Viewing Diary November 2017

Entries run chronologically from bottom to top.

Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), directed by Vincente Minnelli

Edward G. Robinson plays an expat directing an unpromising movie at Cinecittà. Kirk Douglas is his long-time leading man, summoned from rehab to be his proxy in the dubbing studio. Dysfunctional is too mild a word for their relationship, which resembles that of brothers or lovers or a father and son. Lurid is too mild a word for this showbiz melodrama, sour as a basket of lemons, corrosively misogynistic, grotesque in its plush reds and greens. It’s an acknowledgment that Minnelli’s generation was in decline, a new one ascendant. (Fellini, Antonioni, Godard—the latter an admirer of the film.) It’s an autocritique overgrown with style and perversely ahead of its time.

Ingrid Goes West (2017), directed by Matt Spicer

This character study, picturesque and au courant, moves for an hour and a half in a downward diagonal line. Aubrey Plaza’s Ingrid is a millennial Rupert Pupkin pathologically refreshing her Instagram feed. Her behavior, like Pupkin’s, is awkward and mortifying. The cringe comedy had me squinting through fingers that half-shielded my face. Ingrid’s obvious sickness is patly written as satirical caricature. Her sustained breakdown’s disheartening to watch. A couple of the better bits are Elizabeth Olsen naming emojis in flat voiceover and Plaza sashaying seductively in a Catwoman costume.

Marjorie Prime (2017), directed by Michael Almereyda

Both Tim Robbins and Geena Davis are around 60, neither in the prime of his or her career. So their casting as husband and wife in a film about the past feels achingly apropos. Most of it takes place in a beachhouse, waves lapping audibly against the shore. An old woman talks to her late husband, a daughter to her late mother, a man to his late wife. The ghosts are holograms (“primes”)—facsimiles who act like the dead to console the grief-stricken living. The family’s anecdotes warp through years of repetition. It’s a poignant process enfolded in a string score by Mica Levi and beams of mellow sunlight.

Landline (2017), directed by Gillian Robespierre

Obvious Child was Robespierre’s debut; this is her sophomore feature. Her sophomore slump. It’s more ambitious, encompassing the travails of an entire family, but nowhere near as funny. Its subplots involve Jenny Slate’s character choosing between two dreary men, her teen sister dabbling in heroin, and the two of them investigating dad’s infidelity. The title refers to the film’s 1995 setting, only relevant when a character happens to use a floppy disk or stand beside a poster for Chungking Express. (If this took place in the ’50s, would it be called Rotary?) Slate’s an adroit actress, but the writing’s generic with an unconvincing resolution and too loose a grip on human caprice.

Lady Bird (2017), directed by Greta Gerwig

An inventory of a girl (a woman?) and the midsize city where she lived, snapshots of its storefronts, big houses she envied, classrooms in her Catholic high school, its bad productions of Sondheim and Shakespeare, the callow boys she fancied, the habits they taught her that she’d later unlearn, the colleges she dreamed of attending, and the money her parents didn’t have. All of it flies by, filed in a rough chronology, with ambient humor arising from each shot’s angle and duration. Saoirse Ronan’s a livewire of late teens selfishness; Laurie Metcalf, as her mom, is devastating with every word she doesn’t say.

Happy Death Day (2017), directed by Christopher B. Landon

This campus-set slasher has a promising gimmick: its single day resets whenever the final girl dies. So she’s stabbed, poisoned, bludgeoned, blown up, etc. yet keeps up the hunt for her killer. In the hands of someone meticulously clever this conceit might’ve been fun. (Something like an Edgar Wright movie.) Instead it’s thoroughly half-assed. The writing drips with noxious misogyny; the grief metaphor’s abortive; and a mid-film medical complication’s a dead end. The lone highlight is star Jessica Rothe. I can imagine seeing her in better movies a few years from now and saying, “Remember when she was in Happy Death Day?”

