Category: Movies

“A lot of (now-forgotten) mainstream plays and novels were as experimental in shifting point-of-view and juggling time frames as any we find today. For example, we celebrate backwards stories as typical of the demands of modern storytelling. The play and film Betrayal and the films Memento and Shimmer Lake are among many recent media products presenting the scenes in 3-2-1 order. But this possibility was discussed by a prominent critic in 1914, and soon a major woman actor wrote a play that used reverse chronology.

Some will argue that innovations of popular narrative are dumbed-down borrowings from modernist or avant-garde trends. I try to show this process as a two-way dynamic: modernism borrowing from popular forms, mainstream storytellers making modernist techniques more accessible. But we also find that popular storytelling has its own intrinsic sources of innovation, as with the reverse-chronology tale.”

“For some years I’ve been arguing that the martial arts cinema of East Asia constitutes as distinctive a contribution to film artistry as did more widely recognized ‘schools and movements’ of European cinema like Soviet Montage and Italian Neorealism.”

I used to read the AV Club every day and now I don’t read it at all and it’s probably not hard to gather why

But Caroline Siede’s retrospective analysis of romantic comedy as a film genre just wrapped up, after a hundred reviews, and I think they are all worth reading if you can manage three quarters of your browser being occluded by ads. Even when I have drawn different conclusions from Siede I have found her work exemplary, and have in fact used her work as an example when thinking about how to structure longer writing about movies. I can recommend in particular her highlighting of gems like Saving Face (2004), The Big Sick (2017), Brown Sugar (2002), and of course, the movie that guaranteed I would one day fall for a Chicago brunette.

“This, to me, is the definition of a desert island film: a foundational text, a perennial source of comfort, a go-to reference that lives, in the parlance of today’s youth and the adults who want to be like them, rent-free in one’s brain.”

Let’s see how many movies I watched in the last four (!) (wtf) months I can give one-sentence reviews before I get tired and stop typing. Asterisk means it was a rewatch

  • The Sword of Doom (1966) Starring NFD favorite Tatsuya Nakadai—who I actually haven’t named here, how have I not done that?! he’s awesome—as an extremely dead-eyed murder samurai, this movie has homophobia and a sexual assault in it, but all the other parts of it rule hard as hell.
  • Hackers (1995)*: On its 25th anniversary with live cast commentary!!!
  • Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)*: Everybody wants to make magical-kid movies like Miyazaki, nobody wants to make meandering unmarketable gentle conflict-free movies like Miyazaki.
  • The Sweatbox (2002): I hope you made time to watch this after I linked to it back in September, because it got taken down again, but I will link it if it pops back up, because it is a fucking fascinating portrait of years-long, slow-motion institutional failure.
  • Shaolin vs. Lama (1983)*: I don’t know if I noticed the first time (when I saw it at the Hollywood Theater) that Crouching Tiger (2000) referenced this movie’s “stealing the secret book” sequence very directly for its opening set piece.
  • A Silent Voice (2016): Bittersweet anime with bittersweet anime club about bullying a deaf person and the consequences thereof; spent all its budget on beautiful sign-language animation and not enough on bringing actual deaf people into the creative process.
  • Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner ( 2001): This movie deserves more than one sentence!
  • Kwaidan (1954): Japanese folk-tale horror anthology with artificial-but-gorgeous sets and matte paintings, which I wish I’d actually written about in October, because it’s perfect for a spooky mood!
  • Jennifer’s Body (2009): Karyn Kusama seems to have a gift for getting a fantastic central performance from an actress (Michelle Rodriguez in Girlfight [2000], Megan Fox here), but I think the technical fundaments–sound mixing, shot composition, editing and story structure–hold up less well.
  • The Princess Switch: Switched Again (2020): The Netflix Christmasatic Universe posits a Europe with 43 tiny English-speaking-but-somehow-Catholic absolute monarchies and zero security personnel of any kind.
  • Happiest Season (2020): There’s this meme image where Superman is exerting tremendous energy to stop a train from running over a child, and in this case the child is me, and Aubrey Plaza is Superman, and the train wreck is this napkin sketch of a movie.
  • Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999): I didn’t know if I’d like this because I didn’t like the only other Jim Jarmusch movie I have seen (Only Lovers Left Alive [2013]), but, however, it rules hard as hell.
  • Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey (2020): So many animators, musicians,
    artists, performers and designers worked so hard on… this… attempt to lionize a Victor von Frankenstein figure (???), which displays zero trust in its audience, its own conceits, or its animators, musicians, artists, performers and designers.

