Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Not Quite Big Enough



When I was much younger, in some film book or another that one or another member of my family had brought into the house, I saw a still image from Alfred Hitchcock's now little-known 1949 picture Under Capricorn. That image must count now as a pretty massive spoiler, but at the time it only struck me as evidence that this was a film I, always trying to stoke and strengthen my morbid attitude and aesthetic (such as it was then; at least I have better taste now), had to see ASAP. I didn't realize that Under Capricorn was then one of the harder Hitchcock films to get one's hands on, certainly from that period, after he'd become a kind of superstar director. It would be literally decades before I'd finally be able to lay eyes on it (well, it is, or was, on YouTube, but that was a last resort option, one I happily didn't have to take). But I never forgot the image from that book, or the title, which itself had, to me anyway, a kind of sinister tone to it.

The other thing I couldn't have known those many years ago is that had I been able to see Under Capricorn then, I would have hated it. The film, now out on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, is a visually and emotionally colorful period melodrama that takes a pretty sharp turn into the Gothic in the final stretch. In Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitchcock insists, and Truffaut agrees, that this section is one of the film's great weaknesses (it was a financial disaster, which is a big reason why it's been hard to come by for so long), but I must say, I rather liked it. This stands to reason, I guess, since it's from here that the image burned into my head in childhood comes; and on my list of things I like in movies, this part also ticks a box or two. And Hitchcock did know how to handle such material.

For a decent amount of its runtime, the story is not obviously leading us in this direction. It's about a cocky young Englishman named Charles (Michael Wilding) who travels to Australia to make his fortune. There he meets, Sam (Joseph Cotten) an Irishman who came to Australia as a convicted murderer but has since paid his debt to society and established himself as a successful landowner. Charles and Sam enter into a business partnership, and a budding friendship, which is strengthened when it turns out that Charles knew Sam's wife Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman) when they were younger. But Henrietta is now a moody alcoholic, Sam's own criminal history casts a pall even over his success, and Charles and Henrietta begin to become closer than seems wise.

It all boils slowly, though. Along the way, Under Capricorn distinguishes itself by its bright pastel colors and very sharp camerawork. This was Hitchcock's second Technicolor film, the first being Rope, which directly preceded it. As in that earlier movie, in Under Capricorn Hitchcock messes around with long takes. Rope is a personal favorite of mine, but his use of the long takes ranges from elegant while the camera drifts through the apartment in which that film is set, to clumsy and blunt as the lens pushes into the back of an actor so Hitchcock can cut out of the shot. But Under Capricorn is not laboring under the same conceit as Rope -- Hitchcock isn't trying to make you believe it's all one long take. This frees him up to experiment with the long take, to figure out what it can bring out in terms of style and emotion, and how it can establish an environment. For the latter, look at the shot of Wilding walking down a long hall and through several rooms to get to the office of the governor (his cousin). It's not that long in terms of time, but in any other film in 1949 it would have either involved several cuts, or it wouldn't have bothered with showing him get there at all. Here, though, we understand the kind of building Charles is in, and the kind of powerful connections he has, and how blithely he floats through it all. The best long take is later, at a dinner party thrown by Sam, which packs in so much about the society in which Under Capricorn is set, and runs through so many tones that it transitions the whole film from the somewhat light-hearted air it began with into the more somber, sinister cloud that will follow it the rest of the way.

As you'd imagine, Joseph Cotten is very good, and charming in that odd, Joseph Cotteny way, as is Margaret Leighton as Milly, Sam's housekeeper. Ingrid Bergman, on the other hand, is pretty tremendous -- she's tragic and pathetic, brave, tormented, hopeful, passionate. She does a lot in this role, for a film now mostly forgotten. Less strong for me is Wilding, who seems to me to be punching above his weight. Bergman has a big, show-stopping monologue, the end of which Wilding blunders onto like a big, oblivious dog. But he's rather strong at the end, especially in that bit of the movie that Hitchcock and Truffaut like the least. The very end, which they agree is too pat, I actually found quite moving. And you know what? I'm right. I guess that's why they're two of the greatest film artists who ever lived, and I have my own blog!

Saturday, June 9, 2018

She Needed to Feed You

[BEWARE: I PRETTY MUCH SPOIL EVERYTHING HERE]