Graduation (2017), directed by Cristian Mungiu

Actor Adrian Titieni has a face like a cliff. He’s often visible in profile, the left half of an uneasy two shot. He plays a doctor whose wife or daughter or mistress might be on the right. Each of these conversations leaves his life a little worse than before. He’s a hypocrite, arranging a minor politician’s liver transplant so his daughter can ace a standardized test. (Meanwhile, she’s having doubts about her college plans.) Mungiu, who also wrote the screenplay, frames the doctor unsubtly as a symptom of broader Romanian corruption. The pessimism feels rote and yields fewer aesthetic rewards than his previous film Beyond the Hills. The film ends, though, on a strong sardonic joke: the daughter’s class photo, full of smiling kids about to repeat their parents’ mistakes.

On the Beach at Night Alone (2017), directed by Hong Sang-soo

Two-thirds of the way into this break-up drama lies a terrific visual gag. It takes place in a suite at a seaside resort. A two-minute shot, its frame stretching from wall to wall, catches three friends stopping in to chat and check out the view. Meanwhile, a man outside scrubs the room’s sliding glass door. He labors in the hazy background throughout their conversation. Yet they never once mention him. This figure might be symbolic; to start with, he’s an obscure presence in a film all about loneliness. But he also acts as a rhythmic counterpoint to the movement inside, scrubbing and scrubbing till the action seems ridiculous. It’s an example of Hong’s drollery popping up even in this heartbroken context.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017), directed by Noah Baumbach

Frances Ha pointed toward this destination. It extends that earlier gem’s ample sympathies as well as Jennifer Lame’s pithy editing by applying them to the whole of a bourgeois family. Each Meyerowitz gets their share of the acrid dialogue, which proliferates until it crowds the film. Everyone talks over everyone else, revealing a bit of themselves in every line. These characters may differ (in terms of geography and financial comfort) from my own relatives, but their relationships felt familiar nonetheless. It’s too incisive to watch without a squirm or two of recognition.

Logan Lucky (2017), directed by Steven Soderbergh

This Appalachian caper has that Soderbergh look: drab lighting, shallow focus, lots of high or low angles, with geometrical compositions that double as deadpan jokes. As usual, he’s preoccupied by process, relishing the how of a jailbreak and racetrack robbery. The risks, the timing, even the vault-busting chemical reaction. The ensemble’s full of affectionate caricature; Daniel Craig, for example, has a hoot with his broad accent. Regional realities like layoffs and spotty health care filter into this breezy affair. The Logans’ bank balances are part of the mise-en-scène, and they warrant a wish fulfillment ending.

Girls Trip (2017), directed by Malcolm D. Lee

This has a bit of everything: a dance-off, a bar brawl, a real-life Essence Fest line-up, a cascade of dick jokes, and above all a quartet of black women with decades-old rapport. As they compliment or razz one another, the years between them are palpable. It’s sentimental, yet still lewd; raucous, yet never disingenuous. Whether these actresses are peeing from a zipline or consoling one of their number over her splintered marriage, it’s all about the resilience of friendship.

Saturday Night at the Baths (1975), directed by David Buckley

Most of Buckley’s other credits are for porn. (His brother Jim directed Debbie Does Dallas.) A pair of lengthy sex scenes do bookend this film, but the rest is either dialogue-heavy drama or semi-doc footage of the Upper West Side’s Continental Baths. It’s dancers and drag queens—one of them a spot-on Judy Garland—performing for a towel-clad audience. The story covers a few days in the life of the Baths’ new, ostensibly straight pianist. He and his open-minded girlfriend instantly befriend the handsome manager. But the pianist’s an insecure jackass and alienates his new pal: “Your first time was with a guy?” he says. “That’s why you’re not normal!” The film dwells on this line, on the notion of gay as deviant, while it tests the viscosity of straight desire. The acting’s rough, but the writing is startlingly thoughtful.

Not Another Teen Movie (2001), directed by Joel Gallen

This is a fount of woman-hating comedy, and its jokes are crude hackwork tackling Tourette’s, conjoined twins, diarrhea, etc. Characters allude broadly to recent releases like American Beauty or 10 Things I Hate About You as though that qualifies as parody. Every so often a gag will cleverly subvert expectations, à la ZAZ. (Airplane! is clearly the gold standard to which this aspires.) Janey splatters paint on a canvas; the result’s a cheery stick figure. She describes her mom’s death on a rainy night with slippery roads; when her beau assumes a car accident, she replies, “No, cancer.” That’s mildly funny, if a bit derivative.

