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.
Saturday, December 31, 2022
The Best Non 2022 Films I Saw in 2022
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.
Monday, October 31, 2022
Hacktober '22 Continued
Apparently part of a trilogy (which Mubi is slowly dropping each week until Halloween), Michio Yamamota's "The Vampire Doll" is pure early 70's Hammer knock off horror, complete with surreal images tinged with an air of genuflective Japanese culture. It's thrills are few and far between, but when they happen, they suggest a nightmarish rapture of the living dead.Taking place mostly in a lavish old mansion where a family holds a dark secret about the death of a young bride and the family that goes searching for her. I look forward to "Lake of Dracula" that streams this week.
I'm not sure what I expected from Val Lewton's factory produced "The Leopard Man". 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. Much like war-torn Berlin and serial killer Paul Ogorzow, history often reveals that evil is born and enabled by a shroud of terror. 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 decades before the onslaught of lazy, hackneyed approaches to the same treatment scatter the current horror film landscape.
Despite it's clumsy title, Yamamoto's "Lake of Dracula" is just as atmospheric as "The Vampire Doll", equally as in love with fairly simple creature design, and certainly vibes with its 70's era chills. Just one more in his trilogy to go.
Tuesday, October 18, 2022
It's been a couple of years since I've dove headfirst into an array of horror movies, and it feels good. Welcome back Halloween and some sense of normalcy around its wicked traditions and theatrical experiences.
Friday, October 14, 2022
The Current Cinema 22.3
Brett Morgen's portrait of the iconclastic David Bowie refuses to play by the standard documentary rules. Using pieces of Bowie's actual voice from archival recordings as if the singer had been preparing for this type of life reverie since inception, "Moonage Daydream" is all the more potent because of its idiosyncratic nature. I doubt it would've been quite as satisfying if it simply dotted back and forth on a perfect through line of Bowie's ascension to the top of the rock and roll mountain. And even though it doesn't immediately serve as a linear experience, Morgen does some incredibly dexterous editing to subtly evoke a timeline in Bowie's life from his glam rock explosion to heart rendering late life ballads. Like an abstract painting, "Moonage Daydream" bowled me over in sound, image, and juxtaposition, cycling through his hits (and even some lesser known efforts) to create a film that's more attuned to Bowie's outlook on the vibrancy of life than any straightforward exposition crafted about him ever could.
Neither deserving of the unmitigated marketing disaster of its opening weekend grosses, nor an esoteric auteurist diamond in the rough, David O. Russell's very busy and overlong thriller-comedy ensemble is simply..... okay. And while I've adored some of the more problematic Russell films of the past few years (namely "Joy"), "Amsterdam" tries way too hard to fit into his formula of quirk and more intelligent comedy. Built around a trio of performances that range from the interesting (Robbie and especially Bale) to the mundane (Washington and pretty much every other star who pops up), "Amsterdam's" rat-a-tat narrative about embedded fascism and corporate skulduggery in early 30's America features an energy that oscillates between high energy and low exposition. It's fits and starts probably equate something to the nervous, unfocused determination of its Nancy Drew like trio, but as the film runs through its tangled web of subterfuge, it slowly runs of out steam. Ideally, this 30's set noir-lite would be right up my alley, and "Amsterdam" does have its enthralling moments.....I kind of wish we could have just luxuriated with the trio in Amsterdam and their Hemingway-esque lifestyle of artistic liberation and pajama wearing bohemie. After that, a real plot kicks in and I cared less and less about what was going on rather than the vibes of its hazy first half. The power of Amsterdam, indeed.
Don't Worry Darling
Another film pretty well sunk due to pre-release mishandling (this time firmly within the ranks of its own film staff rather than the studio), Olivia Wilde's "Don't Worry Darling" also strikes me as a very muted effort. Well made but ultimately derivative of a host of other science fiction rug pullers whose central conceit lays fault at the paranoia of a matrix dominated existence, it's neither terrible nor exceptional. As the young, flawless couple at the center of a 1950's suburbia that isnt-exactly-what-it-seems, Florence Pugh and Harry Styles conduct themselves well and filmmaker Wilde equips herself with a stable of craftsman who make everything pop. The ultimate downside to "Don't Worry Darling" is the constant expectation to figure out what's going on. This type of film can be exciting if it sneaks up on the viewer, but in the case of this film, it's all figure-out and no let-it-wash-over-you vibes, which feels frustrating at times.
