- 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 , 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 ), 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.
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.)
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.
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).
- 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.
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.
It’s Still June Somewhere, Part 1
- The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006): Second 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.” Not quite the technical or emotional haymaker of Your Name. (2016), but why only compare it to the first movie in the 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?” I wish I’d known about this movie a decade ago, when it became clear that the entire genre of Teen Movies had given way to the juggernaut of Young Adult Adaptations—two ways of telling a story with the same target audience but very different ways of getting there. I think this story draws a bridge between those approaches pretty well. The animation style is interesting: I’d bet it made heavy use of rotoscoping, there’s some frame-stretching every time they go to slow-mo, and the lighting on most of the characters is quite flat, all of which are ways to save money in production. But assuming that was a budget decision, I think it was a smart one, because it looks more stylized than cheap.
- A Whisker Away (2020): See this is what I was talking about with “a particular wistful, hazy-gold anime-style aesthetic” back in my review of Your Name. Third 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” but also the one that skews youngest—more a middle grade story than a YA story, if that makes sense. It didn’t get me quite as much as the others, and I had some difficulty tracking the pace of events, but the plot threw me some good curveballs! I wish it had been distributed under a direct translation of its Japanese title, Wanting to Cry, I Pretend to Be a Cat.
- Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2001): Same animation-watching crew, same country of origin, but quite different otherwise. Kat led me through the entirety of Cowboy Bebop: The Series back in the spring, a formative influence on her and on many of my friends which I’d never glanced at before. I liked it very much and I wish I’d watched it sooner, and yes, yes, Lisa et al, you were right to pester me about it. That said, I’m glad I got to watch this outside the context of its original release in September of 2001.
The movie amounts to an extra-long episode of the series with more money involved, and since it came out after the series ended—and was set partway through its chronology—it’s quite episodic. I was glad of the chance to hang out with all the characters again after the series conclusion, but that separation flattened its emotional impact. My least favorite TV trope is when the writers introduce their new OC, demand that we get emotionally involved in their story by having the whole recurring cast just react to them, and then heap pathos on whatever happens to them, from which we learn nothing about the main cast, and after which the guest is never mentioned again. It’s not exactly a Mary Sue—just a boring device that is invariably going to happen when you’re a writers’ room working on an episodic show. (This also happens a lot when you’re playing a tabletop RPG with the kind of DM who’s more interested in telling their own story than hearing yours.)
Anyway, this movie isn’t that, but its place in the canon means it can’t quite avoid touching the trope with one toe. But I had a great time watching it! The fight animation looks great, the backgrounds have a beautiful depth, and I got to hear Kat clap and cackle when Spike says “I love the kind of woman that can kick my ass.”
- To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995): Mmmaybe the first film focused on queer characters that I watched? Much like Paris is Burning (1990)—from which I’d bet it directly lifted its opening scene—it now seems clear that there is a missed opportunity here; RuPaul is the only actual drag queen with a (brief) speaking role. But I was glad to learn from this touching retrospective on how the film got made that its creation included and involved gay people, at least. And because of that I think it holds up pretty well. Mitch Kohn writes “the film itself may not have sparked much if any social change,” and indeed I don’t know about “sparked.” But it’s in part because of this movie that I grew up in small-town Kentucky perceiving drag as something fun and attractive, not menacing. I’m grateful for that, and fond of this.
- Notting Hill (1999): Caroline Siede’s AV Club series on romantic comedies, one per year, has been reliably great and insightful; after reading the linked article about Notting Hill I found myself nostalgic and talked Kat into watching it with me. She had never seen it; I remembered it fondly, but unlike To Wong Foo, the surface sheen is gone for me here.
During my most intense phase of teenage longing for heartache fiction, I was ready to project a lot of subtlety onto work that didn’t actually have much to offer. Even a few years later, I had figured out that ridiculous movies like In Love and War (1996) or Bed of Roses (1996) were not worth the feelings I had assigned to them—though While You Were Sleeping (1995) is still one for the ages. I don’t think WYWS is shot remarkably better than Notting Hill—though it does have a better score—and I don’t think Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts lack for chemistry and charm.