  • What’s Your Number? (2011): It’s a three out of ten.
  • First Cow (2019): A beautiful movie about love and foreboding in which, I can promise you, no violence happens on screen, including to any animals, and especially to the cow.

Here are some movies we watched in August

There was a span of about six hours after I posted my most recent entry where I used “former” in place of “latter” before I realized and edited it, and I’m still bothered about it. If you thought I was saying something weirder than usual last time, let’s just assume that was why.

  • The Man from Hong Kong (1975): Streamed via 36 Cinema with live commentary from returning champion Dan Halsted and this movie’s director, Brian Trenchard-Smith, who was considerably the more verbose of the two. Sammo Hung did the fight coordination (and appears as a character getting the crap kicked out of him by police) for this movie, its lead was a veteran Hong Kong superstar, and Trenchard-Smith clearly did his homework studying the Shaw Brothers canon. The fundamentals are all there: locked-down camera, wide angle to let the audience read the fights, respect for screen direction and the 180-degree rule, long shots with a tacit rhythm of impact, serious and committed stunt performances… but it doesn’t work. I can’t quite say why! Maybe because we’re not given much motivation for the action, and because the “hero” never pets a figurative dog. Or maybe there’s just an emergent magic in the mechanics of a good martial arts movie that is easier to notice when it’s missing than to parse out when it whisks you along.

    It is interesting that this Australian production from 45 years ago gave the Chinese star in a majority-white cast the kind of violent and sexual agency usually reserved for white characters like James Bond. But I don’t like most James Bond movies either.

  • My Lucky Stars (1985): This was another 36 Cinema stream, and it was even more disappointing! I was pretty excited that this one had not only Sammo Hung but Jackie Frickin Chan, and that it featured commentator Scott Adkins, a stuntman turned filmmaker who action nerds love to nerd out about for sparking a direct-to-video action movie renaissance. Adkins clearly does know his stuff, and I liked the details of stunt work he pointed out; his fellow commentator Frank Djeng filled in a lot of cultural context for the movie, its origins, and its place in the stars’ careers, which was a good balance.

    Unfortunately, the movie sucks, with all the stunts (and the entirety of Chan’s role) confined the intro and ending, while it spends the long middle section on broad comedy that features a lot of groping. Also, Adkins dropped an r-word joke which took my opinion of him right through the floor, and moderator Mustafa Shaikh failed to address it. Djeng was the only one who came off well.

  • The Holiday (2006): A feature film in which noted actor Jack Black portrays the human manifestation of someone typing the word “*smile*” into an email.
  • If Beale Street Could Talk (2018): I love James Baldwin, and I love Barry Jenkins, and it still took me two years to work up the courage to watch this.

  • Moonlight (2016) and Medicine for Melancholy (2008), for all that they put me through many feelings, seemed to me to feel gently toward the viewer. The dreamlike colors and structures and the occasional ellipsis offered me just enough aesthetic distance to take in the sweetness of their stories along with the pain. If Beale Street Could Talk is if anything more elliptic, more dreamlike, but I couldn’t find any emotional distance from its story at all! Jenkins situates some of the crueler events from the book (which include multiple sexual assaults and a suicide) behind verbal and facial implication, which I think earned him criticism because others read that as excising them. But the choice didn’t make them land any softer on me. This movie made me feel like pine under a chisel.

