Movie Diary 2023 (2/20-3/1): A Rush of 2020s to the Head

February 20th

  • The Woman King / 2022, dir. Gina Prince-Bythewood

One of the first pieces that Woodward and Bernstein try to get through in All the President’s Men is, on the whole, kind of thin. When Bradlee actually reads it, he tells them, “You haven’t got it,” says, “Not good enough.” The sell, delivered by Jack Warden’s Rosenfeld, initially described the piece to Bradlee as “a good, solid piece of American journalism that the New York Times doesn’t have.” That’s what The Woman King feels like to me. This isn’t Lawrence of Arabia, Spartacus, or even Master and Commander, and if that’s the standard, then no, The Woman King hasn’t “got it.” But that’s not really the standard. The Woman King is a good, solid piece of Hollywood filmmaking…that the MCU hasn’t got. For people who hold films with hand-to-hand combat to a gorier standard, or a standard with better stunts or fight choreography, then The Woman King is not going to be hugely satisfying. Nor, if you are looking for some kind of historically rigorous piece, will this be all that satisfying. (The reaction of “Dahomey was a major slaver and this story is fake” feels like a canard, if we’re perfectly honest. I didn’t know that Braveheart and Gladiator were such scholarly texts in comparison to this picture.) But this is a good, solid piece of Hollywood filmmaking, and for me that’s not damning with faint praise. The PG-13 action blockbuster model right now is an MCU movie, which has a cast of thousands, mediocre CGI, relies heavily on backstory from previous films, and is quippy at the expense of both humor and actual pathos. The Woman King does not require previous knowledge; everyone gets introduced to everyone when they need to be. It has moments of levity but doesn’t use them at the expense of real feeling. The Lashana Lynch character has a weakness for the whiskey that the slavers have introduced to Dahomey, for example, and that’s good for two punchlines. But both of those punchlines feel good when they’re used, and in one case, when that punchline is used in a sadder moment, it adds to the feeling rather than feeling like an excuse for us not to sniffle. The special effects work in The Woman King is good, and most of all, the performances are written and executed well. It is such a pleasure to see a cast, not all of whom are household names, in form together. It’s a great Viola Davis role, one which credits her powerful physical onscreen presence with a physically powerful individual, and which also gives her the traumatic backstory that she can make feel unpracticed. Lynch is a lot of fun, and John Boyega does career-best work; relative movie newcomers like Thuso Mbedu and Sheila Atim are outstanding. This is what it looks like, in other words, when a good director actually gets to direct her own movie without Kevin Feige staring daggers at her.

February 21st

  • The Cathedral / 2021, dir. Ricky D’Ambrose
  • Mini / 1975, dir. Franc Roddam

There’s some Royal Tenenbaums in The Cathedral, at least in the first act. The film relies on a narrator to tell the story, limiting dialogue to a minimum, using static or near-static images to leave impressions. Eventually the film gets tired of this formalist decision and starts to cast its nets more in the direction of other childhood or coming-of-age dramas. The parents get divorced, the dad gets angrier and angrier at the expense of his son, news footage dictates the when of key scenes. I understand that all of this is meant to be, down to the shooting locations, very reminiscent of D’Ambrose’s own life. It may well be that D’Ambrose has some talent as a director that I don’t know about; this is only my first experience with him. All the same, this movie is so unbearably tedious, and that use of news footage, which grows more and more invasive throughout, only makes it more so. I remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, the film says. I remember the bombing of the World Trade Center. I remember the invasion of Iraq. Cool, but who doesn’t? In the film, the narrator says that the family was hesitant to have an only child because when the parents die, the child is left with very little family. A better reason not to have just one child is because they’ll grow up and, with a straight face, include commercials they remember from their childhood as some kind of characterizing moment in their feature films. Wes Anderson builds out The Royal Tenenbaums with basically standard dramatic scenes, and doesn’t exactly remake the wheel when he uses “Ruby Tuesday” or “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” in his soundtrack. But Wes Anderson makes his film deeply original, and far more personal to boot. What’s really more personal, really digs into the filmmaker: ultimately non-specific images of the apartment where someone lived, or Eli Cash’s ill-fated TV interview?