But one of a few things that has happened between my initial viewing of Notting Hill and the present day is that its writer, Richard Curtis, directed Love Actually (2003), which I have been made to watch several times and which I dislike more with each repetition. The similarities in stagy dialogue and artificial stakes are obvious now, and are more than enough to sink this movie for me. Its bravura long take introduced me to Bill Withers, though, once upon a time, and it is one bit that’s still worth watching.
- Shaolin and Wu Tang (1983): Man, it has been a very long time since I wrote about movies! One thing I started doing back in May is subscribing to a series of live-streamed movies through 36 Cinema, which is a spinoff from 36 Chambers, which as you might guess is a Wu-Tang production—specifically, one created by RZA and a startup marketing dude named Mustafa Shaikh. A link to the livestream costs ten bucks, but you’re not just watching the movie, you’re listening to live commentary from a couple of charming experts. For the first few, that was RZA himself, accompanied by Dan Halsted! You probably don’t know who that is, but he has made cameos in movie roundups of days past, because he’s the guy with the huge celluloid collection who programs and presents Kung Fu Movie Night at the Hollywood Theater in Portland.
I found this combination irresistible: two nerds who not only have decades of history with the genre, but have done a lot of work in their respective ways to honor it and introduce it to new audiences. They named appearances by veteran actors and talked about production history; Dan told stories about finding stacks of film reels in disused auditoriums and RZA pointed out different styles of kung fu in action. I learned a lot! Despite that, my full notes on the film read as follows: “this movie rules.”
- Shogun Assassin (1980): Same situation as above, except this time my notes read, in toto, “this movie rules so hard.” It actually comprises the opening of one Lone Wolf And Cub movie and the remainder of another in the same series, but it works really well! (And it was originally distributed by Roger Corman!) Because it’s a samurai movie, of course, not a kung fu movie, there’s lots of standing still while blood fountains out of people rather than intricately matching choreography. I never got into Lone Wolf or any of its various adaptations—I have a hard time with impassive, impenetrable protagonists, inasmuch as Ogami functions as a protagonist at all. But the use of film as a medium—composition, color grading, bold editing, even vignetting—is superb.
Here are some movies I watched in March and April
- March was mostly rewatches, and mostly for comfort. I got to show Kat Fargo (1996) and The Wind Rises (2013) for the first time, and The Matrix (1999) for her first time in decades. They helped. A little. But I don’t have much that is new to say about any of them.
- Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears (2020): This was the one new movie we watched together, after much anticipation and delay—we had actually planned to see it in a theater in San Francisco the day we ended up scrambling out. Kat got me into Miss Fisher fandom years ago, and its gentle episodic nature and mildly puzzling setting have been a balm for many ails. The movie is clearly an indulgence for the cast, crew and fans: it does its job of seeing through some long-burning fuses and putting hundreds and hundreds of dollars of special effects up on the screen. But it is pretty much only an indulgence, I’m afraid! Trying to do Budget Indiana Jones while keeping focus on your white characters does not earn you catharsis in 2020.
- 2046 (2004): That was a lot of numbers in a row. When I heard that the sequel to In the Mood for Love (2000) was a science fiction movie, I was pretty excited, and I do like the way this story connected its genres with blurry lines and ambiguity—it feels like the kind of “slipstream” fiction that I associate with Kelly Link and Jonathan Lethem. But its effects and costumes seem chintzy to me in the futuristic sections, enough so that they’re jarring next to the rich, languid way Wong Kar-Wai dresses everyone and everything in his period drama. The rich, languid camerawork is still in welcome supply, though. And it’s a treat to see Zhang Ziyi doing better work than I’ve seen her allowed to do outside Crouching Tiger.
- Funny Girl (1968): Kat requested some Barbra Streisand musicals via my DVD Dot Com subscription, which made me realize that even though I really liked my mom’s Streisand albums at the peak of my theater-kid arc, I had never actually seen one of her movies. I didn’t even know that “People” or “Don’t Rain on My Parade” were from this. I also didn’t know it was long enough to require an actual, on-screen intermission. I enjoyed the simple, straightforward way the story was rooted in Fanny Brice’s Jewish identity, and it amused me how anachronistic Streisand’s costuming later in the film became, when she’s supposed to be glamming it up in the Jazz Age while wearing Day-Glo Mod dresses.
