Movie Diary 2023 (3/2-3/6): Benediction

March 2nd

  • Ala Kachuu – Take and Run / 2020, dir. Maria Brendle

“Truly,” Sherif Ali says to Lawrence, “for some men nothing is written unless they write it.” It’s one of the most profound, haunting, and countermanded lines in cinematic history, and in a film which does not include any female characters, it’s noteworthy that the line refers only to “men.” Ala Kachuu adds “and women” to that line, for Sezim is like Lawrence in that she simply refuses to cave to the situation she sees in front of her. The victim of a bride kidnapping (of which, we find out, she was not even the intended target), Sezim is taken from her job in Bishkek to some more rural part of the country, where she is browbeaten into marrying a local man, Dayrbek. Dayrbek is not exactly comfortable with the situation himself; like many of the other people in this film, the most profound fear in his life is the fear that he will bring some kind of shame on himself by failing to live up to the expectations of his family. Not to like, shift blame away from the men in this story, but Brendle notes that it is primarily women who try the hardest to get Sezim to accept this new set of events. Sezim’s mother-in-law is tough; Sezim’s grandmother-in-law tries to level with her, explaining that this is how the women of the household have ended up here, and that accepting it is better than beating her head against the wall. Sezim’s 21st Century friend in Bishkek has a mother who will not even acknowledge her daughter except to tell her to screw off. And in what is probably the film’s best scene, Sezim’s family shows up to celebrate their daughter’s marriage after the fact. Sezim ought to know what we already know: her mother is going to insist that Sezim stay, rather than return to her old home or to Bishkek. It’s a handsome movie, if not a particularly hard-hitting one. Above all else Alina Turdumamatova, who plays Sezim, is a screamsobbing talent.

March 3rd

  • The Headless Woman / 2008, dir. Lucrecia Martel

The handprints on the driver’s side window on Vero’s car change. After the roller coaster kick of running someone over (a dog, surely, a child, maybe?), they seem all the more apparent. There was a toddler in the car before, who presumably left those little handprints, but I noticed them after she ran over whichever soul she ran over. I started to breathe faster. And then there’s a cut and the handprints are different. They’re no longer up and down, but canted at a 120-degree angle. The Headless Woman makes you see things. I could have sworn that I saw a little face between those handprints, the face of a child, permeable and translucent, misshapen and bruised. I know I must not have, but the spell of The Headless Woman, even in this first act, is carceral and beguiling. Vero becomes something of a permeable, translucent, misshapen person in her own right after the hit-and-run. Lucrecia Martel has a gift which I’ve seen in maybe only a handful of other filmmakers, which is to make the protagonist or the focus of the camera feel like s/he exists on a completely different planet than everyone else in the film. Less happens in this film than in Ala Kachuu, even though this movie is well over twice the length of Brendle’s, and we must work constantly to redefine which people are which, the name of the relationship Vero is playing in at the moment. More likely the person who is from a completely different planet is the one watching these people, playing out something like Cache in an Argentinian setting.

March 4th

  • Benediction / 2022, dir. Terence Davies
  • State Funeral / 2019, dir. Sergei Loznitsa

I have to pace myself on Benediction. The Grouches, this blog’s award ceremony for Anglophone movies, is going to have more thoughts on Benediction than Terence Davies has on Benediction. What I come back to is how shockingly accessible this movie is. It’s a biopic, the best biopic since The Aviator, which was the best biopic since Malcolm X. It plays around a little bit with timelines, though none of that is even remotely confusing; even the faceblind can tell the difference between Jack Lowden and Peter Capaldi. What this film does not have, an element which both The Aviator and Malcolm X and virtually all other biopics share, is some final sequence where we see the hero returned to glory. Malcolm X goes on the hajj; Ossie Davis narrates a photo segment at the end of the film. Howard Hughes, in cuts back and forth, triumphs over the Senate hearing made out to defame him and triumphs with the Spruce Goose; even if it ends with THE WAY OF THE FUTURE x25, it’s still a sign of some triumph. Benediction is full of very English tongue lashings, almost all of them painful and cruel (with two syllables), but I don’t know that anyone gets off a burn sicker than Ivor Novello’s review of Siegfried Sassoon’s literary career. You used to write excellent poetry, Novello tells him, but since 1918 you haven’t written anything worth reading. Sassoon fades into dust. The lessons to learn from the Great War, insofar as there were any to learn, were ignored. His poetry is ignored in the film after Wilfred Owen’s death. The richness of his love affairs with men, from Owen to his postwar rebound with Novello, the tenderness of his feeling for Glen Byam Shaw, the ferocity of his unexpected love affair with Stephen Tennant…it all turns into this marriage of old people, married to a woman as a form of surrender. Sassoon, Davies finds, was a man for his time. He was a man who could express, in poetry and prose, the unprecedented inhumanity of the Great War. He could flit with the bright young things of intrawar England, though his dourness and formality and devotion to monogamy make him stick out a little bit. And then…his time went. And, like time, he became invisible.

