My name is Mike and I’m not a cine-holic. Really. I only watch one film a day, usually. I’ve got it under control and I can stop any time I want. It’s not a problem. Besides, it’s my own choice, so just back off, all right? Um, oh yes, what I started to say was that aside from the stuff I write about for publication (sometimes laughingly termed “professionally”), I also keep a journal of things I watch just for pleasure, which usually amounts to DVDs of recent movies checked out of my local library.
Really. They’ve got a terrific selection. I hope you check your library as well, if you’ve got one; I don’t have Netflix or any other streaming service, and haven’t missed it.
I write this stuff down partly to aid to memory and partly for emails to friends, so it’s scribbled very informally and conversationally, these are my observations at their most naked and unpolished. Some people do this by blogging. For this exciting installment of Canon Fodder I’ve decided to dredge up my notes on 50 recent movies I’ve watched in 2013. Presto! Instant column! Hang on, it’s going to be dizzying ride. As you can see, I pretty much watch anything.
1. Marco Bellocchio’s Vincere (“Win”) is a woman’s film in which the woman is the spurned mistress of Mussolini and mother of his secret son! The first act is done operatically and expressionistically, with newsreel footage and exclaiming titles, dreams consisting of scenes from other movies (Eisenstein’s October, for example), allusions to Futurism, vocal selections from Philip Glass’ Akhneton. Then the narrative settles a bit as she’s confined to institutions for making too many waves, but the film remains crammed with lush visual ideas. Cinema is a running theme, how it comments upon and shapes our dreams: she sees Chaplin’s The Kid as tears run down her face, and Mussolini, wounded in WWI, watches the Italian Christus (crucified Jesus) on a screen over his hospital bed.
Although it’s not stated, a popular Italian genre of the time were films about suffering women (see the documentary, Diva Dolorosa), and this combines that trope with the audacious political/historical dimension. The last scene has the grown-up son also in a madhouse and doing a perfect imitation of his dad (of course, since they’re played by the same actor). A film full of brutal male bureaucrats, angrily sympathetic nuns, and crazy women.
2. Hanna is a butt-kicking girl movie, which seems to be a new kink, as in Kick-Ass and Haywire and Angelina Jolie in that Oedipal hitman movie Wanted. This one keeps emphasizing its status as a grim fairy tale. I think it works best as a “first contact” movie, with amazed and perplexed little Hanna “from the forest” (Arctic circle) discovering a world she never suspected, and things like electricity and music. This reminds me of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the woefully unappreciated Last Action Hero coming into our world and listening with wonder to Mozart for the first time. There’s a sci-fi touch thrown in because, like other Milliennial Unreality heroes, Hanna really doesn’t know who or what she is.
As a hitman/chase movie, decorated by anorexic yet stylish American agent Cate Blanchett, who brushes her teeth until they bleed (dig the scene where she emerges from a wolf’s mouth), it indulges in conventions and conveniences—like never bothering to tell us what happens to the family Hanna picks up, apparently because they don’t want to come out and say that the bad guys never leave anyone alive and they don’t want to confirm that they all must have gotten killed. Directed by Joe Wright with some very nice compositions and a tour-de-force single-shot steadicam scene of Eric Bana getting off a bus, going to the subway, and neutralizing a circle of attackers while the camera spins around him; in his commentary, Wright compares it to his final shot in Atonement and credits the same cameraman.
3. Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, like the Alien movies, is still basically a story about expendable non-characters getting killed in random order, now gussied up with its most impressive design yet. Some of the willful deaths are so eye-rolling, like when the captain says he doesn’t need his two pilots and they can leave in the lifeboat, and they’re both, like, virtually doing alpha-male high-fives like they’re about to ride a bitchin’ wave. Please. The only thing missing is that they should have cried “Semper fi!”. And what about the fantasy of Charlize Theron suddenly saying “My room, ten minutes”? As usual, the most credible attempts at human intercourse come from an android. The music gets all Star Trekie during “sense of wonder” moments when we see the holograms.
Best scene, and don’t they know it, is when Noomi Rapace is resourceful enough to perform a queasily suspenseful and eye-popping self-abortion. (I wonder if this is to cock a snoot at the “right to life” crowd.) Half of that scene’s frisson derives from the contrast between the frantic hysteria of the human activity and the orderly calm of the machine to which she submits. You could say organic merging is the main theme: man/machine, human/alien. They conclude that “the engineers” created us and then wanted to destroy us with the alien parasites, but maybe the next part of the experiment is precisely that organic fusion. That last engineer/alien contact is certainly grotesquely sexualized.
4. Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister belongs to the inadequately named “mumblecore” galaxy, meaning observational, semi-improv comedy by the grandchildren of John Cassavetes, yet shot with beautiful compositions and grace notes of an island off Washington state (see also Cold Weather). As I recall, DP Ben Kasulke also works with Guy Maddin to very different effect.
This is as engrossing and surprising as a theoretically claustrophobic three-person exercise can be. It begins with a passive-aggressive sad sack (Mark Duplass) being dispatched by a friend (Emily Blunt) to her father’s cabin for some alone time, but he meets her lesbian sister who impulsively falls into bed with him. I know what you’re thinking. What seems at first like straight-guy wish fulfillment builds to entirely credible and messy (and funny) revelations about relationships, in which the modern male learns he has only to humble himself to find happiness. Recommended!
5. 40 Shades of Blue won the grand prize at Sundance a few years ago and comes festooned with critical praise, with David Ansen comparing it with Robert Altman. In the interview with the writer, he says director Ira Sachs and he went through lots of influences and wrote new drafts to accommodate whatever they’d just seen: Pialat, Chabrol, Hou, Truffaut, both Rays (Charulata and On Dangerous Ground). He never mentions Cassavetes, the most obvious inspiration for scenes of volatile types (esp. Rip Torn as a legendary Memphis songwriter, now growling, now tender) in scenes where emotional uncertainty is mirrored by jittering and sometimes out of focus camera, with now and then a rigorous or lovely composition thrown in. Doesn’t all this just mean it’s a second-hand film-school movie?
The critical huzzahs must be approval for stealing from the best, as the story focuses on a Russian trophy non-wife who’s drawn, Phaedra-like, into an affair with Rip’s marriage-in-crisis son. Maybe those who were so impressed by Torn’s performance (admirably restrained) had never seen a classic Torn movie before, since I think they were all made around 1971 and aren’t exactly easy to find. This one in particular might be the unofficial sequel to Payday.
6. Keep the Lights On is a personal story from the same Sachs. Another intimately handheld thing, this follows a male relationship that looks untenable from the start and turns out in fact to be so, but it takes years to shoot the arrow into its head. I’m sure it’s cathartic for Sachs, especially to cast a cutely accented Swede as himself, a documentary filmmaker interested in a minor beefcake/porn/avant-garde filmmaker. The actual short doc about this guy is included and is pretty fascinating, more interesting to me than the excruciating case history of loving a druggie while the camera hovers about everyone’s nostrils. Some interesting sex details from the effed-up BF (unhygenic coupling! hiring a hustler!) and about the Swede’s dominating hook-ups (but these are in the deleted scenes!) but the movie needs more nudity. As do most movies.
7. Bad Day to Go Fishing is described in one blurb as The Wrestler via the Coen Bros, and that’s not bad. The reviewer might also have mentioned Aki Kaurismaki. The odd couple is the almost catatonic German wrestler and the hustler/promoter who drives him around backwater towns (this is an Uruguayan movie) whose brightly colored widescreen compositions manage still to convey tacky desperation. Opens with a disaster, goes to flashback, then builds deadpan, well-calibrated suspense and the palpable sense of a strained friendship/partnership based on covering each other’s disappointments. Achieves the quirky yet human tone so often reached for, so often fallen short.
8. Got around to Richard Jenkins’ acclaimed performance for The Visitor, where he’s a sleepwalking prof who lectures abstractions on emerging Third World economies without feeling any personal connection until he walks in on a devastating black girl from Senegal in his New York bathtub and her equally devastating devil of a Syrian beau hunk, whom he also walks in on in his underwear while banging his djembe drum (curious detail, that).
Although Jenkins is widowed of his professional pianist wife, that doesn’t invalidate reading an attraction to this delicious Arab, or am I reading too much? The woman is certainly suspicious of everything about Jenkins, from his ownership of the apartment they’re squatting in (she’s the one who feels violated when he walks in to his own property) to his easy white financial and legal security to, finally, his generosity. Later he feels another attraction to the man’s beautiful widowed mom and they go to Phantom of the Opera, but he misses a chance (surely anticipated by many in the audience) to offer marriage.
While some might accuse this movie of having the wrong focus or being patronizing, I’d say it’s got its ducks in a canny row. Its point is to facilitate legal change, which is why the closing credits prominently give a website. And how is change to happen? The final shot symbolizes this cleverly. Any number of illegal or non-white people can bang the drum, and people ignore it as exotic local color in the landscape, but when a comfortable upper-middle honky like Jenkins “bangs the drum,” that’s when you can expect change in America. And how will it happen unless people like him are led out of their insularity to recognize something larger than themselves, and how will this happen without being seduced by the beauty of the world? The movie effectively symbolizes this process, and remembers to answer the dictates of understated “realism” and simple emotional yearning.
