Movies reviewed this week: Hedwig and the Angry Inch, The Badlanders, Drifting Clouds, Streets of Fire, The Crowd, Amores Perros, Black Widow, Lost Bullet, La Dolce Vita, It’s Not Silence, and The Heroic Trio.
8/1/2022: Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001): ****1/2
Criterion Challenge 2022
Prompt: Out at Criterion: Watch an LGBTQ film
Fuck yeah, that’s a rock musical. If the songs don’t work, and if the band doesn’t work, Hedwig’s just a figure of fun instead of an alchemical marriage. (Jagger/Richards?) Good thing all that is just fine.
Velvet Goldmine is one of my favorite “I’ll watch it any time” movies, and I kept thinking about it while watching this one. Sort of the inverse of the same story. If Brian Slade gives up his whole self to become Tommy Stone, then Hedwig finds her whole self by reabsorbing Tommy Gnosis. The twinned names are probably a coincidence, but that’s a good coincidence.
It’s a symbolic read, but it’s a symbolic movie.
8/2/2022: The Badlanders (1958): ***1/2
This is in no way a noir. It’s a Western with maybe a bit of heist flavor, even if it was based on the same novel as one of the best noirs of all time. I’ll forgive Criterion this time, since it’s a really fun movie with a complex relationship between Ladd and Borgnine. They’re both excellent.
8/2/2022: Drifting Clouds (1996): ****1/2
Aki Kaurismäki is fucking delightful. Drifting Clouds is a really grim movie except that it has an abiding faith in the power of friendship, community, and perseverance that is validated in the end.
Also, Kaurismäki has a sense of comic timing that’s well above average. I knew I was in good hands early on, when Sakari Kuosmanen boldly steps forward to disarm Markku Peltola’s drunken chef, and both men go off-frame. Moments later, Kuosmanen staggers back, wounded. Kati Outinen sighs — internally, but you can tell — and goes off-screen to handle Peltola without any further fuss.
“Dubrovnik was the best restaurant in town!”
“After the war, yes.”
Thanks, Finland, for always providing the very darkest comedy.
Kati Outinen is really good in this. Kaurismäki’s style is indeed minimalist, but that just means he expects his actors to give you a lot without much dialogue. Outinen speaks with her eyes and her posture. It’s one of my favorite performances in a while.
The cinematograph is likewise minimalist, but not austere, if that makes sense. IMDB claims it’s Eastmancolor and I’d believe it. The mise en scene is generally very simple but the colors (usually secondaries) pop. I’d say it was Wes Andersonesque but I suspect the influence runs in reverse.
8/3/2022: Streets of Fire (1984): ***
There’s so much of a great movie here but there’s also a lot of Michael Pare at the very start of his career. Sweet soundtrack.
8/3/2022: The Crowd (1928): ****
Criterion Challenge 2022
Prompt: Watch a movie from the 1920s
For posterity, this counts for the challenge because it streamed briefly on the Criterion Channel. Me, I watched it on a sketchy DVD from BoYing, which looks like it’s a bootleg of the Thames Television VHS tape. Worth the quality problems.
The Crowd isn’t so much a criticism of capitalism as it’s a criticism of the aimless life. In a way, it reminds me of the Aki Kaurismäki film I just watched; ultimately the protagonists of both movies wind up working traditional jobs for money, and both strengthen their marital relationships after a period of hard times.
In fact, John may be the very first cinematic manic pixie dream boy. Head in the clouds, impractical, quits jobs at a moment’s notice, wants to be creative, and in the end he settles down doing something that’s not what he wants for the sake of his family. Hm.
The cinematography is high end. I was particularly impressed by the first city sequence, when we’re traveling down streets with the crowds and then zooming in to focus on John at his desk in the middle of countless other office drones. Those shots are echoed by every director that ever wanted to show a mass of anonymous office humanity — paging Terry Gilliam.
The dialogue (or at least the title cards) is also sharper than I expected. “When John was twenty-one he became one of the seven million that believe New York depends on them” is a really pointed line.
Two more years and it’s in the public domain, so you can watch it easier than I did.
