Saturday, March 11, 2023

After Hours: Robert Siodmak's "Phantom Lady"

Even though I admire the toughness of Robert Siodmak's perennial film noirs, "The Killers" (1946) and "Criss Cross" (1948), nothing quite prepared me for the formal, stylish greatness of "Phantom Lady". Released in 1944 and starring Ella Raines as a secretary who descends into the New York netherworld of coked-up jazz musicians and psychotic killers in the hopes of saving her boss (Alan Curtis) from a murder rap, the film is relentlessly surprising in both narrative and mise-en-scene. There are two or three camera movements that rank with the visual inventiveness of Hitchcock's best (just watch as we finally discover "the hat") and a mood imported from the inky grains of German expressionism. Everything is mixed flawlessly within a somewhat cute American studio system work. Between this film and others, Siodmak has created a large (but still somewhat undervalued) body of work. And outside of his noirs, finding them is the trick.

But, what we do have (courtesy of the Criterion channel) is invaluable. For the first half of "Phantom Lady", the film doesn't even hint at the heroics of female secretary Kansas (Rains). She's barely present, except to establish her mundane duties of filing receipts and returning phone calls within the office of her architect boss Scott (Curtis). Instead, we have a traditional set-up where a lonely man picks up an equally morose woman (Fay Helm) in a bar and persuades her to go to a theater with him. Breadcrumbs of possible alibis are stacked, but then he returns home to find his wife has been murdered and the police already waiting for him. His emotions are confused, but heightened.... and in one of the many stellar provocations in the film, Siodmak chooses to expend narrative off-screen. As Scott's wife is hauled out of their apartment, the camera holds on him as he screams out "look what they're doing to her hair!". It's a moment that says far more than shows. There's no need to show a body. The image of a lifeless woman's hair being dragged along the floor is pungent....horrifying..... and soaks an image of careless disregard in an otherwise gutting personal moment. The off-screen theatrics will be employed brilliantly throughout "Phantom Lady".

Enter Rains as the Nancy Drew-like secretary who fully believes that her boss is innocent and sets out into the city to find witnesses to Scott's bar tab, theater event, and (most importantly) the woman that no one claims to remember. There's a wonderfully energetic Elisha Cook Jr who takes Rains behind the grimy veil of after hours musicians. There's the sheepish bartender who may be concealing more than he knows. And, most importantly, there's Franchot Tone as Scott's best friend who returns from overseas to help Kansas clear his name. Together in his modernistic New York high rise apartment, Tone embodies a role that's both slimy, perverse, and haunting all the same. But more important than any extra-Freudian overtones,"The Phantom Lady" shifts gears completely and becomes Rains' film in spirit and body as her quest will take her close to extreme violence.

Playing with genre as if it's shuffling cards, Siodmak never loses control of the film. When it stops down for a couple of minutes to vibrate and gyrate with a coked-up drummer, it works. When it devolves into a thriller and the door knob to escape is just out of reach, it works. And it certainly works as a film noir where the city hisses steam at all hours and the police are hard nosed but virtuous. Even despite its seemingly happy ending, "The Phantom Lady" hints that the savior complex of Kansas may have doomed her to a place of subservience that's well beneath her true worth.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

Moments of 2022

Inspired by the now defunct Film Comment "Moments Out of Time" series and the great Roger Ebert's year end recap, this Moments of the Year list (now in its 24th edition) represents indelible moments of my film-going year. It can be a line of dialogue, a glance, a camera movement or a mood, but they're all wondrous examples of a filmmaker and audience connecting emotionally.


