Movies reviewed this week: Becket, Lost Bullet 2, Up in the Air, Mr. Turner, Breaking News, and Dirty Ho.
2/20/2023: Becket (1964): ***1/2
There’s nothing like one of these big huge 60s historical epics, and this one has Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole making big speeches at each other. It’s gorgeous and sprawling with more scenery than you can shake a stick at. Well worth it for that alone.
I unkindly compared this to The Lion in the Winter while watching. Despite the commonality of O’Toole as Henry II, they’re not the same kind of movie — the latter is a vicious drawing room fight, not an epic at all. But it still has two things that Becket does not. First, there’s a sharp sense of humor, which in no way relieves the tension of the movie. Second, there is no moral high ground. The black and white morality of Becket prevents it from being as good as it could be.
You know pretty quickly that Henry II is a dissolute cruel monarch. You know just as quickly that Becket wants to do well, and thinks poorly of himself. There’s not as much tension in it as I wanted.
This is somewhat redeemed by Burton’s subtle touches. By the end, a wise viewer will know that Becket is fighting Henry II because he loves the game, and because he’s angry at the Normans, and because he’s angry at himself. In about that order. Burton knows that Becket’s ascetic turn was a fraud, and he plays it that way, with this subtle edge of desire in his voice when he tells God about how hard he’ll fight for the Church. I am not sure that was the intent of the script or director, but Burton has his own opinions.
2/21/2023: Lost Bullet 2 (2022): ***1/2
It’s the second part of a trilogy and it fails to live up to the first movie’s opening scene, but that’s an awfully high standard. We get to the serious car chase scenes before too much time passes and from there onward everything is absolutely fine. Keep in mind, as you watch the cars occupy all three dimensions of space, that it’s all practical effects.
2/23/2023: Up in the Air (2009): ****1/2
I am thankfully no longer doing this, but a few years back I had a job which required me to fly from San Francisco to LA a couple of times a month. I got good at travel, although that’s a pretty short hop. I still keep my travel bag packed and my toiletry bag fresh, because it’s just easier to have the routine in place. What I’m saying is that while I am on the very very low end of the scale and George Clooney’s Brian is at the top, I am familiar with the world and Jason Reitman captures it perfectly.
So that’s a plus. I liked seeing the cool blues and grays. I know offices, and I’ve been involved in my share of layoffs from both directions. I liked — well, appreciated — the sense of liminal disruption that permeates the movie. Brian talks about helping people through their transition, and what is air travel but a strange transition from place to place? (Marriage is the nice kind of transition, just for contrast.)
Stellar cast. There’s a bit where Anna Kendrick is yelling at George Clooney and he just lets that little bit of anger show, enough for us to know that she’s getting to him but not enough to really break his placid facade. For a warm man, he’s capable of playing a pretty hollow character.
Really the thing I liked most, though, was that this movie doesn’t have any flinch in it. Maybe just a little, but it’s not a movie about a man who learns better or a young woman who grows up or any of that. It’s a grim movie about an empty man who comes face to face with everything he passed up. Not totally sure why this is filed in the comedy section.
Boofest 2023: connected to The Grand Budapest Hotel by the preference to live in hotels.
2/25/2023: Mr. Turner (2014): ***1/2
There are only a handful of shots in this film that aren’t about the way light touches surfaces, and there are only a handful of scenes that aren’t about the way sadness touches Turner. He’s not unlike Mary Somerville’s prism, alas, refracting his own misery onto others.
The darkest shades of Turner’s fictional character are fictional; the abusive relationship with his housekeeper was added for the sake of the film. At the end of the day it’s a brilliant series of vignettes, and I don’t think Mike Leigh had any interest in drawing conclusions for us. I don’t know that he thought there were any to be drawn, besides the easy fact of Turner’s genius. He wanted to balance that genius with the darkness, for whatever reason.
Turner is my favorite painter, and this was a magnificently crafted movie. Very funny despite it all. Amazing cinematography that goes far beyond recreating Turner’s imagery on the screen. Superb acting from Spall and the rest of the cast. Leigh’s process pays off. I just don’t know what to make of it.
2/25/2023: Breaking News (2004): ****
Kelly Chen dead-eyes her way through this like there’s nothing in the world more important than her character’s career. For the rest, it’s just a masterclass in tense action scenes and a brilliant seven minute opening tracking shot. So what’s not to love?
2/25/2023: Dirty Ho (1979): ****
I wasn’t expecting a light-hearted kung fu comedy to have the best fight choreography of the entire Arrow Shawscope boxed set, but surprise is what makes life great. I expected it to be good, because Lau Kar-leung was one of the best fight choreographers and directors ever, but this was sublime.
Unlike Heroes of the East, Dirty Ho isn’t about showcasing a range of styles, although there are a couple of mini-gauntlet sequences which were quite good. It’s about teamwork, with Gordon Liu as the lead dancer and both Wong Yu and Kara Hui as his partner. It’s magical; I’m not kidding when I say that these sequences peak very close to the best Hollywood dance scenes of the classic era. Lau’s lengthy shots give the actors time to flow.
The little touches are wonderful. Lau uses color throughout the movie with a kind of brazen aplomb. The early scenes in the pleasure boats are drenched in vivid hues, framing the playful action neatly. Later, he splashes color into the fight scenes with a red sash on a weapon here and a colorful belt there. Then he uses those splashes to draw the eye towards the part of the action that he wants us to watch. It’s just masterful.
The story also works. Deep? Nah, but genuinely funny as a buddy action comedy. And the action supports the narrative: the story of the two leads working together is told with their fight scenes, as they learn to harmonize physically. Murtaugh and Riggs have some studying to do.
Our Saturday morning movie date is going to switch to the Severin folk horror set for a while, but watch for Arrow Shawscope Volume 2 reviews later this year.
Mr Turner was one of the last movies I saw with my mother and it’s hard for me to untie that circumstance from the film, but I remember it as being gorgeous and sad.
Ooof, yeah, and it’s a movie about family and death to boot.
Gorgeous and sad is a good pair of words for it. Mike Leigh is brilliant and that shines through even in the movies of his I like less.