Movies reviewed this week: Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, Dragon Inn, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, if…., Shaolin Temple, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, Kes, The Meetings of Anna, Bones and All, Decision to Leave, and Down Twisted.
11/22/2022: Weird: The Al Yankovic Story (2022): ***
Entertaining enough as a parody but doesn’t reach the heights of insanity I was kind of expecting. It’s, well, it’s the music of a musical biopic with new, parodic words. There’s a really funny joke in the credits though. (Not the parody at the very end, the bit right before that. Freeze frame on the note.)
11/24/2022: Dragon Inn (1967): ****1/2
The sense of place in this is lovely. We loop back and forth between the constraints of the titular Dragon Inn and the vistas of the desert and the mountains. The Inn is practically a character itself, slope-shouldered and distinctive.
But man, those vistas. The climax takes place in the mountains, and King Hu wasn’t afraid to pull back and make his characters share the screen with epic nature. It really evokes a sense of fighting at the end of the world.
The martial arts work isn’t as snappy as what we’d see in later wuxia movies, but snappy isn’t everything. And Hu’s camerawork is more fluid than even some of the modern masters. There’s this scene where Huei Chu goes off to challenge the bad guys and the way Hu maneuvers the camera around walls to heighten the sense of space is perfect.
11/24/2022: Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022): ****
Absolutely savage, and Rian Johnson has the best lucky timing in the world. Pause, look over at Twitter, return to the review. It’s a good movie and then there’s this bravura second act which is a) breathtaking and b) an absolute showcase for one particular actor, and then Johnson and the cast is just on fire for what seems like the entire third act.
Johnson said recently that “I set out to make a big show with these movies and casting movie stars intentionally in them as part of that.” That rings true. It’s a spectacle. It’s not a classical murder mystery because you don’t get all the clues as you go, but that’s fine because — just as it’s a commentary on the wealthy — it’s a commentary on the classical form. Johnson’s really good at this.
Also: such a cast. Ed Norton’s great, Daniel Craig is a ton of fun. Janelle Monáe is not just good but surprisingly good. Bautista is in yet another big lunk role but he’s continuing to mature as an actor.
11/24/2022: if…. (1968): ****
Now that’s how you use surrealist techniques to comment on classism and society. The climax was worth the slow build, in part because you need that first hour to establish how repressive and arbitrary the school regime is. No wonder Mick Travis resorts to fantasies to survive.
11/25/2022: Shaolin Temple (1976): ***1/2
It’s a really long (but not boring) training montage with a grand, bloody, tragic fight scene at the end but it’s a delight despite the simplicity. Jampacked with star power, too. There aren’t a lot of people who can outshine David Chiang, but Alexander Fu Sheng as Fang Shih-Yu — Fong Sai-yuk for those of us who started watching Hong Kong movies in the 90s — is one of them.
I preferred this to Five Shaolin Masters, to which this is the prequel. More focused, more personality shining through, and there was something cool about knowing the heroes weren’t going to win that big final fight. There were a couple of sacrifices that got a gasp out of me.
11/26/2022: The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926): ****
Criterion Challenge 2022
Prompt: Watch a film from the Animation Before the 2000s list
This was the obvious choice for this category but I don’t regret it in the least. It’s a delightful chunk of masterful technique; the fluidity and grace of the animation is remarkable. The backgrounds are likewise really something. I can understand how Lotte Reiniger worked with those silhouettes, although they were awfully intricate, but I don’t have any idea where that background animation came from. Liquid over the lens? Really cool.
Returning to the silhouettes: I think that the thing that really struck me was how well she captured a sense of real movement with just her paper and scissors. She did better than Disney would manage for quite some time. Impressive stuff.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that Reiniger’s understanding of Africa and Asia is, well, 1926 vintage. Given her views on homosexuality, I don’t have any reason to think she wouldn’t approach that material differently today.
11/26/2022: Kes (1969): *****
That finishes up my viewing of the Criterion Channel’s British New Wave collection, and I seem to have saved the best for last. Throughout these movies I kept noticing that, while they were almost all concerned with class, few of them transcended traditional class stereotypes. Ken Loach’s film shatters them.
He was willing to show the reality of being poor in England. All his characters are real, and all of them struggle with the impossibility of their dreams. Even the sadistic PE teacher is a dreamer. There’s one moment when the otherwise grounded movie slips into a flight of fancy, while the teacher is pretending to be a Manchester United player. For a moment, a match score is superimposed on the screen. There’s nothing like that anywhere else in the movie and it’s Loach’s way of making sure we don’t miss the parallels between the teacher and Billy.