I’m sure it’s happened dozens if not hundreds of times over the course of my life, but in these modern times which we all so lament having to live through, the first example I can remember of a horror film being advertised as – and even being critically blurbed as such – “the most frightening movie ever made” or “you will ever see” is, of all the things, the 2013 remake of The Evil Dead. “If you must aspire to be the next Alexandre Aja,” I believe our collective reaction to that one went, “please leave us out of it.” Just two years later, The Witch rode a similar wave of rhetoric, and while no film can live up to this sort of thing, that film was plenty all right by me. Not everyone agreed, though, and now look at us. Unfortunately, no one learns a damn thing in this world, and now Hereditary, the debut feature from writer/director Ari Aster has been pushed for months as the scariest movie you will see this year – a little bit more reasonable this time around – or, I saw one guy say, maybe ever. So much for reason.
That Hereditary can’t match the effusiveness of its marketing actually doesn’t have anything whatever to do with the film itself. These are just studio gimmicks – aided by “festival brain,” a condition which I’m pretty sure afflicts some critics – used to lure people into a movie that they’re probably not going to like. I think The Witch is a no-foolin’ great movie, but I’m not surprised that after seeing it many people left the theater frustrated. I suspect a similar fate will be met by Hereditary, but then again, who knows? This damn movie is such a kook-ball soup of the idiosyncratic and the obligatory, the striking and the enervating, that its fate could be just about anything.
The film begins with the funeral of Ellen Leigh. She was the mother of Annie Graham (Toni Collette), whose eulogy for her mother is perhaps a bit ambivalent. As are the emotions of Annie's husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff). Reacting with a sadness that might be deemed more typical of the situation is the daughter of the family, young Charlie (Milly Shapiro), a withdrawn girl, who is older than she looks (at one point it's said she's thirteen, but she looks like she's maybe eight), and possessed of many strange habits and interests, including randomly clucking her tongue and creating odd, "outsider art"-like toys. Charlie worries what will happen to her when her mom dies, the fact of mortality having now been driven home for her, not least because she was her grandmother's favorite, and Annie says her dad and brother will take care of her. This seems like cold comfort to Charlie. Added to her bond with her grandmother is her apparent affinity to Annie, whose diorama-like artwork (including a massive one resembling her house and depicting her family and maybe her entire life in miniature, and which she is working on throughout the film) resembles in their obsessiveness Charlie's own drawings and hand-made toys. Meanwhile, apparently masking a deeper grief than she lets on, Annie begins attending grief counseling (under the guise of going to the movies by herself), where she lays out the various horrible tragedies of her mom's life, and how the mother that was left afterwards affected her, Annie. They're quite something, these tragedies, the theme shared by all being mental illness.
So one night, Peter, the son, gets invited to a party. Annie says to Peter, take Charlie. Charlie, who on this day is fresh from apparently seeing her grandmother's ghost surrounded by flames in the woods behind their house, doesn't want to go, but Annie, who has a tendency to be both brusque and slightly manic, insists. For some reason, Peter doesn't find this demand to be all that outrageous, though he also doesn't want to drag his sister along. But he does, and at this Wild Teen Party, Charlie eats a piece of cake that has nuts in it, and she's allergic so her throat starts to close up. Peter grabs her, throws her in the car, and speeds to the hospital. However, on the way, Charlie, just a kid and in a panic, and so unclear about what will and what won't help her breathe again, opens a car window to stick her head out for some fresh air. You know, like dogs do. Speaking of dogs, there's a dead one -- or some sort of dead animal anyway -- in the middle of the road, and Peter, himself in a panic, and speeding, swerves to avoid it. In doing so, he goes off the road, and there's a telephone pole, or anyway some sort of pole, and Charlie, hanging out the window, slams into it, and her head is ripped from her body. In screenwriting guides, this sort of thing is often referred to as "the end of Act One."
We're off to the races now, obviously, and Hereditary begins, or is about to begin to be, a "proper" horror film. This process takes a while, which is no knock on the film. By all means, take your time. It is also from this point on that all the best and the worst of the film occurs. There are tonal problems of which I do not quite know what to make. Immediately following the death of her daughter, Annie is shown weeping furiously in her bedroom. The film then cuts to a shot of the family at Charlie's graveside, with Annie still weeping just as furiously. This sound does not cut between shots, but connects the two. There's obviously a significant time lapse between the two shots, but the weeping is all one sound, as though Annie had been weeping non-stop. Which under the circumstances could be reasonably assumed, I suppose, but as an editing choice it evokes something comical. This edit is a comedy edit, not a dramatic, or melodramatic, or horror edit. It forces the audience to imagine what happened between the two shots, and the unavoidable image is one of Annie weeping like that all the time, in bed, in the shower, on the toilet. It is, in short, a joke. Did Ari Aster recognize it as such? If he did, then it is a joke, and why in the hell would he want that at this point in his movie?
Anyway, so it begins. The remaining family -- Annie, Steve, and Peter -- seem able to more or less get on with their day-to-day business better than I would have expected under circumstances that are not merely terrible but also grotesque, in a lot of different ways (a shot of Charlie's ant-infested decapitated head is included by Aster to prove, I suppose, that he is not fucking around), but the audience doesn't quite know how much time has passed between Charlie's funeral and the next turn of the plot, and I'm not sure how much I should dwell on my belief that these characters aren't grieving the way I think they should. Of more immediate importance is Annie's encounter with Joanie (Ann Dowd) in the parking lot outside the building where Annie goes for grief counseling. The two commiserate, and Joanie offers to be there for Annie whenever she might need a sympathetic ear. More family history is revealed (Annie once almost burned herself and her children alive while sleepwalking; Annie's mother really fucked with her head), until Joanie reveals she's now a psychic who can help Annie contact her dead daughter. She proves this at her own home by contacting her dead grandson. Here, Toni Collette is rather brilliant. In most horror movies, when a character is faced with incontrovertible evidence that the supernatural is real, the actor reacts, or is made to react by the director, in a way that is at best efficient: first indicate shock (or, if time is an issue, surprise), then run! Collette, and Aster, on the other hand, have the imagination to create an authentic response to an inauthentic situation. It's hard to describe what Collette does without simply running through a list of her body movements and facial expressions (she does a lot with just her breathing), but think of all she has to get across: not merely denial, but wholly unconvincing denial, terror, a desperate hope that this is real, total shock, and a mania borne from having just come untethered from the world she knew. Collette has to do all of these things at the same time.
It's a marvelous scene, and Collette is marvelous not only in that scene, but throughout the film. But then Ari Aster starts going all screwy again. Annie, of course, wants to try this with Charlie. To do so, Joanie tells her, she'll need the whole family together, as well as something that was important to Charlie. Annie chooses Charlie's sketchbook, in which she drew crude, not altogether flattering pictures of everyone she met. Annie gets an angry, skeptical Steve and a nervous Peter into the dining room and starts the séance, which begins working. Now, when Annie was going through this with Joanie and her grandson, at one point Annie slowly ducked her head under the table to see if Joanie was up to any shenanigans that would help explain the inexplicable phenomena she was seeing. Aster's camera panned down with Annie's lowering head, and sees when she does that there is nothing going on under the table. When Annie is in control of the séance in her own home, Gabriel Byrne's Steve also ducks down to look under the table. This is understandable. What is less understandable to me is Aster's decision to once again follow a head down to discover nothing under a table. If Steve isn't going to see anything that Annie didn't, why move the camera? It's enough to see him duck out of frame. The choice Aster made feels like the callback to a joke, except there's no joke. Does Aster expect the audience to think that Joanie is on the level, but Annie is pulling a fast one, and the twist is she isn't? 
What doesn't help any of this is the fact that this shot of Steve ducking under a table has to count as one of Gabriel Byrne's big moments. As good as Collette is, you have to almost think in creating Annie, Aster ran out of things to write and had none left for Steve. He just plods along, cooking dinner and getting frustrated that his wife is acting like the decapitation of their daughter was almost like a personal insult or something. I think Steve is supposed to be the one saddest character in the film, because he's the most oblivious, he's the one who sees the least, and therefore understands even less than everyone else how completely his family is being destroyed. The problem is, Aster didn't write any scenes for him, so I'm left trying to guess what he must have wanted.
In fact, in terms of characters that matter, Steve has to come last. After Annie, Peter is really where it's at. As Peter, Alex Wolff is quite good. He goes through a lot in the film, giving a performance that at times seems like it must have been almost as exhausting as Collette's, and by the end Peter is as central to the plot and overall impact of the film as Annie. Not only is the history between mother and son fraught with near-violence, paranoia, and fear (Peter does not believe, says Annie, that she was merely sleepwalking the night she nearly burned them all alive), but it will come to pass that all these supernatural goings-on are as much about and for him as anyone. Which, as always, brings up more problems. So, what's going on is this: Annie's mom Ellen was a Satanist. Annie learns this by noticing that Joanie's apartment's welcome mat looks like the kind of welcome mat her mom used to knit. So after going "hey wait a second," she runs home and starts going through all the boxes of her late mom's stuff. There she finds suspiciously familiar welcome mats, photo albums featuring Ellen and Joanie smiling together at parties, and also huge number of books on the occult and Satanism. "I forgot all about these," Annie never says, but I imagine she must have thought at some point. In one of these books, a sentence about a Hell King or something craving a young male body is underlined ("I'd better underline this because it is very important," Ellen surely thought at the time). This all means that Joanie is no good at all, and the séance ritual she taught Annie is in fact rather more malignant than advertised. If the spirit Annie believed was Charlie is in fact Charlie (and there's evidence that it is), then Charlie's spirit has been corrupted, or maybe always was corrupt. In any case, now it's in Annie, and the sketchbook used to connect to Charlie now cannot be destroyed without destroying Annie. And Annie wants to hurt Peter, except she doesn't.
The last twenty minutes or so are pure horror. The slow-burning fuse has reached the dynamite, and Aster pours every horror idea he has or has borrowed into this stretch of the film. As with everything else in Hereditary, the good pulls the bad along by its hair. One the one hand, there is an image in this section of the movie that is sure to become famous, so effectively unsettling is it. Of course, the image as an image is not innovative. What makes it work is that Aster doesn't demand that you notice it, by which I mean, he doesn't hammer it with music. It's not accompanied by a sting of violins, or any other sound. You'll see it when you find it (and some will of course see it immediately; I didn't) but you won't be told it's there. That Aster displays a light touch when it comes to the score may be the single most refreshing thing about Hereditary.
I found later images even more disturbing, including a reappearance of Charlie's severed head which is quite frankly terrifying. What would make it even more terrifying is if Aster had never told us that this whole story is more or less a twist on Rosemary's Baby (making it, among other things, an even longer con than it already was). I can't help imagining how the last five minutes of the film would have played without any context at all, meaning, the context Annie picked up from those stupid goddamn occult books. As unusual, admirably so, as Hereditary sometimes is, those dumb fucking occult books are no different from the awful scene that gets reproduced in every rinky-dink wisp of a horror movie that comes out in March and October and includes at some point a medicine cabinet being closed to suddenly reveal a grinning wet Victorian in the mirror, which then makes double its modest budget, and then flits up above our heads and crumbles like ash as though it never had been -- that scene, as I say, where Jamey Sheridan or Stephen Tobolowsky or William Fichtner pop up as folklorists and tell the hero in their booklined office or over Skype "That sounds like you're being haunted by the Bothinang, a demon known to haunt Midlothian -- he needs to eat your wife to grow powerful enough to excrete terror" which we all hate but which we just sort of accept in movies whose titles are synonyms for "bad." Hereditary is supposed to be above that sort of thing. I thought it was, anyway, and was just a little bit stunned that it wasn't. The phrase "how could you" may have crossed my mind.
None of which is to say the film isn't any good. It's just that, to quote my friend John Self, it's not many good. And since leaving the theater, I've wondered about it, and thought about what the audience is meant to think about the plot at the end of it all. I thought about the party that Peter is forced by Annie to take Charlie to. Why, I thought, would any parent think it's a good idea for her thirteen year-old daughter to accompany her seventeen year-old brother to such a thing? And then I thought oh, well, I guess this was all fated to happen. Because Annie is her mom's daughter, she's still under Ellen's control to some degree, though she's completely unaware of it. So Charlie had to go to the party so she could die (in fairness, probably from eating the peanuts, not the way it actually happens) so that what happens at the end can happen. But if that's the case, and the powers at work can manipulate entire lives to head in the directions they, the powers, choose, and end when they need them to end, then why even fucking bother? Why all this mousetrap shit? Just pick a day, shove everybody in a room, drop a brick on those that you need bricks to be dropped on, turn whatever spirits you need to be evil into evil spirits, shove them where you need them, and clock the fuck out. You could have saved me forty minutes, at least.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Leave Her Alone, You Bastard