I’m not typically a “What happened to…?” guy in regards to documentaries, but I was curious enough about juvenile serial arsonist Michael “Mini” Cooper to read not one, but two articles about him. The gist of both is that this an unsettled person, one with significant emotional issues stemming back to early childhood, but also a great gift of gab, some tenderness, and a real interest in theater. Two years before this was aired, Equus made its debut at the National Theatre. Mini doesn’t suggest that the problem is that Master Cooper is having a psychosexual communion with his god via fire, but the comparison to Equus still rings true. Like Alan Strang, Mini is victimized by three bodies. The first body: his parents, who did not provide a stable home, brought in an all-too-strict version of religion, and were generally abusive. The second body: psychiatry, which confines him to a small space, isolates him in what might have been fecund social years, and allows him to be pathologized for the entire nation to see. The third body: himself, for he does not have the power yet to stop himself from lighting these fires. One of those articles has a line that says that he went more than two decades without a single incident. It’s one of the saddest lines I’ve ever seen tossed off in a bit of periodical.

February 22nd

  • Both Sides of the Blade / 2022, dir. Claire Denis

The spats, arguments, and fights of Both Sides of the Blade are shot with great anticipation. So often, when Sara is the one speaking, Jean’s face is the one we see. When Jean speaks, we watch Sara’s expression. Denis does two things with this pattern. First, she removes the spectacle of the fight itself, which is an incredibly bold decision. Consider Before Midnight, which I’d bet money to win a straw poll for “most renowned/uncomfortable argument between movie partners” of the past decade. The length of that argument is a major piece of that discomfort. So is Linklater’s choice to frequently include the two belligerents within the shot, as well as enough space in the room to make us feel like we’re there with them, as if a locomotive is calamitying over our heads while we lie prone on the tracks below. (I like to think this scene would hold up almost as well without having wanted these two to be together since the mid-’90s, but that’s doubtless part of the calculus.) Both Sides of the Blade, which cuts between individuals, forces us to hear both sides of this argument by refusing to give us the potential satisfaction of watching one person really snarl at another. Towards the end, Denis makes that choice, and by then it’s inevitable that the two of them must have it out. But it’s the camera work, the editing, the wisdom in those choices which makes Both Sides of the Blade stand out. Denis is not one of those directors obsolescing in front of us; she’s still got it.

February 23rd

  • none

I keep not watching movies on days that were just profoundly weird for me in the past, and I must have been on something in 2019 when I rewatched not one but two movies in a single day. (In fairness, that was the viewing of The Master where I first started coming around on it as not just a great movie, but like…a Great Movie.) It’s been a varied day for me, with a number of movies I’ve really enjoyed. Any Melville is a friend of mine, and for someone who for better or worse was raised on Tarantino, watching Le Doulos was what really solidified my opinion that Tarantino’s best ideas largely came from someone not named “Quentin Tarantino.” Blood on the Moon, my favorite first watch of February 2021, we’ll come back to. Eve’s Bayou has become one of those reclaimed ’90s movies that we’ve all rediscovered first through someone else’s podcast and then through streaming, and I was glad to have been part of that rediscovery process. The ideas are bolder than they are polished, though Debbi Morgan’s performance, for people who are happy to watch a movie for such a great performance, is one I cherish knowing. Without her incredible romantic strangeness, I’m not sure this would be a movie worth all the reclamation.