The long shot holding on the face of a jockey (Clifton Collins Jr) as he starts and finishes a race. The range of emotions curbed by splotches of dirt being kicked up into his face don’t lessen his array of feelings.  “Jockey”

A young girl munching precociously on chips in the backseat of a car and then her small arm protruding into the frame with a juice box for her mother to drink while she drives  “Petite Maman”

The diner scene between Jessica Chastain and “The Good Nurse” (Eddie Redmayne) as she tries to gently coax a confession from him. The unease slowly builds

"I don’t even know what you make at the factory!”    “You’ll know what we make at the factory, when you work at the factory!”     The comic line reading of the year by Toby Huss in “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story”

The dance title sequence.  “After Yang”

Pretty much any line reading of  Andrew Scott in “Catherine Called Birdy”

From a comfortable bedside reading to a tortured wounded soldier screaming. Just one of the many sublime (and heartbreaking) transitions in Terence Davies’ exploration of self identity in “Benediction”

A woman (pleading?) saying that the woman (Dolly de Leon) inching up behind her with a rock can work equally in their new household.   “Triangle of Sadness” 

“Everything Everywhere All At Once” and the Wong Kar Wai inspired wet, moonlit alley conversation between Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) and Waymond (Ke Huy Quan). Both are dressed to the nines, but the spare emotion expressed between them is heartbreaking

“Montana Story” and the performance of Eugene Brave Rock as a Native American car seller. It's a complex moment in the film. Can we trust him? 

Colin Farrell and his imitation of Werner Herzog. “After Yang”

“She Said” and the numerous shots of tense bodies carefully poised around a speakerphone intercom

The first meeting between Jakob (Tom Schilling) and Cornelia (Saskia Rosendahl) in “Fabian: Going to the Dogs” as she emerges as a shadowy figure bathed in blue light behind, and the quick succession of future images that will mark their torrid love affair. Perhaps the most romantic moment all year

A man hitting on two women at the bar as Modjo plays and his line of “I have a lot of money. A lot of money….” and they perk up to him.     “Triangle of Sadness”

The waves taking a baby’s body with it.  “Bardo, False Chronicles of a Handful of Truths”

An empty bed. "Sr."

The needle drop of ethereal music as a young girl floats on a boat. "Petite Maman"

Strobe lights on a dance floor. A father and daughter oscillating in time. A long walk down an airport hallway and then out a door. The gutting final few minutes of Charlotte Wells' brilliant debut "Aftersun"


Friday, February 03, 2023

On "The Mind Benders"

Generally regarded as one of the first true paranoid thrillers, John Frankenheimer's "The Manchurian Candidate" dealt with the brainwashing of a Korean War POW (Laurence Harvey whose steely eyed presence seemed like the perfect tonic for an empty vessel) and his subsequent mission as a presidential assassin. It holds up even better today.

Released just a year later in 1963, Basil Dearden's "The Mind Benders" certainly hasn't gotten the same acclaim as Frankenheimer's effort, but it's no less terrifying. I'd even argue it's a much more insidious example of the ability of one human to crack open and infect the brain of another human. In Dearden's stratosphere, the purpose isn't world domination, but simply the nature of suggestion in wielding power over another.... which plays havoc and begins the dissolution of a happy marriage.

As he did a few years prior in Dearden's taboo breaking "Victim" (1961), Dirk Bogarde is the man placed in a precarious situation fighting for his very soul. Portraying Dr. Longman, Bogarde is a scientist involved in an experiment whose opening title card suggests the entire story is ripped from the annuls of American research documents involving isolation tanks and perception reduction. And if this doesn't sound so far out today where such tactics dot the fringe landscape of psychology, things don't start so well for one doctor involved in the experiment who rightly tosses himself off a moving train in the film's opening minutes.

Hoping to find out if this strange death is a matter of political subterfuge or just someone unable to deal with his own mind, Major Hall (John Clements) asserts himself in the experiment and convinces a research aide (Michael Bryant) to help him push the boundaries of isolation. Enter Henry Longman (Bogarde), another doctor on the experiment who volunteers to stay submerged for the longest amount of time possible.... a stoic step for science and the perfect excuse for Major Hall to play with his own limits of twisted psychology.

After a terrific paranoid-filled first half, "The Mind Benders" turns chamber-piece driven in the second half. The slight suggestions whispered about his wife (a wonderful Mary Ure) moments after a hectic decompression from 7 hours in the tank turns the film into an acidic story about the slow dissolution of self and relationships. Bogarde doesn't always drip with empathy in many screen roles, but here, he really allows the snide distrust to leak off the screen..... even as his wife is 8 months pregnant and struggling just to understand the seismic shift in her once loving husband. 