The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (d. J. Lee Thompson) -  I was talking to a friend about -- well, I'll just spoil things right off the bat, I guess -- how boring I thought this 1975 horror(?) classic(??) was, and he noted wryly that it must be missing director J. Lee Thompson's usual dynamism. Yes, I replied, where was the J. Lee Thompson I knew from Messenger of Death? And so on. The exchange was certainly more entertaining than any given sequence in this quite shockingly logy cult classic. 

It's newly out on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber; the release coincides sadly with the recent death of Margot Kidder, who plays the film's mysterious possible villain, Marcia Curtis. We see her first, at the beginning of the film, killing a naked guy with an oar. This, we learn, is maybe a dream, or no, a flashback? anyway, something, which is being experienced by the titular Peter Proud (Michael Sarrazin). Peter rather too quickly comes to the conclusion that he is in fact the reincarnation of the dead naked guy, and when next we see Kidder, she is in the present day, wearing a wig that is sort of a little gray, and she has an adult daughter (Jennifer O'Neill) whose father, the unfolding and unengaging narrative reveals, was the dead naked guy. Therefore, she's also sorta kinda Peter Proud's daughter. Does knowing this inspire Peter to keep it in his pants? It does not.

So it's pretty sleazy, at least on paper. In actual practice, though, The Reincarnation of Peter Proud is an utter nap of a "supernatural thriller" (it absolutely does not read as horror, though that's how it's been categorized for the last 40-plus years; I'm going with the vague, milky, non-committal designation you encountered just before the parenthesis because the very weeniness of it is fitting) that can't even get excited by its own quasi-incest hook. This sort of bloodless sleaze is familiar to Thompson -- in Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects there's a scene where a guy is force-fed a wristwatch, and then Charles Bronson spends the rest of the film sitting in a parked car. Or so I remember, anyway. At any rate, it's a long way down from the original Cape Fear, I guess.




Shimmer Lake (d. Oren Uziel) - I wonder about movies like this one. How does a first-time director rope together a cast that includes Rainn Wilson, Ron Livingston, Rob Corddry, and John Michael Higgins? None of them are superstars, but all are "names," and all are successful, busy, and talented. Are Oren Uziel's screenwriting credits on such complete whiffs as 22 Jump Street and The Cloverfield Paradox enough to explain why he was able to put together this cast for his directing debut? I guess it must, but I suspect there are better filmmakers out there who were lucky enough to have written two shitty movies that got produced who would like to tell Uziel to fuck right off.

As it happens, Shimmer Lake (a Netflix Original, don't you know) is an obnoxious, pseudo-edgy dark crime etc., which for no good goddamn reason at all is told backwards. No effort was made to give each scene the illusion of flowing naturally in reverse, as Christopher Nolan did in Memento; instead, it becomes clear very quickly that when a main character dies, and then the film cuts to another character waking up, a new section of the film, the events of which occurred before the section we just saw, has begun. The only reason for any of this is so that when we get to the end, or beginning, we can say "Oh so that character was in on it too!" A thin reward, indeed, especially when you consider that thrillers have been managing that same thing while still telling their story rightways-round for ages. And it's thinner still when, by killing a character at the end of each section and introducing a new one at the beginning of the next, the "twist" that one of the characters is gay comes maybe ten minutes (at most) after we first meet the guy. So the twist I guess is more that, in this film, homosexuality exists.

Anyway. This film is about a bank robbery, and the title doesn't mean anything.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

You Played the Flute, I Played the Drums



Legend of the Mountain (d. King Hu) - I think it's safe to say that, at this point, among the people who care about and notice such things, Asian genre cinema has made a fairly strong impact on, and over the past couple of decades has become more and more available in, the Western world. Asian crime, action, and horror films, in particular, have provided, at minimum, an invigorating alternative when the American versions begin to feel stale (the Japanese horror film Pulse has more ideas and a more chilling patience than just about any American horror film since 2000; Korean revenge films are not like other revenge films). Less represented in this Eastern genre surge are science-fiction and fantasy films, though not because they don't exist. In 2000, Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden dragon was released. At the time, Lee was riding a wave of commercial and critical successes (and he hadn't even won either of his two Best Director Oscars yet), which I assume helped him mount this ambitious period action fantasy, which was also hugely successful. It was inspired by the wuxia films -- essentially martial arts films set in the past, if you will allow me to grossly oversimplify -- Lee loved so much, and for a brief period of time the door was open for other wuxia films to at least be distributed (so many of those that found an audience were directed by Zhang Yimou that this seemed almost to be a stipulation). Eventually that dried up. Had it gone longer, easy access to the films of the Taiwanese director King Hu may have come sooner, but for whatever reason it's here now: Criterion released A Touch of Zen, his best known film, in 2017, with Dragon Inn slated for later this year, and yesterday Kino Lorber put out on Blu-ray Legend of the Mountain, his 192-minute, fascinatingly small-scale epic. Which brings us to today.

