Just a brief note: I’m not going to post a weekly roundup this week because I got a little thrown off by Thanksgiving. There are a couple regular reviews I want to get out of the way first (specifically Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and My Friend Dahmer), but I will include this week’s movies on next week’s edition.

And boy-howdy, there were some choices this week.

Lady Bird (2017)

There is a moment about two-thirds of the way through Lady Bird–Greta Gerwig’s first film as a writer/director–where Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan, still one of the best young actresses around) is having a conversation with one of the nuns at the Catholic high school from which she will soon graduate. Told that her writing reflects a deep love of Sacramento, the town she has spent her entire life in and which she longs to escape, she brushes the compliment off by saying she just pays attention; she is answered “aren’t they the same thing, love and attention?” The moment stands out in a film made up of shrewdly observed moments because it so clearly articulates the movie’s beating heart, and that of many a bildungsroman (bildungsfilm?) like it: to what do we choose to devote our energy and attention and how do we deal with the attention focused on us?

At the center of this film that question relates to the often difficult relationship between Lady Bird and her mother, Marion. Played by Laurie Metcalf in an Oscar-worthy performance, Marion is a forceful personality–“scary and warm at the same time,” as Danny (Lucas Hedges), one of Lady Bird’s boyfriends, puts it. Their relationship turns on a dime from shared jokes to a barrage of criticisms and explosions that leave quiet and good-natured husband/father Larry (Tracy Letts) holding the bag between them. But it’s also about other kinds of love and attention. We also watch Lady Bird process two very different romances with the doting theater-geek Danny and the aloof boy-in-the-band Kyle (Timothée Chalamet). We watch her shifting relationship her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein, all heart and someone to watch in the future). Most importantly we watch her learn to pay more attention to herself: her needs, her participation with those around her, her own transitioning identity.

The movie is, in this regard, certainly nothing novel. Different versions of this story are as old as stories themselves; they’ve been told many times in many mediums. What makes or breaks them is the feeling they’re able to generate, the love and attention they have for their characters and the place, moment, and culture that surrounds them. In case it wasn’t clear by this point, this film succeeds admirably in that regard. Even its less central characters, like popular girl Jenna (Odeya Rush) or Lady Bird’s apparently adopted older brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) avoid falling into caricature. The dialog is intelligent and clever without crossing the line into artificiality. The details of the design–the posters on Lady Bird’s wall (Sleater-Kinney, etc) or the pattern on the McPherson’s living room couch–quietly add to our understanding of this milieu, its contours, assumptions, and rules. There are moments that slightly break from total realism, of course. A football coach teaching a drama class is played for straight laughs; the opening scene is a dramatic punctuation mark that stretches plausibility a little (although it dovetails with the ending so beautifully, I’m a little loathe to call it out). But even these moments are still in the larger spirit of the people and the world to which they belong.

It’s here that I feel, as a reviewer, I have to confess a certain bias: I’m personally about the same age as the main characters here. The film is set roughly over the course of a year, between fall 2002 and 2003, a period during which I also moved across the country, started college, and began to become conscious of things like the economic recession that adds a pressure point to the McPherson family. It would be easy, then, for a movie like this to simply play into a wave of thirty-something nostalgia–something I was watching for going in–but that fortunately isn’t the case. In fact, that it is a period piece is largely irrelevant; Julie and Lady Bird lie in a car singing along to “Crash Into Me,” but the moment is about bonding over a personal tragedy, not the song itself. It could have been anything and would still read.

A more interesting take, then, is that I cannot at the moment think of a film that focuses on a mother/daughter relationship (or really about a teenage girl at all) that is less melodramatic than this one. The kids in this movie smoke pot and play pranks but are not particularly wild or out of control; sex and depression factor in, but nobody has cancer or sleeps around; romance exists but is hardly the central focus; the conflicts have tremendous personal weight for those involved but are at heart banal. Although perhaps not as technically adventurous as Linklater’s recent Boyhood, there is a similar warmth in tone and the change in perspective feels as fresh and interesting as anything in that film. There is a significance in the fact that this is a film by a woman about a young girl–especially such a record-breaking film in an industry currently being shredded for its underrepresentation of women’s voices–but it succeeds because it’s one of the best, most emotionally accurate films about growing up my generation has yet produced.

The Weekly Roundup

Several very long films appear on the list this time, as well as the beginnings of a renewed interest in French cinema in particular. These are the films from November 14-21, 2017.

Seven Psychopaths (2012)
This movie ends with Tom Waits strolling into the Los Angeles night carrying a live rabbit and a giant knife. That description gives nothing about it away, particularly, but it’s an excellent example of the tongue-in-cheek tone of Martin McDonagh’s reflexive second feature. In kinship with Adaptation and 8½, Colin Farrell is a pacifistic, alcoholic screenwriter named Martin writing a film called Seven Psychopaths. Sam Rockwell absolutely steals the show as Marty’s prodding friend Billy, Christopher Walken is both terrifying and the emotional center of the film, and Woody Harrelson just wants his dog back, man. There’s a good bit of meta-commentary about the artist’s relationship with his audience, about Hollywood tropes (“You can’t let the animals die in the movie; only the women”), about the psychology of the creative process, even about the role of narrative in life, but it’s also very funny and it does have a final shootout… sort of.

Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974)
Another film that plays games with the idea of storytelling, this one is a three-and-a-quarter hour mystery/fantasy/comedy from Jacques Rivette, one of the more experimental participants in the French New Wave. A summary would go something like: a librarian (Dominique Labourier) and a stage magician (Juliet Berto) attempt to solve and prevent the murder of a young girl that continuously reoccurs as a gothic chamber drama inside a phantasmal house. Obviously, summarizing cannot do it justice. This is a film chock full of allusions (Henry James, Marcel Proust, and Lewis Carroll chief among them), puns, singsong rhymes, and other language games that I’m not certain always translate completely (eg: the idiomatic joke of a title, realized at the end of the film), but are delightful nonetheless. It ends up as kind of a weird ode to the friendship of the title characters amidst a Mobius-strip of identity and reality. Things start very slowly, but it’s worth the patience it takes.

Gone With the Wind (1939)
It occurred to me after seeing the unexpected homage in Real Life that I’ve never actually sat down and watched this movie in its considerable entirety and now seemed as good a time as any to correct that. It’s strange to watch it, first because its so deeply enmeshed in the culture at large that so much of it was familiar without context, and second because seeing it on DVD, tiny and with the ability to pause, clearly is not what it was meant for. It’s a huge movie–not just the four hour running time, but in its lavish, painterly tableaux and the grand, consuming emotions of its melodrama. Said melodrama is surprisingly effective given the time to build, especially in regard to the way Scarlett and Rhett ride back and forth across the line of sympathy throughout. Vivian Leigh is fantastic, a fuming cauldron of  icy narcissism, brilliant capability, and childish fragility; Clark Gable is by turns cruel and charming under his easygoing mask. It’s a movie that asks a lot (including glossing over a lot of complicated history and social politics) and is kind of all consuming, but it moves surprisingly quickly considering (“Maybe you’ll have an accident.”) And there’s an earnestness in its showmanship that reminds me of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard lamenting “it’s the pictures that got small.”

The Saragossa Manuscript (1965)
Two men on opposing sides of an unspecified war in Spain stumble across a book in a ruined building. Captivated by its mysterious imagery, the Spaniard realizes the book is about his grandfather, Alfonse van Worden, and from this framework the film–based on an 1815 French novel–spirals inward into a series of stories within stories within stories involving Tunisian princesses, cabalists, spirits, gypsies, exorcists, elaborate conspiracies, and star-crossed lovers. At one point even Alfonse himself admits he can’t tell where the stories end and reality begins. The first half of this three hour film–restored to its original length in the US by admirers including Martin Scorsese and Jerry Garcia–is more overtly psychedelic, a kind of parodic gothic horror; in its second half, it becomes a narrative hall of mirrors surrounding an interlocking web of romantic trysts that I’m almost positive will take at least a second viewing to unravel. This movie is clearly very allegorical/allusive in some way, but I’m not entirely sure what to make of it, to be honest. But that in-and-of itself was enough to keep me interested and the weird sense of humor and beautiful eye for black and white composition, along with the ever twisting knot of stories was definitely entertaining.

Shoot the Piano Player (1960)
Truffaut chose to respond to the acclaim heaped on The 400 Blows by making as different a film as possible. A zany, loose adaptation of a pulp-noir novel by David Goodis, this film is full of nouvelle vague digressions, improvisations, and dry jokes (including an early example of a cutaway gag) and draws influence from, among other things, American crime films, the Marx brothers, screwball comedy, and Alfred Hitchcock (of whom the director was a noted admirer). Notable also for the downtrodden starring performance of Charles Aznavour–a major French entertainer–the story follows Charlie, a former concert pianist who fled his old life to become piano player in a seedy Parisian bar. His brothers Chico and Richard (Albert Rémy and Jean-Jacques Aslanian, respectively) get him caught up in a stickup gone wrong, pursued by a pair of thugs, Ernest and Momo (Daniel Boulanger and Claude Mansard). Despite the premise, film is more about male/female relationships than it is about art or crime; there’s a deep sense of loneliness lurking underneath the lighthearted style, most evident in the quiet tragedy of the conclusion. But don’t let that scare you off from what is still a very fun movie.

J Edgar (2011)
Director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s version of Hoover is that of a man deeply driven by a conflicting sense of moral repression and an idealized, aggrandized self-image and in that, at least, it is interesting. That interest would be better sustained if the material were less weirdly paced. As it is, the film never really builds up the momentum it needs, never seems entirely sure what to make of its subject. Leonardo DiCaprio turns in a suitably churning, fussy performance–nothing out of the ordinary or particularly risk-taking for him aside from the old-age makeup in the 1960s scenes (a risk that pays off better for him than for Armie Hammer), but the rest of the cast is ruefully underused. That’s a shame because some interesting faces pop up, including Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Stephen Root, Lea Thompson, and Adam Driver, either in one-note or all-too-brief roles. There’s enough to get by if there were some stylistic element that made a bold choice, but there isn’t–it’s rotely shot, dark and monochrome, and even the autobiographical framing device isn’t used to full potential. All of which isn’t to say it’s terrible–there are some good scenes throughout–it just doesn’t really hang together.