Your Name. aka Kimi no Na wa (2016): A couple years ago, when lo-fi chill hip-hop beats to relax study to 24/7 were starting to hit their stride, I began noticing a particular wistful, hazy-gold anime-style aesthetic emerge in the cover images my Youtube algorithm thought I should click. I took it for a trend in the zeitgeist from outside my usual sphere of awareness—I haven’t watched much anime, and it would have tied right in with the other strains of millennial nostalgia that have been making people lots of money for a few years now. I don’t think I was wrong on either count. But I do now think most of that visual influence came straight from this movie, which turns out to have beaten Spirited Away (2001) for the Japanese box office record. Its character design seemed very standard to me and its color palette is easy to copy, but the detail and effort in its animation are extraordinary, and a delight to watch.
I actually don’t want to tell you anything more than that, if you could see yourself watching it. I don’t usually care about spoilers, but I knew absolutely nothing about this going in and found myself thrilled with discovery as a result. It’s a story about youth in Japan, it’s bittersweet, and seriously, they took on a number of technical animation challenges and nailed them. Maybe I’m a sap for saying this, but on a first watch, this was instant all-time top ten material.
Here are some movies I watched in February
Movies! Remember them? Sometimes, you’d go into a big room and watch them be huge in the dark.
- Three Days of the Condor (1975): Talking about this movie before I’d finished it, on the phone with Leonard and Sumana, they mentioned it as worth comparing to Mikey and Nicky (1975). That one was a high-profile 70s movie directed by a woman, and this is a high-profile 70s movie directed by a man. They were right: the difference is distinct. I didn’t exactly enjoy Mikey, but it was unflinching. This movie is clever, but its view of human nature is occluded by certain ideas about Men and Heroism, and its camera direction didn’t seem to show much imagination to me. The costuming was really good, though. A lot of fun coats.
Bound (1996): It’s a bit goofy in its atmosphere, but this movie (which I’d never seen before) has so much more visual imagination than almost anything else out there. Even other well-regarded noir! Having viewed The Matrix (1999) through a new (queer) lens also gives me double vision about this one, and not just because a lot of this is clearly practice for that: monochrome wardrobes, overhead pan shots, even some of the exact score cues. It still has the texture of a 90s movie, though, where The Matrix was the first thing I watched that really anticipated the look of the next century. And helped create it, for that matter.
Kat had the insight that if you looked at this film as something created by two men, it must have seemed voyeuristic; knowing that it’s a movie made by two trans lesbian women, its cinematic gaze seems much more like a form of longing.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019): Speaking of longing! And visual imagination! I thought this movie was extraordinary, in part because it hit me right at the level of “my very expensive college education has prepared me to interpret this art,” but mostly because it’s just fucking great. I thought the trailer had betrayed its entire plot and was delighted to learn I was wrong. Céline Sciamma demonstrates great command of a lot of particular things that I’ve learned to appreciate in the last year and change. It’s sparing in its use of music (three instances, all diegetic), and its silent long takes aren’t showy, they’re there to give you and the actor the chance to stay with the moment and register its emotion. It uses voiceover only twice, in a way that makes sense, and sets the expectation for its use early so that when it returns it doesn’t kick you out of your immersion. Even its color grading is deft, including some use of the infamous orange and teal that works because this is a movie about fire and the sea.
Kat and I watched this on a double date with friends Morgan and Hannah, and all four of us chatted excitedly over each other on the ride home, trading things we noticed about its stance on absent men and wavering class divisions and its apparent concept of a (white) feminist utopia. It even has a tacit, subtle comment on what it means for someone’s clothes to have pockets. Portrait isn’t perfect, but it’s going to take a lot for anything else to knock it out of the top slot in my movies of the year.
Here Are Some Movies I Watched In January
- Like A Boss (2020): At a contractual-requirement-fulfilling 83 minutes, this film appears to take place inside a Good Place-style neighborhood, where all events and personas revolve around a critical test of the protagonists’ moral character, which I believe they failed.
Little Women (2019): I have no history at all with the story. This took two acts before it got me, but it got me! I think there’s an interesting comparison to make here against Burning (2018), another adaptation with glorious set dressing and costuming that takes a solid 80 minutes to pick up. I got antsy in the first part of this movie and not in that one, and I think it comes down to the fact that Burning gives you so much time to look at things in quiet, and LW has almost every minute heavily scored. Trust your actors’ faces a little more, composer Alexandre Desplat!