In other words, and I always like other words, this movie probably does more to attract people “like” Jenkins to think about a new perspective, and perhaps eventually to act on that, than any number of movies about put-upon immigrants told strictly from their POV. Maybe that sounds like a cynical or bitter truth, but it’s probably just a true truth. My understanding of the title is that Jenkins is the Visitor—to his own apartment, to the new New York, to an interstitial world of which he had no knowledge and finds going away from him.
9. Mirror Mirror, a gorgeous retelling of Snow White from the visual eye of Tarsem (The Cell). Of course the costumes and settings are great. The would-be hip story, told by Julia Roberts as the stepmother, is never as clever as it should be, settling instead for Nathan Lane doing schtick. The thrust (stated out loud as a moral) is to refurbish the tale so that Snow White becomes a swashbuckling heroine who can fight her own battles, as trained by the dwarfs with attitude (here a band of robbers shunned by society), and the Prince is presented as a very easy on the eyes object of the female gaze who often is made to look foolish but is cute enough to get away with it. She never bites the apple and sleeps through the action. Curiously, however, the happy ending is about restoring the monarchy when her lost father (Sean Bean) is rediscovered and routs his usurping wife, so it’s really not all about girl power.
10. Compare and contrast the above with Snow White and the Huntsman, which is to the previous movie as the TV show Grimm is to Once Upon a Time—the dark unDisneyed cousin. Now Charlize Theron is the wicked queen/stepmother and Kristen Stewart is allegedly “the fairest of them all,” who certainly looks stony in her climactic Joan of Arc get-up. The twist here is the new class order—the prince’s kiss does nothing but the hunter’s does (Chris Hemsworth), although when Snow takes the crown at the end, she will be ruler and evidently must shut away her feelings for the hired help, unless he becomes her concubine. One of the curious tricks here is the casting of non-dwarfs like Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane and Toby Jones as dwarfs. Of course they get all the hip jokes.
11. The Oscar-nominated doc Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry features a Chinese artist and political activist of astonishing bravery, a big pudgy guy with a sense of mischief and perversity. While the style is plain talking-heads and clips, the subject matter is so riveting that it doesn’t need anything else. We see his installations, footage he took on vidcam of his own activist documentaries and confrontational rabble-rousing behavior with Chinese officials (a friend says he’s a good match for the government because he’s a natural hooligan), and footage just following him around and letting him reveal himself. Although often radical, he’s also very traditional in the sense of having both a wife and a concubine.
12. The Bourne Legacy is the fourth movie in the series (I prefer not to use the term “franchise”), folded inside the third like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and directed by Tony Gilroy with a respect for action and our comprehension of its physical space that goes far beyond the Paul Greengrass approach of hyper-editing. In the commentary, Gilroy admiringly cites Children of Men as an influence! Well, he never goes that crazy, but there are several extended moves and quite a stunning one of Jeremy Renner climbing up the outside of a house and going in the window.
As for the story, it’s interestingly vague and abstract, with many sequences cross-cut and playing without dialogue or only meaningless blather. I should think it’s quite possible to watch this movie without the slightest idea of what’s going on, and I say that as weird praise. It achieves almost avant-garde moments in narrative, based on sheer alarm expressed through relentless movement that combines the frantic and panicked with the methodical (see Prometheus above). The final endless Manila chase is more exhausting than thrilling, and the thumping pulsing “suspense” “music” is openly irritating.
13. Marwencol is a completely absorbing doc about a guy who was nearly kicked to death and recovered from his amnesia via the therapy of creating a village of G.I. Joe and Barbie dolls to enact an ongoing scenario in WWII Belgium. He’d been artistically inclined before (and we learn more than we expected about his life) but his obsession (and free time) really blossoms. It begins as strange and uncomfortable if low key and, to quote the subject’s later remark, “it just gets stranger by the minute.” By the end, you’ll want to meet the guy. This bears some resemblance to other docs about “outsider art” such as In the Realms of the Unreal and Rocaterrania, both about lonely guys who fabricated detailed fantasy worlds.
14. I can’t swear that Men in Black 3 is the best of the trilogy, since I haven’t seen the middle one (or don’t remember if I did), but it turns out after an unpromising business-as-usual effects/action opening to be a tightly written, engaging time travel story that ingeniously replaces the waxen Tommy Lee Jones with a brilliant Josh Brolin. There’s a delightful and original supporting character who’s a combination of zen and anxiety about multiple possibilities, and even the villain has a nice wit in his dual-role scene with himself.