I must begin by saying that A Touch of Zen, which I watched a couple of weeks ago, was more or less what I was expecting (up to a point, anyway), in that it combines the fantastic with elaborate martial arts fight scenes (Lee borrowed a lot from this movie, as he'd be the first to tell you), as well as, as the title suggests, a heavy dose of spirituality. Though of a different religion, A Touch of Zen is the kind of fantasy film that I believe C.S. Lewis would have appreciated. But while Legend of the Mountain resembles that earlier film in many ways -- both star Chun Shih as very similar financially unambitious scholars, both also feature old military forts, and ghosts played by Feng Hsu -- where it differs marks it as a truly unique piece of fantasy cinema. For one thing, if, for a film to be counted as wuxia, it has to prominently feature martial arts, then I guess Legend of the Mountain ain't that, because it doesn't have any. It has some combat, but it's always a magical, wizardly sort of combat. The most common and effective weapon used is a drum. The closest King Hu gets to recreating the leaping, floating fight scenes that made A Touch of Zen so influential is in a showdown between the demon Melody (Feng Hsu) and a priest played by Chen Hui-Lou. There is much that is acrobatic about this scene, but Hu shoots it from the point of view of a monk played by Ng Ming-Choi, who watches the fight, which is taking place outdoors, from inside a hut, through the doorway. So we see it from the same distance as the monk. On top of that, Hu cuts rapidly between the fight and the monk, who is throwing smoke bombs (or whatever) to try and help the priest. So the most elaborate fight is never seen closely, is frequently cut away from, and is increasingly obscured by smoke.

None of this is meant as a criticism, by the way. Legend of the Mountain is just the damnedest thing. It's over three hours, and the magical elements are brought in early, and are used heavily, and not subtly, throughout the film. Yet there are maybe seven characters total, and the vast majority of the story takes place within one, maybe two, square miles. Also, Ho Yunqing, the scholar played by Chun Shih, is introduced as a skeptic, which one might naturally soon is a detail introduced to set up later conflicts between spirituality and reason, except that Ho sees people vanish before his eyes very early on, and his skepticism vanishes right along with them. In other words, Legend of the Mountain is unconcerned with the typical set-ups and payoffs that tiresomely define so much genre filmmaking these days. Late in the film, a clumsily committed, thoroughly un-magical murder changes everything, but not necessarily in the way murders might normally change things. Legend of the Mountain doesn't follow a formula, it follows itself.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

That's the War for You


I imagine I first heard of John Boorman's Hope and Glory through the movie trailers at the beginning of VHS tapes that my family rented and bought in the late 80s. In my memory, that trailer was ubiquitous, along with the one for Alan Parker's Come See the Paradise. Both films are about very different World War II "homefront" experiences, with the tone seemingly struck by Boorman's film coming across as particularly unusual to Young Me: possibly romantic, but also largely comic, and featuring a young English boy thanking Hitler for sending a plane to blow up his school. At the time, both before and after I actually saw Hope and Glory, I think I was under the impression that it was a very small film that went largely unnoticed by anyone outside of my family, so it was with some surprise that I recently learned it was nominated for a slew of Academy Awards, and big ones, too (any passion I had available for such matters was entirely in the service of Sean Connery winning for The Untouchables. You're welcome, Mr. Connery).

And a strangely wistful, lightly and broadly comic remembrance of the London Blitz, is exactly what Hope and Glory (newly out on Blu-ray from Olive Films, by the way) is. The film is autobiographical, relating experiences that one has to assume are very close to Boorman's own childhood. In addition to directing, he also wrote the film, and serves as the uncredited narrator. It may be the most conventional film in Boorman's truly wild career -- how the same man could have also made Point Blank, Zardoz, Exorcist II: The Heretic, and Deliverance is utterly beyond me -- as well as one of his best.

But of course, ultimately Hope and Glory ain't that conventional. It's a film of moments -- there is of course no plot, as such. Instead it's comprised of memories and experiences that depict daily life in a city that is regularly bombed by German war planes, and the weird acceptance that this is what things are like now. Hence the film's comedy, which, as an overarching tone, rarely wanes. The comedic moments can be a tad broad from time to time -- for example, a man getting his hand caught in a car door, and the driver driving what seems to be a mile before realizing the trapped man isn't merely joking around -- but that this is the tone that Boorman chose is what matters most. That he never nudges you to notice that this is what he's doing is more important still. The film is mostly about kids, more specifically Sebastian Rice-Edwards as Bill, who's about twelve, and who lives with his mom (Sarah Miles), older sister (Sammi Davis), and younger sister (Geraldine Muir), after his father (David Hayman) signs up and goes off to war. And things go on as usual. Childhood is shown to be as funny and as absurd as most of us remember it to be, the difference being that all this normal, silly, stupid kids' stuff is happening in the rubble of their neighbors' exploded homes.

Boorman also seems to want Hope and Glory to call to mind the heightened reality of the classic films from that time. This would explain Sarah Miles's performance, or parts of it anyway, and could also relate to the subject of memory that movies of this sort must engage with on some level, and which Boorman appears to be engaging with more directly and more slyly than most. It's impossible for me to know, of course, but Hope and Glory is full of small moments that my inclination is to believe are specific memories that Boorman carried with him for the almost fifty years between the Blitz and finally rolling camera on this very movie. My favorite is a scene of people gathering outside to watch a dogfight, which is so high in the sky that Bill complains he can't see what's going on, while beside him his mother guilelessly waves, presumably, at the British pilot. In another, a young girl stands outside of her freshly bombed home while her school friends gossip in front of her, at full volume, that her mother was killed. At one point, Boorman cuts from a medium shot of the environment to a medium close-up of the girl as she puffs out an exasperated breath. She's not only grieving; she's also just kind of fed up.

In closing, I'd like to mention Sammi Davis, who, speaking of ubiquity, seemed to be everywhere in movies when I was a kid. However, when I look at her filmography it looks as though I've only this, A Prayer for the Dying, Mona Lisa, and a few others. In any case, she leapt out at me at the time. Her look and general vibe were not typical in movies, but she did find herself working with directors like Boorman, Neil Jordan, and Ken Russell who were not overly concerned with convention. Such directors are themselves not usual, which may explain why she retired from acting in 2008 (I've learned she's a photographer now). She had a real presence, she was effortlessly memorable, and she brings out a certain kind of cinephile nostalgia. Revisiting Hope and Glory this past weekend, I was happy to see her again.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Yams


A Girl (d. Simon Black) – Near the beginning of his review of a theater piece of some sort by performance artist Karen Finley, critic John Heilpern, by way of context, said of Finley “She has also been known to shove yams up her ass. I don’t know how I feel about that. As a good friend of mine asks: ‘Why yams?’” It’s a good question, and one whose broader philosophical implications occurred to me as I watched A Girl. This “film,” which was “developed” by director Black and star (and virtually the only actor in the thing) Hannah Short, lasts about an hour, is filled with a kind of ambient industrial score that early on evokes Tom Waits if Tom Waits never developed anything, is decidedly not filled with dialogue, and seems more than anything to want to pretend there is some sort of disconnect between the outwardly prim public face of Short’s character, and the wild, disturbing, solo sexual shenanigans she gets up to behind closed doors. If that really was the idea, Short and Black may have wanted to up the prim quotient by, for example, removing her nose ring. If that wasn’t the idea, then I don’t know what the idea was.

