Viewing Diary December 2017

Entries run chronologically from bottom to top.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

A Cincinnati hospital with tall, white walls lends itself to Steadicam shots. A preoccupation with arbitrary rules and numbers recalls Lanthimos’ earlier, funnier work with co-writer Efthymis Filippou. The first half is enigmatic, enticing, with intimations of iniquity. (Who is the doctor to this boy?) The rest of it dispenses with intimation. Debasement’s not intrinsically amusing or profound, even when it strikes a bourgeois family. A dismal hand job, a bite to the arm? These funny games are glib and gross and only mildly clever.

Call Me by Your Name (2017), directed by Luca Guadagnino

Film, like statuary, can record someone’s beauty forever. Decades from now, Timothée Chalamet will still be this pouty young man in ’80s-style tanks and polos (or nothing) with birdsong and greenery all around him. Art’s longevity has a drawback, though, as he’ll also still be crying beside a fireplace over the loss of his first love. Pain in film is forever, too. Not surprising to learn that the cinematographer, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, got his start working with Apichatpong. The images of trees by night and al fresco eroticism benefit from their resemblance to those in the latter’s films.

The Last Five Years (2014), directed by Richard LaGravenese

A botched adaptation: dull palette, dreadful editing, haphazard photography. (These images beg for a narrower frame.) But I’m fond of it, because I’m a sap. The chronology gimmick stirs some intermittent pathos, and Anna Kendrick sings her heart out as Cathy. Jamie’s a loathsome toad, worse than a toad, and fun to hate. More movies could stand to employ musical soliloquies.

Carol (2015), directed by Todd Haynes

I first saw this on New Year’s Day nearly two years ago. Now I’ve watched it on a Christmas morning, too. It grew in cumulative power. The period textures are beautiful and often obscured or shot through windows. Like the flirtatious subtext of Carol’s early conversations with Therese, the film’s images need to be indirect. Theirs is a secret melodrama, its sounds and spaces carved out of a homophobic world. (The opening shot gazes down at a dark, patterned grate before tilting and rising past the sidewalk’s pedestrians.) Lesbianism, per Carol, is the most sublime kind of longing. To be gay is to smolder.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940), directed by Ernst Lubitsch

The sales floor’s a stage, the shop a theater, the display window like a proscenium arch. Lubitsch blocks and frames the drama with his typical finesse. A suicide attempt, for example, becomes a shot through a doorway of a bullet shattering a light fixture. The flat diction of a reference letter turns poignant in Jimmy Stewart’s low voice. (Several years ago, I wrote about a similar monologue in Ninotchka.) The film describes workplace camaraderie as well as written courtship with a pinpoint accuracy that persists into the 21st century. The world’s changed, but people haven’t.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), directed by Rian Johnson

Leia, blasted into the vacuum of space, flies back to safety. Rey finds herself reflected in a subterranean cavern, infinite reflections that move on a slight delay. Both images reminded me of Jean Cocteau movies. They both manifest the nebulous Force onscreen—a feat repeated in conversations between Rey and Kylo Ren where shot and reverse shot cut across light-years. This technique’s a pleasure to watch, as are the vivid whites and reds and the mauve in which Laura Dern’s arrayed. The film’s long, about a dozen climaxes long, yet studded with enough mild surprises that the time flies by.

Alien: Covenant (2017), directed by Ridley Scott

Much of this is stock horror—skittering critters, a mad scientist and his mausoleum—but one sequence stands out, as the film turns a corner into outright mayhem. Amy Seimetz, a good actress and great director, plays a crewmember who’s woefully unprepared for an emergency. When a colleague drags a dying man aboard her small spacecraft, she quarantines them both; when a monster hatches from the man’s body, she flails. She slips on blood, shoots the ceiling, snags her foot in a door, fires wildly, and blows up the ship. Her realistic behavior—who among us wouldn’t show similar ineptitude in these circumstances?—escalates into a comedy of errors. Like the C-section scene in Prometheus, it’s wonderful filmmaking superior to the pompous film around it.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), directed by Frank Capra

A local theater screened this for free, so I saw it for the zillionth time. A few observations: (1) It’s crowded with characters, overlapping dialogue, even objects. Mr. Potter’s office, for example, contains an ornamental skull and a bust of Napoleon. George’s parents have pinned butterflies framed on their wall, which later hang in George’s own living room, a powerful image of stasis. The film’s set decorator, Emile Kuri, later worked on Rope and a slew of Disney productions. (2) Jimmy Stewart’s work as George is deeply physical. He uses his tall, angular frame for comedy as well as for quivering drama. The character’s violent, kicking his car door in a fit of class resentment, later smashing some models in front of his kids. George acts out his emotions with total intensity. (3) That scene of courtship between him and Mary, sharing a phone beside a staircase? It feels anachronistic in its fumbling heartache, an omen of the 1950s.

