[13 August 2013]
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.
26. Returning emphatically to the hetero male, I enjoyed Woody’s To Rome With Love more than I’d have guessed from the lukewarm notices from critics who wanted it to be Midnight in Paris. This has very interesting aspects. One is that the four stories are completely unrelated and the cutting between them is purely for the purpose of advancing them, so that in fact there’s no correlation between time passing in one story or another. Most obviously, the one with Penelope Cruz takes place all in one day, but it’s interwoven with stories that take days and even weeks! That’s a radical approach to cross-cutting, yet a valid one. This potential disorientation also serves the point that the stories are all quietly fantastical, or at least frankly non-realist. One story never explains the relationship between Alec Baldwin and Jesse Eisenberg; is Baldwin flashing back to his own youth, or only imagining the whole scenario?
Cruz plays, guess what, a hooker. Before we express sarcastic astonishment that Woody would write such a role for a woman, we should recall that this movie is also trying to evoke traditions of Italian cinema (including the presence of Roberto Benigni, for example), and that the harlot is a well-established figure in the cinema of that madonna/whore country. What’s more interesting and genuinely subversive in terms of middle-class cinema (some will say self-serving) is that in three out of four tales, Woody underlines the message that infidelity not only isn’t so terrible, it may even be beneficial. Put that in your mainstream values!
Benigni’s plot (which reminded me of the anecdotes of Dino Buzzatti) explores Warhol’s twin dicta that everyone will be famous for 15 minutes and that you can be famous for being famous, and it’s also subversive in that instead of ending at the predicted happiness of going back to your own safe life, the man feels a genuine sense of loss as it’s explained to him that being a celebrity is better. (Is this an evolution from Stardust Memories and the execrated Celebrity?) Again, we sense Woody is writing from experience and authority. Those aren’t the lies people pay to hear in movies! He’s getting away with them in a light shiny sugar-coated comedy.
27. My mom’s verdict on Skyfall is that she liked everything about it except the loudness and violence, a statement requiring no comment I can offer. What I liked about it is multifold. Granting that its setpieces depend on the modern action film’s three C’s (convenience, coincidence and contrivance), they’re excellent. We could go through every one and point out how the C’s are observed in order to prolong the action instead of cut it short, beginning with the colossal and sensibly unexplained McGuffin of why you’d have every undercover spy on a “hard drive” in the hands of some agent in Istanbul (esp. since it seems to be the case that the bad guy is a master hacker who has access to all their files already), or how a chase need only be instigated by someone pulling up in a truck and declaring “He’s in the black Audi” that’s magically 20 feet ahead. Or how the bad guy and his bad squad can turn up in a meeting for the purpose of shooting one old lady right in front of him and end up shooting everyone else instead in a prolonged bout, and then not get shot when Bond has him in his sights climbing a ladder because they stop for a chat, and don’t even mention the henchmen who never learn that standing two inches from Bond is a bad idea when you might shoot him safely from yards away.
Never mind all that. Director Sam Mendes seems to have heard the carping of people like me about over-editing action instead of presenting it (though I’ve been observing how the last few years have evolved action staging in depth to accomodate 3D), and he takes it to the near avant-garde extreme of staging almost an entire fight in a single arty shot with silhouettes (the better to use doubles, I suppose) and closing on a breathless dolly-forward in the sequence I call Blade Runner kabuki (I know kabuki is Japanese and the scene is in Shanghai, but I can’t help that). Look at all the frames in that sequence of mirrors and glass and space: the window across the way, the woman mimicking Modigliani’s painting, boxes within boxes. Remarkable.
By the way, Bond has already been ordered to “terminate” this guy after getting info, and he says “With pleasure,” and that adds an interesting moral culpability to the scene where Bond is holding onto him. We know that he’s only “saving” him to get the info, and that if he gets it, he’d let him drop, so the fact that the guy drops accidentally without coughing up any facts is mere happenstance. Is this perhaps to prevent Bond from having to kill in cold blood instead of defensively? But that could have been avoided by dropping the dialogue about termination, so they wanted us to go into the scene remembering that. And Bond allows the Modigliani hit to occur instead of stepping in to prevent it. Interesting. The movie is about cruelty and “collateral damage” throughout, ranging from M’s decisions to the poor femme fatale (or rather fatale femme).