That said, the movie does trust its cast in general to convey time jumps and ages without much assistance from CGI or even makeup. I found that interesting, but I admit it got a lot easier to parse the different periods once Saoirse Ronan got her hair cut. Gerwig, at a director Q&A with Mike Leigh, mentioned that they wanted to make the past a little glowy without going all the way into color-coded grading. And if the choices were teal and orange vs creepy de-aging CGI vs “ah fuck it,” then I will take option three.
I found that Q&A by way of a path that started with Kat sending me this New Yorker article about the costuming in the film, which would, not long after that piece was published, win the movie’s sole Oscar. Learning that Gerwig is a huge Mike Leigh fan puts a pretty interesting lens on both Lady Bird (2017) and Frances Ha (2012).
- Carol (2015): I’m going to write steampunk fanfic about this movie. I loved that it put its characters through hard things without sadism, and though the color and grain were pretty consciously presentational at times, finding out afterward about their roots in Saul Leiter’s photography made me feel very fond of it. I don’t know if Sofia Coppola was influenced by Leiter’s work for Lost in Translation (2003), my second-most-problematic fave, but they evoke the same feelings in me.
- High School Musical 2 (2007): I’m told this is the best one.
- Special mention: The Good Place (2016-2020): Hey Leonard and Sumana, do you want to have another phone call about this? I am very interested to discuss how your season-two predictions shook out.
- Fantasia (1940): Rewatch with chemical enhancement, but instead of having some sort of transcendent trip, I ended up really focusing and finding wonder in the interstitial animations. I knew the Nine Old Men (despite the obstacle of the sexism embedded in that nickname) did untouchable work on the fantasy sequences, but I can basically understand how you model, storyboard, keyframe and tween those drawings. I have no idea how they created a character out of a sound wave and drew it, with the technology available to them in the late 1930s. Maybe they rotoscoped an oscilloscope? Did they even have oscilloscopes in 1938?! I’m writing this on an airplane, so I can’t look it up now, and therefore will never know!
- High School Musical (2006): The second film in the Zac Efron Basketball Typecasting Saga. Kat, one of its proponents, could not explain to my satisfaction why—in a movie about hesitating to sing or disagreeing with an individual’s choice to sing—all humans expressed their emotions and plans by singing. There’s a heightened reality to teen movies as a genre, and there’s a heightened reality to musicals, and when they overlap… hmm, as I type this I remember that Kat also loves Josie and the Pussycats (2001), School of Rock (2003), Reefer Madness (2005), and the song and dance sequence in Love, Simon (2018). The puzzle begins to piece itself together…………
- Blindspotting (2018): Now, see, this I was not expecting to be a musical. But I think it is! Specifically, a clipping. musical. From the trailer and reviews, I thought I was in for a street-level psychological thriller about the personal effects of police violence; that’s in here, but it’s also a meditation about masculinity—both fragile and loving—and race and community and women’s ambitions and the aftermath of incarceration and a deep love mixed with sorrow for a gentrifying Oakland. And when its principals’ feelings build up too much, they burst out into rap, which sounds like Hamilton but is not at all like Hamilton, despite starring Daveed Diggs. Hip-hop contains multitudes, and the songs here are not excursions into heightened reality: they’re reflections of how the constraints of men’s roles and their role models carve narrow channels through which they can express things to each other. This wasn’t always an easy movie to watch, but I loved it.
- Candyman (1992): It’s been years since I read the stunning Chicago Reader story that unpacked the origins of this movie, and now I live here, in the birthplace of the Chicago Reader! So I was glad Kat’s roommate Lauren let me join their movie night and watch this. I enjoyed it and also did not think it lived up to its origin. Virginia Madsen and Tony Todd give it their all, though. Interesting trivia: this movie features prominent 90s singer-actor Vanessa Williams, who is not prominent 90s singer-actor Vanessa Williams.
- War Walk: The Star of Sky Riser (2019): You can say this shit, JJ, but you sure can’t write it. I tried to go into this with low expectations, and that might have worked if this hadn’t chosen the working title of Takesy-Backsies: The Motion Picture. There is evidence in this very blog of my strident defense of the quite-bad prequels, but this is the one that broke me. I was a Star Wars fan for twenty-five years. I guess now I’m free!