This abrupt shift from tangential science fiction elements feels odd at first, but once "The Mind Benders" settles on Longman and his wife's shifting power dynamic, the film's kitchen sink realism (a style dominating much of British cinema during this time) feels all the more powerful in showing how disruptive progressive science can be. He's not slated to kill a presidential candidate, but the final riverside boat party seems just as violent for the way he openly courts another woman (Wendy Craig) and flagrantly challenges the tenets of marriage. Longman's brainwashing may not be the equal of murder, but "The Mind Benders" makes a strong case that its something far more damaging.

Perhaps best known for the aforementioned "Victim" and the first film in his own production company, "The League of Gentlemen" (1960), Dearden isn't an extremely well known filmmaker, mostly noticed for his social justice films of the 50's and early 60's. While "The Mind Benders" doesn't seem to have a great cause, it's no less thrilling for how it utilizes genre to twist and burn into an expert examination on psychology. Based on the handful of films I've seen, Dearden deseres to be mentioned in the same breath as other contemporary artists of his time.

Monday, January 23, 2023

Your Lying Eyes: Jacques Audiard's "A Self Made Hero"

As a doom laden masterpiece where a whisper can be deadly or the nod of a head betrays friendship, Jean Pierre Melville's  "Army of Shadows" is one of my favorite films. Applying the same fatalistic sense that imbues his crime thrillers, it's a film that paints the Resistance during French Occupation of World War II as a carousel of death slightly postponed in order for its men and women to grasp at heroics. It's sad, infuriating, calculated, and full of Melville's memorialized relics from his past.

All of this to say that Jacques Audiard's "A Self Made Hero" would make for an interesting double bill with Melville's film. A bitter character study about a man who worms his way into the upper echelon of French military immediately after the liberation, "A Self Made Hero" is just as calculated in the dynamics of how a lowly no one (a brilliant Matthieu Kassovitz) becomes an interloper through sheer determination. It's a film that seems to question just how good such a person could have been if they'd applied their talents to something worthwhile.

We first meet Kassovitz early in life during the war, unsure of what to do and working menial jobs with little direction. He claims to be a writer of romance novels, which attracts Yvette (Sandrine Kiberlain) and they end up marrying. It's only after finding out his in-laws were once tangentially involved with the French Resistance (as well as his own mother's political leanings) that he makes a rash decision and walks away from his provincial life. The only thing left of him is his bike on a railway platform.

Through sheer determination (memorizing the stories in numerous newspapers each day), he transforms into the fictional Albert Dehoussie. And like the cold mechanisms that chart the success and betrayals of the Resistance in "Army of Shadows", Audiard's film utilizes the same blueprint for Albert's cowardice. We're at once embarrassed for the way in which he liberally inserts himself in the circles of post-war government, and somehow charmed by his remarkable shape-shifting intelligence. As a cipher for modern politics (thinking of the whole George Santos parallels), "A Self Made Hero" was made 25 years ago, but its exploration of hollow representation feels more apt than ever. He gets free room and board by playing on the militarism of his ex-soldier landlord. He gleans all he can from the smooth operations of a self proclaimed spy (Albert Dupontel) who gives him, perhaps, the best advice of his career. To survive in 6 different cities, tell 6 different lies. Eventually, Albert becomes a top official routing out collaborators during the war.... a point not lost on Audiard and writer Alain de Henry as "A Self Made Hero" is essentially a film about the layers of deception that necessitate survival in a post war environment.

Adding a bit of comical complexity to the film, Audiard also inserts numerous fake current day interviews which comment on the Dehoussie affair, even going so far as to have the iconic Jean Louis Trigtignant playing the aged Albert with a wink and charm that only he could provide. It's fascinating to see theses fictional testimonies inserted as the men comment on Albert's exploits by showing the camera a prominent newspaper image, then deconstructing the deceit that Albert used to place himself there. It's a sharp deconstruction of his rise to power.... a mordant commentary on truth.... and a brilliant black comedy. And that's another essence to "A Self Made Hero". While being a repulsive main character, it's imminently funny. The fact that Albert ends up where he does with two women (one he scorned and another whose innocent love forced him to ultimately reconcile himself) is an embarrassing wealth of riches for such a mythological man. The fact that the film goes even further and shows Albert come out the other side with a reputation seemingly impertinent to the halls of politics is about as funny a comment on his life as anyone could fabricate.