The Cool World (1963)
I watched this on a low-quality bootleg VHS; to my knowledge it’s not available on DVD. I was also not familiar with the work of Shirley Clarke before, which I now consider a  lacuna in my film knowledge. The film, based on a novel by Warren Miller and a play thereof, follows the story of Duke (Hampton Clanton) a fifteen year old Harlem kid trying to score a gun. Seeing the weapon as a path to respect, success, and a masculine ideal, Duke plans to use it to stage a coup of the Royal Pythons, the crew he runs with, and lead them in an attack against the rival Wolves. Gritty even by modern standards, the film is a semi-documentary, using real locations and actual Harlem street kids along with professional actors (including early appearances by Gloria Foster and Clarence Williams III). It’s hard to judge the visual aesthetic because of the quality of print I saw, but even in that the rough-edged prettiness of the cinematography stood out (eg: the last shot of the police car riding up the street in the half light). Also boasts a hip, fascinating patois and a soundtrack by the Dizzy Gillespie quintet that keeps the energy flowing. Hard to find, but captivating.

The Florida Project (2017)

Children tend to notice different things about the world than adults, so it’s not uncommon for a film to take on a child’s perspective to try and circumvent our usual way of thinking about a situation. One way to do this is to take advantage of childhood aptitude for subjective fantasy (eg: Beasts of the Southern WildPan’s Labyrinth), but what’s arguably harder is what writer/director Sean Baker and screenwriting partner Chris Bergotch–the same team behind 2015’s Tangerine–manage to do in The Florida Project: they use their perspective to present a documentary-like realism both humanly sympathetic and brutally unforgiving.

The anchor of this perspective is six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) who spends her summer days like most kids, playing with her friends and making mischief. Much of the film unfolds following Moonee’s episodic adventures in and around The Magic Castle, a run-down motel on the fringes of Orlando where she is living with her young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) as summer begins. Halley is still something of a kid herself, channeling insecurity about adult responsibilities into misplaced aggression that keeps her trapped in a cycle of unemployment and poverty. Mother and daughter bond over takeout and impulsive shopping trips in moments that are both sweet and frustrating because we, as an audience, know they come at an expense that Moonee is not yet fully conscious of.

Willem Dafoe as Bobby, the manager of the Magic Castle, is. His downtrodden paternalism has no more purchase in his own family, so he turns it on the motel and its tenants, prodding Halley as best he can and keeping an eye on Moonee and her friends (Valeria Cotto and Christopher Rivera) while patiently indulging their innocence. What at first seems like a plotless slice-of-life begins to turn on a moment where the kids’ actions have real-world consequences for them and their parents that could portend the kind of people they might become. A domino effect quietly begins that slowly ups the pressure of Halley and Moonee’s situation and pushes the story toward a tragic but somewhat inevitable conclusion.

The look of the film emphasizes the contrast in perspectives–between Mooney and Halley, between Halley and Bobby. It’s awash in bright pastels and full of the sort of whimsical buildings one finds in amusement parks and the towns built around them. Even swampy, overgrown backstreets and unkempt motel rooms are full of color and light. The beauty of the images sharpens the ugliness in the story, much in the way Halley is sharpened by the vacation culture of Orlando. She’s surrounded and exploited by people better off than she is; Mooney still believes in the magic of the world but Halley has seen too much magic packaged and sold to not want to take her own advantages where she can find them. The overall tone belongs to Bobby, though, who understands the falseness of the city’s cheerful veneer but takes a quiet pride in his world, painting the motel’s exterior or fixing a broken washing machine. Like him, the camera looks for beauty in unexpected places–like the group of herons that wander into the parking lot–and, like him, it can ultimately only observe Halley and Moonee’s trajectory.

Both actresses are completely captivating newcomers. It’s reasonable to be wary going into a movie that’s going to rest so largely on a child’s shoulders, especially so young a child, but Prince is precocious without ever being cloying or obviously putting on–one hopes that the child-star machine doesn’t eat her up going forward. Vinaite–a clothing designer and Instagram personality–has never been in a film before, but brings Halley the unexpected interior complexity of a woman who knows when she’s going too far but can’t make herself stop. Dafoe, for his part, delivers an understated performance that stays out of the film’s way, and much of the supporting cast is composed of nonprofessional/first-time actors in their real-world settings (The Magic Castle is an actual hotel).

This approach borrows from classic Italian neo-realism, which is a good touchstone when thinking about this movie. Like, say, De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, this is a story about a parent-child bond amidst oppressive circumstances, given a 21st century update both in content and style (think the influential neon stillness of Refn, but warmer and less constructed). And like neo-realism, its aim is less at the microcosm of its characters than at the influences of the larger world that created it, suggested by signs in the background of the neighborhood streets, by the behavior of the tourists the characters are forced to accommodate. After the abrupt cutoff of the final crescendo, these are the images that linger most, that most unsettle and resonate as one walks out of the theater and into a world built on versions of those same signs, those same consumers.

After the breakout reception at Cannes, it seems likely this film will show up on this year’s Oscar ballots. It’s the kind of movie that I would usually say is too idiosyncratic to take the stage, but it’s also one of the strongest contenders I’ve seen yet this year–a patient, subtle, moving film. See it.

The Weekly Roundup

Maybe this feature should just be a Tuesday thing. That’s when I seem to be able to get to it. But alright, regardless: may I present reflections on films watched between November 7th and 13th, 2017.