Do The Right Thing (1989): I started this movie, then watched the above movie, then finished this one; I’m deciding to count this one as “last” so I get to be glad I didn’t end the year on a disappointed note. I’d never seen a Spike Lee joint before! I am aware of criticism of his treatment of women on screen, and it wasn’t hard to see the evidence here: this is a story that ends up saying as much about the hazards of masculinity as it does about race, and I don’t know if that was intentional. But it’s richly photographed and full of great performances. I didn’t know it was Rosie Perez’s first movie! Her work in the opening sequence alone—set to “Fight the Power,” which I also didn’t know was written for this movie—is something that could have fed a full story. But she didn’t get even a slight story of her own here.
After we finished it, Kat pulled up Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” and said “see?!” She was right to recognize it as an influence, and I wonder if it might have been used as a temp track. But the score of the movie (composed by Lee’s father!) is one of its best and strongest choices, lending an old-fashioned expansive feel to a story that takes place in one block on one day.
So the end count for 2019 was something in the hundred and teens; discounting rewatches, I hit exactly 101, which seems appropriate. I don’t think I’ll watch as many movies this year, in part because I want to replace that time with reading a freaking book or two. But I do plan to keep writing little things about the ones I watch, here or on my Letterboxd account. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you… at the mailbox where I get Netflix DVDs mailed to me now because I gave up on their streaming offerings entirely!
- Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007): This was fine! I laughed most at the running drug gag. Casting Tim Meadows is always going to endear your movie to me, as recently evidenced by Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016), that other music biopic spoof that had way more attention paid to its songs than its composition or editing. I think maybe there’s a sense that when people make a movie along these lines, they feel they have something to prove with the soundtrack but not about the form of the film itself? Or maybe they just realize that people are more likely to get up and walk out during a mediocre song than they are during an indifferent sequence of identically lit shots.
- Parasite (2019): Hbbgngbghghnnhhhhh. Beautiful and intense. I was less scared to watch this (emotionally) than I was of the two Jordan Peele movies I saw this year, and I think I was wrong.
- Charlie’s Angels (2019): The thing about the Fast and Furious movies, which are accreting their own genre as such things do, is that their original unsteady weaving across tone and essence for four films wasn’t a bug, it was a feature. You can’t redeem the ludicrous if you don’t have something to redeem. I can’t blame Elizabeth Banks for wanting to make a Fast and Furious movie, because making a Fast and Furious movie looks fun as hell! And making women the stars rather than the costars is an improvement the FF series would be well served to try out. But even though Kristen Stewart tries her best, this movie doesn’t sell its own stakes, doesn’t engage with its own queer potential, and doesn’t make any sense. It’s hard to win me over without doing at least one.
- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000): Rewatch, for about the forty-first time, because Kat had never seen it. I’d never quite realized what she pointed out afterward: the Young Woman Adventurer genre of late-twentieth-century YA lit, with its cool swords and self-actualization, is what primed me to fall so hard for this movie in the first place. It falls right into place with Tamora Pierce, Robin McKinley, and Cynthia Voigt.
- That Thing You Do! (1996): When I confessed that I was watching this for the first time, the entire population of Peach yelled my name followed by several exclamation marks, in unison. I liked it very much, but I can’t possibly offer a better review than my friend Elisabeth did nine years ago.
- 17 Again (2009): The first of two movies I watched in the span of two weeks in which Zac Efron, at a solid three inches shorter than me, plays a high school basketball star. Considering that there is a concrete number in the title of this film, it really can’t seem to handle the arithmetic of its own plot. Even the film’s own Wikipedia entry can’t consistently decide if Matthew Perry is supposed to be 35 or 37!
Knives Out (2019): Well obviously this was going to be my movie of the year. I’ve been on the RJ train for a few stops now. The thread I’m starting to see through most of Johnson’s movies is a desire to challenge his audience within the bounds of genre, because he likes surprises and he likes genre. Given the opportunity, he’ll subvert your expectations about plot rather than transgressing or calling out the bounds of the category; he challenges himself to offer perspective on the rules of the story without breaking them. “No deconstruction” is maybe his core constraint. Knives Out, even though it switches genres each time there’s an act break, is still very much an Agatha Christie-style mystery made by someone who loves Agatha Christie and wants to do right by her memory.