Sunday, October 02, 2022
Cinema Obscura: Carlos Saura's "Stress Is Three"
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.
Eventually arriving at Antonio's farm home (and in typical ominous fashion, none of the family is there to meet them) the division between reality and fantasy gently rises in Antonio's head. But for all this talk about challenged masculine identity, "Stress Is Three" really belongs to Geraldine Chaplin. Starring in a handful of Saura's early films from 1967 until the mid 70's, her presence is as inseparable as that of Anna Karina was to the initial masterpieces of Jean Luc Godard. Here, it's easy to understand why Antonio would be selfishly jealous of his beautiful wife.
All of this frustration and ennui culminates in a trip to the beach where the stark black and white cinematography mutes all the beauty of the day and Antonio's spying seems to prove his buried suspicions. But then, Saura pulls a fantastic cinematic trick out of his bag, effectively rewiring the entire film and setting the template for a style of incisive satire and black psychological comedies that will dot his oeuvre for the next three decades. It's all there in just his second film, and "Stress Is Three"- gaining wider attention as a selection on the Criterion Channel- hopefully will bring more understanding to a filmmaker largely forgotten in 60's and 70's world cinema.
Sunday, September 04, 2022
On "Three Thousand Years of Longing"
Entering a film by George Miller, one can anticipate quite the fevered and frenzied ride. But he can also hint at the simpler truths in life, such as the magic of a pig to make us understand the power of humanity. His latest film, "Three Thousand Years of Longing" is fevered and frenzied, but it also hints at some beguilingly beautiful sentiments about connection, patience and (blink and you'll miss it) the idea of reincarnation. The dichotomy of his filmmaking career is well versed in this one picture.
Playing like a cosmic meditation about (literal) star crossed lovers finding themselves once again after many years of isolation, the film begins when academic lecturer Alithea (Tilda Swinton) travels to Istanbul for a mythology conference and finds herself smack dab in the middle of her own fantastical adventure. That comes in the form of a genie (Idris Elba) she accidentally releases in her hotel room after buying a bottle in a stack of trinkets from a local shop. Naturally, Alithea's preponderance for storytelling and myth lends the perfect ear for the genie to expertly tell three stories of lost love and ancient history while awaiting for his new steward to make her 3 wishes. But as his stories progress, not only do his tales exemplify the bottomless nature of such a wish, but they reveal the ways in which love can only entrap those pure of heart.
Magically alive and heartfelt, "Three Thousand Years of Longing" had me from the very start. As a fan of films like those of Julio Medem where the natural world is never very far removed from the fantastic when it comes to his varied couples, Miller's film (adapted from a short story by A.S. Byatt) swoons with overstuffed emotions matched brilliantly by his haunted-house visuals and CGI flourishes. Basically, there are enough ideas here for a dozen films, and at times "Three Thousand Years of Longing" feels like its about to boomerang into space before being yanked back into focus by the central relationship of Swinton and Elba. Their conversations in hotel room bathrobes and a demure English flat are the stuff of real human connection. And it matters because these two people have been running towards and away from each other for centuries, kept apart by wars, jealousies, madness, and sheer bad luck. At its core, "Three Thousand Years of Longing" is a commentary on enduring love. Just why does that one figure from Sheebe'a court appear out of thin air to traumatize Alithea? What does a restless leg have to do with the story? Miller has imprinted the film with a deep appreciation of star-crossed lovers who finally find each other again. In his sly way, he's made the most romantic film in years.
Saturday, July 16, 2022
The Current Cinema 22.2
In Michael Mann's splendid portrait of Muhammad Ali, the first twenty or so minutes are some of the boldest, most invigorating images of his long career. They bolt back and forth in time, jumbling a lifetime of training, moods, faces, hands, and sound into a swell. While I hesitate to compare Mann to filmmaker Baz Luhrman, the latter does something similar with his impressionistic look at another iconic 20th century figure in "Elvis", dropping the usual A to B schematic in favor of a music video aesthetic. From the musical cues that inspired him as a young boy to his nervy first stage appearance, Luhrman compresses time into a barrage of images that aren't overbearing, but pace the rest of the film with his glossy style. To my surprise, it works well because the last thing we needed was a serious deep dive into the artist, and instead Luhrman infuses his tale (approved by the family of course) with all the hip swinging, eye batting ludicrousness that launched Elvis into the cultural stratosphere in the first place. Austin Butler, as Elvis, ably embodies the superstar with not much beyond his looks and affectation but "Elvis" maintains a good time and succeeds in wrapping the singer's life and untimely death in a polished bit of wild glitz and glamour that's just as fitting as his gaudy lifestyle towards the end.