There’s nothing like a plot to be found here (though at one point she finds a briefcase); it’s just a series of I guess you’d call them “self-contained” set-pieces featuring Short in various stages of undress, doing any number of odd things, culminating in a very long sequence in which Short is absolutely as naked as one could possibly be, in a room where one would much rather be clothed, crawling about and messing around with a raw chicken. “Why yams?” Though honestly, given the level of subtext that Black and Short are willing to reach for here, the answer to “Why a raw chicken?” seems clear enough.

A Girl has just been released by Kino, as part of a series called “Satanic Sluts.” I’m well aware that I have no one to blame but myself.


The Teenage Prostitution Racket (d. Carlo Lizzani) – I realize that pairing these two films is just asking anyone reading this post to wonder what my deal is. I refuse to apologize, but I will say that the screener game can be unpredictable. This 1975 film, one of dozens made by the late Carlo Lizzani (who among other things worked as a writer on Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero) has quite a bit more going for it than A Girl by simply being a watchable film. It also has an interesting structure: the film is comprised of a series of short stories, each about a different teenage girl (played by young women like Cinzia Membretti and Cristina Moranzoni, neither of whom appeared in another film after this) who is tricked or forced into becoming prostitutes. Lizzani and his co-screenwriter Mino Giarda find a surprising variety within this basic storyline, and each method used by the vile and unscrupulous to send these girls down a path they would reject if they saw any way to do so rings true. Even the most dubious, which involves a party in which the women are urged to strip naked and have their pictures taken as a sort of game, which ultimately leads to the youngest woman there being blackmailed, is obviously based on reality to some degree.

The problem with the film is how one views the motivation behind its creation in the first place. Though it pitches itself as a kind of expose of a specific kind of white slavery, and a warning to parents throughout Europe, it’s still full of female nudity. With a premise like this, how could it not be? Yes, but must it leer? At any rate, it does, quite often. This makes The Teenage Prostitution Racket no different from any number of Italian genre films of the era – and whatever else it may be, this is a crime film, of a sort – and I won’t pretend that I usually object to this. But as the title suggests, these women do seem awfully young, and even setting that aside, being acutely aware of the hypocrisy inherent in the film you’re currently watching doesn’t often pave the way towards a favorable opinion. Or so the well-known saying goes. At best, The Teenage Prostitution Racket, now out on home video from Raro Video, is a curiosity.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Dining on Vultures


The Middle Eastern god Baal, who I only knew as a vaguely sinister deity when referenced in various works of genre fiction I’ve read over the years, is, I recently learned, primarily a fertility god. And not fundamentally sinister, either, from what I can tell, but anyway, a fertility god who controlled, among other things, rain and dew, which of course are needed for the growth of crops.

Baal, the character portrayed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Volker Schlondorff’s 1970 adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s first play (just released by Criterion), may not be a god of fertility, but he is fertile, bedding various women over the course of the film, and impregnating one of them. And Baal the film is curiously wet – not only is Vaseline (apparently, anyway) coating the rim of Schlondorff’s camera lens, but the Germany through which these characters stumble and drink and fight seems to perpetually drenched by a thin, depressing autumn drizzle.

However, there’s another Baal, spawned (if you will) from the fertility god, but now a prince of Hell, according to some occult literature. As Baal, the abusive, drunken, hateful, and prolific poet in Schlondorff’s film, a misanthropic asshole who blurts his poems between strippers at a seedy nightclub, Fassbinder does seem powerful, able to control the pathetic group of people who are sucked into his orbit inside one of those strange European bars that’s all blank walls and giant tables of unvarnished wood. This might be the Hell of which he is a prince. He does rule here, and takes what he wants, especially from the two women played by Irmgard Paulis and Margarethe von Trotta, both of whom are discarded, one of whom, because she fell under Baal’s spell, is doomed. Though in fairness, both may be doomed.

Like all gods – and maybe that’s what Brecht/Schlondorff/Fassbinder’s Baal is, after all – this Baal tells his own story. The film begins with Fassbinder walking down a path through a field, while Klaus Doldinger’s quite frankly nuts pop/jazz(?) score plays underneath a voice telling the story of Baal. The story is bleak and abstract, the imagery wild and violent, the voice sounding warped, too high somehow. It reminded me of David Bennent’s voice in Schlondorff’s The Tin Drum when Oskar shrieks “The gasman!!!”, if that voice achieved the same effect while somehow remaining calm. But later in the film, we see Baal reciting his own poetry, and that’s when I realized that the voice heard at the beginning of the film, as a sort of narration – and many more times throughout the course of Baal, always accompanied by Doldinger’s music – was in fact Fassbinder’s own. I’m not sure why it took so long for this to hit me, but the slightly disorienting effect this all had on me seems to me to be right in line with everything else in the film.

Baal is shot in a style that seems to want to evoke both gutter realism and stagey artificiality (at one point, during a scene featuring Baal among a group of lumberjacks, I honestly thought for a second Baal was going to turn into a musical). A handheld camera tilts up to look at birds overhead, as anyone walking through a field might do, but that Vaseline on the lens reminds us there is a lens. Fassbinder’s performance is skeevily naturalistic, while Sigie Graue (as Ekart, one of Baal’s circle who will eventually crack under the pressure of Baal’s unending shittiness) seems to have wandered over from a Bresson film. All of this is one way, I suppose, of tackling Brecht on film.

In addition to that gutter realism and stagey artificiality, Baal also emanates apocalyptic mysticism. That Vaseline does the additional work of evoking fantasy, or dreams, or a step from The Real World into that of A Story Being Told, Baal tells the story of Baal, he looks down on his creation. He is God and he is Man. The end of the film takes place in the woods, with our omniscient narrator/poet/deity watching himself die. It’s not a quiet death, but a spasmodic one, and it is directly preceded by a group of men making it very clear that they do not care. As Baal walks us through his death, his tone, and his words, suggest that neither does he.

The other day, after I finished watching Baal, I didn’t think I liked it very much. I’ve thought about it a lot since then.


Sunday, March 4, 2018

Oscars: The Whole Bit

Just for something to do, I’ve decided to write brief thoughts, or maybe sometimes longer than brief, we’ll see how it goes, about all of the films nominated for major Oscars this year. The ceremony is tonight, after all, and maybe this shit can go viral and finally make me as famous as I unquestionably do not deserve to be. I’m going to go in alphabetical order, because I think that will keep me fresh, keep me fuckin’ juiced, so I can make it to the end.