The other thing Johnson has to do every time is include one thing just to fuck with me. Here I am in an April flashback, grumbling tipsily into my telephone…
… about exactly the accent Daniel Craig sports for the entirety of this film. The thing is, I know Daniel Craig can do a believable American regional accent, because his West Virginia twang in Logan Lucky (2017) was solid! That makes the grievous offense of Benoit Blanc even more baffling.
I have only one operating theory about what led to this dialectic horror, and it’s not a strong one, but I like it anyway. If Blanc has a manner of speaking that… mostly… equates to a Louisiana drawl, and has a French name, it hints that his ancestors were Acadian: descendants of European colonists and indigenous people who were deported from their homes in a cruel forced migration, but into the United States, rather than out. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that this would draw a subtle line between Craig’s Blanc and Ana de Armas’s Marta Cabrera.
No Retreat, No Surrender (1986): An awful movie and the centerpiece of one of my favorite nights this year. I’ve had a fondness for Mystery Science Theater 3000 since I first became aware of it, back in the Comedy Channel days, but I was never a dedicated fan until late 2018. That’s when I started relying on marijuana and puppet wisecracks to deal with the loneliness and insomnia that came with the fourth year of my long-distance relationship.
There is a younger version of Brendan—one to whom this very blog regrettably attests—who would have some choice words for a self who turned to substances for emotional problems. Present Brendan has more than a few choice words for that guy in return. But there’s no need to start 2020 by airing our dirty laundry. The point is, I had a temporary problem with making the time when I felt down pass in a more pleasant way, and I am glad the law and some remarkably cheerful sales experts allowed me to solve it. It worked! And now I live in Chicago and I get to sleep safe-and-soundly next to my fiancée every night.
The hitch was that my very first experience with THC, years ago, had put me off it for most of the intervening period, because it made time pass much more slowly. I had never experienced chemically induced time dilation—except anesthesia, I guess—and even now that I’m more seasoned it can still wig me out.
And then I discovered the solution to my solution’s problem: the steady schedule of the Satellite of Love is the gentlest way to reassure oneself that time continues to pass, at both the hourly and the yearly scale. I watched a lot of MST3K while hovering gently above my couch, and it helped relieve my brain of the duty of relitigating the 2016 election when I woke up to pee at 3 am. It doesn’t hurt that I can now relate to the idea of making bots as an isolation coping mechanism.
All of which is to say that I count myself a devoted if not expert fan of the series these days and it was a happy coincidence that their live show came through Milwaukee the week after I arrived in Chicago.
It was pretty perfect. The only TV diasporant aboard was Joel, and this was purportedly his last live tour, but there was some good video action from Mary Jo Pehl and Rebecca Hanson, and I liked the rest of the cast very much. There were welcome surprises in the fictional basis of the show, too, like (spoilers!) GPC succeeding Gypsy so nobody has to say a word that hurts people anymore, and the hint that Emily Marsh (as Emily Crenshaw) might succeed Jonah Ray as host.
If I counted all the episodes of MST3K as “movies” in my list this year, it would be a lot longer, but also inaccurate because I invariably drift off before it ends. But this one got my full attention—and sobriety, as I had to drive to Milwaukee and back that night—and I was rewarded for it. It’s a different, effervescent, and engaging experience to be present in the room where it happens. I say that like I’m surprised about it even though I got a degree in live theater.
All right, sorry for being a pothead who talks about his cult basic cable entertainment for like eight paragraphs. One thing that dovetails with this entry is that I’ve noticed my favorite jokes in MST3K aren’t of the “insert a line” or “compare unexpected reference” variety—they’re the wry or exasperated bits pointing out fundamental filmmaking mistakes. Bonus points if Crow name-checks Roger Corman in a way that almost sounds fond.
Okay! It’s 2020 now and the world is frightening but it’s not allowed to go anywhere until I finish writing up my December post! Tune in very soon to find out the truth: did Brendan complete his goal of watching a hundred movies this year? A sentence in your near future will reveal the answer! Yes! Was that extra emphasis or a spoiler? Tune in very soon to find out the truth: wait I already said that!
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.