(1969)
It’s remarkable that, even removed by 50 years and thousands of miles, everything in this movie feels so modern and relevant. Costa-Gavras’s film (in French, set in Greece) covers the assassination and surrounding conspiracy of a leftist politician and is constantly moving through a bubbling pool of characters, each with individual motivations and agendas beyond the nationalist/communist divide at the film’s center. It’s this plethora of emotion and ideology, coincidence and desire, that makes the film both exciting to watch and insightful to think about, especially in light of a current political climate with more than a few similarities to the one depicted here.

Mother India (1957)
Mehboob Khan’s 1957 epic of village life has been called the Gone With the Wind of Hindi cinema, is one of the highest grossing films in India’s history, and has a notable place in the canon of world cinema, so it’s been on my to-watch list for some time. It’s a huge film (174-ish minutes) covering in colorful, melodramatic strokes the struggle of a woman (Nargis) and her two sons (Sunil Dutt and Rajenda Kumar) to survive 20 or so years of poverty imposed by a cruel moneylender (Kanhaiyalal). The film is conscious of its status, created as a riposte to the colonialist/racialist 1927 novel of the same name and with a myth-making tone full of giant landscapes, grand montages, and, of course, elaborate musical numbers. Even across a cultural divide it feels a little dated in its stylization, but its undeniably powerful.

Hour of the Wolf (1968)
Though it adapts some of the trappings of gothic horror, this is still fundamentally a Bergman film before it’s anything else, which is to say it’s a chilly and uncompromising psycho-aesthetic puzzle. The art of Johan Borg (Max von Sydow) and the cruelty of the phantasmal patrons that interrogate and appropriate it becomes a reflection of his emotional state and relationship with his wife, Alma (Liv Ullmann) and former lover (Ingrid Thulin). The emotional climax doesn’t land quite as hard as some of the director’s other works (I’m thinking in particular of Through a Glass Darkly [1961] at the moment cos it’s one of my favorites), but this is at least partially offset by the creepiness of the atmosphere as an individualistic auteur dips a toe into genre.

The Lobster (2015)
Speaking of which… I’ve been meaning to watch this anyway, but decided to do it now after seeing The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which piqued my curiosity about Yorgos Lanthimos. This film is a lot more playful than the other one–more identifiable as a comedy amidst its absurdity (the camel wandering through the woods did me in). In that, it’s interesting seeing them together–the same style (the slow, stilted speech in particular) employed to very different ends (romantic comedy vs. psychological thriller). This one felt a little more realized; it has a clearer payoff and deadpan is a tone that suits this director’s voice very well. Not for the squeamish, though. Yeesh.

The Stranger (1946)
Orson Welles is at his best when he’s being villainous–Touch of EvilThe Third Man, and herein, where he’s the worst of the lot: a genocidal Nazi fleeing prosecution in a sleepy Connecticut town. Welles’s third film was an attempt to prove he could make a commercial success on time and under-budget (which he did) and is arguably most interesting in the context of that pedigree. But it’s still an engaging noir thriller in the vein of Hitchcock (Shadow of a Doubt and Notorious in particular), packed full of unusually understated versions of Welles’s signature long takes, peculiar setups, and deep shadows.

Ocean’s Eleven (1960)
I’ve seen the 2001 Soderbergh remake a few times so it’s difficult for me not to make comparisons (arguably in the wrong direction), but I can’t help but be struck by how much darker this film feels than its more modern counterpart. The comedy is still there, along with the raw, nervy Rat Pack cool, but underneath are postwar allusions to social commentary and the entire post-heist second half of this film feels more cynically satirical than anything Clooney and Pitt get up to. This is kind of in step with the change in Las Vegas itself; here it’s more of a blue-tinged twilight oasis instead of a flashing, 21st century circus. Also something I didn’t realize: this film was directed by two-time Oscar winner Lewis Milestone–one of his last, actually.

Real Life (1979)
Albert Brooks’s debut feature (as a writer/director; as an actor he appeared, somewhat unexpectedly, in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in ’76) takes on the then-nascent oxymoron of reality entertainment in a sendup of the landmark 1973 series An American Family. The film is fiction disguised as documentary (on multiple levels), Brooks playing an aggressively Hollywood version of himself as he inserts himself into and manipulates the Yeager family (Charles Grodin, Frances Lee McCain, Lisa Urette, and Robert Stirrat) ostensibly to make a film about their “real” life. The disrupting influence of the camera is the low hanging fruit here, but arguably more interesting is the variation on Brooks’s neurotic nebbish–a man whose insecurity finds shelter in manipulating his own life to conform to a narrative ideal. It’s also very funny.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

Some doctors have a certain style of speaking; when difficult decisions have to be made–sometimes very quickly–calm, authoritative statements can help people make those decisions by seeming to remove uncertainty from the equation. The characters in director Yorgos Lanthimos’s films tend to speak in a consciously unnatural manner anyway but in The Killing of a Sacred Deer he uses medicine as a context, a milieu in which the uncertain and the inexplicable cannot actually be masked or ignored, where responsibility cannot be deferred and where justice and vengeance are primal forces beyond the scope of careful, direct speech and composed exteriors. The film continues Lanthimos’s streak of highly controlled, highly individual works; it demands a great deal of engagement and its rewards depend on one’s willingness to encounter it under the conditions of its own abstracted logic.