My appreciation for intricately plotted World War II spy thrillers from Euro masters isn't a secret. Last year's criminally neglected "Wife of a Spy" by master Kiyoshi Kuroswa deserved better. And this year, the criminally underrated masterpiece is Lou Ye's "Saturday Fiction". Shown at a scattering of film festivals in 2019 and then unceremoniously released in a few theaters earlier this year, Le is a filmmaker I've long admired- check out "Purple Butterfly" (2003) or "Summer Palace" (2006)- and "Saturday Fiction" is yet another bold stroke in the career of this Sixth Generation Chinese filmmaker. Filmed in Le's typical nervous, handheld style (but this time in beautiful black and white), the film tells the bifurcated tale of a movie star Jean (Gong Li) returning to occupied Shanghai in December of 1941 to act in a stage play by Mark Chao. Is the play a memory of their past together? Le constantly shifts perspective from the play to real life, causing a meta-curious comment on the film's events. But outside of her acting duties, Jean also seems to be acting as a spy. Opposing forces are all around. Who is exactly spying on who? "Saturday Fiction" resides in this cloistered atmosphere where political paranoia and personal attractions are never too far removed. In one brilliant scene that illuminates how invisible this line is, a member of the acting troupe gets drunk and accidentally falls against the door of their hotel suite, which opens slowly into the room of a group of Japanese soldiers. The tensions that rise are spectacular and Le charges "Saturday Fiction" with a beautiful blend of action thriller aesthetic and moody art-house plot mechanics. Part Jean Pierre Melville and part Wong Kar Wai, Le has crafted a terrific effort that (knowing the importance of its December 1941 setting) ticks down and reveals the ominous wreckage of secrets told and kept.
Wednesday, June 29, 2022
Love In the Time of Danger: Dominik Graf's "Fabian Going to the Dogs"
Quite a few very good films have positioned themselves in Germany in the late 20's and early 30's, never overtly speaking of the nationalist madness that would soon envelope the landscape (and the world) but quietly hinting at the infant stages. The best is probably Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon" or especially Ingmar Bergman's "The Serpent's Egg". Prolific German filmmaker Dominik Graf (whose canon seems hard to see outside of his native Germany) and his latest film "Fabian: Going to the Dogs" rightly positions itself within this turbulent window of rising fascism. At once an intensely chaotic love story and an expansive paranoid thriller about the burgeoning New Germany on the horizon, Graf manages to crush the viewer's soul by the way he not only keeps his cosmic, star-crossed lovers apart for most of the second half, but in how society crushes someone's soul even harder.
The romance part begins when handsome Jakob Fabian (Tom Schiller) meets Cornelia (a wonderful Saskia Rosendahl) in the back of a speakeasy. Their attraction is immediate and powerful, made all the more poetic by a subliminal procession of images that shows the two naked in each other's arms and kissing.. as if Graf is so excited to bond the two together that he can't wait. Their romance builds quickly, made all the more complete when the two strangers come to find out they live right next door to each other.
But, even though the romance seems perfect, it's not meant to be. Soon after, Jakob is fired from his job and Cornelia becomes embroiled with a stage manager who makes her dreams of acting come true. While Jakob descends into the depression-era society, Cornelia sees her fortunes change as more and more acting roles come her way. Add to the fact that her new boss has an entire team of people spying and chaperoning Cornelia around and she and Jakob barely stand a chance together.
As each follows their decisive life projections, "Fabian: Going to the Dogs" then spends the second half of the film hoping the two will reconnect. Cornelia waits in a restaurant the two often spent time in and Fabian becomes involved with his friend and anti-Communist speaker Stephane (Albrecht Schuch) whose life descends even deeper than Fabian. It's not ironic that Stephane ends up living in a brothel complete with drunken fights and women who choose to drink and smoke their worries away. As a new worldview is building outside, "Fabian: Going to the Dogs" seems to suggest that the innocent and the pragmatic would rather live in their own cloistered minds.