On the other hand, you know who wasn’t invisible? Joseph Stalin. State Funeral rings a tiny big hollow after The Death of Stalin, even though the two of them could not be further apart in terms of what they’re trying to do. The second half of the film is pretty straightforward recounting of the actual funeral, the lines of people coming to see Stalin’s corpse in repose, the speeches given by Malenkov (who was not long for the high station he so wanted) and Beria (who surely did not believe he would die in the same year as Stalin). The most special pieces of this movie take place in the various corners of the USSR, a nation which was so vast that I understand why people insisted on calling it “Russia.” A space basically the size of North America, ruled by one man. Seeing the reaction to Stalin’s death in Russia and Kyrgyzstan and Estonia and other SSRs is fascinating stuff, even if it’s marred somewhat by the verbose prose stylings of Party communiques and press releases. More fascinating are those faces, the ones in the streets and not the ones of the mourners. Surely the reaction to Stalin’s death could not have been long faces as far as the eye could see, at least not honestly? But on the other hand, what else were they going to do? There’s one man who has this vaguest of half-smiles on his face, catches a glimpse of the camera, looks directly into the lens, and straightens his mouth out.

March 5th

  • Meet Me in St. Louis / 1944, dir. Vincente Minnelli
  • The Banshees of Inisherin / 2022, dir. Martin McDonagh
  • Navalny / 2022, dir. Daniel Roher
  • Causeway / 2022, dir. Lila Neugebauer

I only started keeping track of my movie watching in 2018. Meet Me in St. Louis I saw for the first time. Anything that wasn’t originally on the spreadsheet I treat with a little bit of suspicion in my memory. I just knew less, and while I generally trust my vibes from the past, by and large the movies I watched in 2017 and earlier I don’t quite trust myself to know. I say all that, but Meet Me in St. Louis was almost exactly as I remembered it. The parts that were sweet remained sweet, the cinematography is spectacular, everything with Tootie works as a prototype for horror comedy, Garland looks great and sounds better, “John Truitt” could have been in witness protection, I will decapitate “The Trolley Song” before it decapitates me, the best part of the movie is “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and the second-best part is the duet for Leon Ames and Mary Astor. What I missed out on, or what I don’t think I had the language to say back then, is that this film’s tone, while unpredictable and even a little untoward, is still entirely in control. When the film wants to bounce around like a bumper car with a spasmodic five-year-old behind the wheel, it does, and when it wants to cut our chests open and watch our hearts beat, it can do that as well.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is one of the hackiest pictures I’ve ever had the misfortune to sit through, but I was still looking forward to finally seeing The Banshees of Inisherin because I thought that heading back to Ireland would even out some of McDonagh’s worst tendencies. I would rather listen to Ross Douthat on race or David Brooks on sexual assault than Martin McDonagh, which I think ought to make it pretty clear how flat out bad I thought his screenplay was. And yet! Surely going back to Ireland, his home country, he might have a better sense of what these people are like. Perhaps he would leave aside some of the provocations which we all know he can’t not engage in, or maybe they would be less obnoxious because at least he’d know what he was talking about. Alas. As a drama, Banshees is a failure. As an allegory for Irish conflict, especially in the film’s set time of 1923, it’s strange, and not in the good way. Is the attachment to this film the unseen maiming, the way Brendan Gleeson snips his fingers off and tosses them at Colin Farrell’s door? Is it Farrell’s goofy eyebrows? Barry Keoghan is trying; Kerry Condon is really trying, can you tell. Martin McDonagh is over fifty now. At this point, it may not be a midlife crisis which keeps him from writing anything with a lick of natural feeling in it. If you loved the cinematography in Birdman, this is the screenplay for you.

Weirdly enough, there’s a kind of matching cynicism in Navalny, which feints for a few moments into an interest in Navalny’s longstanding game of footsie with far-right elements in Russia. The footsie was much more than footsie about a decade ago; now it’s just a group of people who Navalny accepts at his anti-Putin rallies and meetings rather than courts openly. Perhaps this is the moment, I thought, where the film attempts to define something about Navalny’s political sensibilities. Perhaps this is where Navalny tries to secret its way into his mind, his ideals, his beliefs. It’s not. The movie is more interested in the grandstanding aspects of Navalny’s personality, the performer who is never that far away from the reformer. Navalny’s return to Russia and subsequent imprisonment (which, as of today, seems likely to continue well into the next decade, assuming he lives that long) give us some sense of his seriousness. It seems that he must believe his message about anti-corruption at least a little bit to give away what are likely the last good years of his life in some high security Russian prison, in and out of solitary confinement. And yet the film cannot find much more than a politician in Navalny, almost like it’s not interested in any version of Navalny that is more than a simple anti-Putin. It’s either a grave disservice to Navalny or a sign that Daniel Roher is hilariously dense. Given the way that Roher shoots that spy movie scene where Navalny gets on the phone and talks to the people who were responsible for his almost-assassination, I’m willing to be the latter. How do you film that scene and still make it look like it’s a recreation? (It wasn’t a recreation, right?)

