May Movie Moundup

  • 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?

    Chihiro looks nervously at the stone idol beside her

    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.

    A man on a raft regards a large red turtle in 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.

I Forgot A Movie in the April Roundup du Filme

  • 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.

April Roundup du Filme

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.

Brendan Has An Opinion About Captain Marvel (2019)

  • 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.

February Filmbular: The Return

  • 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)!”

Filmbruary Circular

As I start to draft this post, I am basking in the confirmation bias that informs me that I am in fact good and smart for having watched almost none of the movies that were nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, because obviously what do they know. (Green Book was not one of the movies I saw.) I did see Black Panther and Into the Spider-Verse, like all right-thinking humans, and I already knew they were wonderful! Who needs the Academy! Get outta here!

  • The Sweet Smell of Success (1957): In January I watched The Bad Sleep Well because of a brief Every Frame a Painting essay about one shot in it, and then shortly thereafter I went and got this from Movie Madness because that essay has a quick bit about it in the intro, and now I want to see everything Alexander Mackendrick ever made.

    This is not a movie about good people, and is honest about the way selfish men treat women; I say that as context for this clip from early in the first act, as the protagonist is starting to reveal the nature of his character. It’s one of those little scenes—almost all in a single unassuming shot—where you can turn the dialogue off and still read all the emotional beats, but it’s also visually interesting in a way that I am learning to parse out. The whole thing is an exposition dump, but my eyes never get bored! The camera’s point of focus, the actors’ blocking and business, the swing back and forth in composition between crowd scene and private scene as Sidney’s attention wavers and resolves, and the parallax and bokeh happening along the longest axis of the room—all of that works together to make it fluid, interesting and alive, even if you never notice any given element.

    The story is great too, contained within a very specific situation and time that are well-explained even fifty years later, and the love I have borne for Tony Curtis ever since Some Like It Hot is rekindled. There’s a whole chapter in Mackendrick’s book On Film-Making where he just breaks down how the script for one particular scene changed between two writers, and it’s illuminating.

  • Better Off Dead… (1985): Watched on a date to help fill out my Cusack filmography. Not a classic. It might have been if it were a little more self-aware: it’s sort of a refined concentrate of all the ingredients in a “throw it at the wall and see” 1980s mid-budget comedy. I did like the part where the demonic newspaper boy does a chase scene on a BMX fitted with skis, which… you see what I mean about the concentrate.
  • Mission: Impossible::Fallout: (2018): My brother has never forgiven this franchise for its first outing, but I have in time come to like them. This one is very capable and polished, but it’s also the first one in the series written/directed by someone who has directed one before, and it suffers for that! I have some cockamamie theories about the elements of creative works that drive them to popularity in fanfiction, but one of them is that a given book or movie, to get people really invested, has to leave gaps. People love to fill those in, and reveal exciting new connective tissue between disparate points. Sometimes that impulse is fine. Other times, it leads to internet articles about “fan theories,” which is not fine. But worst of all is when it leads a creator to perform… SELF-FANFIC. This is not quite the same thing as self-insert fanfic, and in fact might be worse. Get outta here, self-fanfic! Anyway, that’s what this movie is too, but the part where Henry Cavill cocks his fists is good.
  • The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001): This movie made by Joel and Ethan Coen in the style of a noir from the 50s is a lot like a noir from the 50s made in the style of Ethan and Joel Coen. I found it really interesting to watch so soon after The Sweet Smell of Success, which is about a driven fast-talker on the make and has its own propulsive forward energy, contained in a single long night. This movie is about a man who is impassive and silent to a tragic fault, and it seems to stretch out over about a year. But they share the same fundamental law: thou shalt not try to step outside one’s station, even one freaking time. This also earned a rare exemption from my own fundamental law (“thou shalt not use voiceover narration”).
  • Dogtooth (2009): Hoo boy. I saw The Lobster a couple of years ago and so had some hint of what I was in for, but the darkness of The Lobster is often funny, and gains some aesthetic distance from its magical-realist setting. No one seems to be able to agree about whether Dogtooth is a black comedy or a drama, but I didn’t laugh at it, and despite the absurdist false-vocabulary central device, it felt very close to real stories of captivity and abuse. All the long takes achieve the tension they aim for, and some are even beautiful, but the camera still feels like a blunt instrument.
  • The Parallax View (1974): I rented this movie because I vaguely thought it was a Cold War spy-chess-game thing. I don’t know what I was thinking of, because this is actually a meandering, paranoiac conspiracy thriller with a Sprockets video in the middle. I didn’t like it.