Take the political edge away, but "Fabian" Going to the Dogs" would still be a masterful example of a sprawling love story that mimics the consequential ebbs and flows of life. There is no grand goodbye between the lovers. Life goes on around them as they bump and float around each other (in one terrific scene, Jakob watches Cornelia deliver a monologue from the rafters of her audition) and posthumous letters hold more weight than any actual conversations ever could. In a world soon swept up by political fervor and hatred, Graf seems to be saying that Jakob and Cornelia are the last vestiges of a sane world. If only true love could outlast everything else.
Sunday, May 29, 2022
70's Bonanza: Dusty and Sweets McGee
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.
But through the tangled web of direct cinema "interviews" and staged action, the most penetrating relevance of "Dusty and Sweets McGee" falls in the laps of two couples, college aged Beverly and Mitch and the much younger Larry and Pam. It's almost excusable for the malaise that surrounds Beverly and Mitch. Constantly strung out, bickering, but prone to moments of unadulterated honesty and affection between them, they're basically functional addicts. In fact, after shooting up in one scene, she has the strength and wherewithal to stumble to her car and retrieve her crossword puzzle book. They should know better, but at least they're surviving with each other.
More tragic is Pam and Larry. Looking to be between 14 and sixteen, they are the baby-faced harbinger of drug addiction... the type of young kids that launched a thousand public service announcements. Never seen outside of their bedroom, it's almost excusable to accept everyone else in the film. They've made their hardened choices and continue to make bad ones, but they had a chance. "Dusty and Sweets McGee" wants us to experience drug addiction in its horrible array, and Larry and Pam are the shocking finger wave that hopefully turns at least someone away from trying it. Mutrux also returns to one of the most painful needle drops in the film, timing the teenagers' shooting up to the crescendo of Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic". It's poignant because Larry and Pam are entering their own stratosphere before crashing back to the hard reality of a non ambiguous Earth.
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 (just check out his wonderful bio) 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.
Sunday, May 22, 2022
The Current Cinema 22.1
Whether one interprets Celine Sciamma's latest film as grounded science fiction time travel fantasy or something much more innately interior, it's still a powerful film of simplicity and genuine heart. Working with child actors can be dicey, but in Sciamma's capable hands, "Petite Maman" quickly melts any precocious waves in the very beginning as young Nelly (Josephine Sanz) wanders around the assisted living home where her grandmother has just died and sweetly says goodbye to everyone. From there, Nelly holes up in the dead woman's house as her mother (Nina Meurisse) initially tries to deal with the loss by packing, but subsequently disappears and leaves young Nelly to fend for herself and interpret her swirling emotions with her father (Stephane Vrupenne) who probably understands even less. Within this tepid space of loss and confusion, Nelly stumbles upon a girl playing in the woods (played by real life sister Gabrielle Sanz) whom she soon comes to realize is her mother at that age. The joy of "Petite Maman" doesn't require the viewer to be dazzled by its metaphysical conceit. Sciamma wants us to feel and experience (as she has in so many of her exquisite films) loss, death, wonder and adolescence in equal measures, and in its compact running time, the film magically does so. And there's a needle drop towards the end of this thing that just took my breath away. One of the year's best films.
Audrey Diwan's "Happening" follows- in rigorous attention- a young girl's (Anamaria Vartolomei) attempt to seek an abortion in 1960's France. We never see the sexual encounter that leads to young Anne's desperate search, which makes the film all the more compelling. "Happening" isn't concerned about the fleeting pleasures of lust or the act of sexual experiences, but with the hard and immovable barriers placed around women in a not-so-distant supposedly progressive society. As Anne, Vartolomei is superb and Diwan's control over the mood and tone of Annie Ernaux's source material doesn't make for easy viewing, but in the light of recent backwards events here in our present, it makes "Happening" all the more urgent.
Filmmakers David Siegel and Scott McGehee have a varied career. Starting in the early 90's with the no budget body invasion "Suture", helming the eerily unnerving thriller "The Deep End" with Tilda Swinton in the early aughts and then working sporadically during the last decade, nothing really points to the majestic crescendo that "Montana Story" fills the viewer with. Not that they're bad filmmakers, but their latest is so full of subtle life and overwhelming vistas that it doesn't quite gel with any of the quirky, hard-scrabbled indies they've created in the past. I'm sure having Hayley Lu Richardson as your co-lead helps as well. A boiling family drama played out against the windswept beauties of the Montana mountain range, "Montana Story" looks at the curdled relationship between a sister (Richardson) and brother (Owen Teague in a role as equally good) dealing with the traumas of their past over the deathbed of their dying father. Yes, the set-up sounds familiar and the type of slowly simmering fireworks display that's launched a thousand indies, but "Montana Story" is different. Siegel and McGehee have painted their film with vivid supporting performances- especially that of hospice aid Gilbert Owuor)- and poignantly sketched secondary characters- like that of Eugene Brave Rock- that the film takes on an unrehearsed sense of acceptance and gravity. And when the emotional pay off comes between brother and sister, "Montana Story" burns with a pithy truth, and its then released in a heartbreakingly sweeping image of true freedom for everyone (and animals) involved.
