Girlfight (2000): Beating out Gimme The Loot (2012) for the title of “oldest cheap indie movie about hard-luck kids of color in the outer boroughs getting into scrapes, anchored by a charismatic young woman lead, which I have been vaguely meaning to watch since seeing something about it a long time ago,” I’m pretty sure I saw the trailer for this before watching The Way of the Gun (2000) with Jon and Ken in college. And then in 2019 I biked around the corner and rented it! Hail and farewell, Movie Madness!
I don’t know if I’d exactly recommend it but I really enjoyed it, because of who I am as a person, and because this is a movie someone really wanted to make with care and effort. It doesn’t escape the borders of the novice-boxer story template—it even has a love interest named Adrian—nor does it do justice to its side thread about family, domestic abuse and grief. And there’s a queerness that’s trying really hard to squeeze in around the edges of the whole thing, which the movie should have opened up to, and didn’t.
But man, Michelle Rodriguez is one of the most magnetic screen performers on Earth, and gambling on her really paid off here. It was not only her first starring role, it was her first acting job ever! She’s perfect for it. There are some great character actors in here too; I immediately recognized Paul Calderón, who plays her dad, from his scene theft in Out of Sight (1998).
The Ice Storm (1998): I act like I’m a big Ang Lee fan, but the numbers say that I’ve seen two of his movies (Eat Drink Man Woman  and The Incredible Hulk ) once each and one of them (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon ) like forty times. Having now finally watched this, his most heavily cast-stacked movie and among the most heavily so stacked movies ever, I think I can say: I still like Ang Lee, though I have little interest in his newer work. I still like Kevin Kline, too, who’s not exactly the lead but does really get to put his particular gift to use: he can convey masculine hollowness and fragility with unusual dimension, and with what seems like personal humility.
Watching this beautifully made film made me a little depressed, because it uses its distance from a particular time and age cohort to be excoriating about the failures its subjects were too arrogant or afraid to anticipate. “Wow, what a huge failure that I did not see coming” is a consistent theme of my own reflective writing, so you can see how I might project a bit there. Anyway most of the clothes were accurately awful but I’d still wear everything Tobey Maguire does.
The Driver (1978): Watched while packing, which I think was a good choice. This is a movie where a man drives and is cool, and another man is mad about it. You can feel free to look at the boxes you’re packing during the driving/mad parts. I picked it up because I’d heard it referenced as an influence on Drive (2010), which I still love; I can see the connection now, but its plot was quite different, and actually a bit closer to that of Baby Driver (2017). With regard to that, I’m not sure if this is a deliberate Easter egg or not: in this movie, the protagonist (credited The Driver) and another character named The Kid are enemies. But in Drive, the protagonist goes by both those names.
The World’s End (2013): Speaking of Baby Driver, I watched this while packing too. It was the only Edgar Wright movie I hadn’t seen. There’s some meat here in terms of an attempt to thematically unify the three Cornetto movies, and a potential rabbit hole to go down about the influence they bear from the Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy: the latter arose from an idea Douglas Adams had about finding a new way to destroy the world on the radio every week, and each Cornetto movie is about British culture in confrontation with the destruction of a way of life. But back at the beginning of that sentence when I said “meat,” I backspaced over “interesting stuff,” because I myself don’t find it that interesting and I couldn’t relate to this movie very much. It’s a nadir for Wright’s narrative space for women and I really don’t care about aggressive masculine drinking as an activity. I did at least enjoy being able to trace Wright’s technical advancement across the movies, because he really is getting more deft with each film. But oh boy, does the climax play differently after a certain 2016 referendum than it did before.
Avengers: Endgame (2019): I don’t have anything new to say here, I’m just glancing at an emergent theme among “put this on while packing” movies and then looking at myself a bit askance.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002): Watched with Kat, AFTER a round of packing. I’d never seen it before, as it came out after I’d given up on romantic comedies, and it was very sweet. It reminded me a lot of While You Were Sleeping (1995), the pinnacle of the genre, and not just in its Chicago setting! This is kind of about what that movie would have seemed like from the perspective of Bill Pullman’s character, in terms of the weight a large family brings to a budding relationship. In fact, this one plays a structural game with the genre: there’s no real will-they-won’t-they between the protagonist and the romantic interest, because all the plot tension is about whether she and her family will compromise for each other in the end.
Anyway I liked it very much, but man, the editing of this movie is the goofiest part. It seemed at times like someone had just installed their first copy of Final Cut and wanted to try out every cut-transition effect in alphabetical order.
Grandmother’s Gold (2018): The first movie I watched as a resident of Chicago! Last year Kat introduced me to the extraordinary web series The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo, a delirious expression of pure auteur vision that an old tumblr friend described as “millennial opera.” That rings completely true while also underselling how weird and funny it is. Its creator, Brian Jordan Alvarez, has made many other videos, including a couple of negative-budget features like this one.
The best part of the movie is that it’s mundane sci-fi about technological regression, which then sideslips into cosmological fantasy, all done in a blithe and goofy way. And the fact that it’s YouTube-exclusive leads to an interesting emergent property: Alvarez can put all the famous pop music he wants on his movie’s soundtrack without paying for it, and lean on the platform’s licensing to keep from getting sued or taken down. Overall this is a project for diehard fans, though.
Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019): A motion picture I can only describe, and I apologize for this, as “nut-slammingly stupid.” It’s the Michael Scarn ripoff of itself. It’s as fascistic as a third-grader’s hypermasculine playground fantasy, lacking even the level of self-reflection I can credit to Predator (1989), and nudely calculated for maximum financial return; the frame might as well be stamped at the bottom with A SIGNIFICANT PROFIT SHARE BROUGHT TO YOU BY DWAYNE JOHNSON’S SEVEN BUCKS PRODUCTIONS®. Plus there’s an early set piece where the characters triumphantly pull off the exact same stunt that kills Johnson’s character in The Other Guys (2010).
I cannot justify why I paid first-run ticket price to see this movie, except that of course I did, it has “Fast” and/or “Furious” in the title. It does not live up to the best of its parents, but there are moments in the third act when Johnson’s proclivities almost transcend their setting. I can get behind inserting tough matriarchs and a badass Siva Tau into every movie you make! But nothing else here rises above the cash-extracting function of a boot stamping on a human testicle forever.
Gimme the Loot (2012): I cannot remember to take last night’s leftovers out of the fridge for lunch most days, but I skimmed a review of this mildly buzzy indie film before Barack Obama was reelected and my brain has been bothering me about seeing it ever since. So I biked around the corner and rented it! Thanks, Movie Madness.
Recommended, if not revelatory, especially if you like stories about graffiti dorks. Tashiana Washington (as Sophia) is a standout, and I appreciated that the director relied on her charisma without sexualizing her. This is the kind of movie where the characters’ schemes are well awry before they are even conceived, much less executed, and I sometimes have a hard time with that! I enjoy a bale of haywire, and it’s one thing if I don’t feel sympathy for the schemers—eg my delight in anticipating disaster on Arrested Development—but when I can guess how things are going to go and have to wait and wait for the characters to get there and feel bad, I end up wanting to crawl out of my skin. It’s like Leonard’s zap zap zap on the scale of ten minutes instead of two. Anyway this movie toes that line a little but pulls it out.