Two things to know before beginning: I haven’t seen everything, especially in the documentary, animated, and foreign film categories, and most importantly I have not seen Call Me by Your Name, which is a big blindspot in a situation like this, but there’s nothing to be done about it now. Anyway, if the movie isn’t talked about here, I haven’t seen it yet. Also, I’m going to slyly work in three capsule reviews of movies for which I have recently received screeners. Let’s see if you can spot them!
Ababcus: Small Enough to Jail (d. Steve James) – At one point in this documentary, which is about Abacus, a small, family-owned bank catering to New York’s Chinatown community, and the only bank to be prosecuted for fraud after the 2008 banking crisis, during the trial that is the spine of the whole thing, a recorded telephone call is played. On screen, as we hear the voices, a sort of audio bar graph of the sounds appears, as well as subtitles of everything said, should they be too garbled to be easily understood by the audience. Except that these subtitles lower, one word at a time, as each one is spoken, from the graph above it. This makes reading them actually kind of a pain in the ass. Watching the film I thought “What rinky-dink first-time documentary school jackass made this? This is the only ‘cinematic’ idea he or she had and it’s stupid.” I was a bit shocked to learn the director was, in fact, Steve James. This movie feels bored.

The Big Sick (d. Michael Showalter) – There was a time once when this movie would have been greeted with praise of the “Hey that was pretty good!” variety. And it would have even been deserved. Now, one gets the sense that this is the sort of movie that if you don’t get behind it a thousand per cent, then you, my good sir, do not understand cinema. It’s been nominated for best screenplay, I guess because in contrast to most modern comedies, it only feels kind of bloated, and because on some level it is about the Plight of the Comedian, which is of course the most dangerous and noble profession on Earth. I might also complain that star and co-screenwriter Kumail Nanjiani doesn’t seem to ever catch on to the disconnect when he portrays white racists as vile (fair enough) but portrays Pakistani racists with a “hey that’s just my family!” shrug. But I’m not going to do that! (Plus the film, and I  suppose life before it, puts Nanjiani in an impossible situation, makes his girlfriend completely unsympathetic towards his plight, and apparently expects us to side with her.) Ray Romano and Holly Hunter are terrific.

The Boss Baby (d. Tom McGrath) – This quite honestly could have been worse; it is nevertheless still bad. Apart from all the run-of-the-mill objectionable bits – fart jokes, counting children and babies disco dancing and smirking as a joke, what appeared to be an actual blowjob joke so that the “adults” in the audience could be secure that there’s something in this one for them, too – the movie itself doesn’t seem to understand what’s going on. The premise, ostensibly, is that there’s this seven-year-old boy with a very active imagination – he imagines his parents’ jobs at a pet toy/food/etc. company to be glamorous, jet-setting, almost spy-like, and so on – is told that he’s going to be a brother. He’s having a great time as an only kid, so he objects, and then when the baby arrives, the baby is a suit-wearing domineering, manipulative jerk who thinks he’s king shit and takes all the parents’ love for himself. So the action of the film will be very heightened in the kid’s head, and what the audience will see as wild improbable adventure is in reality just mundane growing up stuff. Visually, the movie even points us there once: during a barbecue, a bunch of babies get into a chase/fight with the older kid backyard, one that includes explosions and swinging on shit and whatever, but at one point there’s a cut to a couple of parents looking from the house into the backyard and they see an extremely scaled-down version of the crazy adventure we’ve just seen. So it is all in the older kid’s head! Except that when this sequence is over, the parents find the aftermath, and everything we were shown seems to have actually occurred, including the explosion. So what the fuck was that cut to the parents for? What, to paraphrase David Mamet, was that in aid of? Furthermore, the parents can also see that the baby is in a suit. Is the baby in a suit? There are a couple of decent jokes here and there (Alec Baldwin as the suited baby, upon learning that the special formula that allows him to act like an adult corporate executive, will soon be unavailable: “Without it I turn back into a real baby: goo goo, ga ga, the whole bit!”) which is a couple more than I was expecting, but overall this movie is an idiot.

Coco (d. Lee Unkrich) – With every new Pixar movie, more and more one-time fans seem to announce themselves as sick of the whole thing, so that not only are your Cars 3s and The Good Dinosaurs swept up in it, but so are the ones which are, to me, excellent. Now, mind you, Pixar is doing fine, I bet, and this negative reaction is a whisper next to the yawp of positivity the company’s films otherwise enjoy. But it sort of makes me not want to even bother talking about them, and instead just quietly enjoy the movies, and be emotionally broken by them, and damn all else (more on this sort of reaction later!). The upshot of all this is that I thought Coco was excellent – visually, it’s not just inventive, but it’s inventive in ways that are new to Pixar. Look at the character design, and colors used, for the fantastical creatures in the Land of the Dead. And yes, I cried quite a lot. One small thing I loved about Coco is that it’s named after a character who is barely in it. This choice has what they call resonance.

Darkest Hour (d. Joe Wright) – I’m having a hard time accepting that a movie like this can still be made and taken seriously. No offense to those who liked it, of course! But what Darkest Hour makes me think of, at least as far as Lady Oscar goes, is the 1967 Best Picture race, the nominees of which, as Mark Harris expertly illustrated in his book Pictures at a Revolution, are the perfect time capsule of an artform and culture in transitional uproar, something it would be conceivable to argue we’re going through again. If, say, this year’s equivalent to The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde are, I don’t know, Call Me by Your Name (I’m assuming) and Get Out, then Darkest Hour is Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and Doctor Doolittle all smashed up together. I sort of wouldn’t mind pointing out that if I had a vote in 1967, the Mike Nichols and Arthur Penn movies would be shown the door right along with the Stanley Kramer and Richard Fleischer pictures. Of those available to me, I guess I’d have gone with In the Heat of the Night. Which this year is, I guess, The Post? This doesn’t mean if I had a ballot I’d be voting for The Post. Anyway, I love Gary Oldman as a rule, but this shit is complete nonsense. When Neville Chamberlain takes out his handkerchief at the end, Signifying Something Important, and telling the audience that now would be the time to cheer, I audibly sighed.

The Disaster Artist (d. James Franco) – A reasonably fun movie that I have decided is actually not very good. As a piece of filmmaking, The Room is both more entertaining and more interesting. The section at the beginning of Franco’s movie, with all the celebrities telling an audience (which Franco was probably hoping is largely comprised of people who have never seen The Room because otherwise his own film would sink to the bottom of the ocean without a trace (I guess it worked out okay)) what The Room even is, plus also why we should care, and additionally, too, why it’s actually a great  movie that matters more than other movies, is, this section I mean, frankly embarrassing.  Look at how Tim Burton accomplished with Ed Wood more or less what Franco was aiming for here, but with infinitely more ease, grace, artistry, and respect for his audience. It has some good laughs, though!

Dunkirk (d. Christopher Nolan) – See Coco. The only part of the release of a new Nolan film that I hate, even dread, is the wave of critics and film fans who feel compelled to insist that the director is a fake who literally has no idea what he’s doing. Now, we all have our opinions, and my guess is that I have done something similar in the past. But these people are just so fucking wrong, and countering them has been exhausting me for too many years now. Suffice it to say, Dunkirk is tremendous as far as I’m concerned, a loud, classically made (if not classically structured) war film, which disorients with its chaos, yet makes as clear as it can what being on those beaches, one of several thousand helpless targets, was like. It’s somehow both cold and emotional. Nolan’s focus on the pieces makes the ultimate heroism and relief all the more exhilarating, and melancholy. It’s probably his masterpiece.

