Swaying back and forth between fiction and documentary, "Not s Pretty Picture" is quite harrowing in either form. As a fictional film, the specter of dangerous seduction hovers at the edge of the frame. Young Martha (Manenti) is drawn into a double date with another girl where the two (alongside three men, including the eventual perpetrator played by James Carrington) end up in a dilapidated New York loft whose central feature is a hole in the wall that leads into another room where young Martha will eventually be victimized. If watching the act itself played out in long form isn't crushing enough, Coolidge shrewdly intercuts the various conversations, rationalizations, and conflicted attempts of the actors to contextualize their actions around her acted film. It's this debate that sets "Not a Pretty Picture" apart from other personal essay films. Coolidge doesn't shy away from the varying degrees of guilt and acceptance. Even if actor Cunningham gives some feeble attempts at his character's actions, Coolidge allows the space for everyone. It's awkward at times. Strikingly painful at others. And while not a necessarily healing experience (as the final few moments of emotion on Coolidge's face exemplify), the film definitely feels like a quiet scream of simple pronunciation about the act that Coolidge needed to explore. That alone is worth this film being seen by as many as possible.
Sunday, January 21, 2024
Wednesday, January 17, 2024
Tuesday, January 02, 2024
Monday, November 06, 2023
Killers of the Flower Moon
Scorsese's latest is a corrosive epic that clearly reveals its shades of morality for everyone involved within the first third, then proceeds to deliberately track the insidious nature of violence and deluded companionship over the remaining three hours. Imagine if the walls closing in around Henry Hill in "Goodfellas" were protracted out for 180 minutes. That's the startling feeling that Scorsese manages to uphold in "Killers of the Flower Moon", but this time, the criminal activity mirrors that of the American mafia played out in the dustbowl setting on 1920's Oklahoma and the violence against the Osage Indian nation for their valuable oil land head rights. With his usual cast of heavyweights (DiCaprio and DeNiro), the biggest coup of the film goes to the steely beating heart of Lily Gladstone as "Killers of the Flower Moon" was changed from its FBI-instigated criminal investigative tone to a more Native-American centric point of view. It works wonders, no less because of the stellar, granite-faced supporting cast and a rhythmic editing style that constantly makes one gasp with horror at the nonchalant violence and overhead writhes of death encompassing the entire land. Like he's done for New York, Las Vegas, and even the bashing waters off a Japanese prisoner colony, Scorsese spiritually imbues nature with a fist of violence that's hard to shake.
Anatomy of a Fall
Justine Triet's masterful, slow examination of a death also places on trial the ebbs and flows of a marriage.... where every charged conversation is a motive for murder and perception shifts between parties wildly. Sandra Huller is the woman on trial after her husband's body is found outside the window of their three-story, snow-capped mountain chateau. Is it suicide, murder, or a simple accident? And like the best films that work in gradual shades of morality, "Anatomy of a Fall" is less concerned with what really happened than the verbal gymnastics and hidden emotions that might have led to all this. Employing a camera that's often trying to follow what's happening just as quickly as the audience (i.e. that startling whip pan when Huller's son is announced as a witness) and brilliant performances from all involved, "Anatomy of a Fall" is two-and-a-half hours of French courtroom politics trying to decode matters of the heart. It's dry, intelligent, and ultimately so haunting.
Sofia Coppola's best film since "Lost in Translation", "Priscilla" is a film that continues on with the filmmaker's fascination with interiority and impressionism. It's also a drastically (and wonderfully) different experience from last year's Baz Luhrman sonic fest about Elvis Presly. As Priscilla Presly, newcomer Cailee Spaeny embodies the love interest of a rock and roll icon with her own sense of permanent dislocation in one of two scenarios- either orbiting the yes-man-good-ol-boy universe of Elvis' lavishly repercussion-free dalliances, or quietly within the controlled alienation from Elvis himself. This is made clear when Priscilla first sits down to eat with the protracted Elvis family, filmed in profile by herself, dutifully nodding to others outside the frame. There's not much room for else, and Coppola deftly alternates between these two environments, peppered with heart-stopping needle drops and a keen awareness of the objects and textures that suffocatingly surround Priscilla. In fact, the best description I can provide of "Pricilla" is a film of quiet suffocation, made all the more enervating when the finale happens. It's no secret Elvis was a victim of explosive stardom, but at least someone survives this sinkhole universe of carnivorous public consumption. And a Dolly Parton needle drop is the perfect way to frame Priscilla's flight to freedom.