Tuesday, May 03, 2022
The Last Few Films I'v Seen, Spring '22 edition
1. Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022) - I went into Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert's "Everything Everywhere All At Once" skeptical of the adoring buzz, but after the first hour, I began to feel myself crumbling to the film's sweet energy before collapsing into an emotional mess at the finale. This is an exuberant celebration of family, inclusion,and film genre itself as it marches forward with it's head spinning tale of multiverses and hot dog fingers. Led by the amazing Michelle Yeoh (with heartbreaking supporting turns by Ke Huy Quan and Stephanie Hsu), The Daniels have created a modern answer to the iconic, trippy, and melancholy past works of Michel Gondry ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") or Julio Medem ("Lovers of the Arctic Circle") with a film that stretches the concept of love and acceptance across a spectrum of space and time.... and come out the other side with a beautiful rendition of what makes us human.
2. The Lodger (1927) - Early Hitchcock that, while it features the pregnant ideals that would mature in most of his best thrillers, that's the most interesting thing about it.
3. 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!) amongst 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. 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.
4. The Long Haul (1957) - Diana Dors. Wow. Not sure that her attraction to Victor Mature is warranted, but this is a sharp (and under seen) Brit noir, part fatalistic drama and one-third "Wages of Fear".
5. Satan's Brew (1975) - Probably one of the more 'extreme' Fassbinder films where a creatively blocked poet murders people, screws any woman who moves and lives with his screaming wife and dead fly collecting brother. For Fassbinder characters, its his most exaggerated clique and one that I found to be repellent and compulsively watchable at the same time.
6. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) - Sure, Nicholas Cage pokes lots of fun at himself and that's enjoyable in small measures, but this action comedy bored me more than anything else. I kep hoping it'd turn into a "Bowfinger" like commentary on itself.
7. Ambulance (2022) - Garret Dillahunt, awesome. Everything else, not so much, I understand going in that it's Michael Bay, and there are some gloriously conceived tracking shots, but please let the logistics breathe a little. Still, that's obviously not his style.
8. Law of Desire (1987) - Digging into some of Almodovar's early film output, and this is his best so far. Kinky when it needs to be, immensely funny at other times and a fantastic finale. Don't we all wish Antonio Banderas kept making Almodovar films?
9. Codename Cougar (1989) - Zhang Yimou's debut film (co-directed with Yang Fengliang) is a minor thriller about a hijacked plane that's forced to crash land in between two non-communicative governments (Taiwan and China) and the military action to free its hostages. Most notable for a young Gong Li and the final fifteen minutes that serve as a beautifully rendered precursor to Yimou's next decade of filmmaking and his elegantly composed images and color.
10. All the Old Knives (2022) - A subtle spy thriller throwback with conversation rather than commotion. Reviewed here.
Monday, April 11, 2022
No One Gets Out of Here Alive: Abel Ferrara's "Alive In France"
Following Ferrara and his musical pals Paul Hipp and Joe Delia (both creative partners for the past 30 plus years in either acting roles or compositional crew) as they perform a number of shows across France, "Alive In France" doesn't boast much more story than that. The film shows us the boyish interaction between the trio, introduces their wives (Cristina Chiriac) and Ferrara's child into the mix (whose becoming quite the mainstay in recent Ferrara films) and observes as they bounce from Toulousse to Paris playing for receptive- and not so receptive- audiences. Of course, the audiences come because its Abel Ferrara, hounding him for autographs on "Bad Lieutenant" posters and wanting to take a "serious" picture with him. But beneath his demure attitude- Ferrara is always accommodating even if he appears about to blow his top- the film is most productive in revealing the hound dog attitude he puts into playing in a band. Every street encounter results in him handing out a flyer for his upcoming gig. Every radio interview ends up with his questioning their legitimacy in really advertising. And an impromptu stop at a local film school has most of the students brushing him off, in which the camera captures an impressively ironic moment as Ferrara walks away, not in anger but in reflective reverie identifying with them when he was a brash student.