And I’ve skipped over the greatest avant-garde credits sequence in the series, presented as Bond’s dying dream! Nor have I mentioned the glorious shot that introduces the sexually threatening Javier Bardem delivering a great soliloquy as he walks from far background to closeup and begins his languid hands-on approach. His pauses and glances are priceless, most outrageously after his “eat each other” line. He’s possibly the most interesting and magnetic villain in the series, certainly the most volatile and trickster-ish, and the most challenging politically and strategically.
I trust you’ve seen this movie? If not, big fat SPOILER ahead as I discuss the seeming subversion of the ending, for isn’t it the case that the bad guy wins? He has one goal: to kill M, and he succeeds. At the very end, he puts the gun in her hands and begs her to put them both out of their misery, so he apparently wants to die with her. Even there, he succeeds after Bond gives him the penetration he so desired. True, he dies without realizing that M is also dying, but so what? Didn’t he achieve his aim? As for revealing the agents’ identities, that’s never addressed again; did he automatically upload these revelations to pop onto YouTube at the rate of once a week, and will this continue without him? The movie never says!
28. I liked Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, scripted by Tony Kushner, actually because it’s so schematic. The characters carefully explain what each scene is about, almost as though they are figures in a diorama lit by Rembrandt (“I’m Mrs. Lincoln and I’m hysterical and wet”) and how it all adds up to a textbook illustration in manufacturing sausages, with its requisite notes being struck from the very first scene of the black corporal confronting Lincoln respectfully while his older friend tries to be more ingratiating in his ingrained manner (disturbed by the other’s “uppity-ness”), and Lincoln acknowledges him without answering, or rather deflecting. I also like the shocking opening battle sequence of black soldiers against white in vicious intimate savagery—a rare, disturbing, yet in its way salutary and pithy image. I like the elegance of speeches and compositions. Great final reveal for Tommy Lee Jones, who turns out to be the only one in the picture getting any nookie.
29. They only have sex within wedlock in Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2, a remarkably satisfying ending to the saga. As with Part 1, really nothing happens for a long honeymoon of respite. The climactic donnybrook has as much carnage as you’d hope, and then it does something extraordinary that I really didn’t see coming but that makes radical sense. The whole series has been at least moderately interesting for its tone and look and unabashed romantic nonsense, and this two-part finale really delivers. If you think I’m crazy, deal with it.
30. Zero Dark Thirty opens and closes with routinely presented horrors accepted—nay, committed—by its professional characters, and the actual moment of shooting Bin Laden is interestingly handled not as a cathartic highlight but as a confused did-we-miss-it scene that almost deprives the audience of what it’s been waiting for. (Now, if this were a Jason Statham picture!) In between is our lovely CIA heroine, speaking more profanely and less professionally to her superiors than Clarice Starling, in a kind of Hawksian he-man milieu touched by hysteria (see also Homeland, where everyone in the CIA swears at each other). Kathryn Bigelow is sure at home while awash in testosterone, though the sparse “action” scenes are telegraphed with detailed set-ups. This feels like mythologizing and deconstructing at the same time. Its unpleasant and strangely dampened nature, and its look at a broader process of the environment around its heroine, is what probably makes this movie more problematic and less “satisfying” than The Hurt Locker, which isn’t a bad thing.
31. Seven Psychopaths tries to deconstruct the psycho/hitman/gangster movie with a postmodern premise of the screenwriter trying to write about the psychopaths, so there’s lots of frantically hip dialogue punctuated by ultra-violence and breakneck twists amid the star-studded cast—Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Tom Waits, cameos by Harry Dean Stanton and, wait, Gabourey Sidibe from Precious?! If you know it’s from the same guy who did In Bruges, then it seems a bit of a sophomore slump as he tries to step sideways from the Old World strangeness of Bruges to the New World desert strangeness of Hollywood. If you don’t know, then it can be seen as the pleasant faux-Tarantino throwaway it is. Hip soundtrack.
32. Of course Walken is more or less “doing” Christopher Walken in that one, and that gives us context to enjoy his emphatically not doing himself in A Late Quartet. The mere fact of his playing not a psycho but a cello is enough to attract our admiration, but the highlight of his quiet character is the breathtaking scene of the cameo by Anne-Sofie von Otter as his late wife, appropriately singing an aria from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt or The Dead City.