    The most interesting part is how it attempts to evoke generational fears that are different from my own. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that, by my count, every living political candidate in the United States gets murdered by lone gunmen in this movie. (Don’t worry, there aren’t any well-drawn villains with comprehensible motivations behind that.) Meanwhile, in a scene that stunned me, Warren Beatty walks directly onto a tarmac from his parked car, gets on a plane, and then buys his ticket from a flight attendant while already airborne. And it’s not like the threat of hijacking didn’t exist already! The plane gets grounded by a bomb threat! But the configuration of our panic buttons has changed.

  • The Emperor’s New Groove (2000): Rewatch. Reading a little about the background of the movie made me want very much to watch The Sweatbox, and learning that its in-flight course change was “hey what if we just made a Chuck Jones cartoon?” repositioned it in my estimation. It’s still a middling to fine movie with bright spots (Eartha Kitt), but it’s also the only time we will ever what the see 90s Disney animation corps makes of a feature-length Looney Tune! I’m glad it exists for that reason.
  • How to Train Your Dragon (2010):

And with that, I will temporarily leave you, because I need to post this already and I watched FIFTEEN MOVIES in February. That trend will not continue, but now I do want to see if I can get through a hundred this year. I will write about the other seven later on, but for now… “get outta here!!” ;D

January Movie Roundup

January Film Roundup is the intellectual property of Leonard Richardson and Nowhere Standard Inc. Any resemblance to actual film roundups living or dead is purely incidental.

A thing I did in 2017 that I’ve never actually recorded here was buy a house in Southeast Portland. More about that some other time. An important thing about this house, to me, is that it’s within walking distance of Movie Madness, the best place to rent movies in the world. Later in 2019 I’m going to leave Portland after eleven years and move to Chicago. More about that also some other time. Until then, I want to take great advantage of my proximity to the little cinder block building that just has… every… movie… in it. These are the ones I watched last month.

  • My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997): Kat’s favorite. I used to watch and basically believe in romantic comedies, a fact which may shed light on some of my permanent emotional scarring. I stopped watching in the early oughts, when the movies stopped being good, but I think I did see almost all of the nineties classics except this one. I liked it but I’m glad I didn’t see it at the time; I would not have appreciated it.

    Having read nothing about its production, here’s my imaginary series of events: Ron Bass sees Mr. Wrong and The Truth About Cats And Dogs in 1996, then writes a combination of the two as a vehicle for Janeane Garofalo or someone Janeane Garofalesque. A studio buyer says “Ron, I love it, but why don’t we see if we can shoot for someone more… Julia Robertsesque.” Then the actual Julia Roberts, tired of being pitched on romantic comedies because it’s 1997, reads it and says “I would enjoy taking my own subversive turn at playing a sociopath,” and what you end up with is this strange world where Dermot Mulroney plays a human tree stump who’s marrying 20-year-old Cameron Diaz yet who has never in his life considered any attraction to Julia Roberts (who is in turn willing to ruin his life to have him).

    I grant you that this is the same disbelief you are asked to suspend when The Truth About Cats And Dogs sets up its false dichotomy, but at least that is predictable Hollywood logic at work. Roberts gets her teeth into this anyway and has a great time, which is fun to watch, and so does Rupert Everett, who you already know is the best part of the movie even if you’ve never seen it.