And then there's the music. Much of the film lingers on the band's sweaty style of Rolling Stones-knock offs. And even if Ferrara is probably the weakest member of the group, "Alive In France" glides along with Hipp's rendition of his music from Ferrara's "China Girl" (1987) and the vibes of Delia's soundtrack contributions. Though their shows are interspersed with clips from Ferrara's films (in case anyone forgets who he is), the documentary is alive with their creation. Whether it's visual or sonic, doesn't matter. It makes us realize that artistry is what gives Ferrara breath.... no matter where he resides.
Thursday, February 24, 2022
Moments of the Year 2021
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 23rd 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.
After efficiently taking down a guard, the way Elena (Florence Pugh) struggles and grunts to move the body. Superhuman ability juxtaposed with real humanity. “Black Widow”
The way a woman (Marion Cotillard) gently buries her face in the shoulder of her lover (Adam Driver) as he sings to her. One of the few emotionally resonant moment between a hurried romance in Leos Carax’s bonkers “Annette”
“Shiva Baby” and the sly little smile given as two women hold hands in the backseat of a mini van
Lady Di (Kristen Stewart) playing a game with her children by candlelight in “Spencer”. One of the few times she’s not vibrating with angst in Pablo Larrain’s masterful film
The subtle (but seismic) shift as Vicky Kreps wakes up and says “oh hi Anders” in “Bergman Island”. In a year of prism box films about filmmaking and finding oneself within the camera’s images, Mia Hanson-Love’s effort is startling and beautiful.
In “The Lost Daughter”, the thrust of a hat pin, almost imperceptible, and the way it jars Olivia Colman back into her reality of broken motherhood.
“Oh cool, ma, a hamburger!” “The Many Saints of Newark
The running joke of why a three star general would charge everyone for White House snacks. The world may be ending but it reeeaaally bothers Jennifer Lawrence. “Don’t Look Up”
Harriet Sansom Harris and the way “Licorize Pizza” holds on her face in a jazzy, scene stealing performance as a talent scout who seems to control the world at her desk
The way Bob Well’s voice cracks as he talks about his son’s suicide. The weaving of fact and fiction become something cathartic in Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland”
Wesley Snipes and his walk. “Coming 2 America”
Sly and the Family Stone taking the stage in “Summer of Soul”
An editor’s burial. “The French Dispatch”
In the middle of a shouting rant on live television, a scientist (Leonardo DiCaprio) momentarily knocks his glasses askew…. And then keeps on going. Whether it was a gaffe or scripted, it lends a moment of unhinged passion to things. “Don’t Look Up”
With a dissonant Jonny Greenwood score, the long shot as it follows Gary (Cooper Hoffman) inside and around a promotional event, eventually ending up with him being tackled and hauled away by the police for murder. “Licorice Pizza”
Thursday, February 17, 2022
Cherry Blossoms and the Trials of The Makioka Sisters
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.
Genuinely humane and bitingly funny, "The Makioka Sisters" does involve four of them, but it eventually narrows its view on the two youngest- indecisive but independent Yukiko (Sayuri Yoshinaga) and volatile, brash Taeko (Yuko Kotegawa). The two older sisters Sachiko (Yoshiko Sakuma) and Tsuruko (Keiko Kishi) spend most of their days trying to find suitors for both, but the film underlines something deeper than arranged marriages. That the Makioka family is well off (but often not as important as the male suitor's families lined up) is a central theme, but as the film travels in years after its starting point of 1938, their family declines. Add to that young Taeko runs off with a bar owner when her real love dies a peasant's death because he couldn't get surgery in time and Yukiko demures any advances from any established suitor, and Ichikawa's adaptation makes a strong case that the family is far more liberal and free spirited than the aristocratic frame they're often poised within. They want to conform, but young Yukiko and Taeko certainly have other ideas.
Full of wonderful, quickly edited reaction shots (mostly from the family's help in young Oharu played by Yukari Uehara) and a dinner meeting that carefully frames everyone in uncomfortable banter, "The Makioka Sisters" is also one of Ichikawa's most humorous efforts. Listening to a suitor ramble on about his work in aquatic reproduction and then hearing Yukiko turn him down with "I'm not a fish" gently underscores the admiration that slowly builds for these four women throughout the film. They have personalities. They grow on us like an expansive intimate epic should. And the slow puncture of Japanese cultures and mores feels like something revolutionary in the hands of a master director like Ichikawa.