This is a High Culture movie, as specifically tailored to its crowd as movies about explosions and gunfire are to theirs. You get: New Yorkers looking at Rembrandts in museums, pertinent quotes from T.S. Eliot spelling out the theme (how do you handle going out of tune and coming back to harmony), a cameo from Wallace Shawn, an anedcote about Pablo Casals that takes a poke at critics (just enjoy what gives you pleasure and leave the rest aside), lots of musical snippets. The plot is supposedly structured like the Beethoven quartet 131, in seven flowing and mercurial movements. To this end, the stuff about troubled marriage and egos and parenting issues and anal personality disorders is really as programmatic as, say, The Avengers, so you pays your money and takes your choice. Not to be confused with Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet that came out in the same five minutes, nor with the much older Basileus Quartet.
33. The Israeli Footnote is about the relationship between an angry, imploded father who hasn’t been recognized for throwing his life away on Talmudic scholarship (he’s proud of having been once mentioned in a footnote), and his son, well-liked and recognized in the same field. The dad naturally fumes and disdains the son’s success. The hook: the son wins a prestigious honor, but they mistakenly inform the father instead, and when this is explained to the son, his decision drives the rest of this dry comedy of ego and disappointment. It opens with lots of playful visual elements involving slide projectors and split-screen and titles and flashbacks before settling into its groove of scenes alternating intensely expressed emotions with intensely seething restraint.
The first scene is a bit of exposition that would never be in a Hollywood movie. We simply stare at the minimal sour facial reactions of the father, unbroken for minutes, as he listens to his son accepting an award with an anecdote about his childhood. This actor, described by the director as an Israeli Peter Sellers (this would be his Being There), has very little dialogue. The highlight is a wonderfully charged scene of many people crammed into a tiny office for a top secret meeting. The ending of the ceremony itself has nicely surreal design and disorientation.
34. Be With Me for a long time seems to have no plot, or only a mysterious one, that skips between moments among various characters: two schoolmates having a girl/girl idyll (often via texting) until one finds a boyfriend, a lonely fat guard who stalks a chic female exec, and most interesting, the personally narrated memoirs of a real deaf-blind woman (who cannot see or hear the movie she’s in!) who eventually meets a grieving widower who cooks food for her. Here’s an example where the fragmentary nature of the scenes (though not hyper, like attention deficit disorder) works well to intrigue and bathe the viewer in a pleasant confusion, though each individual scene is well-defined in its situation.
35. Beautiful Creatures is an entertaining cross of Harry Potter and Twilight via Bewitched. Or maybe it’s True Blood meets Dark Shadows. Anyway, everything old is high concept again. A South Carolina high school boy with a taste for banned books feels drawn to the girl from a mysterious wacky wealthy family. It’s true love because they dreamed of each other, and he quickly finds out there’s a whole passle of backstory (and plenty implied for future outings, since this is a book series) about her decadent “caster” (witch) family. The effects are engagingly conceived and visualised, and the script emphasizes the characters’ soap opera. Narrow-minded religious fundamentalism is a bugaboo, although the irony is that those who accuse the family of dark powers have a point!
36. Burning Man doesn’t refer to hippies in the desert, but to an Aussie film told in fragmentary shards skipping around through time, beginning with the hero’s car accident landing him in the hospital and then elliptically skipping back to eventually reveal the details of his life as a husband and father who lost his wife to cancer and going through stages of grief, which all seem to be anger and denial. I have said that avant-garde techniques work best with simple story material and vice-versa, and if this story had been told in a straightforward manner, it would have been too dull and TV-movie-ish, until it eventually finds peace with an image of dad and son holding hands (like Bicycle Thieves) and staring into the camera while the soundtrack closes with John Lennon’s “Instant Karma” to wrap it all up. I did lots of fast-forwarding to get to the point, since individual moments didn’t interest me, though at least there was plenty of sex.