Saturday, December 31, 2022

The Best Non 2022 Films I Saw in 2022

10. "In Hell" (2003) - I've only seen a few Ringo Lam films.... something I'm hoping to change in the new year. With one of his many Jean Claude Van Damme collaborations, "In Hell" is a good start to the auteur's canon. A prison drama that not only trots out all the brutal genre tropes  but manages to weave in some poetic asides about the nature of confinement and how the system brutalizes man's humanity, "In Hell" is essentially a fight club behind bars. When everyman Kyle (Van Damme) finds himself behind bars in a Russian prison, he goes through a series of personal revelations that range from absolution of self in "the hole" to a martyr that kick starts a revolt among the inmates. The film also finds time to play up some hokey mysticism and a voice over from Lawrence Taylor (yes, that one) that adds a touch of philosophical depth to the mayhem. I had so much fun with this one. 

9. "The Makioka Sisters" (1983) - Kon Ichikawa's "The Makioka Sisters" trades on alot of the same sentiments that made Ozu such a beloved figure in international cinema. It's a film that concerns itself primarily with the task of finding suitable husbands for two of the 4 titular sisters... something that drove so many of Ozu's efforts about the nuclear family and its important formation. And while Ozu deserves his place in the echelon, Ichikawa has worked a bit more in the margins and toggled through all types of genre. And while no one is going to accuse him of stepping on Ozu's toes in subject matter, in my opinion, "The Makioka Sisters" is better than anything ever produced by him. Released in 1983, "The Makioka Sisters" (only 1 of his 93 films spanning from the late 30's until 2006) also uses color brilliantly. From a face bathed in red light inside a photography production room to the sickly green hue of a corner bar, it's a film that sees a purpose in each designation. Of course, there's the obligatory cherry blossoms as well. In a scene that bookends the opening and closing images, time has passed and life has been altered. But luckily, there's no great sadness. No one has died and the world is still spinning, although Yukiko and Taeko are at vastly different paths in their lives. And even though some melancholy has settled, "The Makioka Sisters" proves that even minor shifts can have tremendous impact.

8. The Leopard Man
(1943) - I'm not sure what I expected from the Val Lewton factory produced "The Leopard Man". I mean, all of their output swerves in interesting, digressive ways but this film is something different (and magnificent). After the aforementioned leopard wildly escapes towards the beginning and claws the hand of a waiter on its torrid exit, I thought maybe we'd get an infected man terror tale. Then the wild animal corners and hunts a young girl in a scene that ranks as one of the most heartbreaking demises in cinema. Then more and more people turn up dead and it appears there's a serial killer on the loose. What's so good about Jacques Tourneur's film is the simple exploration of fear and how it instinctively seems to metastasize during certain periods. Much like war-torn Berlin and serial killer Paul Ogorzow's litter of corpses that went under speculated simply because it took place during the Nazi regime of disappearances, history often reveals that evil is born and enabled by a political shroud of terror. In "The Leopard Man:, the town experiencing the fear of a loose beast soon turns on itself and gives in to its primal urges, turning even the most lucid figures into Jekyll and Hyde-like depositors of destruction. "The Leopard Man" is pure trauma horror summarized decades before the onslaught of lazy, hackneyed approaches to the same treatment that currently scatter the horror film landscape. 

7. Uppercase Print
(2020) -  "The perpetrator may live close by. Or they may live far away".

Taken from transcripts of the Romanian Securitate as they investigated the sudden appearance of chalk graffiti around the city in mid 1981, Radu Jude's "Uppercase Print" is an intellectual examination of both a time and place where liberty needed to be called upon as a dying idea. Interspersing governmental films, weird musical interludes, and VHS images of the country (complete with bad VCR tracking issues!) amid a theatrical reading of the now released investigation notes of the graffiti that eventually ruined the life of a young student, "Uppercase Print" begins as a dryly humorous effort before shifting into an especially acrid portrait of oppressive nationalism. The above quotation is from the crack investigative reports of the secret police and Jude's film initially seems like a comedy of communistic generality. It's clear the government's procedure is casting the widest net possible and mopping up anything they deem "anti-them". Needless to say, things turn very dark, formally assured and completely heartbreaking by the end. I haven't seen a few of Jude's other pointed mixed-media documentaries about his home country, but after this one, I look forward to diving into them.