It’s a really well constructed movie like that. Easy for the naturalist style to overshadow how precise it is, but I don’t think there’s a wasted moment. All the interactions have a point. The shower scene doesn’t just show us the cruelty of the school system, it shows us how Billy’s confidence has increased. There’s a whole cascade of sequences in which Billy’s affinity for heights is casually demonstrated — and, hey, that final scene takes place on a hill.
Marvelous movie and I’m glad I saved it for the last.
11/26/2022: The Meetings of Anna (1978): ****1/2
Watching the scene with her mother made me deeply sad. Paraphrased:
“I won’t always be with you.”
“Yes, you will.”
Decades later, Akerman made a documentary about her mother right before her mother died. A little over a year later, Akerman took her own life. So I watched Anna moving through a homogenous Europe, yearning for connection, and I of course saw Chantal Akerman making a movie about another female director. About herself. From all accounts she had a deep and close relationship with her own mother, and I think that’s at the core of this one.
All the men she spent (brief) time with needed maternal affection from her. Most mentioned mothers specifically. Ida expresses maternal sentiment by badgering Anna to marry her son. In Anna’s final encounter, she walks away from the bed long enough to get Daniel medicine, going well out of her way to supply it. (And how about the way the subsequent sexual element is phrased as comfort? No wonder he rejects it.) It’s all about mothers and children.
It’s also a movie about the aftereffects of World War 2. I found Heinrich’s monologue about his friend to be really moving. We haven’t reached Cologne yet, but we’ve heard it mentioned a few times: one of the German cities most affected by Allied bombs during World War 2. That’s the filter through which I listened to Heinrich talking about how the occupation ruined his friend. For me, that monologue set up the anonymous modernist scenes we see throughout the rest of the movie, with barely any history leaking into Akerman’s meticulously composed frames. Except for that midnight expedition for medicine, mind you. When Anna manages to express human compassion, we see the great buildings of Paris. Possibly a coincidence, but interesting. Otherwise it’s all trains and hotels.
So many hotels. I’ve only seen one other Akerman movie, Hotel Monterey, which I watched earlier this year. It’s an interesting comparison, because while we get the same objective, unemotional views of hotels, the Hotel Monterey is perhaps the opposite of sterile. You can feel the age and lived experiences as Akerman’s serene camera glides past those rooms. There’s the sense of connection that Akerman thinks Europe has lost.
I liked this more than I expected to. Slow cinema for the win.
11/27/2022: Bones and All (2022): ****
I spent a lot of the movie wondering if the cannibalism was a metaphor, because it feels pretty significant that a couple of kids are disowned by their families for their inner natures, right? Especially in Reagan’s America? And there’s something about that sleepover scene, and there’s certainly something about the way Chalamet’s Lee finds food at the carnival. I could go on, but yeah, I’m convinced.
It’s a really lovely movie in and of itself. I like that it likes the Midwest.
And hey, Jessica Harper! If Luca Guadagnino would like to single-handedly bring about the Jessica Harper renaissance, I am here for it.
11/27/2022: Decision to Leave (2022): ****
Holy god that’s an intricate movie. The biggest lie in the whole thing is when Hae-Jun says something like “I like to see things directly,” because he doesn’t. For 90% of this, the audience is seeing people in mirrors or over video links or just hearing their voices. Direct shots are often intermediated by windows. The most crucial lines are delivered in Chinese, then translated by a cell phone app. Nothing’s head on.
And when I say the biggest lie, I’m really saying something, because there’s a lot of lying in this movie.
I did have one complaint. Park Chan-wook’s biggest flaw is his tendency to over-orchestrate; there are times in most of his movies where the symbolism overtakes everything else. I think he sort of hit that point in the finale here. It might be worth it, because the impact of those final shots is intense, but it’s kind of a lot to accept.
11/27/2022: Down Twisted (1987): ***
“Where are we going?”
“To the yacht.”
“The yacht? What kind of yacht?”
“A big one.”
I’d never seen anything by Albert Pyun, so I decided to remedy that as a memorial. I’m generally fond of goofy action. This is certainly that.
There’s a real sense of style lurking under the clunky dialogue and low budget. The neon-lit LA is great, especially while Oingo Boingo is playing on the soundtrack. The mythical nation of San Lucas is the typical 80s movie version of Central America, but it’s at least evocative.
I wouldn’t say you should go out of your way for this, but as 80s action movies go it’s well above average.