37. Now compare with the utterly straightforward, even slow presentation of the problem-of-the-week in the Japanese A Simple Life. Both films use in-your-face handheld docudrama style, but while the former film is youthful and jittery in its attempt to disorient and dazzle us, this film simply documents with telling details the slow decline of a female family retainer who’s had a stroke and now decides to move into a depressing assisted-living tenement. She accepts it and adjusts, making a few friends. This is her life. The filmmaker bachelor she’s been taking care of as housekeeper (as she did his mother before him) comes to realize how much he values and owes her, but there are no magic happy solutions. No sappy affirming last-minute spry bucket lists, only loneliness lightened by a few moments of connection, pain with a few discreet attempts at dignity within a context of crushing indignity. I cried.
38. Children Who Chase Lost Voices is a lyrical, imaginative otherworldly journey for a little fatherless girl, a grieving widower/teacher, and a boy who lives in that decaying land and lost his brother when the latter decided to visit the surface world. As is typically the case with Japanese anime, the characters are multi-faceted combinations of understandable motives and serious flaws at odds with each other. This becomes quite strong and beautiful toward the end, comparing favorably with Miyazaki. It’s a “children’s film” informed by the presence of death, and again it’s about stages of acceptance.
39. This Is Not a Film is a video made by brilliant Iranian Jafar Panahi while appealing his jail sentence and ban against making films. It’s a personal statement, made in his home, with a few clips from his movies and conversations about his case on the phone and interactions with a few people on the day of a fireworks holiday. He never goes outside but at the end we look through the door at the celebration in the street, which the authorities are trying to subdue for fear of demonstrations. It was smuggled out of the country. A gutsy reminder that there are places where artists are feared and suffer for it (as for example with the above-named Ai Weiwei).
40. Color me impressed by everything about The Hunger Games, especially its restraint. Gary Ross directs the opening alternate-world-Appalachian segment (shot in North Carolina) in handheld quavery docu-style, all in gloomy greys except for opened-out lush forest segments. It takes more than hour to get to the games themselves, but that time builds up the queasy dread without lots of CGI sets (almost as though working with an old Logan’s Run budget), and then the games are very suspenseful yet also restrained.
There’s something engaging and direct about its morality and politics. The disc also has intelligent making-of’s, pointing out that writer Suzanne Collins created the trilogy in the middle of the Bush era. The idea has been around before in various movies but they say she got the idea when flipping back and forth between war coverage and reality TV and realizing they were the same; that would do it. Had I seen when it came out, it would have been on my best of year list. It just shows to go ya.
41. And one of last year’s best is The Sessions, a winning and funny “feel-good” movie about a poet and journalist in an iron lung who wants to lose his virginity with a sex therapist. Excellent dialogue, pace, and performances by John Hawkes and Helen Hunt. Everything works.
42. There’s hip humor and martial mayhem in Hansel & Gretel Witch Hunters, which is where Oscar winners like Jeremy Renner go to make money (see also his Bourne movie). It’s silly and unpretentiously engaging with its 19th Century steampunk accoutrements and lithe motions.
43. It sure provides more pleasure than The Dark Knight Rises. If we consider Christopher Nolan’s Batman as a trilogy, then I don’t know if it’s the best of three, but it’s possibly the least sensible, and that’s saying something. The scenes with Selina Kyle (never called Catwoman) perk the movie up because her confident and agile presence is the best thing here. The plot has something to do with creating an instant duplicitous co-opted Occupy revolution, evoking France’s “Reign of Terror”, for the purpose of blowing everything up thanks to what’s delivered as a surprising revelation of villainy unless you were paying attention, but anyway Batman is blindsided (which doesn’t say much for his deductive powers). Please note that the endless half hour where he builds up to finally making the leap across a ledge is cheated through editing so that we don’t actually see what the story’s been building up to.
44. Ah, the quiet pleasures of Robot & Frank, when dementia-prone ex-burglar Frank Langella gets a renewed interest in life through his clunky girl-in-suit robot butler. Like the Batman movie—and this is the only comparison I’ll make—it also pulls off a climactic surprise I’m not sure we can quite believe, since it means his memory is much worse than we thought on a certain matter.
45. I was left uncharmed by the scratchy hand-drawn computer animation (drawn electronically, then colored) illustrating Christopher Plummer reading aloud from J.R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip about the travails of his canine’s bodily functions. With so much excreting, urinating, and mating, no one can accuse it of not dealing with fundamental realities. Years ago I read Ackerley’s My Father and Myself, in which the British literary personage describes his history of liaisons with lower-class blokes and discovers his ex-guard father had a secret sex life too, and then Ackerley mentions how he finally found unquestioning love in a dog acquired from a lover. That acquisition is recounted more circumspectly here. My lack of interest probably has to do with my unsympathy for dogs, whose charms this movie does nothing to advertise. It’s a film that can make you think of going to the animal shelter, and don’t forget the arsenic.