The scenario is that of Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), a successful heart surgeon who lives with his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), an ophthalmologist in her own right, and their two children, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) Bob (Sunny Suljic). Steven also has a relationship with an awkward teenage boy, Martin (Barry Keoghan); they meet in diners, Martin visits him at the hospital where he works, he buys the boy expensive presents. The nature of their connection is mysterious at first, but something definitely isn’t quite right. Keoghan is something of a revelation particularly in this opening act, straddling an uncomfortable line between friendliness and menace as the film takes its time bringing Martin, and by extension Steven, into focus.

The conditions that come to drive the plot once Martin’s motives are made clear are left without concrete explanation, giving the film an air of divine inevitability drawn from Classical tragedy. Like Sophocles, Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou are interested in the psychic dissonance of individual pride and illusory control. Steven and his colleagues can casually make life-or-death decisions for others because they can wash their hands of the aftermath–it’s no coincidence that we are introduced to Steven removing bloody gloves after a surgery. Martin, seemingly by his very presence, comes to reveal the hollowness of such confidence; Stephen can’t quite push him away, can’t quite rid himself of the niggling guilt Martin embodies, but neither can he face a crucial decision when he must bear the full weight of its consequence.

Nor does he bear this consequence alone. Kidman has proven reliable tackling difficult roles in highly psychological films (see also: Dogville, Eyes Wide Shut, Stoker, even Margo at the Wedding) and brings that quiet intensity to bear as Anna’s passive mask contorts along with her husband’s and pushes up the degradation inherent in her existence. The children are a little bit more difficult to suss out, particularly Kim; her relationship with Martin once they are introduced is clearly important to the film, but it was difficult to pick apart–one of many reasons the film almost requires a second viewing. In a small but unexpected turn, Alicia Silverstone pops up as Martin’s mother whose unusual deference toward her son adds another complicated wrinkle to the puzzle.

In glancing over other reviews before seeing the film, I saw a few comparisons to the likes of Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke which seem to make sense. Both of those directors are canny at placing the audience in positions of uncomfortable sympathy or moral revulsion (which seems to be what’s happening here), both are fond of situations that are as cruel and absurd as this film’s climactic scene, and both have a deliberate and chilly style that allows no quarter and no shelter from what is being depicted, just as this film is certainly deliberate and chilly. Thimios Bakatakis’s camera is a patient observer in the bright and neatly ordered environments of the hospital and Steven’s home. A dissonant score quietly throbs throughout, but even intense moments are infused with space and silence.

As I mentioned, this is a film that somewhat requires a second viewing. There are threads in it that I feel I still want to follow; for example, there’s a low-key occupation with physical signs of puberty like menstruation and body hair which seem to indicate some kind of thematic function that, at the moment, still feels obscure. But the takeaway here is that that’s the kind of movie this is–one to be pondered and puzzled over, and which may never completely reveal itself. As an experience it’s deeply unsettling to watch, in part because of its frightening ambiguity, so I’m willing to call it successful as an artistic venture. But the slow, artificial, bloodless (metaphorically, although not literally) approach to Agamemnon’s mythological dilemma (the referential title cites the sacrifice of Iphigenia in works by Euripides and Hyginus) could legitimately be a turn-off to viewers looking for something more conventionally frightening.

 

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

If I’m being up front, I’m not a big fan of Marvel Studios. It’s the law of diminishing returns; Thor: Ragnarok is the seventeenth film to date in the MCU (that’s Marvel Cinematic Universe, in case you’ve been under a rock). James Bond took 25 years to get to this point, Marvel has done it in nine, and that’s ignoring the various television series and other extended tie-ins. At a certain point it can’t not start to feel recycled and endless (did I mention the third Avengers movie is called Infinity War?) and personally, that point had come and gone by the first Avengers movie, five years ago.

But sometimes within that cycle of big CGI explosions and stupid one-liners there are opportunities for filmmakers to put an individualistic spin on the material. This film is one of those opportunities realized and is stronger for it. Director Taika Waititi (heretofore best known for horror-spoof What We Do in the Shadows) leans in to the absurdity of the whole thing with a sharp comic sensibility. That instinct adds enough wit and weight to the bloat of the film’s inheritance to at least make it sort of enjoyable.

The story doesn’t really matter that much because you know it already, but alright, particulars. In this case, the big bad villain that shows up and threatens the world (Asgard, this time) is Hela (a gothed-up Cate Blanchett, clearly having a lot of fun), heretofore unmentioned, exiled sister of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who I guess isn’t dead. She kicks her brothers out of town and takes over, gleefully killing everyone that Heimdall (Idris Elba, actually getting to do something in this entry) can’t protect. Meanwhile said brothers somehow end up on trash planet, which is presided over by a dandyish Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, also clearly having a lot of fun). The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) is also there for some reason, and has become a champion in the fighting pits where Thor gets dumped by scavenger/bounty hunter/something Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson, easily the most earnest performance in the movie), who might just have a connection to Asgard herself and… well, you can pretty much figure out what happens from there.