High and Low (1963): This was a pretty nuts-and-boltsy, unshowy police procedural with all its emotional fireworks loaded front and back. I continue to enjoy the sheer execution of Kurosawa’s movies and I will once again show you a photograph I took of my television to illustrate why.
There are like fifty people in this shot. When I look at it, my eyes jump to four or five of them: the man in sunglasses in the foreground, plus the two men on the left and the two men in captains’ hats on the right watching him (the suspect and the cops following him, respectively). One of the boat hat dudes has his face partially covered and one might not parse him at first, but the gist of “here’s our guy and here’s his tail” comes across immediately. The effect is even more pronounced when it’s moving instead of still.
Some of this is angle work and blocking, because the eye tends to look at people with their full faces turned toward you. Some of it is lighting—most of the other people have shadowed faces, and theirs are subtly spotlit. That must have been fucking complicated, but I can at least imagine how you’d do it.
What took me days to figure out is the focus. All of those guys are nice and crisp, in their various positions, so the depth of field isn’t super tight. There are some people way in the back who are blurry, and that makes sense too. But then there are people like the dancer in sunglasses just above the boat hats. He’s blurry, and he’s closer to the lens than the cop in the Hawaiian shirt. That does not make physical sense! Lenses do not work that way! In 2019 this would be trivial to throw at a computer, but there was no cheating in 1963.
I finally determined that they didn’t do selective lens-smearing or tilt-shift or rear projection or anything like that—they just hung a super thin scrim between those mirrored columns, pulling out an old theater trick to subtly dial down the contrast and focus and brightness in the back. That must have made the lighting even more complicated, because you have to light a scrim from an angle to get that gauzy effect, but they did it and it worked! All because Kurosawa (and his cinematographers, Asakazu Nakai and Takao Saitô) cared about making this shot read fast and well.
- The Invincible Armour (1977): This is a classic martial arts movie that uses shots of an egg exploding in a closed fist to illustrate the destruction of a man’s scrotum. Kind of dismayed at the theme emerging this month.
- Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005): This is a funny one. I never watched it because I bore it a grudge when it came out; I was still mad about the cancellation of a 90s Scott Bakula-Maria Bello tv show of the same name and similar concept, which my family fervently loved (and which does not hold up to a rewatch). The movie turns out to be quite stylish and slickly executed—once again, exactly what I should learn to expect from Doug Liman—but it’s supposed to have two protagonists and instead has zero. I think it’s trying to react to the idea promulgated in many, many movies that upper-middle-class suburban life is a decaying illusion by asserting that, no, Crate & Barrel heterosexuality is cool and rad, sunglasses emoji? I did not find its argument compelling.
- The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999): Whereas this movie about sociopathic romance I found very compelling indeed. I rented it for the costuming (because, sigh, I have been reading too many blogs about menswear) and was surprised at how erotic I found it, including but not limited to the part where Jude Law gets his dick out. The cast is full of ringers, the costuming is indeed incredible, and I loved how the lighting moves from deliciously sun-drenched to deliciously lurid. I haven’t read the the original Patricia Highsmith book, but now I want to; if it’s also about the murderous violence of the closet and the way it twists people into mimesis by robbing them of themselves, then the movie delivers that really well.
- Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978): This is a classic martial arts movie—the first starring Jackie Chan!—in which… welp. Baby Jackie is great, of course, and the movie was directed by Yuen Woo-Ping, which means the choreography is excellent but actual shots and editing are all cribbed pretty indifferently from the 70s Hong Kong stylebook. The real delight is Yuen’s actual dad playing the spry old teacher, who steals every scene without repentance.
- Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996): God dammit, I love Hou Hsiao-Hsien. I have only a vague idea of what happened in this movie, though the subtitling was fine. It is not a spoiler to say that the final shot, which goes on for at least a minute, is literally “a distant car gets stuck in a ditch (maybe??).” But Hou has such a gift for keeping my eyes interested and engaged even when nothing apparent is happening! Hell yes long slow wide shots of inscrutable people who aren’t even in frame half the time!! Fuck me up!!!!
- Maidentrip (2013): Lucy requested to watch this documentary about a teenage girl sailing around the world alone (albeit, one gradually figures out, sometimes with a week or a month of time off between stops) and it’s warm and cheering. Spoiler: she succeeds and does not die, but don’t google what happened to her boat later if you want to stay cheered. I enjoyed the movie, and learning about some funny sailing rituals that appear in it; I think the most extraordinary thing about it is that it was primarily self-filmed. There’s plenty of insert and pickup footage, but mostly this is a movie a teenage girl shot herself, about herself, without apology. In the background is the other thing that struck me, which is that her parents accepted and enabled their kid going out of their lives for a year. She’s a visibly different person by the end! It’s hard for me to imagine having that kind of independence as a young person, but even harder to think of yielding to it at such a formative time in one’s daughter’s life.
Minding the Gap (2018): I wasn’t intending to watch two self-shot documentaries about young people in a row, but I stumbled onto this (on Hulu!) and got drawn in. It’s an extraordinary movie, one of those I feel most motivated to recommend in my entire 2019 list.
It was really affecting to me to figure out the nature of the film as I watched it, but I don’t want to recommend it without a content warning: this is a movie about abusive fathers, and the people their sons become. That makes it sound like it’s hard to watch, but while certainly some of it is difficult to sit with, it’s never cruel to the audience. Most of the film is charming, goofy, and evocative, with gorgeous bursts of wordless beauty and arresting glimpses into consequence, or into the challenges its creator faced. And the musical conclusion pierced me right through.
The other thing is that this is a skateboard movie. I never had a skateboard when I was young, though I adopted some distinctly skateresque clothing choices. I didn’t have the opportunity to learn to skate, really, but even if I had I know I wouldn’t have had the patience or the grace. I admire it very much as a skill. It’s not as if skate videos are a new phenomenon, but Bing Liu is a good enough at those alone to grab your attention. I was impressed by Point Break (1991) getting its surf shots through a crew of seasoned professionals who got paid presumably well to risk their necks. The skating sequences in this movie were shot by one kid. One kid.
Destroy All Monsters (1968): Despite its awesome title, clear potential, stellar production crew and mighty budget, I’m afraid, my friends, that this movie is not very good. The traditional way to make a kaiju movie bad is to skimp on the expensive monster effects sequences by putting in lots of plotty stuff focusing on concerned humans no one cares about. This movie clearly spent gobs of money on effects shots, but almost none of them include the frickin monsters! There are ten minutes of slow, majestic rocket landings for every minute of monster screen time, which means this movie shorts both them and the audience. This is a movie featuring Mothra where Mothra NEVER TURNS INTO A MOTH.
There are great moments, including a shot of the Arc de Triomphe being demolished while a reporter declares “ze Arc has fallen… and soon, Paree!!” and also Godzilla contemptuously slapping down Ghidorah’s head like a deflated basketball. And if there are too many shots of miniature vehicles, at least the minis work is advanced and great! But while I only know a tiny bit about the movie’s production history, it’s very clear it came from people who were just done with giant monsters after fourteen years. I just realized as I typed this that it’s an Avengers movie. Of course it was doomed.