Faces Places (d. JR and Agnes Varda) – A small, let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may documentary placing the oddest, most charming pair of artists at its center. Young photographer JR and 89-year-old New Wave pioneer Varda travel through the French countryside, meeting all sorts of people who do all sorts of jobs, finding beauty, kindness, and humanity everywhere they go. Faces Places is completely free of the kind of condescension most American filmmakers would bring along to this material like a trail of slime. Absolutely wonderful.

The Florida Project (d. Sean Baker) – So the ending of The Florida Project, I kept hearing, honestly did not work, and that was too bad as the rest of the film was wonderful. While finally watching this, yes, terrific movie about daily life among the residents of a Disney World-adjacent motel (managed by a peerless Willem Dafoe, every bit as good as everybody says) as seen through the eyes of a little girl, daughter to a young, loving, fuckup of a mother, I was of course bracing myself for the moment when it was all gonna go pear-shaped. But that never happened, because the ending is entirely of a piece with what came before. It’s shot differently because the audience is now entirely in the head of someone who we had previously been following from the normal movie-audience remove. That’s why the last minute feels different: it’s showing us what we’ve already been watching, but didn’t realize it.

Get Out (d. Jordan Peele) – If I’m somewhat skeptical of the seemingly endless blurt of adoration that Peele’s directing debut has been enjoying for almost a full year now, it’s because I’ve seen a few horror films in my time, and yes, this is certainly one of those. Which sounds a bit more dismissive than I actually feel about Get Out, but it’s a film that struck me as being very much part of a long tradition within this genre. The most impressive thing to me about the film – apart from a terrific score by Michael Abels – is the lead performance by Daniel Kaluuya as Chris, the young black man who, as the film begins, is hitting the road with his white girlfriend (Allison Williams) to meet her family, whose White Liberal bona fides, we will learn, mask something sinister. What Kaluuya does that’s so striking is that before the horror material really kicks in, he made me feel an intense discomfort due to a situation that I’ve never been in and can never be in: the only black guy in a house of white people who, racially-speaking, are acting weird, specifically because I’m there. And he just has to bear it. Viscerally communicating that is not nothing.
                                                              INTERMISSION

Birdman of Alcatraz (d. John Frankenheimer) – I watched this film, newly out on Blu-ray from Olive Films, right after watching Darkest Hour, and the transition from Joe Wright’s horseshit to John Frankenheimer in his prime was, and I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic, not unlike the transition from illness into good health. This biopic about Robert Stroud, a two-time murderer (one was a prison guard) who spent most of his adult life in solitary confinement, along the way caring for, bonding with, and studying what must have been hundreds and hundreds of birds, could conceivably give the viewer whiplash in its turns from clear-eyed brutality to sentimentality, but I think Frankenheimer and star Burt Lancaster (who was never better than here) navigate all of this with quite a bit of elegance, pretty much completely avoiding the worst pitfalls inherent in such a story. The black and white photography by the great Burnett Guffrey is pure 60s social realism starkness, which I mean as a high compliment. It’s a beautiful film, and the Blu-ray looks superb. That the film drops off a bit once Stroud actually gets to Alcatraz is both ironic and not that big a deal, since it comes pretty late in the 150-minute movie. Telly Savalas and Karl Malden are as great as you’d expect.

The Hallelujah Trail (d. John Sturges) – Also just out from Olive Films, and also starring Burt Lancaster, this movie…well, listen. I’m not a big fan of the criticism “That film is dated,” which means, I guess, “That film was made in a year other than this one.” But The Hallelujah Trail is of a type of movie – the epic comedy -- that as far as I can tell nobody makes anymore, and I’m not convinced we as a society have lost anything because of this. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is of course the ne plus ultra of this sort of thing, and The Hallelujah Trail is neither as epic nor as egregious as that one. It’s not much good, though. There is some historical fascination in watching these movies, of the “movies were sometimes like this at one time, and actors like Burt Lancaster and Lee Remick sometimes starred in them” variety, such that I was with this one for about the first hour or so. The problem is that this is, like Birdman of Alcatraz, 150 minutes long, and if your question to me is “Is it possible to get through the last 90 minutes of The Hallelujah Trail?” my answer must be, as John Lennon once sang, “Christ, you know it ain’t easy. You know how hard it can be.” The dividing line between what’s bearable and what’s not is just before the first big action setpiece. This is a Western, by the way, in addition to everything else, and the plot revolves around forty barrels of whiskey, which everybody wants, including Remick’s temperance leader (so she can get rid of them) and the city of Denver, led by Dub Taylor, so that they may drink them, and the Businessman Who Is Unlikable (Brian Keith), whose barrels they are but who is selfish and unreasonable, etc. This last bit counts as the Social Commentary element of the film, an element also found in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and giving as little insight; though I have no idea if it’s true I do wonder if maybe this facet, which includes some nod towards labor rights, got Lancaster involved in what is otherwise a very off-brand film. In any event, the whiskey is also desired by a group of Sioux Indians, who, The Hallelujah Trail being a Good Liberal Hollywood movie, are goofy present-grubbing doofuses who are played by people like Martin Landau and Roy J. Wilke. But anyway, there’s this big shootout between the Cavalry and the Indians. It’s set during a dust storm, and Elmer Bernstein’s score drops away, and so in another Western the stage would have been set for something bleakly violent. Except this is a madcap comedy, so though the mood is foreboding, nobody gets shot, and things like for instance a group of Cavalry shooting, realizing they’re being shot at from behind so one says “Cover your rear!” so they all turn around and now they’re being shot from the front and the back and they say “Cover your rear!” and they all turn around – things such as this, as I was saying, keep happening. And then Lancaster, who wasn’t there for the shootout, shows up and says to the commander who was in charge “You mean to tell me all those bullets were fired and nobody was killed??” This, as I say, was the dividing line between watchability and almost the opposite.

The Orchard End Murder (d. Christian Marnham) – Christian Marnham made very few movies. One of them is this oddball 50-minute short exploitation feature which was apparently often paired as a double feature with Gary Sherman’s Dead & Buried, also a horror film, but one which seems to me to cinematically, conceptually, though maybe not quite philosophically, rather a wholly other thing. I called The Orchard End Murder exploitation, but it is and also isn’t. It’s about a young woman (Tracy Hyde) who one day happens upon the whimsical cottage of a railroad employee (Bill Wallis). She’d like to see his yard ornaments, and he’s happy to oblige, although she treats him with a curious mix of rude distaste and complete openness and trust. It eventually ends up that she was right the first time, and she’s finally killed, not by the railroad employee but instead by the violent meathead idiot who does odd jobs nearby. The rest of the movie is about what the two men do about the body, and what happens after that. It is, as you might guess, all very compact, and in its way queasily effective – the murder, which occurs in a pile of apples, is both awful to watch, and like an image from a fairy tale. In its simplicity and lack of adornment, The Orchard End Murder is one of the bleaker views of humanity I’ve seen.