Most of the Marvel movies have had a pretty light tone, but it’s clear from the opening sequence that this one is going to have a particular emphasis on comedy in a way that even Guardians of the Galaxy did not; a temporarily imprisoned Thor keeps interrupting a monologuing monster while he spins awkwardly from a dangling chain. The moment is conversational and generically self-aware and sets the tone for a lot of what’s to follow. An apex of this kind of reflexive humor comes as Thor returns to Asgard where Loki, in the disguise of Odin (Anthony Hopkins, getting a paycheck) watches a stage production (featuring a cameo by Sam Neill, by the way) of his own death that basically parodies the end of the previous Thor movie (2013’s Thor: The Dark World). Waititi and writers Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost clearly know how absurd the whole affair is and are having fun with it.

To their credit, they also seem to be trying to do something relevant with it as well. The tagline that gets repeated a couple of times toward the end of the film, “Asgard is a people, not a place” (which I don’t think really counts as a spoiler), and the events of the climax (which would) point toward a humanist perspective on the ongoing real-world refugee crisis. Hela’s frustration with Odin’s revisionist history of their home is loaded with post-colonial subtext (“Where do you think all this gold came from,” she pointedly asks her brother). The Grandmaster’s balking at the term “slaves” (he prefers “prisoners with jobs,” a euphemism delivered by actress Rachel House whose small part as his assistant Topaz is also a highlight) rings similarly with satirical force.

But the social commentary is blunted a bit by the… Marvelness of it. By that I mean the film is typically overlong (130 minutes) and loaded with enough weightless CGI to make (fellow New-Zealander) Peter Jackson blush. Despite a couple impressive tableau moments (the Valkyries’ ride against Hela, Thor’s leaping attack on the Bifrost bridge), it feels much like its predecessors in the hollowness of its massive spectacle, without any real sense of menace, danger, or consequence. As part of such a large series, it also suffers from being somewhat incomprehensible without at least a passing familiarity with a lot of the rest of the material–the admittedly funny sequence featuring Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) leaps to mind as an example.

I don’t hate fun or anything, but I am finding myself questioning the point of reviewing this film. Odds are anyone reading this (or any other review) knows whether or not they’re going to see it already, and pretty much exactly what to expect if they do. And even if all the critics in the world completely panned on one of these movies, it’s not like the next five or six haven’t already been made (that’s not an exaggeration, by the way–there are presently 6 more MCU films in various stages of production), so it’s hard to feel like any individual opinion really matters here.

But individual opinions are what I’ve got so here goes: this move really didn’t need to exist. But it does, and as far as the frenetic baubles of the MCU go, it’s one of the more enjoyable ones, up there in the top rung of the pack with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy. If you’re not sick of superhero nonsense at this point (which apparently many people are not), but are discerning about which ones to see (are there such people?) this one should go on that list. If you are sick of superhero nonsense, there’s nothing here that’s going to change your mind. Since I kinda fall in that category, the most appealing aspect of this film was seeing a promising independent filmmaker get such a big break. But I did laugh.

 

The Weekly Roundup

Unfortunately I wasn’t home last night to round it off; so a day late and ever a dollar short, I present The Weekly Roundup for October 31st through November 6th, 2017.

Point Blank (1967)
I quite like all the John Boorman movies I’ve seen (even Zardoz) and this one continues that streak, although it’s not what I was expecting. I was prepared for a gritty crime thriller featuring a stoically masculine Lee Marvin, but I wasn’t quite prepared for how icy, violent (for the time), and often experimental this film is. It drops you into an already boiling narrative in kind of a surreal whirlwind and then moves into a brutalist neo-noir with Angie Dickinson. One of the first examples of Americans finally getting on the new wave–the film came out at almost the same time as Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde, which I’ve repeatedly heard referred to as an academic launching point–and, if one is to believe the stories, much of the film’s innovation came from Marvin (including the hiring of Boorman and ditching of the original script), which is pretty cool.

Kedi (2016)
An excellent documentary about the street cats of Istanbul, Kedi isn’t just about looking at cute kitties, although there is a lot of that to be done here. While you’re watching the little fuzzballs scrap and scrounge, there are interviews with a handful of people who help care for them that verge into surprisingly philosophical territory with regard to the way we relate and communicate with other emotional beings, our responsibility and stewardship toward nature, and the way modernization is changing our communities across the globe. But it manages to touch on these subjects without feeling like its moralizing, and it’s full of the spirit of a really beautiful, old-world city.

Hullabaloo Over Georgie & Bonnie’s Pictures (1978)
I’m more aware of Merchant Ivory from their larger prestige pictures (The Remains of the Day, Howard’s End, A Room With a View) but if this is any indication, their smaller-scale work is still pretty lavish. The story manages to ruminate on history and memory, art, gender, colonialism, capitalistic modernism, and the pursuit of happiness, all within a breezy 83 minutes. It’s a quiet, conversational film–funny in a very dry way–but still full of vivid Indian color and music as the eponymous art collection is hounded over by characters with a variety of attitudes, motivations, and emotional baggage.

Repulsion (1965)
Polanski’s second feature is psychotic break as subjective experience and in that, it’s remarkably effective. Much of this is down to Catherine Deneuve–her Carol is impenetrable but wholly consistent, able to evoke shades of sympathy while still being unquestionably disturbed. The film follows her madness with a mixture of real and hallucinated images rendered equally unsettling (a particularly vivid example: the decapitated skinless rabbit gathering flies; one wonders if Adrian Lyne had this consciously in mind). Not a movie for the easily bored or faint of heart, but an interestingly raw example of a masterful control of narrative tension more fully realized in Rosemary’s Baby.