In conclusion, at no point in this motion picture does anyone shout “destroy all monsters!” or indeed make any attempt to destroy all monsters, and on that, your honor, the offense rests.
Spider-Man: Far From: Home (20:19): You can probably skip down to Yojimbo (1961), this part is a nerd trap and I’m still caught in it. Also it’s full of spoilers, if you care about that.
This purports to be a movie about the consequences of Tony Stark’s death, but even more present are the ghosts Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, who created Spider-Man together and both died in 2018. Whatever any given audience thinks of Lee, the people behind the Marvel Spider-Man movies were clearly big fans; the license plate and wrestling poster Easter eggs alone are indication of that, and the big hallucinatory illusion sequence in the second act is a big ol’ fanvid drawn straight from the Lee/Romita on-page experiments of the early 70s. I think it does Doctor Strange, another Lee/Ditko creation, better than Doctor Strange (2016) did. Sooo when you include a subplot about disgruntled people whose work was subsumed or absorbed to promote one man’s self-made aura of genius, it’s hard not to see another side of that too. There might be a movie out there that can sell me on the idea that the correspondence was deliberate, but as much as I enjoyed it, Far From Home is not that.
There’s a lot going on in the movie thematically and none of it quite gels. Is this a movie about people needing to move on? That topic keeps coming up but never gets an emotional climax. Is it a movie about how drones are bad? It’s certainly not the first Marvel film to express that unease, but why does it go unremarked that Tony Stark apparently built a global pinpoint-assassination system just like the one Steve Rogers was willing to die to destroy in The Winter Soldier (2014)? Is it a movie about whether Peter Parker—who, in current comics canon, operates a multinational tech corp in very Starkian fashion—is meant to step into his dead mentor’s role? Kind of, but that shouldn’t even be a question the MCU has to ask, because the MCU already has an established born leader and tech wunderkind for its next phase of superheroes. Their names are T’Challa and Shuri!
Is it a teen road movie? No, it backgrounds all of that in favor of very expensive-looking effects sequences. Is it a love story? Almost, almost. Tom Holland and Zendaya have about three scenes together, and they’re electric! Those two people are very good at acting! You have to have something special to actually sell me on a Peter/MJ romance in two thousand damn nineteen, and they did, but in true Sirius Black fashion, we barely get to glimpse the good stuff before it’s gone. A big flaw in the movie is how it continues the timeworn MCU tradition of failing to foreground its women; it needs not only more Zendaya, but more Cobie Smulders, and any at all of Jennifer Connelly, and more Marisa Tomei. How are you going to make a movie set in Venice with Marisa Tomei and ghost Robert Downey Junior in it and not even throw in a sly reference to Only You (1994)?
Anyway, since I started drafting this post the movie made a billion dollars, so Marvel/Columbia/Sony are probably pretty happy with Jon Watts and his directorial choices overall. I just liked Homecoming so much, and thought this showed such potential to be a movie specifically suited to my tastes, that I have a hard time not wrestling with the things it wasted and missed. NERD TRAP OVER.
Yojimbo (1961): Man, just look at this.
There are eight people in this shot, where one of the contenders for town boss is receiving Toshiro Mifune’s ronin and wheedling for his services. I didn’t do anything special to grab this frame—I just paused my player and took a photo of the TV with my phone, like a monster.
For the majority of people, color is a critical component of the way we separate shapes from each other, figure out what to pay attention to, and—like it or not—assess others. This image has no color dimension. But because its costume design is brilliant, my eyes immediately parse each person in the shot, and it’s even easy to grasp their ranks: the boss and his wife have the most ornate clothing, the ronin wears simple solids, and the background lieutenants each get a distinguishable but undistracting pattern. Because it’s blocked well, I know right away that Mifune is the center of the scene, with everyone else’s attitude cheated toward him. I happened to catch a frame where most of the lieutenants are looking down as they settle in, but the three principal characters always have their faces in full view or profile, so your brain can follow the conversation between them without the need to reverse between close-ups.
It’s fun to be able to break that out after the fact, and it’s even more fun to get picked up and carried along by it in motion. There’s all kinds of STUFF in Kurosawa movies: moving weather, moving fabric, bold expressions and exaggerated gestures and all kinds of people on the screen. Heck with minimalism! It’s great when the frame is busy, as long you can do it in a way that works for the viewer instead of against them. Anyway this movie is good and cool.
- The Old Man and the Gun (2018): I guess it could just be the Robert Redford fan in me speaking, but I certainly enjoyed this Robert Redford movie about movie star Robert Redford. It’s full of winks, but I was surprised to learn that casting Sissy Spacek opposite him was not one of them. They’d never been in a movie together before! They have wonderful chemistry, and I would have liked more of that instead of Casey Affleck’s dogged-mopey subplot, although his family was cute. When in doubt, always replace Casey Affleck with Sissy Spacek. Call that “the ek-eck rule.”
- Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010): This is a movie against which one critic’s epithet of “Uncle Bong Hit” can be… fairly applied. Also I really enjoyed it. The first shot in which the camera moves at all is fifty minutes in, and I’m not sure there was a single shot that lasted less than ten seconds in the whole thing; the median edit seemed somewhere around two minutes. It probably goes without saying that the only music is diegetic. Imagine those being your constraints. Imagine having that much confidence in your composition!
- Happy-Go-Lucky (2008): After talking a big game about my admiration for Sally Hawkins I decided I had to back it up by watching her breakout role, which is also my first Mike Leigh movie. Hawkins is extraordinary as expected. I knew that Leigh’s process of rehearse-improvise-rehearse-THEN write-THEN film was a whole unique thing; I did not know that the rehearsal process for this movie would have been happening while I lived in London in 2007. (I recognized zero locations aside from Hyde Park, but London is big and I lived south of the Thames.) This movie takes its time to get going, and anyone less charming than Hawkins in the lead could have grated a bit, but it’s lovely. Who else is going to make a movie that amounts to “a kind person politely and successfully asserts boundaries against hostile men, the end?”
- The Iron Monkey (1977): There are about forty movies called Iron Monkey and this is not the one directed by Yuen Woo-Ping, it’s one that was alternately titled Monkey Fist Vs. Eagle Claw and screened for the Hollywood’s monthly Kung Fu Theater night. Aside from the part where it shows a CHILD GETTING STRANGLED ON SCREEN in the first act, it’s pretty much what you’re there for.
Predator (1987): I love Alien (1979) and that franchise has long been a point of comparison against this one, so I decided to watch this. I didn’t like it. All right, John McTiernan, I hear your latter-day argument that this movie has some satirical intent behind it: the scene in which the bulging shout-men clear-cut an acre of rainforest using infinite bullets actually does trample right past power fantasy into grand display of impotence. It is goofy, but what does it end up saying by the end? That when the mechanized instruments of murder fail you, you must turn to… less mechanized instruments of murder? That beneath the ugly mask of sport hunting is… a face that is also ugly? I don’t buy it! This movie wants to stab its cake and shoot it too.
My favorite part was the special effects, which I think have now crossed a line from “dated” into “gloriously retro.” I spent most of the runtime thinking about the ways in which the Predator is shown to be a peerless hunter of men, to wit:
- outnumbered and outgunned at all times
- water-soluble camouflage
- glowing blood for convenient tracking
- slow-moving, light-up bullets for easy location in a firefight
- bound by strict rules of chivalry
- cannot chew food
- legally blind
- frequently sleepy
Damn, Arnold, you really skinned your teeth on that one.
