they will be, both defined and undefined by their time, and for my part I fell in love with them. It is bittersweet, melancholic, and uniformly wonderful in its loose grace, as free as the younger generation and as composed as the older generation.

A curious case. For the most part, Tampopo establishes itself as an intensely lighthearted work, jumping off of the central storyline to engage in food-related vignettes with abandon. Most of these are to some degree outré, but a few stick out in their bad taste (for good and for ill). An undercurrent of violence in the film is ever present (perhaps fittingly, given its status as a “Ramen Western”) but there is a vast divide between two men beating each other for an extended period of time and a gangster getting shot in the middle of the street, or, in the film’s most fascinating and troubling vignette, a wife getting up from her deathbed to cook one last meal. But in the end, the central storyline is the main attraction, and Itami takes almost too much delight in both skewering and glorifying food, to wonderful effect.

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February 2017 Capsules

Ju Dou
I think the key to this film is that, though Gong Li is as usual the nominal lead, it takes place from a mix of the perspectives of Tianqing and Ju Dou. Zhang continually emphasizes the barriers between the two; even when they do finally connect there is more focus on their surroundings, and their embraces seem to be desperate attempts for connection. The film is on the whole rather depressing, but it is earned in the false hopes and the crushing developments that manifest themselves in abject hopelessness.

Chronicle of a Summer
Even more interesting than its reputation suggests; Morin and Rouch manage to wring out a wonderful variety of approaches, and if the comparatively sedate second half, with its myriad conversations, proves less innovative than the first half’s quick interviews and wide range of subjects, it is mostly compensated by the extraordinary sequence of Marceline’s Holocaust recollections and the phenomenal epilogue, which functions as a rather potent self-critique that in and of itself offers another lens with which to view the verité style, a reflection of a reflection. It is most instructive, of course, to view this not as necessarily a statement or a manifesto but rather, as the title suggests, as a chronicle or document of a milieu.

February 7
The Nice Guys (rewatch)
Wish I could say I liked this genuinely pleasurable film more the second time around, and some of the “big gags” landed even harder, but there’s too strong a sense of rootlessness in this. Arguably, it fits well with the pessimism of the film, the changing times so decried by Healy and March, but it doesn’t make for anything close to a consistent viewing. There are flashes of genius here, of course—the hallucination experience in particular is a beautifully sustained escalation—and Gosling and Crowe make a shockingly good team (with Rice as a wonderful connector) so there’s that.

February 23
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
It’s probably telling that Hunt for the Wilderpeople‘s best scene by far is its most comparatively lowkey, when Ricky has a nigh idyllic encounter with a girl and her father. The rest of the film is frustratingly obstinate in its refusal to pick a single mood, vacillating awkwardly between slightly mawkish sentimentality and vivacious whimsy without finding any roots to dig into. Sam Neill is, of course, absolutely wonderful in his gruff sincerity, but he’s given far too little to do compared to the wide-eyed, borderline annoying juvenilia of Julian Dennison. And almost everything to do with the actual chase, especially the hunters, is painful.

February 28
Moonlight (rewatch, out of order)
Everything clicked in some way or another on rewatch (save for, perhaps, Paula, whose character feels much more overtly consequential than the rest of the film). There’s such an intoxicating feeling to Moonlight, a grounding in time and place that intertwines beautifully with the essential minimum of narrative. A set structure is present, yes, but it depicts moments that feel equally important and unimportant to Chiron. And throughout, there is a shimmering beauty, a vitality that doesn’t come just from the “timely” subject matter. It comes from empathy, from irresistible emotion.

Throne of Blood
Throne of Blood‘s atmosphere is nigh impossible to nail down: on one hand Kabuki-inflected and on the other operating in an almost dreamlike and ominously obscure environment. But what feels most surprising (especially to someone who’s read the play) is how much destruction is executed with so much efficiency. Macbeth is inherently a violent, bloody tale, but there is an additional dynamic inextricably tied to the heightened sense of honor, to Mifune’s sharp contrasts between rage and control, that makes this movie its own great work.

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.

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.

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.

Capsules Catch-Up 2016

In an effort to feel less guilty about all the blank spaces I have next to a good half-year’s worth of diary entries on Letterboxd, I am endeavoring to write a capsule (and probably more) for all of those spaces. In chronological order of writing (and of last watch).

The World’s End
The cut from Gary’s description of his wild youthful days to him sitting with a slightly bemused, slightly discomfited look on his face in a support group says it all. The World’s End, certainly the most mature of the Cornetto Trilogy, is as self-critical of its hero as it is celebratory. Wright continually walks a tight-rope, using a trip intended to recapture the “good old days” as a journey into both the past and the future. In the almost deliberately unbalanced, unambiguous finale, it is made clear just how much and how little he has changed, in a way that feels both immensely heartbreaking and shockingly heartening.

Especially in the first half, there’s a sort of single-minded blandness to much of High-Rise. Call it my aversion to vicious satire that brands itself specifically as vicious satire, but there’s very little to Wheatley’s sensibility that doesn’t register as on the surface, however fundamental to the text it may be. The slow slide into anarchy, seemingly precipitated in part by the disconcerting dancing of Luke Evans, is rather appreciated, and the flatness of the ending teased in the beginning flash-forward is greatly mitigated by the extraordinary montage set to a Portishead cover of ABBA’s “SOS” and the climactic murders seen through a dazzling kaleidoscope.

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