This one’s real late! A surprisingly busy schedule at work, the Oscars, and March Madness have all contributed. But it’s still really late!
At least it was a good day for rewatches historically? Maybe Last Temptation, The Fugitive, and Badlands don’t make for the neatest triple feature in the world, but there are not many cinematic itches I need to scratch that those three can’t get their fingernails on. The other three films here are all a little underwhelming for me. My disinterest in Robert Green’s method of documentary filmmaking may well force me to give up my leftist movie-watching card. Ready or Not we’re going to come back to pretty soon, because it’s part of a subgenre that I’ve got virtually no patience for. And then there’s Kill Bill: Vol. 2, which I definitely prefer to the first iteration. As he’s gotten older, Tarantino’s interest in depicting those vignettes which guaranteed his fame has faded, and instead he’s gotten more and more interested in telling them. Reservoir Dogs turns on the commode story, but of course there’s no original referent outside of the script that Tim Roth’s character has to put to memory. It’s clever. Pulp Fiction provides the vignettes, and when it doesn’t, at least it has Christopher Walken there to do one of the more memorable line readings about rectal timepieces we’ve ever come across. Inglourious Basterds does the vignettes, and then after that…it’s kind of a wash. The Hateful Eight is bad no matter how you slice it, and one of the most important reasons that movie is so weak, second only to Tarantino’s sudden fascination with writing predictable jump scares, is because the film would much rather say the vignettes than perform them. Show, don’t tell, and all that. Kill Bill: Vol. 2, for all of the anticlimax which that film indulges in, at least believes in showing us the vignettes. The self-aggrandizing pseudomythology of Vol. 1 gets old fast. The individual sequences of training, being buried alive and then being unburied, they stick so much more than anything else in either of these two movies.
- All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (2022, dir. Laura Poitras)
I’ll say this for it, it’s got a terrific title. I don’t know that there’s much else here that’s terrific. It’s the story of Nan Goldin’s life, it intersperses a lot of her photography in there, it gives her (and some other talking heads from the movement) the space to talk about the Sackler family, their decades-long success at pushing opioids on the American public in unbelievable numbers. Here’s Goldin’s Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nan_Goldin. It is roughly as cinematic as Poitras’s documentary while going over the same beats. Goldin is a hugely important artist, and All the Beauty and the Bloodshed wants to believe that somehow the artistic ventures of Goldin’s anti-Sackler protests have something to do with their effectiveness. As performance art, it’s neither very good nor very dramatic; it’s rehashed ACT UP without the offensiveness, panache, or risk that actual ACT UP gave. Goldin is an artist, and the most artistic thing to get threatened from her group’s protests at the Met is a fountain that someone will have to skim pill bottles out of. The most artistic thing to get threatened from her group’s protests at the Guggenheim is the floor of the Guggenheim, which must have had a lot of paper on it to get swept away. Poitras finds this fascinating, as she finds Goldin fascinating, but like most confessional artists who ungraciously turned old, what Goldin is doing is stuck in a time when her soul-baring was controversial rather than de rigueur. Much of this could be forgiven if this were shot or presented with personality, but Poitras isn’t doing anything that those directors of benighted Netflix docuseries aren’t doing already.
- The Big Steal (1949, dir. Don Siegel)
- Bodies Bodies Bodies (2022, dir. Halina Reijn)
The average year of release for the dozen movies I watched before I popped on The Big Steal was 2013, with an unthinkable six in a row from 2022. This is as bad for my soul as eating nothing but doughnuts for six days would be for my body, with the primary difference being that I like doughnuts. The Big Steal is a punchy little noir. Even if you’re not a Don Siegel aficionado, which I can’t claim to be, there’s delight in watching Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer reunited after Out of the Past. He’s playing a character with more obviously rough edges than he did before; she’s playing a character more like Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps than the mid-grade psychopath she was playing in Out of the Past. Neither one of those are as fun, obviously. Greer in Out of the Past is the undisputed queen of “I can fix her” fantasies, while Mitchum is more compelling when he’s posing as normal to do evil than he is when he’s posing as rough ‘n tumble in order to do justice. (I’m not even thinking about The Night of the Hunter so much as I am Holiday Affair, a film where he is as mischievous as a raccoon.) All the same, the film wastes no time and is perfectly glad to twist itself into knots a few times along the way.