Point Break (1991): See, with this one I can give credence to a certain archness of regard! Among Kathryn Bigelow’s other movies, I have only seen The Hurt Locker (2008), but that alone gave me reason to think she had a more nuanced understanding of masculinity than the other John McTiernan movie I have seen (Die Hard ).
Contemporaneous reviews of this movie seem to have missed the homoerotic frisson that overlays the entire thing, not to mention the way the film keeps rolling its eyes at the incompetence of the FBI characters and the surfer gang’s bullshit philosophy. This is a movie shot by someone who had already watched many men’s eyes glaze over as they stopped listening because they believed they had something more important to say. The silent camera, in fact, plays with everyone here like a superior dance partner, and that’s one thing the reviews did notice—technically, the surfing and skydiving and chase sequences must have been fucking hard to shoot! There was no bullshitting with CGI in 1991, and no infinite digital storage either. For every perfect curl we get to see someone riding through in slow motion, someone else was doing the same thing, holding a camera, with a limited amount of celluloid film in a canister, backwards.
I loved this movie even though it had almost zero women in it. And having watched it, I’m now convinced that Bigelow invented the so-called Sorkin walk and talk!
- Perfect Blue (1997): It’s 1:30 in the morning and I really want to finish this roundup because it’s also almost September! This movie has sexual violence in it. It is really interesting to compare to Paprika (2006), not only for to see how far Satoshi Kon and Madhouse came as animators in ten years, but to see Kon developing what between them amounts to a career-length treatise on the Kuleshov Effect.
- High Flying Bird (2019): This movie was aaalmost ruined for me by an airbnb TV with motion smoothing turned on that I could not disable. It’s also one of two movies I watched this month that were shot on iPhones, and despite the fact that I love this cast (André Holland! Zazie Beats! Melvin Gregg from American Vandal!!) and this playwright (Tarell Alvin McCraney!!!) and of course this director, it was not the one I preferred. I enjoyed its subtle conceit about the long work of revolution, and its performances, but the decision to shoot everything in extreme wide angle with a single anamorphic lens is hard to handle. You can strap a telephoto onto an iPhone too, Steven! I really think at this point in his career that Soderbergh enjoys being able to execute what he wants very, very fast—they self-funded and shot a feature film on location in something like thirty days—and the result is not sloppy, but its spontaneity in form is a little at odds with its deliberate function.
- Tangerine (2015): See, now, this is how you shoot a movie on a phone. Grainy, artificially warm, hectic, rife with bad decisions, full of characters who see the world through this exact same lens, and fun as hell. There is homophobia in this movie and use of the n-word by white people, but it is not sexually violent, which was a relief to me. It’s on Hulu! Text me if you want my password.
- Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016): The kind of movie where you can say “so when does Justin Timberlake show up?” and “something bad is going to happen to that turtle” within the first ten minutes, and be right about both, and still have a perfectly nice time. Pretty lacking in story and screen time for women, but at least that allows for a sweet story about men needing to love each other? I guess?
- Booksmart (2019): I only discovered in the credits that the wonderful Sarah Haskins wrote this movie! She did it TEN YEARS AGO, while she was still doing Target: Women! I really, really enjoyed it—funny, genuine, sympathetic and visually nimble, with inventive sequences and a few gorgeous long shots—but that discovery made my June. I’ve never really paid much attention to Olivia Wilde, though I knew she was smart, but when you pick up a script from Sarah Haskins and do right by it, you immediately earn my loyalty. Getting Dan Nakamura to score it doesn’t hurt either.
- Always Be My Maybe (2019): It is also possible to get music from Dan Nakamura, set up interesting constraints around representation, cast people I already like, and make a movie I just can’t feel a single thing about. I think Netflix has a great opportunity to revitalize the made-for-TV movie and create a space for valuable genres (like rom-com!) that don’t always merit a theatrical release, but every time one catches my interest, the result is just so focused on being efficient and functional in hitting its marks that there’s no space for anything interesting to happen.
Millennium Mambo (2001): I picked this up because The Assassin (2015) made me interested in Hou Hsiao-Hsieh; I didn’t realize they both starred Shu Qi. I know film is the voyeur’s art form or whatever, but this really leans into that, I’d say even more so than something like Caché (2005). It’s like watching a play through a keyhole: the action is mostly confined to a few locations, shot with long lenses and takes that limit camera movement to little more than the occasional pivot. Sometimes there’s a table in the way of the shot, sometimes a closed door. I felt like the camera and I were both trying to lean forward and peer around the obstructions, but not in a frustrating way. It’s not just obstruction, after all—it’s bokeh and parallax, shot along long axes, just like Mackendrick liked to say. Even when you can’t see what’s happening, your eyes aren’t bored.
In terms of other movies I’ve watched this year, I was reminded of Days of Being Wild (1990), but even more so of Morvern Callar (2002)—in part for its focus on an enigmatic young woman, but also for all the rich, soft light and texture and color on the screen. I honestly don’t know if there was some kind of film stock or grading process that they have in common, but it summons the look of the early 2000s even more than the candy bar phones or club music or all the cigarettes.
I’m getting all wistful now! 2001 is the year I started this blog—please do not verify this—and I had so many ideas about the future, and no idea at all. Anyway, I am also delighted by the fact that in the second scene of this movie, one of the characters wears a shirt that just says KISS, while the other’s shirt just says ARMY.
- PlayTime (1967): The first movie I have attempted this year that has completely defeated me. I gave up halfway through, as the film entered what seemed like its third week of runtime. I am so far ahead of you on detesting modernism, Jacques Tati! I don’t need you to make lavish satire-that-is-indistinguishable-from-its-subject for two hours about it!
- Fist of Legend (1994): The second Jet Li feature in a row for for Intermittent Hong Kong Kung Fu Movie Club. This is Li and his team in their prime, working from a remake of a Bruce Lee movie, so all the pieces are in place for something solidly delightful, and it delivers: it nails color, clarity, composition and cuts, or as I call them, “four important things that start with C, and also coolness, so make it five.” I was happy that the conflict resolved from nationalist resentment (at one point Li pulls a sign reading “TOLERANCE” off a wall and punches it in half) into something more complex and forgiving.
Submarine (2010): I can’t believe I procrastinated on watching this for almost a decade. I love Richard Ayoade, I love Harold and Maude (1971), I love teen movies, and I like Wes Anderson a lot, so it was a foregone conclusion that I would love this. And I did. If it had just its fleet and startling pacing, or just its frank sense of humor, or just Sally Hawkins (a generational talent, an utter badass, someone who makes acting actually seem important), or even just its pinpoint costuming choices, it would be worth watching. But it has other things too! Among them, period-accurate but unnecessary homophobia, which disappointed me a bit in the midst of all this delight.
Anyway, make more movies, Richard Ayoade. I don’t want to spoil the very first frame of (the American release of) the movie for you, but it’s worth looking up.
The Matrix (1999): Rewatch, of course. Man, speaking of opening frames.