Incidentally, included on the new Kino Blu-ray is a short 1970 documentary by Marnham called The Showman, about a knife-throwing carnival nudie-show “impresario” (as Kino describes him). This is a fascinating and subtly unnerving look at a vanished form of entertainment. I’m glad Kino included it.
                                                         END OF INTERMISSION

The Insult (d. Ziad Doueiri) – By the end of this political drama/thriller(?) about a seemingly mundane clash between a Lebanese Christian man and a Palestinian construction worker that blows up into a national scandal, Doueiri has forced his audience to consider the matter from an angle he had not previously hinted to them that they might want to think about. For that, I am grateful. For the movie that surrounds that idea, which is an indifferently shot story filled with TV court drama twists and nonsensical trial scenes, I am not.

Lady Bird (d. Greta Gerwig) – A film I kind of wish people would calm down about at the same time I acknowledge that it is very good. It seems that I want it both ways. Gerwig’s debut film, about a teenage girl (Saoirse Ronan) in Sacramento who can’t help but kick back at her family, who has less money than most of her classmates, and who while all this is going on is heading towards her first sexual experience(s), is funny, sweet, honest – all the things it had dang well better be, in other words. The two things I like best about Lady Bird is that Gerwig was willing to show all the many bad sides of her protagonist, her selfishness, her thoughtlessness, even her stupidity; and the way it deals with the whole concept of liking things, and if you like something that others persist in telling you is bad or, worse, uncool, well, fuck them. Like it anyway.

Logan (d. James Mangold) – I won’t spend too much time on this one. All I’ll say is that back when Darren Aronofsky was set to direct a Wolverine movie, before that fell through, this is pretty much what I was hoping that film would end up looking like. That that same movie ended up being made by James Mangold is not something I could have ever predicted.

Mudbound (d. Dee Rees) – Quite a bit better than I thought it was going to be. Garrett Hedlund and Mary J. Blige are as good as advertised; meanwhile, Jason Mitchell and Rob Morgan, who no one seems to be talking about, kind of quietly walk away with the thing. The last twenty minutes are merciless. After the worst of it, the audience demands something, and they get it, but it is not satisfying. This is certainly the intent.

Phantom Thread (d. Paul Thomas Anderson) – Well, I mean. Phantom Thread looms so large in my mind as unquestionably the film of the year – by which I mean, in addition to its obvious greatness, in terms of film history 2017 will always be the year that Phantom Thread came out – that in capsule form, I have even less of an idea where to begin than I ever do with any of these, and believe me, I never have any idea where to begin with a capsule review. At any rate: Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, and apparently Daniel Day-Lewis’s last, is an exquisitely unexpected, precise and complete, original work of art. Funny, eerie, suspenseful, graceful, and intense, while watching the film it’s not hard to believe that Paul Thomas Anderson had already imagined everything about the personality and lives of his characters and the world and time in which they live, and filmed the part that is Phantom Thread. It brings to mind what the man once said about sculpting a horse: you take a block of stone and chisel away everything that doesn’t look like a horse.

The Post (d. Steven Spielberg) – For me, this is mid-tier Spielberg, which I will accept happily. That he can go from the decision to turn this script into a movie to its actual release into theaters in a matter of months and still turn out something this slick and professional and even artful, for all its flaws, is really quite something. Seeing this dismissed as hackwork is frankly depressing.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. (d. Dan Gilroy) – An imperfect movie that is both not at all what it was marketed as, and much better than its reputation. Denzel Washington plays an activist attorney who spends the film going through a catastrophic moral crisis (as opposed to an activist attorney who spends the film lifting the world up on his admirable shoulders, which is what I was expecting); if the character is written to be a little too much of an oddball, it was a sharp move to cast Washington, who sells it all beautifully. Israel is a unique character in that, while he’s certainly a Movie Type, this particular Movie Type has not existed in this story before, at least not that I’ve seen. I’m glad I saw it, and I’m glad Washington got nominated.

The Shape of Water (d. Guillermo del Toro) – One of my favorite directors is probably going to win an Oscar for the worst film he’s ever made. A morally thoughtless wagonload of bullshit that believes it’s a morally superior “fable,” The Shape of Water is often beautiful and engaging, and it features a game and terrific cast, but finally it judges not just its villains but finally the whole world based on how it reacts to del Toro’s pure heroes. Anyone who looks askance at any part of this is not just immoral, but might even actually deserve to die. It’s an ugly movie that has sold itself as a beautiful one. And it’s not that I believe del Toro thinks this way; it’s that I don’t believe del Toro thought at all.

The Square (d. Ruben Ostlund) – It’s, I mean, you know, it’s fine. I liked Elisabeth Moss a lot (I'd actually call hers one of my favorite performances of last year), and I liked the ape man scene. The rest of it passed the time amiably enough, though I’m not sure this is the sort of reaction Ostlund wanted.

Strong Island (d. Yance Ford) – To mostly just repeat what I said about this on social media, because frankly I’m starting to run out of steam here, I have some serious issues with Strong Island which are inherent with the modern state of socio-political documentary filmmaking, in that it presents one version of events which it demands the audience accept without question (for the record, I believe the story of the murder of William Ford and its aftermath as told in this documentary is probably pretty accurate, but I resent the implied moral judgment that would come with wondering if it might be otherwise), as a personal and poetic documentation of grief, Yance Ford’s film is occasionally breathtaking.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (d. Martin McDonagh) – And so we end with the most divisive film on the least. Oh alphabet, how you have betrayed me. My feelings about this pitch-dark crime semi-comic examination of societal what-have-yous is that it’s sort of okay, mostly, though it piles so much shit on its already Big Story about an abrasive mother’s (Frances McDormand) quest for justice for the rape and murder (“Raped While Dying” reads the third of the titular three billboards, a nauseating combination of words that that all by themselves set up writer-director McDonagh with quite a task ahead of him) of her teenage daughter that the absurdity it achieves is probably not always the kind of absurdity McDonagh is after. When Woody Harrelson’s sheriff reveals to pain-in-his-ass McDormand that he’s dying, I thought “Jesus, this damn thing has cancer in it, too??” But on the other hand, during a fraught interview between the two later on, when Harrelson suddenly coughs blood into McDormand’s face, stares at her in horror and shame and says “I didn’t mean…” and McDormand, previously so combative with him, suddenly turns soft and sad and heartbroken and says “I know baby” and tries to help him, I thought that this was all shocking, absurd, and beautiful. Then again, on the other other hand, outside of this scene, at no point does Harrelson seem like a man who, according to the film, has literally only months to live (and his wife, played by Abbie Cornish, absolutely does not act like a woman whose husband is going to die in a few months).
Of course, none of the above is what people talk about, because the controversy is all about Sam Rockwell’s racist, abusive cop character, who by the end achieves, according to some, undeserved redemption, but who, according to others, only achieves the thought that something might be wrong with him. I think the movie is clear that it’s the latter – look at where he’s going at the end of the film, and ask yourself if this is the sort of thing a mentally and morally healthy person would consider redemptive or epiphanic. What makes Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri kind of hard to talk about in this specific regard, or to debate productively, is that what’s actually on screen could not be clearer. What each of us thinks counts as redemption seems to be more central to the argument than anything else. If I liked the movie more, I might feel more inclined to pick a side, but I don’t. Though I do lean faintly towards those who like the film, so if a shooting war breaks out over this I guess I’ll have to march with those guys. There are too many implied, or baldly stated in some cases, insults coming from the other side for my comfort.
What a nice note on which to close out! Happy Oscars, everybody!

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