Bodies Bodies Bodies is perhaps the most excrementitious film of last year, perhaps not the worst on the merits of its filmmaking or performance or writing (all quite scatological on their own terms!) but surely the one that most smells the worst while it’s squirting out. Don’t trust a movie about irresponsible Gen Z Americans who learned the word “late-stage capitalism” on TikTok and talk endlessly about looking at each others’ texts on general principle. Don’t trust a movie about irresponsible Gen Z Americans when it’s directed by a Dutch actress in her late forties and co-written by a forty-something Barnard grad and a early-thirties nepo baby playwright. All that these people can bring to the table is a generic disdain for this type of irresponsible college-age student who’s high on her (or his, mostly her) own drama. The movie is never scary, because it’s never supposed to be scary. And it’s never funny, because humor either needs to be a lot dumber than it is here or a hell of a lot smarter. Bodies Bodies Bodies is part of this trend of gamified horror movies, a trend which includes the aforementioned Ready or Not, the Ouija movies, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, and others. As far as I can make out, it’s a stillborn subgenre, lukewarm and thus spewable. None of them are scary in the slightest, which raises the question of why, exactly, anyone’s trying to call them horror movies or watch them that way. Mostly made in the wake of the elevated horror trend of the mid-2010s, most of which are pretty unfrightening themselves, these pictures are an offshoot of this “horror-plus” tendency which in practice functions more as “minus horror.” Two parts elevator pitch, one part insecurity, one part apathy, I cannot wait until this boomlet subsides.
- In My Country (2004, dir. John Boorman)
- Cruising (1980, dir. William Friedkin)
In My Country is perhaps even more offensive than Bodies Bodies Bodies, although it’s still not going to win the prize for most offensive film I watched in this ten-day span. (I know, so much to look forward to.) It’s one of those movies that I’ve never heard of which, if I thought about it a little harder, I would understand why I never heard of it. It’s a John Boorman movie about apartheid with Juliette Binoche and Samuel L. Jackson, made while there was some major studio interest in movies set in Africa. It’s of a vintage with The Constant Gardener, Blood Diamond, The Last King of Scotland, Hotel Rwanda, and, uh, Sahara. Surely if it were any good at all, it probably would have found its way to some Oscar nomination or another. Not to psychoanalyze myself too much, but this is kind of my issue with movies like this. Sometimes, the movie that no one was talking about at the time turns out to be this magnificent picture, or at least a really compelling one. One need look no further than this past year; Benediction was too good for the Oscars, but Nope and The Woman King are both accessible movies that I’d hate to see lost to time. On the other hand, sometimes those movies are In My Country, which makes Invictus look like the Rocky of movies about South Africa. This movie is now my new benchmark among non-Holocaust films for commodifying the suffering of a marginalized group. The camera absolutely licks its lips seeing some meaty scene of a Black person testifying against a white policeman or government official, not because it’s interested in Ubuntu or in restorative justice or even blunter forms of justice. It loves it because it knows that the drama of this film is in watching Black actors recount actual testimony for a camera which can zoom in on their faces and watch them wail and sob. The camera loves the scene where a white policeman, overwhelmed with guilt, gets a hug from a little Black child who he’s orphaned and who hasn’t spoken since. It’s not feeling but voyeurism for its own sake. Worthy of revulsion.