Years ago, my friend Avery pointed out to me that the “red pill” isn’t just a metaphor used to promote violent misogyny after being co-opted from a woman—it’s been read as a pretty explicit allegory, in the film itself, for a hormone pill. I thought about that and found it pretty convincing as an authorial intent, especially after both the creators came out as trans, but this was the first time I’d watched the movie with that framework in mind.
And when you look for it, it’s everywhere, from the first thing you see on the screen to nearly the last. One of the first things Neo says to Trinity is “I thought you were a guy,” to which she replies “most guys do.” The character of Switch visibly presents different genders in the Matrix and the real world. The Matrix itself is described as a prison made of… binary. The Oracle tells Neo to “know thyself,” and that he’s waiting for another life. Even in the climactic fight between Neo and Smith, Smith holds Neo in front of a train he calls “inevitability” and taunts him by calling him “Mister Anderson.” Neo’s response—“my name is Neo”—isn’t just a good retort, it’s a rejection of the identity he was assigned at birth.
I have a long and complicated history of regard for The Matrix; it made a vast impression on me, but even in 1999 I could see how it seemed to me to center the experience of a generic privileged man, and how much it swiped from other creators without offering much credit. The fact that it got appropriated by self-righteous nerds and by shallow philosophy and pop culture reference gags, and that the sequels were… the sequels, didn’t help me feel great about having latched onto it myself. But this lens for it thrills me, because it takes the movie back from its worst fans and makes it vital, relevant, and still radical twenty years on. There was always something in there that was more than the sum of its parts; it just took the patient education of queer people in my life to let me see it.
- Toy Story 4 (2019): Still sweet, still technically untouchable, but pretty redundant to the story of the previous entry in the franchise, which is one of the great pre-Spiderverse creative peaks of the medium.
Chungking Express (1994): This is basically two short films—and was almost three—one about an oblivious young police officer blundering onward from a failed relationship while eating all the food in Hong Kong, which is followed by another about an oblivious young police officer being forced to move on from a failed relationship by a manic pixie terrifying stalker. All together I found it a little clunky, and there’s barely a thread of connection between the halves except in their themes, but the second half—the Faye Wong/Tony Leung half—is a nervous delight!
Also, the thing I linked up at the top of the previous paragraph is a video of Quentin Tarantino talking about the movie, in the comments of which I learned that Tarantino’s face accidentally introduced Barry Jenkins to this movie and to Wong’s work. There have now been two good things in comments sections on the internet.
- Black Panther (2018): Rewatch. I’m still learning from it! In one of the very last shots of the movie proper, when the basketball court has changed from night to morning, a kid walks up to T’challa to ask him who he is. As the camera drops and he steps forward, they throw a little lens flare over the top of the kid’s head. Not much! Just enough to give the shot a little flash, and timed such that they had to want it, be ready for it, and get the kid to hit his mark in the five or ten minutes where the sun was in the right place. It wouldn’t matter too much if it weren’t there. But they got it, and it is. Every time I watch this movie, it gets a little clearer just how much Ryan Coogler and Rachel Morrison and Hannah Beachler did to make this very very difficult thing look easy.
Bad Times at the El Royale (2018): This movie was cast well, and shot well, and designed well, and soundtracked well, and again, cast so well that it bears repeating, and I got to the end of its long runtime without any idea of what it was about. It’s a thriller without a relevant anxiety to play with, and it wants to be a noir movie, but it doesn’t really have a Thou Shalt Not with which to punish its characters. It spends minutes on end detailing the central conceit of its bi-state hotel setting, and then never actually uses that for anything. Speaking of Tarantino, it looks a lot like one of his later movies, but without any of the moments Tarantino takes to bust out into gleeful, visible artifice.
All of which is to say I wasn’t offended by this movie, and maybe I’m missing something, I just don’t know if there’s a there there. It did, however, confirm my strong parasocial relationship with Cynthia Erivo (lately of Widows ), and one part that made both Kat and I yelp was spotting Manny Jacinto from The Good Place in the credits. He grew a mustache!
(Updated 0734 hrs because I forgot to insert the picture!)
- Blood of the Dragon (1971): Seen on 35mm at the Hollywood Theater, just before the reels were loaned to Quentin Tarantino. As promised, it had “some of the most interesting film damage” I had ever seen. Celluloid is a volatile material! Anyway the movie fit well within the bounds of the wuxia genre in a satisfying way, and I liked that it was directed by a woman.
- Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989): Ian made me watch the sequel in 2002 or something, but I’d never actually seen this. What an earnest, sweet, stupid movie—so sweet, in fact, that the one random moment of requisite 20th-century homophobia jarred even more than usual. Nice to see them come correct on police violence, military recruitment and wealth inequality, though.
- Mad Max: Fury Road aka Black & Chrome (2015): Technically a rewatch, except not, as this was the monochrome version. It was also the big screen version, at the Hollywood as a Planned Parenthood benefit. Even without color, and with visible pixels, it loses no impact. I tried to take note of things like cuts and composition and depth of field, and I failed! It’s hard to observe at a remove that to which you are riveted.
The Red Turtle (2016): By contrast, I did a lot of observing composition (and color, and texture) in this movie, which is beautiful but I think holds itself a little apart from you. Part of that is its constraints: no dialogue, no narration, no explanations at all, like a wordless picture book. The characters don’t even have names. For me, that blunted its emotional impact as well, but it was very beautiful to watch.
They did pull out one particular and effective trick I haven’t really seen much in 2D animation. Usually, even when the 2D is all digital rather than cel painting, the “flatted” color areas are in fact flat, with maybe some highlights and shadows thrown in for depth; details are done with line work, and flatting is a separate process stage done quickly and by lower-level animators. If you see texture and detail within a colored space, it’s probably on something static like a background that only has to be drawn once. In this shot from Spirited Away (2001), Chihiro and the car were drawn by animators, where the idol and the trees were done by static painters. See the simple colors on her shirt compared to all the variation on the stone?
Instead, The Red Turtle takes advantage of its digital nature, attaching texture to everything and letting the computer do the work of keeping it consistent with movement. It’s like film grain, but you can see in this shot that it’s applied differently to various surfaces—the upper area of the turtle’s shell has less texture than the parts below the water.
They do some other fun stuff too: using the surface simulation usually applied to fabric or water in 3D animation for foliage here, for instance. There’s some cool ligne claire influence going on, and Lucy even pointed out a couple of nods to Moebius. Simple story, visual feast.
- Ball of Fire (1941): Watched on Sumana’s recommendation. Man, this was great. That is to be expected from something cowritten by Billy Wilder and directed by Howard Hawks, but Sumana gave Barbara Stanwyck top billing, and she was correct. I’d never (remembered) seeing her in a movie before, and she carries the whole thing. Also, I’m going to start wearing a sweatshirt over a button-down in homage to the avuncular German professor. Easily my favorite pro-descriptivism jazzy screwball gangster comedy to feature Snow White and the seven dwarves.
You Were Never Really Here (2017): My second Lynne Ramsay movie, after a fifteen-year time jump in her career. I feel like if you have heard of this movie then you know it features a lot of violence, including violence against children, sexual and otherwise. It’s hard to put that in a genre story in the 21st century without seeming exploitative yourself, and I don’t know if this movie entirely avoids that.