8/4/2022: Amores Perros (2000): *****
Criterion Challenge 2022
Prompt: Watch a film made in Mexico
This was an easy choice, since Iñárritu is the only one of the trio of (very different) modern Mexican directors I’ve neglected to date. It was also a very good choice.
The most interesting thing about the non-chronological structure was the sneaky overlay of chronology sitting on top of it. Yeah, we see multiple scenes from multiple viewpoints, and if you were looking at an atomic clock it’d skip backwards half the time. Overall, though, it’s a movie about three stages of life. Octavio and Susana are young adults, almost teenagers. Daniel and Valeria are adults, or at least they’re faking it, with all the trappings of success. El Chivo is an old man. All together, it’s the story of human existence.
In some ways I felt a little let down by the second and third segments, because they didn’t quite match the raw intensity of the first segment. On the other hand, that also seems intentional: again, it’s youthful passions cooling into middle age and becoming even more distant in old age. The kids live in the middle of families, never alone. Daniel and Valeria spend most of their screen time in an apartment with only each other for company. El Chivo, well, he’s completely alone. Not including the dogs.
Truly a great movie.
8/5/2022: Black Widow (1954): ***
Now that’s a real noir. I mean, you could call it a mystery, but I think the femme fatale really tips it over the edge into Noir City. Twisty plot, good use of flashbacks, fun acting. The femme fatale herself was a bit cliched and stock, but all in all I think it worked.
8/6/2022: Lost Bullet (2020): ***1/2
Many cars destroyed with mostly practical effects plus a charismatic lead plus a gratifying plot line equals a fun French action thriller. It’s nice knowing there’s an entire vein of movies like this coming out of France right now.
8/7/2022: La Dolce Vita (1960): *****
Criterion Challenge 2022
Prompt: Watch a Cannes Film Festival winner
Yet another classic movie chosen for this challenge because I wanted to catch up on my classics; yet another eye-opening movie. There are seven stories in this movie, so here are seven elements that struck me, in no particular order.
1. The use of music is brilliant; it’s understated but always perfect commentary on the themes of the movie. Great needle drops, as it were. My favorite was the transition from jazz — “I like jazz” — to classical on the organ.
2. The through line from this to 8 1/2. I wouldn’t call La Dolce Vita surreal, but you can see the seeds which grew into the latter movie’s observation of cinema itself. Plenty of parades in both.
3. The overwhelming sense of loneliness that extends throughout the whole movie. Even at the parties, everyone’s sitting just a little further apart from each other than you might expect. At the final party, there’s more physical contact, but it’s corrupted and polluted.
4. Fellini’s sublime sense of space. Early on, when Marcello and Maddalena pull up by the wall, I was struck by how Fellini framed the two of them in a huge empty setting. His composition was so good throughout: claustrophobic on the endless stairs, spacious in Rome.
5. Fellini’s cruelty. There’s no hope in this movie.
6. Every story has juxtapositions in it. Fellini cuts away from the prologue and the image of Jesus to some poorly defined pagan god in the secular restaurant. The richest woman in the movie is placed in contrast to a prostitute. Back to loneliness: Marcello is ultimately a working man who serves the ultra-rich whose parties he attends. The juxtapositions are separations.
7. The final shot, which puts us in Marcello’s shoes. We are not abstract viewers. We are as complicit as Marcello, because we’ve been entertained by the whole sad tragic story of his life. She’s looking at us because she’s looking at Marcello.
8/7/2022: It’s Not Silence (2018)
It doesn’t have a ton of depth; turns out some people like to live in ghost towns for the sake of clearing their heads and having plenty of time to themselves. However, the footage of this lonely place is beautiful and there’s enough history (in the form of footage of a tour) to provide context.
It’s easy to find on YouTube if you’re curious.
8/7/2022: The Heroic Trio (1993): ***1/2
This is Johnnie To before he found his destiny creating missing links between arthouse cinema and heroic bloodshed. It’s still awfully good, and there’s more charisma on that screen than you could reasonably expect. Sometimes I see a Hong Kong movie that I remember as being batshit, and it turns out that I was just really tired the first time I saw it. This time it turns out the movie was really batshit. The 4K restoration really brings those blood spatters and skeletons into focus.