Depending on your mileage, you might find Cruising a revolting film as well, perhaps finding its depiction of the gay S&M scene in the early ’80s just as voyeuristic and crude and exploitative as anything Boorman and Co. are up to in In My Country. If aesthetics still matter, then Cruising has to receive real credit on that front. This movie is shot with enormous confidence, squid ink on India ink with gasps of cold air as highlights. I don’t know that I’d call Cruising some kind of triumph of representation, which is one of the reasons I like it so much. “Representation in TV and film” is already the ’20s version of “a credit to his race,” complete with all the well-meaning condescension inherent in the phrase. If there’s something offensive about Cruising, it’s that it treats homosexuality as something like buying American-made or smoking weed: it’s a lifestyle choice. The best sex of Karen Allen’s life in this movie happens after Al Pacino starts seeing how men do it together, and I don’t know that we need to give the movie credit for supposing that Steve has been secretly gay or bisexual and is now leaning into that uncovered identity. What this movie is reminiscent of, in its suggestion that so many of the most attention-grabbing participants in the homosexual world have been damaged for a long time (more correlation than causation in both) is The Boys in the Band, which Friedkin made ten years earlier. With two movies about gay men in his pocket by 1980, neither one of them based off a bowdlerized Tennessee Williams play, Friedkin may well have the going record for mainstream movies about gay men by a straight director before this got to be typical. Remarkably, I’ve struggled to find much consideration on the Internet of how these works go together. Self-loathing and self-mutilation are the sides of a psychosomatic coin, and what stands out most is that the men in these communities seem unable to break out of them even if they wanted to. Homosexuality is a little short of a fact in these movies, but from the lens of today I can’t call either one of them a pathological work. In 1995, when The Celluloid Closet brought Vito Russo’s book to life and made much of The Boys in the Band and criticized Cruising, when the people making that film were very much in the shadow of the greatest prejudice of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, I think it’s easier to see the case for Cruising as especially cruel. In 2023, the movie hasn’t changed for more than forty years now, and I’m less inclined to see Cruising as anything like In My Country.
- Cemetery of Splendor (2015, dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
- Freud (1962, dir. John Huston)
- Triangle of Sadness (2022, dir. Ruben Ostlund)
They will not wake up, one of the princesses tells Jenjira. It comes during the course of one of the most shocking scenes in the film, one which absolutely flattened me as I was watching it. The princesses from the idols popping into regular human form and sharing some snacks with Jenjira is treated with all the banality of getting in the car and driving to the grocery store, and it’s staggering. Jenjira, to her credit, does a pretty good job with this revelation; she doesn’t need a bunch of proofs to figure this stuff out. The princesses tell her that the ten soldiers who are lying in states of varying slumber with their strange dreams and their virtual paralysis are that way because the site they’re on is the site of a great battle which took place many hundreds of years ago. The ground where this school and this makeshift hospital facility are located, being dug up by earth movers and chunked about by children playing soccer in the manmade dunes was once a place of grand consequence. All in all, the mystery of Cemetery of Splendor didn’t knock me flat on my back the way that Memoria knocked me flat on my back, but that scene proved again for me that Weerasethakul has the power to throw some very gentle and very leaden punches. No one else working today has that kind of agility.
Who’s your favorite director of dreams and the dreamlike? Was it by Weerasethakul? Lynch, Bunuel, Bergman, Fellini, Hitchcock, Parajanov? I cannot imagine that John Huston figures very heavily in most people’s calculus, and for good reason. But I’ll tell you what, I’m pretty sure only John Huston decided to make a movie about Sigmund Freud and then narrated Freud’s thoughts while the guy was wandering around Vienna. The director/narrator merged with the foremost figure of dreams in history. That’s a joyfully arrogant statement, which means John Huston is in his bag. Freud has a noirish sentiment, with shadows menacingly dark and bodies frequently in contention against one another, competing for more space in the frame. In that way it’s not unlike The Misfits, the film prior to this in Huston’s filmography. There’s less light in Austria than there was in Nevada, but the way that both films present themselves are in heavy, grunting close-ups, walls and ceilings in oppressive arguments with heads and bodies that seem slightly too large for their settings. It’s a better fit in Freud, which ends well before he becomes the internationally recognized figure that he’d become. The film actually closes out on a bum note for him; his surrogate father figure and professional mentor, Breuer, all but calls for Freud to be ostracized over the younger man’s insistence on childhood sexuality. By 1962, I think everyone was firmly aware that Freud’s psychology was less reliable than like, Samuel Richardson’s, but the suggestive poetry of his ideas suited Huston’s literary fascination in filmmaking. It’s also a wonderful part for Montgomery Clift after the car wreck. He’s not confident, a little difficult to read into. He’s having ideas and suppositions which trouble him deeply, temptations with attractive patients, reevaluations of his relationship with his late father. Clift is wonderful in it but never dominates the film. He’s holding its hand, not dragging it along.