All that said, holy fucking shit, I understand better why people are so reverent about Ramsay now. Fleet without skimming, enigmatic without distancing, clever but not ostentatious, observant but not voyeuristic—or at least not catering to the voyeur in all the expected ways. The crew’s stylistic watchphrase was apparently “heavy camera,” and the implications there are carried through.
Ramsay does this thing in common with Alexander Mackendrick that I might have mentioned before. This movie had sequences where a moving subject is obscured for most if not all of the shot, but I never felt confused or lost because my eye was guided along their path. I haven’t quite parsed it out yet, but I think it might be something like this: you catch the subject at the start of the shot at a rule-of-thirds line, as the point of focus, entering with movement; you keep the camera centered and focused on them as they move into obscurity, through a crowd of people or behind traffic; and you catch them out of it on the other side, at the opposite screen-third focal point, emerging into perfect focus and giving the audience a pleasing “aha” of facial recognition. You can convey depth of field, parallax, atmosphere, tension, and action all at once in a simple shot, but it only works if you have the technique really nailed down. Eventually I will find some clips that demonstrate what I’m talking about and then come back and compare them to see if this theory holds up.
- A Simple Favor (2018): Watched with Anne even though it doesn’t fit the requirements of our podcast. This movie doesn’t make a lot of sense—in particular, the plot device children are sublime in the sense that they conveniently sublimate—and the chemistry between Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick is both its best feature and its greatest wasted potential. Fun enough for a tipsy evening, but I’d say spoiler yourself, don’t bother.
If there’s one thing I should have seen staring at me in last month’s roundup, where I raved about Barry Jenkins, Wong Kar-Wai and Jordan Peele, it is that if I want to find work that is exciting and engaging to me and made by people who came out the gate really strong, I cannot rely on movies made by (straight cis) white dudes. This is hardly a new concept, but that does not make it easy to put into practice. I’m still trying.
Also, I regret to say that I didn’t watch any movies I hated this month. Sorry, Last Month Concluding Paragraph Brendan.
- Morvern Callar (2002): When people talk about women not winning the big awards for directing, they are required to mention Lynne Ramsay, and I had never seen a Lynne Ramsay movie until this one. I enjoyed it. Ramsay worked in still photography before becoming a filmmaker, and it shows: she seems to compose things so that pausing on any frame would leave you with something you could hang on a wall. Lots of grain and contrast, shallow depth of field, and a technique with two distinct levels of saturation that echoes the one in Medicine for Melancholy (2008). But Barry Jenkins used his version to catch the heart right out of you, or try to; Lynne Ramsay uses it here to keep you on the outside surface of her pretty enigma.
- The Third Man (1949): I had to watch this if I wanted to keep studying Alexander Mackendrick, because he really loved its plot and structure. It’s a classic and its structure is interesting: all its characters are dynamic, doing the “active in their own narrative” thing that is so fun to notice within all kinds of stories, so the whole movie functions a bit like an orrery. It has cool shots too, and I enjoyed it—I see why it’s a great teaching example. But even as someone who doesn’t know a ton about Orson Welles, it seems clear to me that it wouldn’t exist without him! It’s a satellite, in the well of his gravity not only as a filmmaker but as an actor. He has a middling amount of screen time, but only one speaking scene, and it’s the most memorable element of the movie. He compels. The rumors about him shadow-directing the movie were a myth, but he didn’t have to direct it or even be on set most of the time to shape the whole thing.
Get Out (2017): It’s Auteur Month on the Roundup du Filme!! It’s not actually Auteur Month on the Roundup du Filme. My understanding of this movie from its first trailer up until last month was that it would jab directly into the areas that are hardest for me to bear in fiction; I only decided I was brave enough to watch it after I survived Us (2019) without losing my mind. One cool thing I noticed seemed like a twist on a thing I referenced back in January.
In Night of the Living Dead (1968), as required by its chief technical constraint, the scenes of respite and interpersonal conflict are all shot on a tripod; it was the only way to hold the camera while recording sound. When shit goes down with the zombies, the music swells and the camera goes handheld, emphasizing the chaos with the shaking frame. Many, many people have relied on that jitter-means-jittery technique ever since. In Get Out (2017), the opening and all the interpersonal stuff is shot handheld—not shaky, but not steady either. That takes advantage of the other implication of handheld shots, which is intimacy within emotional relationships. It’s only when you’re watching something that foreshadows or explicates the movie’s horrors that you get a smooth dolly or a static frame, and many of those are wide shots from a distance. Instead of chaos up close, you get dread at a helpless remove, which (SPOILERS) ties into the protagonist’s experience. I don’t know if Peele was the first to do that flip, but he does it well.
- A New Leaf (1971): There’s a well-known filmmaker who has made a lot of comedies about himself as a series of similar nebbishy characters. I’ve seen a few of his movies and had never seen any of Elaine May’s. This movie orbits around a nebbishy character, played by its writer-director, so that’s where my mind went as a point of comparison, but it’s a lot more ambitious than that as a formal exercise alone: it’s a romantic comedy trying to squeeze into a Wodehose farce, but it’s set in the 70s, but it’s really about the nakedness of class warfare, to a murderous point. I didn’t realize this was her first feature! The performances she elicited were my favorite part—I’d never seen this side of Walter Matthau, for instance. I did get a sense that something about the plot steered a little away from its really wicked impulses, and I think it turns out that what I really wanted was to see that three-hour director’s cut.
- The Ladykillers (1955): Alexander Mackendrick again. I’d seen the Coens’ remake but not the original, which is a very different movie. I think this one is a bit less mean-spirited, and kind of a light dark comedy. Like A New Leaf (1971)! (They also both do this funny thing with rear-projection insert shots, the CGI backgrounds of 1940-1980.) Technically delightful, just like the other movies of his I’ve seen: it carries and guides your gaze and your sense of tension with assurance through the whole movie. Putting Alec Guinness in goofy dentures and flop-sweat hair is a great move, because it lets him cut loose in a way I’d never seen anywhere else. Having seen him really commit in a role makes Star Wars seem very strange by comparison!
- Raising Arizona (1987): Speaking of the Coens, this is the earliest of their movies I’ve seen. I don’t remember where I read about it as a Looney Tunes homage, but man, it’s not hiding that at all! I enjoyed that aspect, and seeing this phase in their development: it sits well within the bounds of the strict “one freaking time” universe, but because these are cartoon characters, they are more resilient against its consequences than humans. Also, this might be the first Coen movie I’ve seen that doesn’t commit to their signature anticlimax, although it’s been a while since I saw Miller’s Crossing (1990).
- Someone Great (2019): A Netflix trifle. Written and directed by the same person, and I feel like it’s kind of unusual that the directing seemed much stronger than the script? Like, the long takes are understated but very effective, and the fake cross-processed lighting in the flashbacks is a treat. The flashbacks are the best part of the movie, in fact, even though it’s supposed to really be about friendships among women—Lakeith Stanfield and Gina Rodriguez, for whom I have strong parasocial affection, have great chemistry despite some pretty weak lines. This is the kind of movie that names itself after a song, doesn’t understand that song, and doesn’t actually have the song on its soundtrack because it can’t get clearance. But somebody spent a million bucks and tossed it out there anyway. Netflix, everybody!