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.
Monday, February 14, 2022
My Fav Movies of 2021
For full descriptions, please visit this list that published last month here at Dallas Film Now
13. Procession, directed by Robert Greene
12. Lily Topples the World, directed by Jeremy Workman
11. Shiva Baby, directed by Emma Seligman
10. Quo vadis Aida?, directed by Jasmila Zbanic
9. The Card Counter, directed by Paul Schrader
8. No Sudden Move, directed by Steven Soderbergh
7. Summer of Soul, directed by Questlove
6. Spencer, directed by Pablo Larrain
5. Titane, directed by Julia Ducournau
4. The World To Come, directed by Mona Fastvold
3. Bergman Island, directed by Mia Hansen-Love
2. Wife of a Spy, directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
1. Licorice Pizza, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Monday, January 10, 2022
Retro Perspective: The Best Non 2021 Films I Saw in 2021
Stephen Frears' film about two young boys (Richard Thomas and Peter Clark) surging through the nocturnal wasteland of new-wave dead end Essex, England after a prank goes horribly wrong is a masterpiece of anarchic energy. With a propulsive soundtrack that swaggers from inspired spaghetti-western theatrics to thudding heavy metal and a camera that swoops and glides around its characters with breathless energy, "Bloody Kids" captivates from the very opening. It only gets better when one of the young boys hooks up with a group of older men and women (led by the manics of Gary Holton) and the film sinks into an orgy of anti-establishment nose thumbing and petty criminality. Made for television and released in 1980, this is a film that deserves a rediscovery for its nervy ambition in representing the nihilistic attitude of punk rock Britain in the late 70's. For the record, the cops (and supposed adults) in this film don't get off easily either.
Loren and Mastroianni, who've been paired so many times before, have a casual elegance about them as they come together and fall apart, their dialogue rolling between them with the ease of professionalism both continually exhibit in all their work. Mastroianni, especially, is tasked with a conflicted character, at once attracted to Loren for her ideals and then forced to confront emotions that are hidden behind his true self.... emotions that have him writing with one hand and keeping a pistol close by with the other. And Loren, in the final image as she watches something across the courtyard, gives a full performance that suggests an alternate life would suit her perfectly. From its magical opening shot to its final shadows of people being led away to nefarious futures, Scolla's seemingly meet-cute romance feels like the template for Richard Linklater's "Sunrise" trilogy and so many others to come.
8. A Poem is a Naked Person (1974), directed by Les Blank - Rarely shown outside of personal events hosted by the filmmaker himself for more than 40 years, "A Poem Is a Naked Person" only really saw the light of day in 2015 and 2016 after Blank's death, when it was remastered and released through Criterion with the generous support of Blank's son and the musician/subject Leon Russell himself. What emerges in this crusty document of early 1970's hazy bohemian atmosphere is a blast. Darting from a wedding of Russell's band member hosted in his very Southern gothic mansion to interviews with an entertaining man who eats glass at an Oklahoma air show, "A Poem Is a Naked Person" is just as weirdly poetic as its title suggest. One does get a ton of Russell's earthy alt-country/rock music (and even more cameos from friends as diverse as Eric Anderson, JJ Cale and Willie Nelson), but the intention of the documentary is to replicate a time and place not through aggrandizement, but a down-and-dirty synthesis of creative artistry and all the weird freedom that comes with its boozy, carefree lifestyle. I can only imagine the reaction if Les Blank's "A Poem Is a Naked Person" had actually been unleashed on the movie-going public when it was finished in 1974
7. The Taste of Violence (1961), directed by Robert Hossein - One of my favorite directors to discover over the past few years has been actor-director Robert Hossein. Producing a string of low-key thrillers and bastardized westerns with nary a hint of release on any video format (or streaming) here in the US, it's somewhat thrilling to continue finding small gems like this, as if I'm the only one who knows about them. This 1961 western tracks with the rest of his work, barreling though a variety of themes such as the almost wordless anti-hero Hossein himself plays, a Stockholm syndrome kidnapping, and superfluous camera moves that feel needlessly pompous and so freaking perfect at the same time. Hossein plays Perez, the leader of a band of Mexican outlaws who kidnap the president's daughter (Giovanna Ralli) and then tear themselves apart with jealousy and greed over her return to other revolutionary forces. Often filmed with searing landscapes behind them and never afraid to shy away from horrifying tableaux (such as a group of men hanging alongside a cobblestone street like heavy pinatas), "The Taste of Violence" is a western quite unlike any other.