15. Sinister is a jittery, nerve-wracking movie, and the musical choices have something to do with it. The early scenes of Ethan Hawke as a true-crime writer moving his family into a murder house are without music and use long Steadicam takes. Then when evil and creepy things start happening (mainly watching 8mm films found in the attic), there’s aggressively strange found-sound creepy music scratching and scraping and moaning at us, and the images they score are disturbing in conception. It does indulge in inexcusable stings now and then, but the interesting thing about even the false scares is that they’re not really false. One of these “false scares” is very unnerving. The “secret” is unfortunately long-time-coming predictable, esp. when uncredited cameo player Vincent D’Onofrio explains it all for you, and makes you think Hawke must be pretty stupid, but it’s still shivery and doesn’t cop out.
16. That’s one of several recent movies, apparently produced by the same people, that subject the American middle-class family to punishment: the Paranormal series, Insidious and next on our agenda: Dark Skies, which is the old alien-probe thing from The UFO Incident and The X Files. These visitations reflect and complicate the strains on marriage from recession, unemployment, and mortgage, and the bleak movie presents no way out. The manifestations seem specifically keyed to the elder son’s sexual yearnings, since the first things happen when he watches porn with a friend (a classic action for punishment). Then after his first kiss, his elation shorts out the streetlights as he passes. So perhaps the real horror is puberty.
17. What is there to say about Django Unchained, except that it’s continually absorbing, that it follows nearly a straight line narratively with only a few momentary flashbacks for flavor (like that funny instant flashback where the raiders evaluate their masks and eyeholes) and, given the period, devoid of any of Quentin Tarantino’s disquisitions on the pop culture of the day. Oh yes, that it takes a common, nay requisite trope of the spaghetti western—revenge—and makes it as riotously sadistic as possible, with a wish-fulfillment angle of racial correction.
The needs of the narrative—the desire to keep going thru a few more twists—are brazenly foregrounded over basic self-preservation at the climactic moment when Christoph Waltz’s character, who has been a machine of efficiency throughout, admits he can’t resist committing an act that’s not only suicidal, but for all he knows may kill Django, when the alternative would have been to leave with what he came for bloodlessly. In that moment, he’s at the mercy of narrative requirements, and most importantly and implicitly, the audience’s shameful desires. Which oddly leads us to:
18. Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer starts off as a kinder, gentler Do the Right Thing, though not nostalgic like Crooklyn, with Lee in cameo as the same character still delivering pizzas. Actually one totally remarkable and unique thing is how it starts from frame one with the movie itself, images of a boy riding in a car, without a single pre-movie logo for any studio or company, and no “so and so and so and so presents a so and so picture in association with so and so.” You just press Play and we’re suddenly into the sound and image, as if we skipped over a chapter, and we don’t even see the title until the end. Not even any FBI warnings or notices about opinions not reflecting anybody important, etc. This is so unusual and even disorienting that I must make note of it. The modern viewer isn’t prepared for this!
A 13 year-old Atlanta boy is dropped off at his very religious preacher-grandfather’s Brooklyn apartment for the summer with his iPad, and it’s clear his mother doesn’t want to talk to her father for some reason, so why is she bringing him here? We end not only with the question unanswered, but even underlined. It’s mostly a good-natured, sometimes angry snapshot of the neighborhood, with flashes of gentrification, and Lee’s typical allowance of different voices and opinions expressed richly, and near-constant background vocal music by a female singer mixed with frequent choir songs and sermons. A plot development at the 90-minute mark more or less throws the movie off the rails, which is evidently the intended effect, but the result is that after 20 or so minutes of not knowing what else to do with itself, the narrative basically just stops with the circular bittersweet end of summer as if everyone had a good time.
19. Double Take is an experimental piece of docu-fiction that uses Alfred Hitchcock’s making of The Birds for free associations about the Cold War, the Space Race, Nixon arguing with Kruschev, and JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis, all interspersed with footage of Hitch sarcastically announcing the commercial breaks from his TV show, followed by actual sexist Folger’s commercials in which husbands berate their wives for the coffee. Amid all this assembled footage is new footage of Hitchcock impersonators, one of them narrating a story inspired by a Borges story about a man who meets his double, in this case Hitchcock claiming to meet his future self. Wacky.