Monday, August 28, 2023
It'd be misleading to read Ira Sachs' latest effort, "Passages", through the eyes of its amorous, confused, and ultimately destructive lead character Tomas (Franz Rogowski). Oscillating between the relationship with his husband, Martin (a tremendous Ben Whishaw who deserves all the year end accolades) and his start-up affair with beautiful teacher Agathe (Adele Exarchopoulos), Tomas doesn't feel that far removed from the caddish interlopers of the French New Wave. But "Passages", ultimately, concerns itself less with Tomas and more with the two people caught up in his sexual confusion. This is a film about frank sexuality- which is terrific when it's fresh and impetuous- and all three people in this love triangle experience it. However, what lingers most vividly about the situation is the way Sachs quickly dries out the sexuality and creates a devastating portrait of those rejected and damaged from Tomas' willful carnality. Whishaw is brilliant in the way he recoils and holds in his sadness during one incredible scene. Likewise, Exarchopoulos is luminous in her stringent performance and the way she maintains a sense of individuality within yet another expression of amour fou (something she's become famous for). I suppose all the character traits were there on display in the opening scene as filmmaker Tomas berates and constantly stops a scene he's filming in order to get the right presence of someone walking down a flight of stairs. "Passages" is an exploration of the starts-and-stops we experience in a relationship as well. It's just a shame it comes at the expense of two wonderful people like Martin and Agathe, who Sachs handles with empathy and intelligence.
The Last Voyage of the Demeter
Typically a dumping ground for left-over gambles and small independent films that finally manage to squeeze their way onto one of the 24 screen multiplexes, August is a miserable month. Add to that at least one horror film each year in a vain attempt at counter-programming, and that's where Andre Ovredal's "The Last Voyage of the Demeter" lands. Literally ripped from the pages of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" tale, "The Last Voyage of the Demeter" actually succeeds because of its swallowing atmosphere and confident bloodletting in a confined space. The space is a ship whose unlucky cargo happens to be the prince of darkness, and the cast is a who's-who of familiar character actor faces (Liam Cunningham from "Game of Thrones", Corey Hawkin, Aisling Franciosi, and David Dastmalchian) charged with battling the creature. There are no great revolutions here. It isn't saying much. The scares are generally rote. But what "The Last Voyage of the Demeter" does have is terrific production design and a suffocating sense of foggy, inevitable bloodshed. For the August dumping ground, that's enough for me to purely enjoy this film for what it is.
The Unknown Country
I love, love, love this type of wispy travelogue film that says nothing, but manages to say everything. As the woman traveling, Lily Gladstone deserves her big year, and Morrisa Maltz's "The Unknown Country" understands that the most powerful expression in cinema is not the words, but the face. Harboring a restless sense of sadness and displacement, the film follows Tana (Gladstone) as she travels from Minneapolis to her cousin's wedding on the reservation in South Dakota. From there, she heads south in search of something greater than herself. Generally keeping the viewer imbalanced on just where we are in the journey with Tana across an American landscape that's alternatively beautiful and alarming for a single woman, "The Unknown Country" also takes the time to dwell on the genuine, honest faces Tana comes across in her journey. We even get to hear these people tell a quick story of their lives, and a fiction film becomes semi-documentary... as if Maltz also wants to craft an anthropological study of the goodness buried in a world teeming with angry talk radio and the division of people- something that becomes central to Tana's long car rides that not only serve as a location marker, but also the static of a world going on carelessly around her. Ultimately, "The Unknown Country" knocks all this away and chooses to emphasize the people orbiting around Tana. Best when it settles on the sweet, proud worldview of her estranged relatives on the Indian reservation (including a knock out performance by long time character actor Richard Ray Whitman), it's enervating to watch Gladstone's performance begin to soak in their grace and carry on southward for something more. The world may still be swerving around her, but "The Unknown Country" has the grace and fragility to slow everything down and celebrate those in the moment. A wonderful film.