6. House of Hummingbird (2018), directed by Kim Bora - Kim Bora's three hour portrait of a young girl's navigation of her pubescent life is tender and evocative, none moreso than the lengthy scene in which Eun-Hee (Park Ji Hoo) dances and pounds her feet on the floor, partly out of frustration but mostly because it's the only time she can steel herself from the emotional volcano of the world around her. She drifts in and out of friendships, finds first love, and deals with the crushing bureaucracy that takes her favorite and inspirational teacher (Kim Sae-Byuk) away from her in the blink of an eye. "House of Hummingbird" is so full of life- both fair and unfair- that it makes one cringe with empathy as we reflect on our own inability at that age to understand what's going on around us. It's a film that's sad but affirming that we're not alone in this world. As a debut effort, "House of Hummingbird" proudly announces Bora as a talent that deserves to have anything she dares conjuring put up on the screen for all to relish.
5. A Canterbury Tale (1944), directed by Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell - A road movie interrupted by a bit of Nancy Drew mystery, Powell and Pressburger's "A Canterbury Tale" is a magical exploration of faith and perspective during wartime. Every motive here- whether it's the eventual unmasking of the mysterious "glue man" or the unwavering goodness of its three main characters- belies a deep understanding of human nature, made even more resplendent by the film's final moments. It seems dicey at first, but Powell and Pressburger make good on their promise to unite their medieval source material with the mechanisms of 1940's war-torn England. As the trio who find their way to various types of perspective and bliss, Eric Portman, Sheila Sim and Dennis Price are excellent, and the way the film maneuvers them through various genres is exhilarating, culminating in what's probably the simplest and magical denouements in the filmmaking duo's long and illustrious career. I watched this twice in about a week after first seeing it earlier this year and I can't imagine a more palette cleansing way to celebrate cinema than this.
4. Nightmare Alley (1947), directed by Edmond Goulding - Based on a novel by William Lindsey Gresham (whose real life seemed like a mirror to the hard drinking and pessimistic outlook of many of the film's characters), "Nightmare Alley" seems to fit in a variety of genres. It's been called horror (as one scene towards the end certainly has "The Innocents" vibes), film noir (where it seems to be slotted most of the time) and postwar thriller since its release in 1947. For my money, its unclassifiable because it handles so many of its twists and turns with mastery. As the wanderer-turned-mentalist-conman, Tyrone Power is perfect, and Goulding treats the entire affair with the utmost sincerity. Thinking back several days after absorbing this bleak psychological thriller, I don't recall a single ray of sunlight penetrating its mass. Even the opening carnival scene- typically a sun drenched affair for families to frolic and glare at the attractions- takes place at night. We'll ultimately get the Hollywood remake in a couple of months (and I only hope it half as good as the original), but this late 40's version stands as one of the great films of the period. And even though the ending is telegraphed a bit, it still resonates with chilling vibrancy about the comeuppance it provides its suave men and women.
What a year for Chloe Zhao. From winning the Oscar to helming a mega budget Marvel film, it was definitely an arrival for the mainstream. But, as this debut film proves, she's been here all along. Like she did with her sophomore film "The Rider" (2018), "Songs My Brothers Taught Me" takes place with people mostly portraying themselves.... or at least thinly veiled fictional recreations of themselves. And it wouldn't be far off to wonder if that later film didn't rise out of the barren-land ashes of this film as Zhao's camera often becomes much more interested in the rodeo bucking community that fraternally rubs against her Indian reservation-set debut. But regardless of its foundations, "Songs My Brothers Taught Me" is an amazing film for the way it never seems to be in a rush of narrative. Things happen and great developmental arcs occur, but the film just captures a sense.... a time... and a place with generous acuity. And, like most of her films, it's a mood thing. Zhao often frames the activity around the reservation in long shot, allowing for streaks of lightning to cascade in the background or curtains of sunset light to bathe the screen. The mixture of nature and man- that is so prevalent in all her work- gets first attention here. It's a beautifully rendered atmosphere for her characters to bounce around this big sky country with dour, internalized permutations of angst and trepidation. We feel for them because although they reside in a place largely foreign to my experience, the emotions and depth of confusion in growing up are universal. Zhao seems to excel in creating these types of stories and I look forward to following her long and beautiful career.