  • Night of the Living Dead (1968): I think I saw this nineteen or twenty years ago and my recall of it was more accurate than I expected. I like it, but I would not have felt a specific need to rent it except for one thing: I seem to be among few Every Frame a Painting superfans to have discovered that last year’s Criterion reissue has a hidden Every Frame a Painting on the bonus disc.

    To say that Every Frame a Painting meant a great deal to me is to understate. It turns out I am still grieving it, and—as is obvious to the point of pain—grieving the world I thought I was living in when its last video was posted to Youtube in September of 2016. Grief leads me to magical thinking, and so, of late, my brain has tried to conjure the past via whatever ancillary frames I can find. There are at least a couple more essays they produced for Filmstruck, a service which decided to shut down just as this bout of grief made itself known, that I haven’t found yet. But I have found three others (on The Breaking Point, His Girl Friday and Tampopo) in physical format at Movie Madness.

  • A Taxing Woman (1987): I enjoyed Tampopo so goddamn much that my friend Theron recommended I try to track this one down, the movie Juzo Itami made after it with the same leads. Even Theron had only ever seen this on VHS, but Movie Madness had it on DVD, because they have… every… movie. Tampopo is somehow a Western about cooking noodles, so of course this one is a gumshoe tax fraud noir in a world where everyone is constantly trying to cheat on their taxes. The genre twist I liked is that this time the detective character is on the offense: she’s the one who barges into other people’s offices, smelling like trouble. It’s fun just to see Nobuko Miyamoto and Tsutomu Yamazaki stretch their rapport into something wary and oppositional instead of bittersweetly pedagogical.

  • The Bad Sleep Well (1960): Three out of four of this month’s movies are directly derived from Every Frame a Painting, a trend which I expect will continue. This one got its own mini-episode about one scene—actually, about one shot—and I successfully used that to walk myself backwards into watching my first Kurosawa movie in decades. I enjoyed it.

    I used to get bored very quickly by any movie I perceived as “old.” The only way I knew how to interpret film was through plots, which I tended to find either obvious or incomprehensible in the classics, their dialogue, which I found unrelatable, and their set pieces or action scenes, which I mostly found cheesy. Yes, this is callow, but I don’t think it’s uncommon! I could write at length about how standard liberal arts curricula can fail people, but fundamentally, putting complex art in front of someone and declaring that it’s valuable by fiat doesn’t work. I have seen so many movies without knowing how to see them. Modernist artistic complexity is a locked door with treasure behind it, but if the keys you have for the door don’t open it, the fault is not with you.

    Every Frame a Painting showed me doors I didn’t know about, and nudged them open for me. I notice when my eyes are active in the frame now! I can identify different kinds of cuts between shots, and I notice when the camera directs my attention amid complex blocking. I can appreciate it when action and reaction are both in the same shot, or when one shot just set me up for its successor. I haven’t quite managed to catch compositional sectioning in action yet, but at least I know it’s out there to be recognized.

    Each of the previous Kurosawa movies I’d seen (Ran, Throne of Blood, Rashomon, The Hidden Fortress and Seven Samurai) were things I found nebulously cool and even striking, but like Michael Bay, I couldn’t have articulated why. With The Bad Sleep Well, I can tell you this much: I like it because it doesn’t matter whether I speak Japanese or whether I speak cinematic shorthand (or whether I know Hamlet). I like it because it told me a harmonic story with its acting, its writing, its music, its composition, its costuming—in monochrome!—and its editing all at the same time. It uses its bandwidth well in concert, and a broader band means richer media.

    I also liked it because Toshiro Mifune is nebulously cool.

It took me a while to hash that last point out with myself, so now it’s February 5th and I’ve already seen three more movies and rented a fourth. I guess we’ll see how long this keeps going, and also how many choices of movie I can tie back to Every Frame a Painting somehow. Maybe Leonard will forgive this format infringement if I tell him that I am about to finally get around to watching The Man Who Wasn’t There.

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