February 24th

  • Shoulder Arms / 1918, dir. Charlie Chaplin
  • Licorice Pizza / 2021, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

Stanley Kubrick, eat your heart out. Just look at the way Chaplin dollies that camera in and out of the trench! Look at the way he can make fun of a war that was actively killing thousands of Americans, not just hypothetically killing millions! Shoulder Arms suffers a little bit from a tacked-on final stretch where Charlie Chaplin and his goofy pals capture the kaiser and his high command and end the war. It has some funny bits—in one moment while he’s posing as a German driver, one of his POW American friends sees him, tries to shake his hand, and then the two of them promptly start fighting so Chaplin can shut the guy up—but there’s nothing especially personal about it. Any number of silent comedians could have come up with that kind of sequence, amusing as it is. The flooded sleeping quarters in the trenches, which start merely damp and end up absolutely swamped, must have required a special set design. That’s Chaplin. The opening sequence where he makes a mess of his legs during drill. That’s Chaplin. The weaponization of Limburger because they don’t have pies at the front. That’s Chaplin. In a more just world, this would have the reputation and dissemination of The Great Dictator even if, no, it’s not the equal of Paths of Glory or Dr. Strangelove.

So when I saw Licorice Pizza in theaters, I definitely got hung up on the second half of the movie a little more than I usually do. I still love that scene where Alana takes that truck downhill, in neutral, in reverse. I also really like the Benny Safdie subplot in this story, maybe even more than I did the first time out. It’s totally essential to the film, because Alana’s half-assed attempts at maturity flame out when she gets a real taste of what kind of secrets are concealed by serious people. What all this did was not to erase the weirdness of the first half of the movie, but to obfuscate it a little bit. The Soggy Bottom/Fat Bernie’s waterbeds interlude was funny for me the first time, but I was also still feeling out the Alana-Gary relationship. Without that inhibiting me this time, I more fully grokked the tremendous weirdness of Gary getting arrested for murder, a dude getting dragged out by cops who yells THAT’S NOT HIM before getting dragged off again, and then leaving the police station before anyone could change their minds about that piece of bad business. There really is just a guy cosplaying as Herman Munster at a business fair, not long after someone offscreen very pointedly says to Gary that there will be no Sonny there, just Cher. Somehow the slovenly weirdness of Sean Penn’s performance just did not sink in until I saw it twice. Weird movie. Better than I thought the first time around.

February 25th

  • Descendant / 2022, dir. Margaret Brown
  • The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse / 2022, dir. Peter Baynton and Charlie Mackesy
  • The Treasure of the Sierra Madre / 1948, dir. John Huston

I watched The Order of Myths on a lark in December of last year (between viewings of News from Home and Zardoz, if you can believe it), and while Margaret Brown’s technique didn’t thrill me, I was really taken with the clarity of her work and her appreciation for the sociocultural subtleties of Mobile. I don’t know how many documentaries she will make based on her hometown, nor do I know how many documentaries of the quality of The Order of Myths and Descendant that city can support. I hope it’s at least one more. Descendant is, some slightly prosaic asides to pretty scene-setting aside, shot neatly, focusing on the people of Africatown who matter much most. Brown has a hook here, which is that there’s a renewed interest in searching for the Clotilda, generally given as the last slave ship to have come to America, and also given as the source of ancestry for many of the present and past residents of Africatown. But the hook is, as many documentaries have found, a good way to explore around the subject as well as within it. It turns out that Zora Neale Hurston took footage of the last surviving person to be brought from Africa aboard the Clotilda. It also turns out that this is a way to talk about these Black residents of Mobile who live in an area surrounded by industry (some of it owned by Mobile’s mayor), increasingly hemmed in by highways, and not coincidentally subject to health issues and cancers. The most impressive thing that Brown does is to find a way to make the word “story” into a revelation of personal character. People who refer to finding the Clotilda and all that would signify as a story include the guy from National Geographic and the mayor of Mobile. The vast majority of Black people, and some white people with a sense of proportion, call it history.

