Viewing Diary July 2017

Entries run chronologically from bottom to top.

Sir Arne’s Treasure (1919), directed by Mauritz Stiller

She dwells in a cottage on Sweden’s frozen western coast; he, unbeknownst to her, led the Scotsmen who slew her adoptive family. The romantic tragedy they share sops with guilt. He trudges over the blue-tinted ice, breath visible, an apparition of her dead sister superimposed behind him. She wakes from a nightmare haunted by the same translucent specter, then reaches down to confirm the solidity of her pillows and sheets. The camera scans a desolate landscape, past cliffs and shrubs and piles of snow. Other lovers might have fought toward a happy ending, but these two originate in the feel-bad folklore of novelist Selma Lagerlöf. They will not survive the winter.

John Wick (2014) and John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017),
both directed by Chad Stahelski, the former with David Leitch

Young Keanu Reeves wore a vest in Bill & Ted; a decade later, his trench coat swept the floor in The Matrix; and now, in the John Wick movies, after a quarter-century of maturing stardom, he still looks absolutely beautiful in a bloodied suit and tie. These are trashy action movies with an arty veneer. They trail Reeves’ unflappable contract killer through nightclub, church, subway train, and art museum as he dispatches dozens of nameless assailants. Limp bodies and splattered brains litter the floors and walls behind him. These spaces’ stylized lighting accentuates the anguish in his bearded face, the resolve that fills those soulful brown eyes. Both movies savor his aging beauty in the midst of simulated combat. The first Wick is a compact revenge story, while the second one extrapolates outward in a widening circle from John’s violent past. Death waits above, below, before, and after every shot in this nihilistic series. It’d be too sad to watch if not for the directors’ obvious love of wryly staged action coupled with Reeves’ movie star resilience. His body is the only comfort here.

The Keep (1983), directed by Michael Mann

The cast and crew traveled to Wales so they could spend millions of dollars meticulously staging events that had never happened 40 years earlier and 1,400 miles away. Isn’t that absurd? Aren’t movies absurd? The Keep involves Nazis, ancient magic, and moral showdowns but mostly it’s about Mann’s still-nascent style. It’s red eyes, stone walls, slow motion, billowing vapor, blasts of light, and Tangerine Dream’s electronic score. The sustained mood and garish special effects engulf the international cast. They’re lost and wailing in a nightmare of historical fantasy. I hope they all got out OK.

Eight Legged Freaks (2002), directed by Ellory Elkayem

This monster movie is structured into three neat acts. The first introduces the populace of a small desert town; the second has the town’s civic leaders ascribe a rash of violence to a swarm of mutant spiders; and the third brings everyone together at a desolate mall. It’s so old hat you hardly need to pay attention—if you’ve seen a movie or two, you know these rhythms. A hangdog David Arquette is the prodigal son breezing into town just as mayhem descends. His delayed reunion with a long-time sweetheart (also the town’s sheriff) is the film’s human arc. Eight Legged Freaks, though, prioritizes its CGI creepy-crawlies over the dull, flesh-and-blood actors. Frank Welker provides grunts and hisses, much like those he delivered in Gremlins, and they lend the arachnids some personality. Their pouncing and skittering often smacks of slapstick, yet with a genuinely scary edge. A spider at any size feels no regret.

Something Like Summer (2017), directed by David Berry

Wrote about this for Film Freak Central.

Sliding Doors (1998), directed by Peter Howitt

After one version of Gwyneth Paltrow breaks up with her awful boyfriend, she cuts her hair short and dyes it blond. Meanwhile, the version of her that didn’t make it to a train on time sticks with her boyfriend and her long, brown hair. Both women, their lives intercut, weather a streak of humiliations in this bland, London-set slice of life, but only the brunette survives the film. Why must she die in the timeline where she’s happier? Is it punishment for dating a cute Scotsman? Or just another meaningless outcome in an uncaring universe? Perhaps she perishes so that her counterpart, a little later on, can get that same haircut.

Baby Driver (2017), directed by Edgar Wright

When a foot chase looks like a dance or a speeding car syncs up with the soundtrack, that’s fun to watch. When Paul Williams lists off cuts of meat or an aerial shot looks down at a cloverleaf interchange, that’s pleasurable filmmaking. But those are only bits and pieces of this semi-ironic heist saga. The rest is too nice to its hero and too hung up on a secondhand notion of “cool” already played out by the mid-’90s. Baby likes to drive cars and play tape cassettes and date a waitress from a greasy spoon. Are these intrinsically admirable passions for a guy to pursue? The film’s premise is a decisive yes, especially if the guy’s a reluctant fugitive with Ansel Elgort’s dopey face. Anyone who puts in some earbuds and helps rob a bank is living a noble tragedy.

Song to Song (2017), directed by Terrence Malick

A septuagenarian filmmaker has intertwined a million beautiful things: live music, diaphanous curtains, Rooney Mara’s midriff and shoulders, the sun setting on Austin’s skyline, plus earth, water, fire, and air. The camera undulates appreciatively between them. Mara’s sketchy character visits her mom or initiates affairs with men and women who have their own ailing parents and their own affairs. These couplings and break-ups, summarized in shards of bad poetry, could stretch on forever. The canoodling is frequent and opaquely moralistic. The touch of pale limb to picturesque torso (with only a glimpse or two of titty) seems to pose a hazard to the soul. It’s ridiculous, if sometimes heartbreaking, and never less than pretty.

The Beguiled (2017), directed by Sofia Coppola

A succession of controlled frames lays out the milieu: Spanish moss, braided hair, artillery audible from afar. A Yankee soldier with black chest hair and a bleeding leg convalesces at a Virginia girls’ school. It’s a steamy scenario, but the film proceeds matter-of-factly through chores, lessons, meals, and prayers. It emphasizes languid procedure even as its dark comedy of manners turns to Gothic horror. Editor Sarah Flack, who started out working with Soderbergh, has pared this story down to its essentials. It’s just action and consequence, one following the other like day follows night.

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