Movies reviewed this week: PTU, Synecdoche, New York, The Villainess, Caché, The Vampires or, The Arch Criminals of Paris, Jacquot, Undisputed II: Last Man Standing, What We Do in the Shadows, Citizen Kane, Fanny and Alexander, The Hole, Strange Days, Maps to the Stars, The World of Jacques Demy, and Aftersun.
12/26/2022: PTU (2003): ****
This is Hong Kong crime stripped of romantic neon and honor. It’s one night, but it’s a night lit by florescent bulbs with very few places to hide. Young thugs act on instinct and anger. Their bosses aren’t much better. The men and women of the PTU move like sharks, in groups, looking for bottom feeders. The CID floats above it all, mostly, adopting the role of apex predators.
12/27/2022: Synecdoche, New York (2008): *****
I think it’s not that the dream logic and symbolism is opaque. “Other people aren’t extras,” and then we delve into Ellen’s life; that’s pretty straightforward. I also think that trying to figure out what’s really going on is futile (although the zombie theory is funny). It’s not about what’s happening, it’s about what Caden and Hazel and Ellen and everyone is feeling. You can’t get too caught up with how someone walks.
It’s the sheer complexity of the layers. I keep fastening onto one parallel, one bit, and isn’t that Caden’s flaw as well? And you shouldn’t do that here, because the power of the dream and of the life is in the whole. The brilliance is in how much there is in such a short two hours. It’s so full that I keep bouncing off it, which is perhaps what Kaufman would want anyhow. There is, inevitably, an entire world inside this movie.
“I like it, I do. But I’m really concerned about dying in the fire.” Yeah, bodies do decay, don’t they?
12/27/2022: The Villainess (2017): ***1/2
That “one shot” fight scene that opens the movie is insane. The motorcycle scene is better, maybe because Jung Byung-gil got the editing tricks out of his system. Really some of the best use of handheld cameras for action I’ve ever seen.
Now, the plot is over-egged. It’s not that bad on its own but the flashbacks weren’t texturally distinguished enough for me. Nonetheless, totally enjoyable movie.
12/28/2022: Caché (2005): ****1/2
Who knows who’s recording the tapes? Fine, it’s Haneke, and that’s how he’s breaking the fourth wall this time around. But it doesn’t matter because it’s not a mystery. Cache is a movie about facing the truth without flinching, and surveillance is the tool by which Haneke demonstrates that necessity.
In the cafe scene with Anne and Pierre, did you notice the man sitting behind them who keeps looking at them? In the swimming practice scene, did you notice that it’s all about the unseen coach giving constant feedback on what he sees?
On October 17th, 1961, the head of the Paris police ordered an attack on a large Algerian demonstration in Paris. Somewhere between 40 and 300 people died at the hands of the cops. This was denied at the time. You never saw it.
The man who gave the order was named Maurice Papon. During World War II, he collaborated with the Nazis and sent over 1,500 Jews to concentration camps. Among other war crimes. This did not prevent him from becoming an important civil servant under de Gaulle.
None of this came out until the 80s. Secrets and power and lies.
Georges is Papon in this metaphor: as Majid says, he did what he needed to do in order to get ahead. He also knows what he’s done; it’s no coincidence that his living room has one wall dedicated to videotapes of his own performances. It’s never all that convincing when he denies remembering the details, and the penultimate shot is the final nail in that coffin. It’s framed exactly like the videotape shots were framed, except this time it’s Georges’ point of view. Which tells us what we need to know about who recorded the tapes.
12/29/2022: The Vampires or, The Arch Criminals of Paris (1915): ****
I’m giving it a little bonus for being historically significant — it’s fun watching Louis Feuillade invent the thriller in front of our eyes — but it’s also kind of a lot of fun on its own. Musidora is great as Irma Vep, full of personality and barely suppressed annoyance; Louis Leubas rocks it in his all too brief time as Satanas; and Marcel Lévesque has a real comic presence, even if he seems to have forgotten that he was married somewhere in there.
The cinematography is minimalist and apparently continuity and plot flow were not huge concerns for Feuillade, but it’s never dull. (Well, there’s one pointless flashback scene, but otherwise.) And seriously, Irma Vep forever.
12/29/2022: Jacquot (1991): ****1/2
I have no objectivity here. I’ve discovered a lot of directors in this year of film, but Varda and Demy are the two who speak to my soul, and I have been captivated by their intertwining work and their love all year. I wanted to make sure I watched some of her work about him as the year closed.
The strength it took to tell her husband’s story as he was dying is remarkable. It’s not just his story, it’s him, in a number of brief segments filmed mere weeks before he passed away. The closeups are not harsh, but they’re true and unsentimental, as was Varda’s way. And Demy’s too, really, despite his use of romance to ease the sadness at the core of his movies.
The skill, too, is remarkable. Varda glides from black and white to color to segments of Demy’s films, intercut with a serene clarity. You never lose track of what you’re seeing. When a movie poster blossoms into color, you know it’s young Demy’s vision of film, so much brighter for him than the rest of the world. Where her narration is needed, she provides it. Where his commentary is needed, she films it. Varda never gets enough credit for her technical skill as an editor.