I got out to see the five animated shorts nominated for that Oscar on the 25th, and this one with the boy and the animals was the only one that met my arbitrary cutoff for length to count towards my diary/count. I don’t even think that this movie was the worst of the five; “An Ostrich Told Me the World Is Fake and I Think I Believe It” wasn’t even good claymation and had stupid pretensions rather than merely stupid ideas. But I’ll say this for “An Ostrich Told Me.” It’s eleven minutes long. The boy and the animals movie was more than three times that length, and the whole thing was literally platitudinous. Imagine a society made of fortune cookie fortunes. Imagine that there was a little papery gulag for the most obsequious and noxious of this unhappy population. Imagine that there was a group in that gulag which was the prime target for getting beaten up every day in the prison yard during exercise because they are too damn earnest and everyone is just annoyed with them. They got those fortune cookie fortunes to be the dialogue in this movie. It’s torture. Around the halfway mark I couldn’t stop laughing. What if they were just trolling me? Did everyone know they were working on this load of crap the whole time, merrily laughing their way to the idiot audience who would eat this terrible stuff up? What if they trolled all the way to an Oscar nomination? I was almost in awe at the end of the picture.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is, on the other hand, one of those marvelously lean movies which is over two hours long but feels half that length because of great editing. There is not a single moment of dead time in this movie, even though so much of the film is spent in transition. Huston eschews flowery establishing shots and spends his effort on filling frames with his sweaty men and their rocky terrain and their individually distinguishable burros. The performances are not merely great, but iconic as well. Give a thought to Bruce Bennett, who is on screen for only a few minutes but singlehandedly restores sanity to a film whose characters had previously been spiraling into madness and fear. And no matter how much laughter there is at the end, it is still an ending as bitter as dandelion greens. Coming soon to a Sub Titles episode near you (because it’ll be in your phone)!

February 26th

  • Taming the Garden / 2021, dir. Salome Jashi

The movie I watched after this was called Burial, though that would have been a more apt title for this picture. The former prime minister of Georgia, who is unseen, makes a habit of collecting attractive trees to bring to his attractive beachside home. We watch trees dug away from their surrounding soil, an enormous exposed world of earth that has not seen daylight for who can say how long. Stripping them to a circle of habitation. If we’re supposed to find out just how far a tree extends, I just can’t believe that we’re supposed to know that because it’s been dragged from its place of residence for hundreds of years to go live in a new grove. There’s a tremendous cruelty, a senselessness underneath these actions which Jashi exposes for us, although she’s hardly the only one to notice. The men digging up the trees look at the job with some stoicism; it’s a job, something that pays the bills. The people whose trees are removed from their towns grieve them, lament them, curse the man who takes them away. And then the tree is borne away on a barge, a beautiful image and an almost entirely unnatural one. It’s a still, very quiet movie, and it’s a traumatic one.

February 27th

  • Burial / 2022, dir. Emilija Skarnulyte
  • Moonage Daydream / 2022, dir. Brett Morgen

I was about as taken with Burial as I was with Taming the Garden, although Skarnulyte is focusing even more on terrific images than Jashi was, even more compelled by nonverbal sound. The film opens with these glowing colored images, driving us down from the visible level to the atomic glow of the uranium. The patterns and shapes that Skarnulyte finds in this flayed nuclear power plant in Lithuania are stunning, and the process she shows of this unbelievably giant building brought low by order of the European Union is boring and wondrous at once. It was part of the deal to bring Lithuania into the EU to take this nuclear power plant out of commission and scrap it; it was Chernobyl’s twin sister. There’s more than one way to eliminate an ex-Soviet power plant, and, Skarnulyte implies, perhaps there will be more of Chernobyl left than Ignalina in the near future. I also like the snake.