- The History Boys (2006): Kat’s favorite; I was entranced by it. It’s an adaptation of a stage play featuring its original cast, and it sounds like a stage play featuring its original cast, in that its lines are longer and a little more florid than you expect from a screenplay and also one of the actors playing a high schooler is clearly 28. It won a lot of awards and got made into a movie for a reason, though. This is a very affecting movie about sexuality and about sexual abuse. It treats both of them with equal tenderness, which is… complicated, as moral stances go. But the cast is really stacked with character-actor ringers, and it doesn’t look stagey at all.
- Empire Records (1995): Rewatch for Rex Manning Day. This movie also has a tricky moral stance, advocating as it does for Nice Guys and the primacy of physical music media. It lacks the courage to convict itself and its treatment of its female characters is kind of cringey. But a nineties movie can fail in a lot of ways and still have bits in it that render themselves indelible in one’s mind.
- Avengers: Endgame (2019): My favorite of the Avengers movies so far, even though—like its predecessors and like all popcorn—it was delightful while fresh and then aged quickly as it cooled. I was well served by the fanservice, but Caroline Siede is correct to note that it treats some heroes as more equal than others. That said, the Russos did their best to pay off all the setup I deplored in Infinity War, and a lot of other setup going back a long way, and their reward was that they got to break many of the restrictions that held the previous Avengers movies down.
Homecoming (2019): Okay, maybe it is actually Auteur Month on the Roundup du Filme. I’ve seen Beyoncé in concert, on the Formation tour in St. Louis in 2016, and it was a tremendous experience. For someone who does not have a background as a composer, a writer, a designer or a cinematographer to demonstrate her level of specific creative control is interesting; this concert doc is styled “A Film By Beyoncé” and I don’t think it’s just puffery.
The popular discourse goes like this: 1) “you have as many hours in the day as Beyoncé,” 2) “no, Beyoncé’s wealth grants her time via the labor of others.” The thing is, though, even if I had all her resources, I am certain that I would not have her reserves of will. The parts of this movie that document the work of creation leading up to the performance make that clear. She was in a rehearsal space hashing out the initial concepts of the show within two months of giving birth, to twins, and the work of expansion and refinement continued right up to the opening performance, plus the following week until its closing one. I have no illusions that I want to hang out with Beyoncé. But while I do not believe in the divine right of royalty, sometimes I understand why people did.
- Captain Marvel (2019): Overdue, overworked, underdone, and welcome.
- Edge of Tomorrow (2014): I don’t remember why this widely released, highly profitable PG-13 action movie starring very famous people was considered sort of an underdog back when it came out. Maybe because it made less money that weekend than The Fault in Our Stars (2014)? It had a “hey, go rent this gem nobody saw” tag in my head, which turns out to be a little inaccurate. “Groundhog Day (1993) with aliens” is a good gimmick, especially in the era of video game save scumming; it hits a lot of fun beats; and it’s well-executed, which you’d expect at this point from Doug Liman and Christopher McQuarrie. But its ending lacks the conviction one might hope for from a movie that has the commitment to shoot Tom Cruise in the face a hundred times. The idea that Emily Blunt was the badass and he her stumbling apprentice was I guess still sadly unusual in 2014 too, but all the same, it’s a movie with only one woman character who ends up the object of romantic intent.
Medicine for Melancholy (2008): Now, see, here’s a movie with a tag in my head that I wish I had gotten around to much sooner. In 2012, back when I had a Netflix queue, I put this in my Netflix queue because it had an interesting title and I liked Wyatt Cenac. Then I got The Kids Are All Right (2010) from higher up on my Netflix queue, let it slip behind a bookshelf while I was depressed, and only found it again when I moved out of that house and cancelled the disc-based side of my Netflix account. And the next time I thought about this movie was when I realized it was the only feature Barry Jenkins made before Moonlight (2016).
There’s some stuff that is raw in the movie: not just Jenkins’s need to shout, but stuff like the artificially muted color palette, a device that is limited in effect by the tiny budget and the cheap DV technology of ten years ago. I suspect that was the first experiment in what led Jenkins and James Laxton to rethink LUTs for brown skin eight years later. Yet there’s also a lot that is already dialed in and locked down, from the dialogue mixing to the shot composition to the intimacy and chemistry of the performances. You can see that this is something skilled people cared about making very much.
Medicine for Melancholy was shot in San Francisco a few months before my abortive attempt at living in San Francisco. My memories from those two weeks are scattered and not very warm. I can’t claim to face all the same things the characters are struggling with, but I could already feel the same rising unease of housing insecurity. I wonder who’s making their first movie on an iPhone in Portland now, and what it will be right about, a decade on.
The Limey (1999): Someday I will start my career retrospective blog about Steven Soderbergh. This movie is often praised as being among his best, and I’d never seen it. At this point, if you know about the movie, you likely also know about its semi-infamous commentary track, where screenwriter Lem Dobbs grouches a lot about all the things he dislikes about the finished film (and the nature of his job) while Soderbergh plays mild defense. I watched the movie and then the commentary back to back.
I don’t think Soderbergh’s body of work is perfect, but in the two decades since I saw Out of Sight (1998), I’ve never been disappointed or angered by his choices. That sounds like faint praise, but the dude has made thirty feature films! To have done that without resorting to visual or verbal cliches, without betraying a mistrust of his audience, and without discarding the principles he started with is part of what makes him extraordinary in his field. He is out there right now shooting movies on his iPhone, and—okay I accidentally started writing the intro to the retrospective here. Sorry, back on track.
My point is: I like and trust Soderbergh, and also, I think the criticism Dobbs levels at the product is probably right. The time-jumping and intercutting style beats would have benefited from being pushed further than they were. The side characters would have gained dimension and been more memorable if he’d cut less of their background and context, and the themes of class and family would have added depth to the movie if he hadn’t pared them down. That’s valuable to learn for me! That’s a new angle I can take when watching Soderbergh’s other movies: what might have gone missing on the way to the final cut?
Also, if you have inhaled a substance that is legal in Oregon but not THAT much substance that is legal in Oregon, the part where the commentary audio gets meta and starts going all intercut and echoey is very alarming.
- The Incredible Hulk (2008): I have now seen every single movie that sits within the bounds of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and someday I will answer for that. This one doesn’t work, and I think there are interesting contrasts to be drawn between it and Iron Man (2008), which for all its problems works very well. But this post is too long already.
Speed (1994): Rewatch, of course (Kat had never seen it). I have made demeaning remarks about this movie in the past, and I hereby revise my opinion: it is clever and solid. Part of this realization is tied to the previous item in this list. I enjoyed the act of watching Avengers: Infinity War (2018), but ever since I walked out of the theater, something about it hasn’t sat right with me.
Both Speed and Infinity War are movies about trying to stop a bomb from going off. In both movies, you know that fuckin’ bomb is going to go off. But Speed holds your interest about when and how that happens, because it capably switches initiative and agency between the antagonist and the protagonist. And Infinity War has no protagonist at all. You’re not there to find out how any member of the cast struggles or changes, you’re just there to find out who gets dusted at the very end of a three-hour runtime, and that’s not a story, that’s a backstory. I like and trust the Russos too, but that’s where they ran up against an imposed constraint that broke their work instead of challenging it.