I Love Melvin (1953), directed by Don Weis

The finest number in this workmanlike and slightly Tashlinesque MGM musical is called “Where Did You Learn to Dance?” Debbie Reynolds, playing a fame-hungry chorine, duets with Donald O’Connor on her parents’ living room floor. Later she’ll dream of a sound stage with Astaire and Kelly lookalikes, while he’ll travel the world in Look magazine’s studios, but neither of those elephantine productions is half as fun. (The songs are weaker, too.) This is just two dancers, some furniture, and a handful of cuts. It’s poetry in motion—and Technicolor.

Wonderstruck (2017), directed by Todd Haynes

Too rigid a narrative for Haynes to pull this off in his usual register of pomo melodrama. Two characters move along a trajectory, then collide; the pathos is minimal. The craft is maximal, though, with the whole Carol team (Burwell, Lachman, Powell) collaborating wondrously. The soundscape’s thick with the din of the city and the dolorous score. It complements the chartreuse-tinted half set in the ’70s as well as the simulacrum of late silent cinema. Climactic revelations play out via handcrafted figurines. Disappointments are seldom lovelier.

Man on the Moon (1999), directed by Miloš Forman and
Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (2017), directed by Chris Smith

Wrote about these for Film Freak Central.

Antonia’s Line (1995), directed by Marleen Gorris

Daughters become mothers; fashions change; half a century elapses in a small Dutch town. Earthy humor with traces of camp pervades the period setting. It feels like an era-spanning novel—like Orlando, maybe, or The Tin Drum. Ilona Sekacz’s lush score reminds me of Joe Hisaishi. Antonia’s story encompasses oddball neighbors, provincial hypocrisy, even a rape-revenge subplot. She holds courtyard picnics for a growing family. It’s a frank film, yet fanciful. (With a set of four intercut sex scenes right in the middle.)

By the Law (1926), directed by Lev Kuleshov

This jaw-dropping Soviet silent’s set in an isolated Klondike cabin. An unhinged prospector takes a rifle to two of his mates; the other two tie him up and keep him prisoner. Freezing rain descends and the thawing Yukon’s floodwaters rise. So there they are, the three of them, forsaken together in this damp and icy hell. Kuleshov’s wife Aleksandra Khokhlova plays the lone woman with huge eyes and pursed lips. She and her co-stars agonize through each action: burying the dead, scraping blood off the floor, closing the door against punishing wind. It’s more a matter of attrition than survival. A morbid sense of humor manifests itself in images like a dying man’s head leaning on a bowl of stew. And others are bitterly lyrical, like the three figures turned to silhouettes beside a tree while tying a noose to a branch.

Person to Person (2017), directed by Dustin Guy Defa

Four short stories in New York. A woman tries her hand at tabloid journalism; a record collector bargains for a Charlie Parker LP; two teen girls talk about boys; a couch surfer avoids his ex’s brother. Some intersect. Some don’t. Much of the action’s trivial. Most of this will fade with time in the characters’ memories. The mordant dialogue’s humanely written. It induced a lot of achy laughter.

Nocturama (2017), directed by Bertrand Bonello

Early on, an aspiring terrorist named André enters a bank kiosk to deposit a check. A head-on medium shot watches him squirm, Paris traffic visible through the glass doors behind him, as an unseen teller requests his photo ID. A high-angle security camera catches his subsequent departure. The scene’s minor and a minute long, but it exemplifies a lot of what Bonello’s after here. Both this bank visit and Nocturama as a whole monitor characters’ behaviors as they negotiate their way through public and private space. Using split screens, reflections, and temporal fractures, the film scrutinizes each conspirator from their attack’s beginning to its bloody aftermath. It grimly surveys the City of Lights after dark.

The Ornithologist (2017), directed by João Pedro Rodrigues

Some birdwatching in a kayak as it drifts downriver is merely the prelude to this oneiric pilgrimage. The murky green of the forest swallows the title character, and so he hikes past trails and tunnels and erotic rituals, dense with both foliage and symbolism. The wide frame situates his oft-bared body within wild Iberian vistas. The rhythms of the wind and water are entrancing.