Broadcast News (1987)
James L Brooks’s second feature as a director (after Terms of Endearment) is simultaneously a deep character study of three frustrated, semi-functional workaholics, a charming and witty romantic comedy, an incisive satire/parody of such, and a love letter to a bygone era of journalism. The whole thing oozes sophistication from the almost tongue-in-cheek opening sequence that introduces the leads as children to the gentle, wistful epilogue. And all three leads are at the top of their game here–William Hurt is charming and conniving in a way that’s hard to pin down, Albert Brooks plumbs the contradictions of his frustrated persona, and in particular Holly Hunter makes her Jane’s emotional arc the center of the film (she should’ve gotten top billing here, she’s the lynchpin of the thing). I usually like James L Brooks–to the degree that I’m willing to forgive a lot in his lesser films–but this is him doing some of his finest and most insightful work.

A Passage to India (1984)
David Lean’s last film, an adaptation of E.M. Forster’s last novel (aside from the posthumous Maurice), is as I understand somewhat less ambiguous in its central action around which the story pivots. Here, Dr. Aziz (Victor Banerjee, along with Peggy Ashcroft–who won an Oscar for her role here–one of two cast members repeated from Hullabaloo Over Georgie & Bonnie’s Pictures above) as more clearly innocent of the assault on Ms. Quested (Judy Davis). Despite this (arguable) simplification, the film is still remarkably nuanced (with the notable exception of Alec Guinness as Professor Godbole). The difficult intersection of privilege and oppression, of Eastern and Western culture, of the personal and the political is rendered in Lean’s usual spacious lavishness. Stylistically the film feels almost out of time–watching it, its kind of hard to believe it came the same year as Ghostbusters and The Terminator–but the formal… archness, I suppose… only works to underscore the forces of propriety and expectation that drive the characters forward (and nearly consume them all).

9 to 5 (1980)
For the first half hour or so, this is the ’80s workplace comedy I was expecting, something like a slightly edgier predecessor to Working Girl, but firmly based in the real world. Then Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton (in her film debut) start passing the joint and embark on a series of increasingly elaborate fantasy sequences, a register change the film never looks back on. By the time it’s over, it ends up something like a bizarre thriller–a few tweaks and it could be a David Fincher film instead of a zany satire. Instead, the whole film–and especially Dabney Coleman’s piggish villain–hits a pitch somewhere between being too silly to be truly offensive or progressive and being incisive and ridiculous enough to still mostly land almost 40 years later.

Targets (1968)
Speaking of still landing… this film–Peter Bogdanovich’s debut–shares a chilling quality with Sydney Lumet’s Network, in that it has accumulated relevance beyond its time. It’s also in a category of films–like 8½ and Adaptation–that are about themselves. That’s Bogdanovich playing the director trying to convince Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff, himself in all but name) to be in his new horror film. This film will do away with Victorian monsters and make a statement about a new kind of horror, the kind where All-American young men like Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly) go on murderous rampages for no easily-articulable reason. When these twin plots converge, the bullets are literally coming out of the screen itself in the kind of moment made tailor-made for undergrad term papers. It’s vital filmmaking, terrifying on a startling level, and probably my favorite film on this week’s list.

Villain (2017)

Villian is kind of an odd film. A product of “Mollywood,” the Malayalam-language subset of the Indian film industry–it borrows liberally from the cliches of western crime dramas, but seems less interested in delivering taut suspense than in exploring the emotional and philosophical positions of its central characters. The results are interesting but decidedly mixed. The film is long (153 minutes), slow, and in many ways predictable, but is also full of enough stylistic and narrative flourishes to keep it loping toward its meditative conclusion.

At the center of the story is star ADGP (a high-ranking police designation) Matthew Manjooran (Mohanlal, quite the star as I understand it), about to retire from the force after a family tragedy who, naturally, gets roped into a last case with deeply personal connections. Though he bounces ideas off other members of his elite task force, including trusted sidekick Iqbal (Chemban Vinod Jose) and rookie investigator Harshita (Raashi Khanna), the central concern of the film is the conflict between Matthew’s pain and his ideals. Mohanlal is able to carry off this conflict, anchoring the film’s quiet (and best) moments with excruciating restraint seemingly as effortlessly as he throws out some sweet moves during several–tonally-unexpected but nonetheless fun and dynamic–action sequences.

On the other side of the table is Dr. Shaktivel Palanisamy (Vishal). He’s obviously meant to be Matthew’s moral and intellectual inverse, but in very broad strokes that don’t completely land. Writer/director B Unnikrishnan only gives him a cursory, mostly-narrated backstory that doesn’t leave much psychological weight or sympathetic connection, so the link between his past trauma and his actions feels loose at best. Some of this is down to Vishal’s unsubtle performance–by contrast Hansika Motwani wrings more out of less as his girlfriend/partner Shreya–some of it is the script, but in the end it takes a lot of the impact out of the film’s central conflict.