Anyway, Speed is good, and its actual uncredited writer is another dude who was defeated by the constraints of Avengers movies. Avengers movies are a trap! If at all possible, avoid directing an Avengers movie.
- Days of Being Wild (1990): I just made myself shudder by thinking about what ~fan theory~ articles would have made out of the last shot of this film, if it had come out today. Of course, Wong Kar-Wai people have long since decided on their own interpretations of it, but at least I don’t see them in clickbait headlines. Whether it’s linked to his other work or not, this one is beautifully composed and I enjoyed watching it, even though I felt zero sympathy for its protagonist. That’s hard to pull off!
- Us (2019): You have to be pretty fucking good to get me to watch a movie that actually scares me. Jordan Peele is. I wish Ursula Le Guin had seen this. I guess now I have to actually find the courage to go back and watch Get Out (2017).
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018): Rewatch (my new roommate Brett hadn’t seen it yet). All time top three. Maybe all time top two. I don’t know how to talk about this thing without sounding fevered. Even if it weren’t a tremendous artistic achievement and even if it hadn’t cast every preceding 3D animated movie as the infancy of the medium—I want to step through like one second of the animation and point out how many ways they use constraints to break rules—it would still be an extraordinary proof that fifty-seven years of stories about the same character can be freeing instead of confining.
Spider-Man has been my favorite for twenty-five of those years, and I feel like I can say with assurance that his entire history has been leading up to this. My hero is the photographer who lost his father figure; my hero is the painter who speaks Spanish and combs his hair out; my hero is the dancer-drummer who didn’t have to die to matter. I really love this movie.
Okay, I just went back and checked, and that’s almost exactly the same sentence I used to wrap up the last movie I talked about in February. In April I will try to wrap things up with something I hate. And I’ll try to watch fewer than four movies based on Marvel properties, yikes.
- Stonehearst Asylum (2014): Watched because my former housemate put it on while packing. I miss her, but I wish I had missed this movie instead.
- The Man in the White Suit (1951): Alexander Mackendrick again, with the kind of movie that earned him a reputation for being “that guy who does light British comedies” and led to people being shocked when he and Curtis made The Sweet Smell of Success. But both movies are made with the same assurance and skill! Mackendrick is so intentional about where he wants you to be focused, even when it’s offscreen. He’ll hold a shot on an empty hallway for five seconds in the middle of a chase scene just to let your anticipation build to the point of laughter. Joan Greenwood does great work as an heiress who turns people’s assumptions about her to her own ends, but I really loved Vida Hope as the salty union worker and foil to Alec Guinness’s nerdy privilege.
- Jet Li’s The Enforcer, aka My Father Is A Hero (1995): Rented for my intermittent movie club because it bridges a particular gap in my ad hoc 90s Hong Kong Kung Fu syllabus, with a jump from Jackie Chan to Jet Li by way of Anita Mui. Most of this movie is pretty much what you would expect from a mid-period Li vehicle: a functional plot involving tragedy, gangs and undercover cops, filled out by skillful and thrilling fight scenes where people look like they got hurt. What I didn’t know to expect is that the kid-who-also-fights novelty device gets pretty rough! This is a movie where a child gets slammed through a glass table and choked out more than once. That young actor, Mo Tse, had appeared with Li in The New Legend of Shaolin (1994) to great success the year before, so maybe they felt like they had to up the stakes on this one. Regardless, not a movie I’d recommend watching if seeing a kid get hurt bothers you. (It bothered me!)
Police Story 2 (1988): I got to see this on the big screen at the Hollywood Theater, presumably as some kind of promotion related to Criterion releasing a new edition of this movie and its predecessor. I don’t know what to say about it without sounding hyperbolic or trite. This is a work by some of the greatest artists of the twentieth century, before and behind the camera, at the peak of their form. It is flawed work—in particular, the jokes can be broad, it glorifies police violence (as you’d expect), and I felt ambivalent about the treatment of its deaf character. But man, who else ever made diegetic music out of steel pipes bouncing off of human bodies?
I watched In the Mood for Love (2000) back in December, and it’s a minor pleasure to see Maggie Cheung slumming it as the damsel in this movie, just to get a sense of her amazing range. And also to see how many of her outfits would look current and stylish today. Maggie Cheung’s film wardrobe deserves an ongoing tumblr.
Grosse Point Blank (1997): Rewatch, of course, on a date to help fill in her Cusack filmography. This is one of the movies that is engraved on my brain. I was still in college the first time I watched it, and I didn’t end up going to my own ten-year high school reunion. But it still works for me and much of my cohort because I think it captures something common about having escaped the place you grew up: the realization that if you don’t look back, there are things you won’t see. And that you won’t be seen again the same way either.
In May it’ll be twenty years since I graduated, and the characters here now seem impetuous and unsteady to me, no longer dashing and cool. I wonder if the movie will seem more dated in another ten years, or will cross a threshold into being a period piece. But most of my favorite parts of it are throwaway bits: the transition into the Muzak version of “Live and Let Die” at the Ultimart, Benny Urquidez’s perfect delivery of his only line, John Cusack’s repeated sullen “…no” when the movie lets you expect a quippy rejoinder, Alan Arkin’s nonsense mantra recited through a mouthful of burrito, Joan Cusack’s cathartic computer mallet. To me, leaving space for little idiosyncrasies like that is a demonstration of care, and of respect for your audience.
- Paris is Burning (1990): Found on Netflix (!). I know the production of this movie is controversial, but I’m glad it exists. What an extraordinary document and what amazing people. I wish I’d seen it when I was younger, even though it probably would have scandalized me. (Or maybe I’m not giving Past Brendan enough credit—I certainly latched onto the queer aspects of Rent hard enough in 1996.)
The Favourite (2018): An interesting payoff to having now watched 75% of Lanthimos’s feature filmography. I took to this one much faster than the others, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s the first one he didn’t write himself. It is also not a coincidence that my parasocial devotion to Olivia Colman—dating back to the first time Kevan and Holly showed me That Mitchell And Webb Look in London in 2007—is stronger than ever.
My experience with Lanthimos kept me on uneasy edge the entire time I watched this, and I think that worked to its benefit. His camera still feels as if it carries a lot of weight: the fisheye swivel he deploys several times, before popping into extreme close-up, is a great way to hammer the audience in the eyeballs. The man loves an eyeball hammer. Yet it’s much less a blunt instrument than in Dogtooth, and the performances he gets from his actors are less blunt too. In The Lobster (2015), Rachel Weisz performs a lot of thrumming strain, lust and fear, but they’re channeled through this kind of formal flesh-robot delivery he seems to ask of his whole cast via his script; he gets your nervous laughter from the sustained tension of distance. In The Favourite, with dialogue that darts and twirls instead of stomping, Weisz gets to apply dynamics to the same emotions. Even when her character is wearing a rigid court mask, she and Lanthimos show you glimpses of the toll on the human behind it. That in turn lets him dial the distance and tension up and down to great effect. I really liked this movie.
That is finally everything I watched in February! This is what I get for staying indoors all month. Now it’s halfway through March and I’ve only seen four movies, so maybe it will only be a couple weeks until my next bulletin, “Brendan Has An Opinion About Captain Marvel (2019)!”