The best of the three 2022 movies I watched this day, not that it was much of a competition, is Causeway. I don’t mean to say that Causeway is particularly good, and it becomes festival trite much too soon. The poolside confrontation between Lynsey and James is little more than Sundance shtick, a lot of “Yeah, well, YOU weren’t honest with me!” stuff that makes me sleepy just to think about. The saving graces for this movie, aside from some wildly blue cinematography that feels appropriate for the film’s mood and makes New Orleans look different than we’re used to seeing it, are the actors. This is my favorite Jennifer Lawrence performance in some time, a measured, inside sadness that she acts with her body as much as anything else. Her limbs seem longer, tireder than usual. It’s a wonderful physical performance. Brian Tyree Henry, as always, is very good. I’m terrified that this is going to be the last time they give this guy an Oscar nomination, because he’s merely very good in this rather than being the transcendent force that I’ve seen him play before (see: If Beale Street Could Talk). This is a movie that one would do just as well to turn off after an hour; all the good stuff they do happens before that.

March 6th

  • Aftersun / 2022, dir. Charlotte Wells
  • The Fabelmans / 2022, dir. Steven Spielberg

There’s a good moment in Aftersun. Sophie has signed her and her father up to sing karaoke in front of the other tourists at their resort, though she hasn’t told him in advance that she’s done it. He doesn’t want to. There’s an awkward pause as he bends forward; he really does not want to have to sing “Losing My Religion” in front of this crowd of strangers, not tonight. Calum is a lot of things, but an exhibitionist is not one of them. His emotions, as far as he’s able to keep them in, are restrained; when he lets them out, he tries to keep them private. This is about as near as he gets to losing his cool in front of other people, and so Sophie heads down to the stage by herself. She cannot sing. In this moment she is as tone-deaf as her father. And then the good moment ends when she comes back up to where he’s sitting, he realizes he’s been a jerk, he offers to pay for singing lessons, the eleven-year-old makes a crack about not wanting him to offer to pay for stuff he doesn’t have the money for. It’s too wise in the moment, too learned and jaded about children. It’s possible to make a good slowish movie about a girl who grows into a woman who can reflect on the imperfections of her once venerated father. Victor Erice made El Sur, which Wells has listed as one of her inspirations. If there’s any trace of El Sur in this hackneyed, non-specific picture beyond some shared words in their synopses, I couldn’t find it.

After the New England Patriots took a big step back this year, there’s been some increased murmuring about whether Bill Belichick really has it in him to lead the Patriots back to the promised land. The AFC East is far from the parade of pushovers it once was, Tom Brady won a Super Bowl without the Pats, and most of all, Belichick simply seems uncomfortable bringing in new blood. Last year, that meant making Matt Patricia, a longtime defensive coordinator, his offensive coordinator, and Joe Judge, a longtime special teams coordinator, his quarterbacks coach. To say that both moves were catastrophically bad, presumably made because the two of them are familiar with Belichick’s style and terminology, is at the very least apt. In his old age, I wonder if Steven Spielberg is having something like a Matt Patricia problem with Tony Kushner. He’s familiar with Tony Kushner at this point, presumably friendly with him, and yet Kushner’s screenplays combined with Spielberg’s characteristic obviousness make their collaborations a very fancy toast sandwich. The Fabelmans is probably the best live-action work Spielberg has done since Lincoln, maybe the best of his work since Munich. For all the guff we heard and said about Spielberg making this narcissistic Sorrows of Young Stevie flick, Spielberg has (also characteristically) understood how to use moving images to their utmost. The stuff that we watch Sammy Fabelman and his family get up to is not really what’s great about the picture, although Paul Dano’s knowingly cucked minor genius with the stiff back and subtle tie collection is terrific. (Honestly, how the hell did Paul Dano’s agent fail to bodyslam Judd Hirsch out of the Supporting Actor nomination that Dano ought to have instead?) What’s wonderful about this movie is the development of this child who takes to movies at a very young age, decides he has to recreate them, see them through his own eyes and make them with his own hands, and then shows us something about himself through the movies he makes. How wonderful to watch baby Steve create train wrecks for pure spectacle, film his family’s vacations to feel closer to them, make his western and his war picture because he loves that stuff, turn his high school’s ditch day into Olympia. These say something about Sammy, much more than his understanding of his mother’s long-term infidelity, his (very, very funny) dalliance with a good Christian girl who desperately wants the pipe, his battles with anti-Semitism, even his final meeting with John Ford. (Spielberg must have huge stones to want to remind us of John Ford this much!…In his head! Hahaha, anyway.) The development of Sammy’s style, his technical prowess, especially his love of editing, of seeing again and making anew. That’s what stands out to me in this movie, not the clunkiest of first scenes in which the screenplay gets real close to our faces, takes a giant breath, and then screams HE’S HIS FATHER’S SON BECAUSE OF HIS TECHNICAL APLOMB AND HIS MOTHER’S SON BECAUSE HE LOVES ART, DO YOU UNDERSTAND?! It’s a movie. Let us watch it.

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