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.

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.

on Heartworms

I think part of the problem when I start blogs like this is I suddenly feel overburdened to explain everything–to write essays, rather than simply catalog reactions, which is what I actually want to do. I don’t know that one can have a critical voice without a certain amount of immediacy, at least I don’t know that I can, and I need to shake the academia off a bit.

So in that spirit, I listened to the new Shins album this evening while I was doing my dishes and really dug it. A lot of it resonated with the part of me that’s conscious of my own aging. It felt sensitive without being overwrought, which seems like a harder and harder line to walk. And musically I liked that it never quite went where I expected it to.

Particular standouts are “Mildenhall,” which has this kind of rambling mix of Americana and Englishness, the sleek new-wavy “Half a Million” (see: what if Weezer hadn’t just kind of given up), “Painting a Hole” because I’m a fat sucker for psychedelia, and the title track, which is exactly what it should be.