20. War Witch (aka Rebelle) was nominated for the foreign film Oscar. Set in an unnamed African country, it opens as harrowing handheld semi-documentary account of 12-year-old girl kidnapped with a bunch of other adolescents when their village is invaded by rebels who kill everyone else and make her shoot her parents. Horrific. She’s recalling this in flashback, addressing her unborn child as she’s ready to give birth, although she keeps narrating after giving birth. At a certain point the story morphs into a semi-fantastical odyssey when she sees ghosts and gets her rep as a sorceror, and the narrative shifts several times and goes thru various emotions. I have no idea how “authentic” it is as a generalized image of a fictionalized country vs. an allegory of how the West thinks of Africa, but it’s original, vivid, fascinating. This film by a Vietnamese-Canadian can be compared to Munyurangabo made by a Korean-American. I wonder if these people redd Uwem Akpam’s collection Say You’re One of Them and decided to go over there somewhere and shoot a movie with locals about internecine atrocities and the impact on teens.
21. Beasts of the Southern Wild also mixes neo-realism with child’s fantasy in depicting the joys of inappropriate parenting among poor, drunken losers with nothing but stubborn pride. Reminds me of the unflattering depiction of Independent People in Halldor Laxness’ novel. Its larger social concerns are global warming and how every part of the universe depends on every other part to work right (which is spelled out in the girl’s narration), one implication of which is that our continued disregard of the disenfranchised most prone to natural disasters is a factor in their inevitable shellacking, and that life in a shelter is more miserable than life in your own flooded shack.
22. Get Low is a totally absorbing Shelby Foote-ish Southern 30s drama, with a bit of wish fulfillment in the depiction of the black preacher who’s friends with the ornery white varmint played with typical inward brilliance by Robert Duvall, though we may believe that one social outcast befriended another. It knows the pleasure of watching Duvall play off Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek, all of whose “names” were necessary for financing but hey, you might as well work with the best. A friendly, carefully scripted, lovingly framed and lit movie, a cracker-barrel tale about a man who throws his own funeral and builds to his moving public speech.
23. Daydream Nation is a high school drama (all actors apparently in their 20s, natch) about a restless hot bombshell who screws the teacher with ease while also helping a local dweeb lose his virginity as a serial killer is stalking teen girls in this nowhere town. Opens in very stylized manner with oddly colored shots like moving multiplane postcards as our heroine explains all the things happening in this coming-of-age year. This is to grab our attention and justify the cover blurb from Variety comparing to David Lynch and Donnie Darko, but soon the film settles into routine if competent melodramas with an overdrawn hectic “fate” climax and a nicely sympathetic mom (Andie McDowell). To me it seems to be aiming for early Paul Thomas Anderson with a dash of Gus Van Sant, but whatever. Lots of desperate drug use and Devendra Banhart songs for indie cred.
24. Now I’m going to name two excellent aching hetero-romance movies directed by people who aren’t hetero males. Isabel Coixet’s Elegy, scripted by Nicholas Meyer from Philip Roth’s novel The Dying Animal, is right away a riveting and elegant movie that manages to feel seriously emotional while being drenched in high culture (as opposed to other movies’ pop culture, or even movie culture). The first ten minutes have more literary/arty/musical references than you can shake a stick at. You know where you are when the opening scene of character exposition is a clip of the hero talking to Charlie Rose.
That hero is louche writer-manqué and aging bald academic Ben Kingsley, who begins an affair with a recent former student (Penelope Cruz, the best I’ve ever seen her) after making it clear that he never has personal contact with students until after the final grades are handed out; I stress this because the student/teacher angle is safely rationalized and really has nothing to do with the movie except for existential irony, even though it’s basically the logline.
As an example of the movie’s intelligence, here’s a line that both introduces Dennis Hopper’s academic buddy and defines him entertainingly. While they play racketball, Ben says, “You know, for a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, you can be very unimaginative,” and he promptly returns the serve with “That’s why they gave me the fucking award!” And his character has a great exit. I didn’t know where this measured movie was going, although it seemed obvious.
25. Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea is something of a wow. He adapts a play by Terence Rattigan and alters it quite a bit to focus on the anguished POV of a 1950s British woman (Rachel Weisz) who deserts her kind but older and perhaps sexless husband for a charming but discontented ex-pilot and thrillseeker who can’t return her devotion in kind. It’s so Davies—unrequited angst, rapturous photography, hopeless nostalgia for drab stringent lives, working class people singing in bars (and a thrilling flashback single-take to a singalong of “Molly Malone” in a tube station during a blitz bombing—a producer calls this a “money shot”!), and unapologetically overwhelming use of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto in homage to the use of Rachmaninoff in Brief Encounter.