    And still, there’s nothing harsh about it. Jenkins makes beautiful people look halfway deific, and the skill with color, saturation and tone that you’d expect from him is all here. All the physical violence is kept offscreen–though there is one particular moment of violence deferred, when frustration leads Stephan James to smash a pack of hamburger against an alley wall, that feels like you could derive a full semester’s worth of film theory from it. The score by Nicholas Britell is tender, and has some of my favorite horns I’ve ever heard. It’s prominent, which I don’t always like, but in this case it’s almost used as a reassurance. Every time the narrative covers some cruelty and then jumps in time to a softer moment, the rising main melody is there to pick you up with it.

    My theater professor Tony used to talk about the temperatures of different media, in terms of the emotional intensity they readily evoke in an audience; a novel is a cool medium, television and film are warmer (and—he liked to say—live performance is the hottest of all). This is one of the Baldwin books I haven’t read yet, and he has a great sense of play in his language even when he’s driving things home, which you can hear in the lines excerpted as Kiki Layne’s voiceover narration. All of that is to say I don’t know if reading the original work is as hard-hammering, or hammers in the same way. I think it’s possible that Jenkins got this story boarded, took its temperature, and then worked on dialing it down a few degrees—implicating, reassuring, limning with gold. But in 2020, with the world on fire, it seared me anyway.

  • Weathering with You (2019): Whiiiiich brings us to this movie about youth, pain, and climate change. It is also fifth in a series of “bittersweet, moving anime movies about adolescent feelings as crystallized through a speculative fiction device which I watched with Kat and her friends Courtney and Kailey, which activity has delivered some of my favorite moments in the last few months.” Sort of a sequel to Your Name. (2016), in the same way that 2046 (2004) is considered a sequel to In the Mood for Love (2000), in that I-get-it-but-my-personal-canon-reserves-final-judgment.

    Your Name was striking for how well-balanced and commingled its bittersweetness was: both sides of that emotion arose from the same events. This movie has a bitter plot, and a sweet plot, and they are entwined, but that is different. There’s an anger running through it, as in “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” that demands its own space. I took Your Name. right on the chin, but this one goes for the gut.

    Quality animation takes so much time and labor that when I think about cartoons that enact their story beats in the first way that comes to mind—or the second, or third—I don’t get it. When the rate of production is measured in days per second, not books per year, why would a writer take shortcuts? Why resort to cliche—a term that now makes me envision a pre-set line of type—when people are going to take your plan and turn it into calligraphy? One of the tendencies of Makoto Shinkai’s work that I respect most, so far, is that he likes to set you up for a plot point, and deliver it—but take a fourth route to get there, or skip right by it to the consequence and let you fill in the missing frames. It demonstrates trust in the audience without resorting to the oblique or cryptic.

    I know (now) that Shinkai has been compared to Hayao Miyazaki, and has demurred about it, because he writes and directs popular animated features about young people with environmental messaging. That is a pretty small demographic to belong to, but their movies don’t look or sound very similar at all: they’re as different as they are alike on the surface. The directorial trait where they overlap most, to me, is that neither lingers on the downbeat of resolution that has already landed. They know how much each frame of the work costs, and when they need to stay with an emotion long enough for it to register, they tend to cut it close. They don’t seem to feel they have the luxury of grinding out their points; they just aim to pierce you.

  • A Goofy Movie (1995): I think Pocahontas (1995)—oh boy, speaking of cartoon scripts that resort to the trite—was the last Disney animated movie I saw in a theater until Frozen (2013). I never watched A Goofy Movie, because I never watched the Goof Troop TV series, and because of that in turn I didn’t remember that it actually came out two months before Pocahontas. This is a silly but sweet story about fathers and sons learning to listen to each other and express their love aloud, and that much holds up a lot better than…. you know, romanticized colonial violence. (Whether Max and Goofy are better read as Black characters or as minstrels is a debate I don’t think I can meaningfully contribute to.)