Triangle of Sadness was the last Best Picture nominee I got to this year because it was the one I was dreading the most. I didn’t like Force Majeure very much, even though the movie itself is not all that bad, and I was baffled by how paper-thin The Square was. Triangle of Sadness seemed to promise much more of that sameness from The Square, and in a lot of ways I’d say it does. Rich people suck, their pretensions suck, it sucks to have to deal with them, there’s nothing about them being rich that makes them better or more worthwhile than anyone else. That’s basically Triangle of Sadness, too, although there’s enough stuff that happens in this movie to make it more entertaining than The Square. I even thought most of this was pretty solid, on the whole. I dunno that the infamous vomiting scene was particularly funny, or that some of the island ironies were all that funny either. I think the film absolutely panics when it finds itself in a position to make a statement at the end of the film, which is why it leaves itself disappointingly ambiguous in the end. Like Ladj Ly’s Les Miserables from a few years ago, it’s one thing to be edgy and another thing entirely to have convictions. What keeps this movie going is its ensemble cast, which is pretty fun. Special credit must go to Zlatko Buric and Woody Harrelson for what has to be the funniest scene in the film, a Joe Rogan sendup taking place as the boat is sinking underneath them.
- The Nun’s Story (1959, dir. Fred Zinnemann)
- Hitler: A Career (1977, dir. Joachim Fest and Christian Herrendorfer)
- The Martha Mitchell Effect (2022, dir. Anne Alvergue and Debra McClutchey)
- Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956, dir. Fritz Lang)
I know, another movie about Africa, why was I doing this to myself. I loved The Nun’s Story, though. It’s an incredibly nimble movie, which I say not because it’s fast-paced or has a bunch of hard cuts or anything like that, but because there are so many traps that this film should have fallen into and which it never did. The first act of this film is long, much longer than the first acts of films typically are, and it’s long because we’re watching Gaby decide to become a nun, learn the rules of being a nun, witness other women dropping out, struggle against the boundaries of it. The second act of this film, where she doesn’t get what she wants, is also quite long. The reason she became a nun has so much more to do with getting to go to the Congo and nursing there than it does anything to do with God or Catholicism, and everyone, including her, seems to know it pretty clearly. The film could let her fall in love with the handsome, brilliant surgeon (if you love James Spader’s biting confidence, Peter Finch in this movie is exactly up your alley), but the film never makes falling out of nun as easy as giving it up for a guy. I love that this film includes one of those obvious turning point tests for Gaby, where she’s asked by a higher-ranking nun to fail her exam to ensure that another nun will get to go to Africa in her stead. This is an important time for you to show your humility, that nun tells her. Gaby can’t do it. She cannot make herself fail the test. And then, when Gaby talks to another nun about it, she’s told that that nun has a weakness for things like that, and that she was wrong to ask her to do that. The leadership is not all wise. There are few non-nunspolitation movies that really want to get into the fallibility of the sisters, and The Nun’s Story is one of them. We are not exactly watching Mother Joan of the Angels here. This is a movie you could show your little kids, not that they’d like it all that much. It’s a chaste film, and it’s unbearably tense with decision after decision that a slowly but surely aging Sister Luke must pick apart.
I watched Hitler: A Career because it was made by Germans. I saw “Joachim Fest” in the credits and was like, Hey, I know that guy, he was part of the Historikerstreit. I don’t quite know what the American analogue is to Joachim Fest. I’m sort of afraid it’s Shelby Foote? Foote has more of a sense of humor than Fest, for whatever that’s worth, but both of them are running on a very rickety bridge to their conclusions because they never really want to get into material that would make average Confederates or average Germans into potential doers of evil. Foote overstated the importance of “I’m fighting because you’re down here,” which conveniently gets away from the whole “slavery caused the Civil War” thing that you know must be true because every Republican governor is trying to get that out of schools now. For his part, Fest overstates the cultural appeal of Nazi ideology, seems to believe that the reason people really got into the whole Nazi stuff was because Nazis made it fun. Meanwhile, the documentary says things like “Because the Jews were different from other Germans, it made other Germans react” in such a way, which…if you’re saying stuff like that, maybe don’t! The film takes literally two hours to get to the Holocaust, which it does not name as such (or as the Shoah, or any other name given to the genocide). For Fest, the holocaust is World War II, not the Holocaust itself. The film spends about as much time on Hitler’s grandiose plans to rebuild Berlin as it does on the Holocaust. I guess part of me just kind of thinks that one understands the man better through his historically unique levels of prejudice and even his mostly incompetent conduct of the war more than his oratory or his rallies. And this last thing isn’t important, really, but I can’t figure out why this is one of the docs about Hitler on Netflix.