And god, the love that shines in every frame. Varda loves Demy, the person, and she loves his love for film. She’s so happy to be able to capture his passion.
“First, I studied film-making, and then I was out of work, then a filmmaker. I met a woman filmmaker, we made a few films, then she gave me a fine son, and now I paint.” — Jacques Demy
12/29/2022: Undisputed II: Last Man Standing (2006): ***
From a martial arts perspective, this is about everything you’d want. This is my first Isaac Florentine movie and I was certainly impressed; it’s also cool to see Scott Adkins in his (relative) youth. He did things in this movie I haven’t seen him do in his more recent stuff.
It suffers a bit from the fact that Adkins isn’t the protagonist; nothing wrong with Michael Jai White but Adkins really owns the screen from the first moment we see him. I’m looking forward to the next ones where he gets to be the hero.
12/30/2022: What We Do in the Shadows (2014): ***1/2
Absolutely hilarious but I wanted it to stay dark; I was interested in the way the lighthearted reality show parody was built on top of blood, gore, and tragedy. Sort of like actual reality shows. Providing a relatively happy ending kind of weakened that. The great thing about UnREAL is that it never flinched.
12/30/2022: Citizen Kane (1941): *****
Count me in the camp of those who think it lives up to its reputation.
What else? I mean, it’s all been written. That first few minutes, with the slow fades all with the mansion in the background? So good. Welles seamlessly aging until that final scene, where he’s an old man destroying his own toys? Damn.
12/30/2022: Fanny and Alexander (1984): *****
This is a luminescent movie. Both houses — the Ekdhal mansion and the Bishop’s palace — are full of light, and the cinematography sets everything aglow. (At Isak Jacobi’s house, the light emanates from Ismael.) The story is a constant sequence of revelations, in a religious sense. Bishop Vergérus would like to illuminate Alexander. In the end, that lighting is reversed.
There are too many layers here for me to analyze without spending days on it. I’m glad I chose the long version. Here’s one, though: Carl Ekdahl has no qualms about emotional rants directed at his poor wife Lydia, but when it comes to the confrontation with Bishop Vergérus, he’s the calm one and his brother Gustav Adolf loses his head. There aren’t any perfect characters here, and Bergman takes the time to make sure we understand all of them.
It’s all in the service of expressing Bergman’s views about creativity. It’s everything in his world, even though the price is too often pain. That line of the Bishop’s, after he dies? “You won’t get rid of me that easy?” That’s a promise as well as a threat, I think. Alexander — Bergman’s stand-in — will make art from the pain he will always remember.
12/31/2022: The Hole (1998): ****1/2
If you take one aspect of human existence and spend a leisurely ninety minutes exploring it, and if that aspect was loneliness, you might wind up with this movie. I watched it on New Year’s Eve 2022 as a prophetic apocalyptic double feature with Strange Days and I would recommend that double bill to anyone.
12/31/2022: Strange Days (1995): ****1/2
New Year’s Eve, 35mm, The Grand Illusion in Seattle.
Thirty years on, almost, and it still holds up. It still feels like seeing the future. And the action scenes! I was just being impressed by the POV opening of The Villainess and then I’m reminded of what Bigelow pulled off in 1995. Whew.
Juliette Lewis wasn’t as bad as I’d recalled. Once you keep in mind that her character is a street rat who’s acting like her dream of a success, the artificial affect makes sense. That also helps remind you that Fiennes is likewise playing a loser who gets conned or pushed around by everyone else in the whole movie.
I didn’t remember how optimistic the ending was. Cue the eternal argument about how much Bigelow trusts uniforms. But you know, the tonally consistent reading of the finale is that a corrupt organization sacrificed a couple of individuals to maintain control over the streets.
It’s probably not what Bigelow had in mind. Probably.
12/31/2022: Maps to the Stars (2014): ****
Cronenberg has very strong opinions on the importance of evolution and change. Better embrace them, or else you wind up just repeating the sins of your parents over and over again. Also, he has no fondness for Hollywood.
Julianne Moore gives this movie a throbbing life that balances Cronenberg’s natural detachment. Mia Wasikowska watches Hollywood like it was an alien planet. Cronenberg has never been a director who coaxes new heights out of his actors, so his best movies involve people who can bring their own flavors to the screen.
1/1/2023: The World of Jacques Demy (1995): ***1/2
Not as deeply emotional as Jacquot de Nantes, but Varda is an expert at documenting the facts and the emotions those facts elicit. If the previous movie allowed her to show what her husband meant to her, this one was where she showed what he meant to the world.
1/1/2023: Aftersun (2022): ****1/2
I kept thinking about We’re All Going To The World’s Fair as I drove home from the theater. They’re very different movies, but there’s something about the way Jane Schoenbrun and Charlotte Wells draw on their own life experiences to tell stories, intermediated by low quality video.
Anyhow, that’s just me thinking. Aftersun stands on its own, quietly effective, as sad as Paul Mescal’s performance. It’s perfectly realized, usually in close ups, usually at an eleven year old’s height. I hope Frankie Corio decides she wants to keep acting.
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