Sunday, July 23, 2023
For two nights in a row, I exited a movie theater supremely disappointed in the latest incarnations of two franchises whose history has given me a memorable (and in one case classic) lineage. "Insidious: The Red Door" and "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny" pretty much broke my heart. From where both of these franchises started to the dregs of where they are now, I began to wonder if the fault lies with my old-man-screaming-at-clouds disillusion with the Hollywood project. With "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny", I could feel my heart shrinking into my chest within the first 20 minutes of an elongated action sequence that sees Jones (Harrison Ford, right digitized and de-aged) spring about Nazi castles, trains, and motorcycles as if he's trying out for the latest Marvel film. Add to the fact that director James Mangold's fifth iteration of the Indiana Jones franchise looks so murky and tactless, and it quickly became a recipe for immense dissatisfaction. Granted, I slowly warmed to the film as it went along, but with each larger set piece and a finale that dares to actually visualize the metaphysical nuances that made "Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade" so enthralling as young teen, it's an entry in a vaulted series of films that I will most assuredly never re-visit.
The hatred of Patrick Wilson's "Insidious 3: The Red Door" came more incrementally. For the first 30 minutes, the fourth installment of the James Wan/Leigh Whannell horror series establishes the anemia of its father-son relationship between Wilson and college-bound son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) as both struggle with the slow release of the pent up horrors of their past (through hypnosis) that eventually sees them both re-enter "the further" for more terrifying shenanigans. There are some creepy corner-screen movements that set the stage for something grand, however, the scares are ultimately neutered by the very bland performances and unremarkable scares. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that "Insidious: The Red Door" is content to create fan fiction (complete with shoehorned cameos by Lin Shaye, Angus Sampson and Leigh Wannell) and serve as greatest hits for a franchise that began with a shrieking sense of old school horror and a demented, go-for-broke mentality. None of that exists in the latest film.
Looking at both films and the wonderful filmic parents that spawned them, what went wrong? Granted, this is just my rhetorical question as I'm sure both films have their admirers.... although most of the accolades I've seen for "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny" range from "well, it's better than Crystal Skull" and "fun!". Ever since its premier at the Cannes Film Festival in May, Mangold's latest Indiana incarnation has mostly been met with subdued murmur. In my heart of hearts, I wanted to love both films. And since I was lukewarm on "Insidious 3" and could see the film getting further and further away from the genuine terror evoked by the first two "Insidious" efforts, I suppose my greatest frustration lies with "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny".... which also has strayed into a netherworld of CGI confusion and murkiness so far removed from the practical excitement of the first three Indiana Jones films that its tired set pieces play like a video game without physics or sensibility. Each action scene- its opening, a ride on a horse through the New York subway, a cart chase in Morocco- rely on so much wham-bam CGI green screen effects that they remove all heart and emotion from a series that once proudly succeeded on mixing true heroic characterizations with bracing, exuberant, practical adventures. I know this type of film is still hopeful in Hollywood, but both "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny" and "Insidious: The Red Door" make the case that we're getting further away from replicating (or even marginally extending) the simple joys of what made these franchises so enjoyable long ago.
Tuesday, July 04, 2023
And the value in "Undeclared War" hits the viewer in the face immediately. After the aforementioned violent opening, the stage is set for a visiting CIA Agent Gary (Peter Liapis) to team up with a local special agent in Hong Kong, Bong (Danny Lee), after his ambassador brother is assassinated by a terrorist named Hannibal (Vernon Wells). Played to cool perfection by Wells, Hannibal seems like a baddie ejected from the "Mission Impossible" universe.... prone to quickly dispatching those who fail him and eluding everyone through a variety of disguises. He's also a pretty good hand-to-hand combat fighter as well.
But beyond the mechanics of a plot that sees Gary and Inspector Bong putting aside their personal differences (Gary from the "Lethal Weapon" school of policing and Bong from the respect-bureaucracy phase of detective work), what stands out from "Undeclared War" is the clean and precise action set pieces. From a funeral home to a large hotel conference finale, Lam maintains a focused, organized logistics of violence. We understand where everyone is. The gun shots feel real. The delineation of good guys and bad guys is pronounced. Unlike so many Hong Kong action films, Lam doesn't lose sense of the placement of bodies and the elongation of suspense. Just watch how he handles a bomb in the finale. Or the cool confidence of police guys doing their work. Like the films of Johnnie To or especially Michael Mann, Lam infuses "Undeclared War" with a keen awareness of both public and private space in an action universe. I love discovering works like this and look forward to more Lam.