6. The Great Waldo Pepper (1975) - George Roy Hill's film about barnstormers in 20's middle America is an especially wise film beyond its 'scope aerial vistas and Robert Redford infused charm. It's also a film of two halves. The first deals with the chaotic gamesmanship between pilot Redford and fellow flyer Bo Svenson as they try and one-up each other in conducting aerial flight tricks for enraptured audiences. And even though they often end up bruised and battered, it doesn't stop their obsession with circus-like and envelope-pushing stunts. But the second half- after both men have been officially grounded due to some pretty horrific accidents to those close to them- "The Great Waldo Pepper" settles into a reflective conversation about men past their prime, re-living war glory, and their sublimated place in the early days of Hollywood stunt filmmaking. And when an ex-German war hero comes into the mix (played with subtle grace by Bo Brundin), Redford's Waldo Pepper morphs into a man reclaiming his past glories and daredevil fatalism in a finale that's both thrilling and melancholy for how it portrays these men who wish more to be martyrs in the sky rather than living as ordinary schlubs down below.

5. Stress Is Three (1968) -  In a scene towards the end of Carlos Saura’s psychological chess match “Stress Is Three”, a man Antonio (Juan Luis Galiardo) is grounded, literally and figuratively, when he tries to drive away in his car on the beach and ends up only spinning its wheels in the sand. This comes after the frustration (and imagination?) of him seeing his wife (the luminous and blonde wigged Geraldine Chaplin) making out with their best friend Fernando (Fernado Cebrian) behind a jetee of rocks on the beach...... an act poor Antonio has internalized the entire film. It’s his breaking point, but in typical 1960’s ennui fashion, it's a violation of the human contract between husband and wife that may have only happened in his mind. If nothing else, Saura's film is about the disconsolate attitudes of the privileged and how they tear each other apart when left to their own devices. Taking place over the course of just a couple of days, the trio embark on a road trip together. There’s no denying the flirtation between Teresa and Fernando from the very beginning. It’s enough that at one point, Antonio sneaks off the road ahead of them and spies on them through his binoculars. And because this paranoid act occurs towards the beginning of the film, it's a nervously implied sequence that sets the ominous tone that something is happening.

4. The Enemy Below (1957) - A naval war film that excels because it humanizes both sides of the altercation. When we first meet the German submarine commander, played by Curd Jurgens, he's commiserating about the effects of war on humanity. Far from being a Fuhrer acolyte (his disdain is subtly reflected later when the man's name is mentioned by another soldier), "The Enemy Below" shares screen time between his desperate attempts to save his hunted German U boat and out maneuver the American hunter above, led by captain Robert Mitchum. Eschewing the usual patriot fervor that accompanies most of the big studio war films of the 50's, Dick Powell's muscular effort is all the better for how it equals both sides of the conflict as simply men who want to see all their subordinates return home in one piece. Directed with muscular flare by Dick Powell, the depth charge explosion scenes are worth the price of admission alone. War movies done right.

3. Alive In France
(2017) - Two things are made incredibly clear in "Alive In France", Abel Ferrara's documentary about his overseas promotional tour with his band while attending a retrospective of his films; first, he scratches together music with just as much abandon as he does film making. From the way he pieces together various drummers in each city to how he vigorously commands the light show at each club, Ferrara is an alpha auteur in every sense. Secondly, the documentary fits perfectly with his late career work of quieter, more reflexive pieces of cinema that act as love letters to both the creative process and the people he's chosen to align himself with. As he answers one patron in a Q&A session, the New York of his older films doesn't exist anymore, so why should he continue making films about gangsters? Well, "Alive In France" is still a Ferrara film, beating with the hard-scrabbled heart of his previous films but tinged with a sense of nostalgia and passion for his latest role in life. It makes him immensely happy (despite the pressures of performance) and it's a film that makes us incredibly happy as well. The documentary also continues the filmmaker's varied late career of submerging himself in a cerebral fictional film while seeming to release his pent up fictional ruminations with a loose and freewheeling work of non fiction.
2. Dusty and Sweets McGee (1971)