This would be less of a problem if there were more narrative tension and, at first, it feels like that’s the direction things are going to go. The opening sequence of murders and its connection to the frantic, Burkah-clad woman Harshita encounters in a cafe sets up a tantalizing mystery. But they’re followed by a number of twists and subplots which don’t deepen that mystery so much as spin it out into a complex, corrupted web. To the story’s credit, everything does hang together and no detail is extraneous, but so much is crammed in that information ends up a little muddled without any space to misdirect attention or leave the audience much room to wonder.

Stylistically the film is kind of all over the place, but is more interesting for it. The musical asides–a staple of Indian cinema but potentially very jarring for those unused to such–range from the usual sun-dappled dancing in the mountains to a chaotic rock club to a hallucinatory dream. These exist on a similar register to the aforementioned fight scenes sprinkled throughout which feature a relentlessly circling camera, stuttering motion effects, and elaborate choreography. Even when it’s not totally jumping out of its skin, the film moves between a light investigative tone–eg: the interactions the team has with a pair of hapless drug dealers/thugs–and deeply serious character study. It’s in these latter moments that the film really succeeds–an extended/recurring bedside hospital sequence stands out particularly in memory–but the mishmash itself is oddly engaging. The identity and motivations of the killer are obvious and bluntly revealed, but one still never quite feels certain of what the film is going to do next.

It’s hard film to recommend because it’s not really completely successful on any of its fronts–it’s tepid as a thriller, confused as a character study, meandering and distracted as a crime drama, overly simple as a philosophical conversation. But it’s worth noting the ambition necessary to try to be all those things. And with the help of a strong central performance, there’s enough pathos and style to make it an interesting curiosity and certainly refreshingly different from the detached grit of its occidental generic counterparts.

 

Happy Death Day (2017)

Happy Death Day is the kind of unabashedly stupid title that makes me leery of a film–a half-joke you can just hear spoken with heavy emphasis on the middle word and an entreating laugh that thinks itself more clever than it is. Add to that a premise that attempts to put a spin on a more original film–in this case, “dude, what if Groundhog Day was a slasher movie!?”–and my expectations going in were further cranked down, almost to the level of disposable parody (see: Scary Movie, or rather, don’t). So I’m pleased to report that this film came as something of a pleasant surprise. Not everything about it works–it has its share of derivative, saccharine, or unfortunately hollow moments–and if it were even an ounce more cynical than it is, it’d fall flat on its face. Instead, though, there’s enough awkward charm to make it a pretty enjoyable movie for the PG-13 crowd.

The plot follows the somewhat distractingly-named Tree (Jessica Rothe), a self-absorbed sorority girl at a Louisiana university on her birthday, September 18th. The day begins waking up with a hangover in the dorm room of Carter (Israel Broussard), a sheepish stranger, and ends on the wrong end of a knife wielded by a killer in a creepy baby-face mask. But rather than drifting off to the great beyond, the murdered Tree wakes up once again in Carter’s dorm room on September 18th. With no explanation available for what turns out to be a repeating reset button, Tree eventually realizes the only way to break the cycle is to avoid/unmask her killer, but doing so means taking a serious look at her life and the person she’s become.

The addition of a Scream-like whodunnit to the “terrible person has to redo things til they get it right” plot of Groundhog Day is actually pretty clever–the audience has as many chances as the heroine to examine the details of her day looking for clues. Screenwriter Scott Lobdell and director Christopher Landon wring a lot of energy out of the conceit by offering up a bevy of interesting suspects–the stalker (Caleb Spillyards), the married boyfriend (Charles Aitken), the disgruntled rival (Rachel Matthews), and so on–but other than tossing out red-herrings willy-nilly, they never really commit to the inherent mystery. The ultimate reveal feels a little limp-wristed as a result; the thriller part of the film’s DNA would have been far more satisfying had it been set up a little more carefully.

But the other half of the film’s hybrid–basically a teen comedy–is where it shines. This is in no small part thanks to Rothe’s appeal as an actress; she’s able to sell Tree’s transition from unlikable stereotype to actual person better than the script often deserves and I’m interested to see her take on a more mature role. Watching her take out her intelligent frustration at her situation–and the resulting bemusement of those around her–becomes the reason to watch the film, and if there’s nothing particularly original about that process, there are enough moments that are genuinely fun to keep up interest until the obvious romantic ending. Because the film is balanced this way it is in terms of tone, the slasher aspect plays in service of the coming-of-age story, a literal way for Tree to face the consequences of her immaturity and to try on different identities and tactics for dealing with her world. The horror-as-metaphor isn’t as sophisticated as something like It Follows, but it’s also not leaning as hard into horror as that film does–it’s hard to imagine even younger audiences being really frightened by anything here because ultimately that’s not the point.

Instead, the most telling moment about what the filmmakers are doing comes as the camera pans away to the credits. As we leave them behind, Carter actually namedrops Groundhog Day and Tree says she’s never heard of it. The moment’s kind of wincingly self-aware for those of us saddled with the baggage of the film’s heritage, but it also points out we are not who the film is for or about. This is a film about young adulthood for a younger audience and it wears its influences like a teenager wearing a borrowed suit to a first job interview. If you’ve been around the block, you know the work can be done better, but if you’re looking for energy, levity, and enthusiasm it might well be worth it to hire the kid.