The Unknown Girl (2017), directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

Information’s dangerous in this moral thriller. Adèle Haenel, looking absolutely exhausted, stars as a young-ish doctor eaten away by her loose complicity in a stranger’s death. She pours herself into inquiries: Who’d seen the girl? How did she die? What was her name? The camera follows her through commutes and house calls, with conversations framed as simple two shots. Her behavior toward patients grows ethically dubious as she tries to right her own wrong. Haenel stays impassive as the scenario unravels, though, and the Dardennes leave any judgment up to the viewer. Christ, it’s vexing to be alive.

Smiley Face (2007), directed by Gregg Araki

I could go on for a while about everything I adore in this movie—the sound design, the editing, the sizable cast—but I’ll restrict myself to its warm Los Angeles palette. Jane keeps stumbling into blandly painted locales with colors that enhance the film’s comedy. The beige that pervades the dentist’s waiting room, the geriatric pinks of the professor’s house: they’re excessively normal. The sunlight-blasted windows of the casting office and the laundry room’s array of dryers look a little too white. Familiar surfaces, pleasing to the eyes, yet subtly alien. A sunset over Venice Beach is one in a string of oranges along with Jane’s bong, a Metro bus, and a Ferris wheel car. The hues in this movie are so mellow they verge on hostility.

Babe (1995), directed by Chris Noonan

James Cromwell plays the laconic Farmer Hoggett mostly with his gaunt frame and weathered face. He has the unreadable gaze of a father figure who might be pleased or might be furious. Hugo Weaving as the voice of an old sheepdog is less godlike, more scrutable, always furious. His authority’s waning, and he initially resents Babe’s challenge to the hierarchies of this storybook farm. Poor Babe, a self-determined swine, but unschooled in the patterns of bucolic life and death. Roscoe Lee Browne narrates the story as a disembodied voice on the soundtrack. His intonations outline Babe’s schooling; their tone is neutral, with a hint of irony. His is the reassuring voice of a raconteur, and it renders animal sentiment a little bit less heartbreaking.

The Florida Project (2017), directed by Sean Baker

Mom begs and hustles, anything to make weekly rent at this fleabag motel. Her daughter takes some neighbor kids on summery adventures, off to strip malls and swamps, scarcely comprehending the rules she breaks. After sunset they watch TV and eat shitty pizza in bed. This episodic follow-up to Tangerine likewise details the casual bullshit of destitution. Little splurges, big hassles, rage channeled into petulance. Willem Dafoe’s in it, too, unnervingly realistic as the motel’s manager. He’s grandfatherly, but he’s also on the clock. (Painting walls, turning the power back on, hauling mattresses out to the dumpster.) His sympathy’s limited by the emotional distance a job like his requires. It all sucks, this whole small world mapped out with semi-doc realism, lightened only by its tufts of incidental humor.

Kedi (2017), directed by Ceyda Torun

Kind of a city symphony, prowling through the shops and docks of Istanbul. Animal-loving locals discuss the mama cats, kittens, and toms in their midst. Pretty feline faces fill the frame. The camera crawls after its subjects, indoors and out, though eventually they’ll scamper away. The cats’ miniature dramas are often delightful, sometimes sad. They enjoy a loose symbiosis with their human neighbors—a nuzzle or tendered belly in exchange for scraps of food. Torun transitions between vignettes with gentle profusions of footage: aerial skyline shots or small montages hopping from cat to cat. This ancient metropolis, its furry denizens, both so beautiful that it’s impossible to see enough.

Civilization (1916), directed by Reginald Barker,
Thomas H. Ince, and Raymond B. West

This allegory blazed into theaters halfway between the Lusitania’s sinking and Congress’s declaration of war. It depicts a fictional empire mired in fictional hostilities, crosscutting from homefront to battlefield. Halfway through, Jesus Christ possesses the body of a submarine captain. The film then turns into a pacifist Christmas Carol as he drags the king through rubble-strewn towns till he resolves to end the bloodshed. A century later, it feels (much like Gabriel Over the White House) less a convincing polemic than a weird fable. Its characters are fuzzy, its message strident, its notions of peace too abstract. But it boasts some grandiose imagery of the naked damned in their Boschian hell.

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