Eight Crazy Nights (2002), directed by Seth Kearsley

Adam Sandler voices his own animated surrogate, a man-child undergoing the Hanukkah equivalent of A Christmas Carol. He also voices, in irritating falsetto, that surrogate’s elderly mentor and his sister, both of whom serve as punching bags. The story zips along toward its anti-hero’s contrived redemption. Bald sentiment alternates with hideous comedy. The jokes about shit and prison rape and trans bodies and fat bodies are like embers of hatred flung into the audience.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), directed by Henry Selick

Is this movie taken for granted? Decades of oversaturation may have left it seeming ho-hum. Yet especially as an example of kid-friendly animation, it’s some radical work. Between its stop-motion technique, Expressionist design, and layers of macabre detail, it’s a wonder this ever became a feature film, let alone one released by Disney. The concise plot’s comparable to its contemporaries (Aladdin, The Lion King) with an adventure, a villain, and a happy ending, but the “good vs. evil” dichotomy is not as relevant here. Jack’s an actual monster who has Santa kidnapped in the first place; Oogie just takes it one step farther. Sally, ostensibly the love interest, spends most of the film moping. She’s depressive, a naysayer, hardly a princess. (No surprise that she’s another of the countless characters I secretly think of as trans.) Everyone moves gracefully in the unearthly lighting despite their grotesque shapes. It’s all much nearer the realm of Jan Švankmajer and the Brothers Quay than that of factory-made cartoons.

The Other Side of Hope (2017), directed by Aki Kaurismäki

This comedy of subsistence is deadpan to a fault. Its kitschy color and rat-a-tat editing can turn any object into a visual gag. Language adds to the humor, as characters speak in stilted English, a lingua franca between this Syrian refugee and his Finnish neighbors. He copes with bureaucracy, hunger, and hate crimes; strangers guide him, as does the love in his heart. New coworkers stash him in a bathroom during a raid with a dog and a vacuum as companions. How’s that for a glum joke about human displacement?

Beach Rats (2017), directed by Eliza Hittman

It felt like a stolid indie following the swagger of a bro whose slack face betrays neither pain nor pleasure. He gets high for the numbness, hikes into the woods for anal sex, gets high again. His father, a plot point, is dying then dead. He hangs out with other bros blowing smoke rings or watching fireworks. He craves the asses, limbs, and chests of the men he fucks, but he can’t love them because he doesn’t love himself. This is the closet, its muffling of desire, a chamber from which the film sees no escape. Presumably this could go on forever, with the bro concealing hook-ups and feeling bad till the day he dies.

Princess Cyd (2017), directed by Stephen Cone

Despite some periodic drama, this coming-out and coming-of-age story feels utopian. It imagines a backyard in Chicago where a novelist and her visiting niece can read or eat cake or try to sort themselves out. It takes place in the sunny, open world of its title character’s mid-teens where every chat with a new acquaintance could be a revelation. Cyd’s naïve, headstrong, and that’s OK. Cone wrote the film as well, filling it with literary excerpts, telling women’s stories with compassion. What a kind thing to do.

Paranoid Park (2007), directed by Gus Van Sant

This vied for the Palme a couple weeks before my high school graduation, so its milieu feels unpleasantly familiar. Remember the awful hair teens had then, the bad makeup and faded T-shirts? (The kid recounting Napoleon Dynamite hits like a Proustian madeleine dunked in tea.) The non-actors here are so raw they’re painful to watch. Each line delivery’s swollen with pubescent gawkiness. Van Sant and Christopher Doyle shoot the lead, Gabe Nevins, in arty slowmo or with leering close-ups on his vacant face. His character’s not especially smart or interesting; just a boy who feels guilty for a violent act. He skateboards, has sex, loiters at the mall. Still some years to go before he’s finished forming as a person.

