CategoryKat

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 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.

Insistence, Reverence

It’s possible there are people reading this blog from time to time who don’t really know me in person, so perhaps it will be nice to clarify something. The Kat person who comes up often in my writing these days, or sometimes without writing at all, the reason I moved back across the country, the light of my days, is the very same Kate who first popped up here a month shy of eight years ago. Did I have any idea back then that one day we’d be getting married and spending the rest of our lives together, you may ask rhetorically? And to that I can only say: yes, I did have that idea, in 2012. It was only an idea, but I had it, and then bit by bit and turn by turn the two of us made it steadily more real until it all came true.

If you are reading this, whether I know you or not, I’m glad that you are persisting. I hope, too, that you have the chance to persevere.

Notes from the New Normish

Hi, we’re alive and fine. My privilege is as evident as ever, as my daily routine of isolation with Kat resembles what Maria called “an extended snow day,” mostly but not entirely without snow. I hurt for the sick and grieving; I worry for the essential and vulnerable; I watch Bon Appetit and experiment with vegan baking; I do my internet job and I watch out my window and wait. Here are some things that have held my interest in the last little while.

  1. As mentioned in asides, I read too much about menswear online and off these days. My favorite habit is to bargain-hunt for clothes from Japan on eBay, prance around the living room in them to aggravate Kat, and then secret them away so I can buy more. But the emergent result is that I’ve learned a lot about things I might have disdained ten years ago. I don’t have any special interest in James Bond, for instance, but Matt Spaiser’s blog about the tailoring of the films has taught me a ton about men’s fashion in the last sixty years. His post on how Cary Grant’s suit in North by Northwest (1959) went on to influence Bond’s costuming is a great example of the dry clarity of his writing.
  2. It seems like I’ve never written about Porpentine Charity Heartscape here before, which is strange, as her work has loomed large in my view and admiration for… seven years? Eight? Her work in writing and game design blends the sweet, the filthy, the transgender and transhuman, the pure and the skin-crawlingly cute in a way I find singular in every sense. If that sentence doesn’t hint at some content warnings, then I hope this one does. But that boundary is very much worth braving if you are so emotionally equipped. Her recent story “Dirty Wi-Fi” on Strange Horizons is a good introduction to her prose and perspective.
  3. Despite my limited dabbling in microelectronics, I can’t follow many of the technical specifics in this review of process and call for aid on a final, perfect Super Nintendo emulator. But the SNES was a system that still informs my design and aesthetic sensibilities, twenty-seven years later, and I respect the author’s work very much. The most striking quote to me:

    “I can tell you why this is important to me: it’s my life’s work, and I don’t want to have to say I came this close to finishing without getting the last piece of it right. I’m getting older, and I won’t be around forever. I want this final piece solved.”

    What an extraordinary thing it seems, to me, to know what your life’s work is. I hope one day I do.

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.

“What is the most amazing thing in the universe?”

On Thursday, amid rising feelings of unease, Kat and I traveled to San Francisco for a wedding; by Friday we knew it was a mistake, but there we were. It was good to see her family, not least because we finally got to talk wedding plans in person. But we’d planned to fly back Tuesday night after some time touring the Santa Cruz boardwalk and a movie premiere with friends in SF. Instead, we scrambled out on Monday at lunchtime, just ahead of a shelter-in-place recommendation. We both feel fine, though there’s no way to know what damage we have silently transmitted. We’re trying to limit it, going forward, by ceasing social contact for the next two weeks.

The weekend was, as Sumana says, an inflection point, at least in the perception of much of the country and the information we consume. Anyone at ease made me jumpy, and anyone jumpy made me… also jumpy. On Monday, as we tried to fill up our returning rental car, the pump behind us started gushing gasoline onto the concrete. As I ran inside to tell the clerk to shut it off, I expected the world to shrink its shutter angle and go full shakycam. It didn’t; some people yelled at each other and then they cleaned up the mess. We were all fine, but no one was easy. By April I don’t know how much the pace of change will continue to inflect, or how much this will have already settled as an uneasy new normal. Last Thursday my view of the world was different, and Lemon, it’s not even Wednesday.

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.

December Donesies

  • 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!

One of the most important moments of my life, starring an oblivious child

I said, hey, let's go to the Bean!

We can take some photos for Mom's Christmas card, I said.

It's going to be crammed with tourists, she said!

It is evident that she was correct.

But I took a shot at setting up the tripod anyway.

The Bean is where we first met in person, back in April of 2014.

She knew this was coming, but she didn't quite catch on until I got the box out of my backpack, which I am proud of.

She didn't want a ring, so I offered her a tie, patterned with star jasmine, which I hand-embroidered with the word "yes."

I've never felt this certain and happy.

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