Honed into the type of leisurely, anemic snapshot-of-time that would come to define the careers of Sofia Coppola and scores of others in the post 90's indie new wave boom, Floyd Mutrux's "Dusty and Sweets McGee" outlives its thin pseudo documentary beginning to morph into a sobering, half-dreamt memory of sunny California and the dark storms of addiction that roll just beneath its pleasant surface. That this film is relatively unseen today (thank you Turner Classic Movies for its late night broadcast this month!) only adds to the film's lilting presence somewhere between tone poem beauty and after school special didactic. Beginning with introductions to its main slate of characters (supposedly real addicts playing themselves), Mutrux lets the good times roll, synching images of their late night car drives around the valley and frolicking in bedrooms to a host of popular tunes as if timed to a hay-wired jukebox unable to settle on 1 song for long. Even though it feels like "American Graffiti" (1973) and Mutrux himself would later direct "American Hot Wax" (1978), the film soon settles into the darker reaches of its time and place as various young men and women go about their drug-addled days of dream-big heists and opium-dazed dalliances. Released briefly in 1971, "Dusty and Sweets McGee" never quite made the mark it hoped. Although Mutrux is perhaps one of the more underrated writers and filmmakers of the 70's, the film is one of those discoveries that needs to be made. It may seem tame in comparison to the German miserablism of Uli Edel years later, but as a touch point in independent American lyricism, its message hits loud and clear.

1. The Garden (2005) - As usual, Wiseman makes a strong statement about class, society, and human theater without saying any real words of his own, choosing instead to cultivate images and juxtapose them in luminous ways. Filmed in the mid 90's and chronicling the various high profile events and mundane conventions Madison Square Garden plays host to, "The Garden" is infinitely more enlightening when it pivots away from the spectacle and observes the proletariat (cooks, security, ticket takers and floor crews) that really drives the engine of the landmark. Why is it more interesting to watch how cotton candy is made then the Bulls and Knicks playing a game? Why is the message of a self described cat masseur more intriguing than the anti-union discussion of Garden management staff? Because that's exactly what makes all Wiseman films so essential. He takes a single location or event and mines the tree rings for all its worth. And, if nothing else, the film confirms my belief that we humans are the most filthy thing on the planet by the mountain of trash and food that's swept into the aisles by the janitorial staff after an event. As our greatest living documentarian, Wiseman's deep vault efforts continue to fascinate and enlighten even when the subject matter seems like no amount of energy or new information can be gleaned from its antique halls.

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Top 5 List: Great Performances of 2022

 Jeremy Pope, "The Inspection"

As a gay man entering basic training for the most dire of reasons, Jeremy Pope's performance in Elegant Bratton's autobiographical "The Inspection" is one of the most beautiful things on screen this year. Vulnerable to his emotions, his performance isn't one that causes him to hide his true nature from his fellow recruits. In fact, they all find out pretty quickly, and the rest of the film is his how he deals with the swirl of prejudice. Compounded by the fact his mother (Gabrielle Union) has essentially disowned him for his sexual orientation, Pope's magnificent, layered embodiment of a man just trying to survive (literally) in the most unforgiving of places makes us care all the more.

Ashton Kutcher, "Vengeance"

B.J Novak's social media film noir came and went in theaters pretty fast, which is a shame because it gets more interesting as it goes along and features some genuine depth (and comedy) about our relationship with each other through the thin guise of "cultures". But the minute Kutcher shows up as a laconic, slow drawl Texas record producer who may have something to do with the central murder-mystery, "Vengeance" received a sever injection of brilliance. Whether it's the way he spouts metaphysical nonsense with the cadence of a Southern psychopath or the way he commands attention with his lanky body, his role as Quentin Sellers is the stuff of genuine supporting actor charm.