  • I was surprised that the studio was able to put out two theatrical animated features in the same year at all, though, on top of their direct-to-video schedule. It turns out this one was kind of an experiment—while the main Disney studio in Burbank was focused on Pocahontas, they put a crew of a dozen Burbank storyboard and key animators on this one, and outsourced the rest of the work to subsidiary studios in Paris, Sydney and Toronto. Pocahontas, which I think stands up much better visually, had a $55 million budget; A Goofy Movie was made for $36 million, which it just barely recouped in box office. International exchange rates, cheap voice actors, and ten minutes’ difference in runtime can account for some of that budget gap, but the rest of it makes for a very visible absence. One scene here will have stylized water animation, another will have character shading, but neither gets both. Remote work was a lot harder in 1994! The final product is a pretty valiant paste job, but it doesn’t cover the seams. As Shinkai and Miyazaki would likely point out, the cost-per-frame of solid technical animation seems resistant to compression, which reinforces my previously stated admiration for lower-budget work like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006).

    I wonder how many times Disney tried this kind of outsourcing model for theatrical features between the late 90s and their return to form for The Princess and the Frog (2009). That line of thinking made me poke around again in the interest of digging up buried documentary The Sweatbox (2002), and just as of July, it seems to have reappeared on youtube! I’ll see if I can review that before it gets taken down again.

It’s Still June Somewhere, Part Deux

  • A Secret Love (2020): An intimate family documentary about the challenges of aging and care for aging people, packaged in a story about a romance between two women that spanned much of the twentieth century, and the baseball history best known from A League of Their Own (1992). I found it beautiful and affecting, and it hit very close to home. I would have said that this was the best Netflix original I’d seen yet, but of course it’s not a Netflix original! It’s a Blumhouse production with Netflix distribution. So instead I’ll say that the promotion of small, cheap indie films like this is the best case Netflix makes, to me personally, for its own value in a post-streaming-fragmentation world.
  • Modern Times (1936): I haven’t studied Charlie Chaplin; this might be the first of his films I’ve ever seen, and for sure the first of his features. The set design and prop work hold up really well four-score-and-four years later! And it’s interesting to see this as a last gasp for silent films—it was both the final Tramp movie and the first one where he has a voice. I can see why the Tramp series was so popular, but I’m not especially driven to watch more of them, in part because…
  • Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928): … of this movie, which I’m juxtaposing with the previous entry even though we watched that in May and this in July. This was the first Buster Keaton feature I’ve seen, and it too came at the end of an era, as the last movie he got to make with his own team and creative control. Functionally it has a number of similarities to Modern Times: hapless man does his best to deal with circumstances of industrialization while pursuing romance with a spirited young woman; set pieces and physical comedy ensue. Keaton’s mournful deadpan is itself a clear contrast to Chaplin’s mugging, and is more in my preferred flavor of comedy. But I think the reasons I preferred this movie go beyond that (and also beyond certain formative influences).
  • The Tramp is a figure of audience empathy contending with superiors and forces beyond his control, but because he’s a clown persona, he’s also the butt of the joke. He dodges both the crackdown of the factory boss and the backlash of the union, and once he’s thrown in prison, he’s happy to indulge in contraband and latch onto the privilege granted by turning snitch. He can be a trickster figure, poking authority in the eye, but it rarely comes across to me as getting one back for the underclass: the motivation is that the eye-poke is a reliable gag for clowns.

    Keaton’s eponymous Bill Junior is sympathetic, but he plays that sympathy against his own privilege—he’s been spoiled, he’s a dandy, he’s ineffectual and he can’t seem to stand up for himself until… well, you know. He’s a kicked dog, but one who’s only just been dislodged from the lap. So when he makes his character the butt of the joke, it comes across to me as punching up. When Chaplin—who, by 1936, was an international icon at his peak, granted ready audience with world leaders—draws a greasepaint grin on the face of the Great Depression, it seems to me like punching down.

    I mean, obviously the people actually living through the Depression did not agree with me here; Modern Times was a hit and Steamboat Bill, Jr. was such a flop that it cost Keaton his artistic autonomy. I think both are worth watching. The latter is in the public domain and not terribly long. If you don’t already know about it, please indulge me: during the final act, try to figure out how they pulled off its special effects before you check Wikipedia. I couldn’t! It is rare that I get to feel that kind of sustained astonishment. This wasn’t just pre-CGI, this was two decades before the invention of the transistor. Buster Keaton was a goddamn magician.