46. Margin Call is fascinating: a tense dialogue-driven piece observing the Aristotelian unities, with chic characters spouting Chayevskian arias (especially a tightly wound Jeremy Irons as CEO) amid sleek glass and metal walls. It spells things out well enough for the stupid (all of us) while still leaving us with a throbbing sense of unease and impending doom. Now here’s a good use of canine characters: Kevin Spacey’s dog is introduced early and pays off when the (second) ending comments on the earlier ditch-digging remark and also functions as a literal as well as metaphorical piece of grave-digging. Kudos for being elegantly self-conscious and credible about it.
47. More unease suffuses Martha Marcy May Marlene. The title woman (I won’t explain) seeks refuge with her sister without explaining where she’s been, while her flashbacks (which she isn’t sure is real, since she’s having a breakdown) reveal indoctrination into a commune headed by charismatic John Hawkes (last seen crippled in The Sessions, now twisted in a different way). Enigmatic and chilling, if a bit drawn-out and in love with its lovely understated observational mode.
48. Speaking of being in love with your mode, The Hobbit parades one wonder after another before our eyes, and the reason it’s all so drawn-out that it takes almost three hours only to get through the first part of the story (this book isn’t a trilogy!) is, I suppose, that it creates a world people don’t want to leave too soon and don’t mind if it takes forever to get from point A to B—especially in a theatre with 3D glasses, or at IMAX, or at IMAX in 3D. The real purpose is to show off the scenery, even if the character interaction is sometimes overstated for childish purposes. I was glad, as usual, for the ability to pause.
It’s amazing that Gollum is the most convincing and scene-stealing character: repulsive and pathetic, utterly riveting. Gandalf keeps showing up at various nicks of time to prove it’s handy to have a wizard around, finally pulling off something so grand that you wonder why he didn’t just do that at the start of the journey and save a lot of shoe leather.
I’ve observed that action in 3D today prefers long takes to hyper-editing, and this is also something made possible by CGI, and a perfect demo is the endless exhausting chase through the underground goblin land along crumbling bridges, with every tiny character doing some carefully detailed thing in the flurry of the camera flying from one level to another as the band of heroes defies death second by second. Boy, the craftsmen and women are in love with their jobs and can’t let it go, so it just keeps on and on.
49. Shorter and sweeter is the equally detailed stop-motion constructions of ParaNorman, with its bullied kid (who sees dead people) saving the zombies from the crazed mob of townies and teaching everyone a valuable lesson to earn the approval of every idiot within miles.
50. The Amazing Spiderman feels needless as a “reboot” to Sam Raimi’s trilogy, yet I must admit I never cared for that trilogy. I must also prefer this mop-headed Twilight-ready Andrew Garfield cutie to uber-geek Tobey Maguire (something about his smirk turns me off), and I think the web-slinging scene at the climax is more majestic, or perhaps I just like its modern sense of “crowd sourcing” as strangers get together to arrange the city for Spidey’s benefit, so that he’s not a lonely vigilante so much as an expression of the culture at large, all with their five dollar contributions as it were.
However, I must roll my eyes at the convention of that sequence, which begins during the school day (in an instantly vacated school building) and has Spidey telling Gwen to get over to such and such a building to do so and so, and she says “I’m on my way”, and then one edit later, it’s suddenly night! Did it take all day for everyone to get where they’re going? What is this, one of those vampire pictures with five minutes of daylight? Another curious aspect of the film is that freakin’ everybody knows Peter Parker’s secret identity! Right?! What’s up with that?
The remaining days of summer. The library. The TV. Life is good.
Michael Barrett is a San Antonio-based freelance writer who tries not to leave the house. He has degrees from Trinity University in San Antonio and University of California at Davis. He watches one film a day. In addition to his features and reviews on PopMatters, see also his PopMatters column, Canon Fodder. Since the early '90s he has written a monthly video column for the San Antonio Express-News, and his national publications include Library Journal and the Chicago-based Nostalgia Digest.