Bella Ramsey, "Catherine Called Birdy" 

Making her name as the braver-than-most-men in season 6 of "Game of Thrones", Bella Ramsey dons another side of her personality in Lena Dunham's whip smart medieval comedy "Catherine Called Birdy". This time she plays..... well her goofy 14 year old self. Anachronistic, playful, and comedically intelligent, Ramsey inhabits Birdy with all the charm and giggling grace of a young woman who's not only braver than most here as well, but smarter. She has a bright future ahead of her.

Hayley Lu Richardson, "After Yang" and "Montana Story"

The year of Hayley Lu Richardson continues. Or maybe the last 5 years? Her performance as an emotionally stunted daughter returning home to settle her dying father's affairs in "Montana Story" and the lovelorn young woman in her second brilliant effort with filmmaker Kogonada in "After Yang", both show her range as someone battling against her inner demons while remaining a steadfast, independent figure in vastly different realms of narrative. Both films rank as two of my favorite films of the year mostly because of her honest presence.

Key Hu Quan, "Everything Everywhere All At Once"

(image from A24) 

In "Everything Everywhere All At Once", Quan is asked to play many roles as he and his family spin out of control in a whirlpool of multiverses. But through each one (especially the one that directly sinks him and Michelle Yeoh in the recesses of a Wong Kar Wai film), his uncanny ability to portray the goodness and humanity is a revelation. Oscars don't mean much to my view, but I so desperately want Quan recognized later next year for this role.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

The Current Cinema 22.4

 Triangle of Sadness


All of Ruben Ostlund's films are provocative and hermetic social anxiety dramas that feel more like sociological experiments than films. Up until now, none of them have really vibed with me. The closest that made me pay attention to his distinctive ethos of class and approximation was "Play"... a film that pushes the clash of cultures between young teenagers to the brink of intellectual exhaustion. Now, with his latest subtly sadistic "Triangle of Sadness", I sort of see what Ostlund is up to. Whether it's the exuberant comeuppance through extreme scatological humor or the precise shifts in power and subordination, this is a scathing eat-the-rich comedy that sees a beautiful but tenuous couple (Harris Dickinson and Charlbi Dean) get caught up in more than their scabrous arguments about who's paying for dinner. Divided into three sections and running at two and a half hours, "Triangle of Sadness" doesn't ask one to care about anyone, from a communist yacht captain (Woody Harrelson) to the survivors who find themselves stranded after a disastrous event. Filmed with formal elegance (just admire that quiet, slow pan back from the point of view of a boat drifting towards a multi million dollar yacht that elicited gasps in my screening) and populated by needle drops that serve as ironic counterpoints to the empty vessels of wealth and pomp, "Triangle of Sadness" does skewer the upper class, but then proceeds to take a fine slicing of all the classes in between before this masterpiece of a film cuts out.

Bardo, a False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths

Admiration for Inarritu's head trip epic comes far more easily than enjoyment. Immensely uneven and (at times) borderline didactic and dull, "Bardo, False Chronicles of  a Handful of Truths" ventures down an enigmatic path. Just like its main character, a respected journalist-turned-filmmaker Silverio (Daniel Cacho) who seems to be slipping in and out of reality at will, the film itself alternates between soulful family drama and pretentious fever dream in whiplash fashion. I was immensely more moved by the family interaction between Silverio and his wife (a wonderful Griselda Siciliano) and children (Ximena Lamadrid and Iker Solano). If Inarritu had wanted to completely follow their path, I think "Bardo" would have been a masterpiece of familial heartbreak and common healing. One sequence with the family in Baja, California is without a doubt one of the most moving and insightful sequences in any film this year. Likewise a husband-wife playful chase around their apartment and a banquet dance sequence that radiates careless ebullience. Unfortunately, "Bardo" has heavier things on its mind (or outside its mind) and every time the film switches back to the netherworld wanderings of Silverio and a passion to metatextualize everything from the scrupulous practices of the media to Mexican history, the film is diluted of its intrinsic power built up by the drama of its nuclear family. There's a magnificent film in here somewhere, and sometimes less is certainly more.