The Martha Mitchell Effect is a nonentity, the “well-behaved women rarely make history” bumper sticker of short documentaries. It’s hard to make a movie about a meme, and even harder to review one.
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt and While the City Sleeps, a pair of 1956 thrillers which make up the final Hollywood efforts of Fritz Lang, both feel like they’re out of place with the rest of the decade. While the City Sleeps makes more sense as a pre-Code film, from the three competing newspapermen competing to find a serial killer so as to get that much-desired promotion to its well-earned cynicism about yellow journalism. And Beyond a Reasonable Doubt feels like it should have been a tawdry, VHS-grained early ’90s thriller with its nonsense plot and its twistiest of conclusions. For the uninitiated, a newspaper mogul comes up with this crazy way to make a case against capital punishment which involves framing his would-be son-in-law for a murder and then getting a pardon for him once he gets convicted. (Yes, this requires the assistance of the son-in-law. Yes, agreeing with this plan should absolutely disqualify any prospective son-in-law from the job.) Knock off about two or three of the twists and this one might even have turned into a pretty decent picture. The one that has to stay, of course, is all the proof of Tom’s innocence disappearing in the fiery car wreck that kills the mogul. I could have done without the shocking coincidence at the end, where it turns out the murder that Tom got some help framing himself for…was one that he actually committed?! It is even more unsatisfying than it sounds.
- General Report (1977, dir. Pere Portabella)
People have been joking for months now that Women Talking is exactly what it says it’s about. I’ll see you Women Talking and raise you General Report, which is absolutely a general report about the state of the left and its plans after the death of Franco. Trying to summarize this mammoth documentary without being a far, far better scholar of Spain than I am is arrant silliness, so I won’t do that. (I do think it’s worth saying that for people who are supposedly so threatening to the fate of decent society, it’s incredible how boring most of these professional lefties are.) I did find myself returning to two thoughts throughout the doc. The first is one that I’m sure those better scholars of Spain could answer, which is where all these people were during Franco’s four decades in power. Were they all in hiding, working in underground positions or trying to blend in as best they could? Some were in exile, as is attested to in the doc; some of them I imagine must have exiled themselves for their own safety. How strange it must have felt to be filmed like this, basically unafraid now for the first time in so many years, certain that they would not find themselves in the bottom of some jail for speaking out against the finally deceased generalissimo. And what a thrill it must have been for these people, like the men speaking to each other in the first extended stretch of talking in the film, to feel like Thomas Paine. “We have it in our power to begin the world over again,” Paine wrote in Common Sense. “A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now.” No wonder there’s so much to talk about in Spanish Leftists Talking. There can be no headier feeling than to stand atop Mount Ararat, staring down at the corpses of men and beasts, and believing that God or fate or chance has chosen you to continue on where so many were not allowed to go.
- Madame Bovary (1949, dir. Vincente Minnelli)
Emma Bovary is not Anna Karenina. Anna sins and mistakes. Emma sins and compounds. It’s what makes this a much more savage film than any adaptation of Anna Karenina I’ve come across. Jennifer Jones plays Emma Bovary as a woman whose beauty makes her incredibly desirable, whose sexiness makes her stand out in a sea of bland women, whose spark makes her seem like she’ll be the perfect wife. Van Heflin plays Doctor Bovary as no one from classic Hollywood could have, because no one from classic Hollywood seems like he invites cucking the way that Heflin did. Emma is sensuous, and her senses are offended over and over again by Charles. Emma walks into her new home for the first time and immediately wants to change it, to make it beautiful and fine compared to the relative sty that her untalented husband has been living in. Emma wants to be able to touch auras. She wants palpable haze. She wants to be able to put fame between her teeth, to put luxury against her skin, to put thrill onto her lips. Madame Bovary is a relatively sexy film, which is a serious accomplishment considering the novel it’s adapted from, and it’s sexy because of how unreasonable Emma is. On the other hand, the reason this movie hurts so much is because Emma is disappointed so fully in so many different moments. She is disappointed when her husband fails her by refusing to complete a surgery that might make him a great man in the eyes of the world as opposed to the amiably bumbling doctor of country Yonville. She is disappointed when she’s bought a new wardrobe for a sinfully good vacation with the sinfully handsome Louis Jourdan, only to find that the mail coach that was supposed to spirit her away from Yonville is going to keep moving at full speed, leaving her with a one-man audience to witness the shame of her shame. It’s almost a shame that Minnelli is best remembered for his musicals. His melodramas are as good with a emotional fillet knife as anything Douglas Sirk ever made.