On Letterboxd, I wrote that there’s a central irony in Moonage Daydream that the film cannot escape. I’ve been thinking about my offhand claim that David Bowie has the most carefully controlled image of any rock star, and I still haven’t got a counterexample I like more than Bowie, not even Prince or Madonna or Lady Gaga. There have been so many iterations of Bowie, and those reinventions have each been so brilliant. Moonage Daydream does a nice job thinking of Bowie as the actor, the visual artist, the composer of moving images, and it’s one of the rare places I can credit the film. I’ll also credit the movie for hitting a bunch of sweet spots with Bowie’s music. I hadn’t thought about “All the Young Dudes” in a hot minute, I’d just listened to “Life on Mars” via Licorice Pizza, and both brought me equal pleasure to see and hear. I’ll always bop to “Modern Love.” On the other hand…do you have to be a genius to play a bunch of Bowie hits in a Bowie doc? I think I could have forgiven the movie’s weird insistence of Bowie’s minor artistic sainthood cocaine addiction if the images made more sense. Like, there’s this moment in the film where the news says that Bowie has, in the course of seven or eight years, done an absolutely inhuman amount of work. There’s another where Bowie talks about going to Berlin for a kind of reset. Nowhere does anyone mention that cocaine may have played a role in both of those things. Yet this is even forgivable, but why in the name of F.W. Murnau does Brett Morgen think that multiple shots of Nosferatu make sense in this film? Aren’t there tricks with light and color that he could make that a kid who had seen Velvet Goldmine couldn’t make? The choices that Morgen makes throughout this film are absolutely baffling, and over the course of 135 minutes or so, those baffling choices pile on top of themselves like a Tony Montana mountain of coke. Not a good doc. I’d say it’d make a great playlist, but I can do that with YouTube. I could have done it as a middle-schooler and put it on a blank CD, and I could have illustrated that CD just as ugly and pointless as Morgen illustrates Moonage Daydream.

February 28th

  • For Heaven’s Sake / 1926, dir. Sam Taylor
  • Track of the Cat / 1954, dir. William A. Wellman
  • Tár / 2022, dir. Todd Field

Just because it was old when Harold Lloyd cooked it up doesn’t mean it’s not effective. Hope, a beautiful Jobyna Ralston, with long hair like a brunette Mary Pickford even in the high-hatted years of the Jazz Age, has sought out the philanthropy of J. Harold Manners, a fabulously wealthy young man who keeps getting into amusing car wrecks thanks to some cat-shaped packaging on a box of coffee and the requirements of the police in a high-speed pursuit. The press treats it like it’s all his fault, of course, and so Hope writes to J. Harold, who clearly has money to burn, pleading for his intercession to help fund her father’s mission for hard-luck men downtown. It’s ignored by J. Harold’s hard-hearted secretary, but when J. Harold accidentally incinerates the reverend’s coffee stand and writes a giant check to replace it (nothing is funnier than people throwing liquid on top of a fire only to see it turn into a conflagration, always a good joke, I love fire), the mission is named for J. Harold, who storms downtown and gets yelled at by Hope, who of course has never seen him before, for his rudeness. The two of them are introduced to each other not long after, and to the credit of For Heaven’s Sake, no one wastes time pretending that these two aren’t secretly made for each other. Lloyd usually plays smitten with a little bit of eye towards the camera, and while he literally trips over things following this beautiful girl inside, this feels like real puppy love. It’s very sweet. While this kind of cutesy corny romance isn’t nearly as funny as trying to save a trolley line, for Lloyd prefigures that ludicrous last-reel race in Speedy here, I was just so taken with Lloyd and Ralston together, even more than I was in The Freshman.

The Jonathan Rosenbaum Top 100 list, the most notorious and delightful counter to the 1998 AFI Top 100, is a fascinating compilation. List seems wrong for it, really, not in the way that I talk about lists or the Internet generally talk about lists. It’s not ordered any way but alphabetically, and the whole point is not to rank so much as highlight. Rosenbaum was right about movies which have since been canonized in ways going well beyond his own work: Wanda, for example, is a top-50 film in the new Sight and Sound poll. I’ve been working my way through that list slowly and a little randomly, and I’m currently about seventy percent of the way through. I was turned on to Track of the Cat via Rosenbaum, and while I like William A. Wellman and I like Robert Mitchum even more, I don’t know that this would have made my longlist without Rosenbaum. I’m grateful. This is a magnificent film, beautiful in vistas and palette, remaining largely in grayscales with huge swaths of black and white, only occasionally highlighting pink blood in the snow or the unmistakable carmine of Mitchum’s coat. The line on Track of the Cat is “Sirk western,” but it doesn’t strike me as a particularly Sirkian movie; it’s just a ’50s film with family drama. Track of the Cat contains the barely constrained mania of Johnny Guitar instead, the black-and-white-and-red reverse of the yellow and ochre Trucolor of Ray’s own unusual western from the same year. Beulah Bondi is unbelievable in this movie, even for someone who adores her in so many other films. Her favorite swear word is “blasphemous,” a word she tosses at people who act in ways she feels are disrespectful to her more than to God Almighty, who has a swift temper but has also proven some capacity for taking an insult without scorching the earth below. She has the arrogant power of a terrible queen in some stretches, but after the death of one of her children, she sits in grief, even lying in the bed where the coffin has been for some hours. This movie singes, the kind of burn you feel on your fingertips, blistering up just enough that you can’t quite touch anything without shaking it off.