Die Hard (1988), directed by John McTiernan

A skyscraper might have broad windows, floors subdivided into rooms, offices furnished with desks and chairs, an elevator rising and falling in a shaft, and the shapes of these features might shape in turn an action movie set in the building. If an undershirt-clad lone wolf wants to foil a terrorist plot, he has to expend energy using that architecture. Traversing, learning, even bruising it. Die Hard is a forgivable male fantasy where that hard work is enough. It’s a latter-day cowboy in the opposite of a suit and tie nonetheless scaling this industrial structure. Others may commute there for six-figure salaries; he uses the skyscraper to forge himself.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2017), directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

Movie #6 in this venerable series resembles a Shakespearean history with its snarl of alliances and agendas. One villain drives a tank toward a crater, zombie swarm in tow; another sets booby traps in an underground base; while still another, the holographic Red Queen, supplies secret info to the heroes crawling through it. Milla Jovovich’s Alice grits her teeth and keeps on fighting. She seems wearier now, fed up, yet still resilient. More of this pulpy bullshit? her posture seems to say: more beasties, more clones, more patterned lasers? It’s been a lot of fun, but now it’s time to say good-bye.

Good Time (2017), directed by Josh and Benny Safdie

Buckle up for a long night in the demimonde. It stretches from Queens to Brooklyn with aerial zooms into traffic, a stopover at White Castle, and a sinister synth score. The Safdies, working again with Sean Price Williams, play with clichés from old crime movies. A dye pack exploding after a bank job looks spontaneous through their eyes. They distill the putrescence of old horror movies into gore and garish lighting. Their anti-hero feints to evade the consequences of bad decisions made hours earlier. It is exquisitely unpleasant.

Dunkirk (2017), directed by Christopher Nolan

Head east, then west. That’s it. It’s a linear war story, classical, full of grays and blues. A handful of sturdy actors stand in for a mass of men. They play sketches against whom the film measures the width of the English Channel. (No star performances here: Tom Hardy’s obscured again behind an oxygen mask, others by mops of sea-soaked hair.) The premise is intrinsically rah-rah, but the action’s less tactical and more elemental in its focus. It’s about the puniness of a soldier taking on an indifferent expanse of earth.

Split (2017), directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Shyamalan’s Raising Cain: an acting showcase, painstaking thriller, and crass work of exploitation. Its irritating notion of mental illness serves as pretext for its writer-director’s formalist discipline. Though the film’s set in an underground tunnel—intercut with a therapist’s office and a few flashbacks for the final girl—he puts the whole 2.35 : 1 rectangle to use. Occasional close-ups take in the topography of James McAvoy’s head. And even the corniest plotting can’t hold back an underlying streak of pathos, typical of Philadelphia’s resident auteur.

Personal Shopper (2017), directed by Olivier Assayas

Kristen Stewart’s Maureen lives in other people’s shadows. She runs errands for her employer, listens for her dead brother, travels for everyone but herself. The camera tails her through dim passages. She bears alienation in her body and minimal patience in her voice. Fades to black act as perverse semicolons within an oblique mystery. The beeps of an iPhone, whine of a moped, and swoosh of an automatic door fill its atmosphere. It feels like depression.

Kitty Foyle (1940), directed by Sam Wood

Ginger Rogers ping-pongs between two dark-haired men, one of whom has more money than the other, in this phony romance from RKO. Code-mandated elisions to the source novel have left the story like Swiss cheese. (Not a shock to learn that Kitty’s stillbirth is an abortion in the original, and her doctor boyfriend’s Jewish.) The only traces of real life lie in the studio apartment she shares with a couple roommates and the (probably Oscar-clinching) scene where she wakes up in a hospital having lost her baby. The courtships, though, are only abstractly about class. Rogers had already spent the Depression doing sharper work as a number of other “white-collar girls.”

Crimes of Passion (1984), directed by Ken Russell

Wow, that’s fucked up. Kathleen Turner, lit by flashing neon, exhibits her sexual bravado while Anthony Perkins, hammy and horny, watches through a peephole’s iris. Russell warps the image with mirrors and latticed shadow, sometimes cutting away to prints by Aubrey Beardsley or ukiyo-e artists. (A curious tactic that seems to say, Yes, you’re watching erotica—now here’s some old erotica too!) This fucked up film also has a conservative bent, increasingly obvious as its plot thickens. The married electrician played by dull leading man John Laughlin “saves” both himself and Turner’s jaded sex worker. They then rehabilitate themselves away from their playground in the red-light district. It’s oddly puritanical after all that frank and kinky sex. Russell may have been better-suited to freer phallic fantasias than this sort of Hollywood giallo. Brian De Palma’s Body Double hit theaters one week after its October release.

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