- Chan Is Missing (1982, dir. Wayne Wang)
A historically important film, to be sure, and like so many historically important films it’s an awful lot of fun. Jo and Steve are related, and it’s important that Jo is Steve’s uncle, because otherwise it would make no sense why those two guys spend so much time together. Steve is modern, a little goofy, flappable. One of my favorite scenes in the movie comes when he tries to thank two girls for giving him some much-needed information about Chan by offering to give them some change for ice cream. This goes over poorly and he quickly retreats from the battlefield he wasn’t expecting to create. Jo, on the other hand, has some philosophical inclinations, a good humor that doubles as a kind of stoicism. There’s some adventure in the guy, as when he tries to pose as a cop to get into an apartment, but for the most part he seems like a neutron in an electron field. Everyone else seems to be bouncing or bumping around, everyone else has some special energy to them, and Jo is simply patient. He’s obviously frustrated about the money that’s disappeared, but it doesn’t boil over. He recognizes the irony of the situation at hand, the inversion of the Charlie Chan mystery where this time, in a more modern milieu, Chan is the one who has apparently absconded with the money. It would be a landmark even if it were an ugly film, but it’s not. It’s shot neatly, cut well. It’s a quiet joy.
Another day bumped up a little bit with the presence of a wonderful rewatch, in this case Inside Llewyn Davis. I adored The Cameraman, which is not the best Buster Keaton film I’ve ever seen but almost certainly my favorite among his work. On the other hand, I can’t get on board with calling The Godfather Part III the best or second best of the group or anything that grandiose. The Sofia Coppola criticisms, which are literally older than I am, are still great examples of people reacting badly to a movie they wanted to like and choosing something almost at random as the reason they couldn’t like it. The reason people couldn’t like Part III has everything to do with the fact that it doesn’t end with yet another rehash of the ending of The Godfather, where Michael settles all the debts in shocking and bloody ways. Part III is not about grabbing or consolidating power. It’s about the fragility of power, which is why it doesn’t end with the fun gangster stuff but instead with Sofia Coppola dying on steps. (I mean, to be perfectly real, it ends with Michael collapsing and dying, which only proves my point more.) But that’s not sexy, and it doesn’t remind the people who saw this in their thirties of how it felt to be 18 again. Same as it ever was.
The films that I really want to highlight here are the first and last ones on the docket. Chariots of the Gods is so, so weird, so weird that it got me to not think about how racist it was for five minutes at a time. I’d watch it again because it’s so terrible. There’s this Daniel Pinkwater book called Yobgorgle: Mystery Monster of Lake Ontario where the protagonist gets introduced to faintly mad monster-hunting scientist Ambrose McFwain through a documentary. The kid reports to us that the documentary basically shows the same blurry footage over and over again with some random explanations tossed in. That’s Chariots of the Gods, except Chariots of the Gods has probably the least comprehensible score I’ve ever come across in a film. What to make of the tribal music, smooth jazz, and Brahms-aping instrumentals all in sequence with one another?
I saw Black Panther in theaters once it became clear that that movie had already ascended to its position as the cultural touchstone of the year. Now, it took me until March, obviously, to reach that conclusion, and so I went to see that in theaters despite the fact that March Madness (which I love) had started. I picked that time to go see the movie because I thought nothing would happen. It turned out that I was in a movie theater watching Black Panther instead of watching UMBC, a 16-seed, upset Virginia, the top overall seed. Fast forward five years; I was at home on Friday night and was absolutely glued to the couch for Purdue-Farleigh Dickinson because I sure as heck wasn’t going to miss a 16-seed topping a 1-seed again.