  • Moonstruck (1987): This movie has an opera performance at its center, and I don’t think that is just because it’s about Italian people. It functions like a romantic comedy, but there aren’t many outright jokes, and the cast plays it various degrees of straight. The exception is Nicolas Cage, whose performance is high Nicolas Cage with extra Nicolas Cage on top. My hypothesis: this movie was not written as a romantic comedy; it is itself a light opera. Cage is the one who saw that and decided to just fucking go for it. It’s fun!
  • Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010): Rewatch, of course. A decade has been pretty kind to this movie! There is a random unprompted r-word (from Kim Pine, of all characters) right before the first party scene, which jarred me, and which I am glad to report did not reappear in the recent and delightful benefit table read. I am less glad to report that neither did my favorite throwaway bit maybe ever.
  • Furie (2019): This was another 36 Cinema livestream, with commentary from Lady Sensei (founder of the Women’s Martial Arts Network) and Warrington Hudlin, a longtime film professional now working at the Museum of the Moving Image. They’re both a bit older than the commentators from previous showings, and in a very charming way, both clearly got caught up watching the movie and forgot to talk about it for long stretches. That’s understandable! It’s a gripping movie! It looks like it should have cost about ten times its actual budget, and its producer-star Veronica Ngo is magnetic and makes the hits feel very legitimate. In writing this, I learned that she subsequently appeared in The Old Guard (2020), which increments my interest in seeing that too.
  • Palm Springs (2020): Emotionally intelligent and fun! If you’d like to see it and are one of the four remaining inhabitants of Earth who do not have my Hulu password, let me know.
  • Hamilton (2020): I know I’m linking to a lot of videos in this post, but I do think this talk between Daveed Diggs and Anthony Mackie is worth watching as a complement to this adaptation. Diggs is quite clear that the frame of reference for, as he says, “centering brown people at the birth of our economy” is very different now than it was in 2015, even if the underlying nature of our world is not so different at all. One quote that I’m still thinking about:

    “Every piece of art is viewed through the lens of the time that you are looking at it in. … There is such a hopefulness in [Hamilton] that, in this particular moment, reads even more–maybe revolutionary, or maybe fictional.”

    “I don’t think it’s wrong in any era, it’s just that the lens keeps changing. You hope that you are part of something that can continue to be in conversation with the era that it’s viewed in. That’s how timeless things work.”

    The lens of the present moment is of course a moving river, but I think Diggs’s concept there is a lens that bears repeated use. Sometimes you watch a movie from 2010 that has a slur in it, and it hurts to hear, but the principles behind the work can still stand up: an argument with flaws on the surface. Sometimes you watch a movie from last year where the language is fine but the takeaway isn’t: an argument with flaws at its core. With consciousness of my privilege, I am much more willing to hear out the former, in most conversations.

    Diggs also throws in an aside about how, despite his increasing celebrity, he has tried to maintain a normal profile in his day to day life: “people don’t expect you to be walking to the store, so I walk to the store, and nobody really bothers me.” Four and a half years ago, waiting outside the stage doors with Sumana and Kat and Rachel and Claire and Julia and a lot of euphoria, Diggs was the one cast member who popped out to kindly give my playbill an autograph. That kind of continued and thoughtful integrity is something I admire very much.

    All that said, the work of adaptation here is very skillful. Agile camera work, dynamic shot length, and an intimate knowledge of what angle to use when, as you might expect from Tommy Kail. He also directed the Fosse/Verdon miniseries, which I haven’t seen, but it seems clear that his practice making that (and Grease Live! (2016)) made for an adept transition from theatrical to film direction. IMDB tells me that he worked on the former with editor Jonah Moran, who then edited Hamilton, and the result of that collaboration is excellent. They combined multiple live performances, some with an audience and some without, into a seamless whole with solid continuity that knows just when to include laughter or applause and when to sit with silence.