One of my least favorite movies of the 21st Century is In the Bedroom. Mawkish and self-satisfied, unforgivably plotted, it’s scared me off of Todd Field ever since. I dreaded having to see Tár. Double dumbass on me. Tár is exactly what all the critics’ circles said that it was, which is one of the best films of the year. Todd Field has developed something akin to Michael Haneke’s sensibilities, albeit on one of Haneke’s more talkative and more silly days. Tár is a silly movie, with one of the funniest final scenes of the decade so far, and it’s so funny that I don’t want to say what it is in case people haven’t caught up to the movie just yet. The Haneke sensibility is not just in the irony, the cruelty, the sound of a backhand slap resonating through your spine, but in the cinematography. Lengthy takes, distant shots, an interest in what an entire room looks like because that characterizes the people and sets a tone. Tár is Cate Blanchett’s movie as much as it is anyone else’s, even Field’s, but the two key actresses on either side of her are about as good as Europe has right now. Noemie Merlant is so good in this film, someone with this softness in her, an honest-to-goodness conscience in a film where no one else really has a conscience to speak of. Merlant’s perpetual frown, one built into her lips, is fitting for a woman who smiles only wanly and grows more and more troubled throughout the picture. Almost Blanchett’s equal in this film, and a woman who has given some of best performances in film history period in her collaborations with Christian Petzold, is Nina Hoss. Hoss, as Blanchett’s partner who is allowed to trickle further and further to sea as Tár grows more obsessed with the cute new cellist, is the moral rock of the film. Francesca (referred to inevitably as “the girl” by the old men surrounding the maestro) can disapprove, though if she had gotten a promotion it’s difficult to believe that she would push Tár’s cancellation from a distance. Sharon, with that level voice and her cold eyes, cuts her partner to shreds because only she has that capacity. Truth to power is not accomplished through a phone or a video making the rounds on the web, but through knifing promises from wife to wife which we know she intends to keep.

March 1st

  • Widows / 2018, dir. Steve McQueen

This is my third or fourth go-round through Widows now, which means that I’m up to almost one viewing a year since it’s come out. For me this is a borderline insane number of rewatches, and while on previous watches I’ve thought mostly about the cinematography, the crispness of the cut, the commentary on corruption and racial injustice, this time out I found myself thinking about Viola Davis opposite her three female costars: Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, and Cynthia Erivo. (It didn’t occur to me until just now that having watched The Woman King within two weeks of watching Widows probably had something to do with it.) How incredibly classist Veronica is throughout this movie comes out in the brutal way she takes charge over the other women. The reason she insists on leading the heist that she’s rounded Alice and Linda into is not because she is Harry’s widow, and Harry was the leader of the criminal operation, the mastermind behind the plans. The reason she insists that she has to be in charge is because she has money, lives in a nice apartment, has a job with at least a little cachet behind it. Linda, who has run her own small business, gets talked to like she’s a lower-level employee. She gets told to accomplish things and Veronica largely leaves her alone when she’s not berating her. Alice, who has that Clarice Starling white trash stink on her no matter how attractively her hair falls over her shoulders, gets slapped in the face, gets lambasted for “opening her legs” a month after her man’s death in a fiery explosion. Veronica cannot imagine that sex is something that people might pay for, that sex is something people might live on, and so her reaction is violent, disgusted, and careless. Davis gives the slap well, but when Debicki returns it, she takes it just as well. Viola Davis! She’s really good at this!

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