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Movie Reviews: 3/20/2023 to 3/26/2023

Movies reviewed this week: Bridge of Spies, Burn Out, Triangle of Sadness, Brotherhood of the Wolf, One Hundred and One Nights, Estonia Dreams of Eurovision!, Witchhammer, and The Last of Sheila.

3/20/2023: Bridge of Spies (2015): ****

It is too easy to forget how good Spielberg is. This is a corny patriotic historical movie that involves Tom Hanks winning over a Russian spy by the sheer power of decency, and I am a cynical man, but it works. Partial credit to Mark Rylance, who brought the full power of his eyebrows to this, but Spielberg is just so sincere! Hey, let’s cut from a courtroom rising for the judge to a bunch of adorable kids saying the Pledge of Allegiance to a filmstrip about the dangers of nuclear war! But let’s do it perfectly.

There is, overall, just enough Coen Brothers edge in the script to keep me from succumbing to saccharine overdose. Spielberg knows drama, and the key in Berlin is that Hanks is getting pressured to betray his principles from both sides.

Also in case you’d forgotten Spielberg’s skills as an action director, which to be honest I had, let’s throw in a sequence where the SR-71 gets shot down and let’s make it insanely tense. I do wish Jesse Plemons had played Gary Powers, because he always adds this underlying self-awareness to the goofy-looking slice of Americana roles, but he was fine as the friend too.

3/23/2023: Burn Out (2017): **1/2

There are better action movies in the world. The motorcycle scenes were well filmed, particularly the races, and I liked the way the sound design told us that the world faded around Tony when he was racing. But lord, he was a cipher and there’s no reason to like him other than how pretty he is. I don’t believe he’s addicted to adrenaline; he’s just self-absorbed.

Boofest 2023: connected to The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner by kids in trouble with the law who try and outrun their problems.

3/24/2023: Triangle of Sadness (2022): ***1/2

That was pretty savage. Was it stellar social commentary otherwise? It wasn’t bad, although like everyone says, we’ve seen Parasite already. It’s hard to find new ground here: rich people have no empathy, etc. So if you’re gonna do this movie, you’ve got to really push yourself.

Östlund elevates the material by going over the top. It’s a grotesque movie, at times literally but by the third act mostly emotionally. Deadpan transgression past the limits of rational behavior: “Look, if we just told everyone it’d be okay.”

Nice to see Milo managed to recover from his setbacks.

3/25/2023: Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001): ****

Just roll with it. The confusion about genre is easily cleared up when you remember that it’s an exploitation film and is not constrained by your expectations. If Gans wants to jazz up the story with another couple of conspiracies, he can do that. This basic fact is obscured by the amount of money spent on this sucker and the generally competent acting, but it’d be comfortable in a discount video rack anyhow.

This is a good thing. I like an overstuffed melange of elements and although the brownskin is pretty bad, I didn’t have high expectations for 2001 France. My only real complaint is that the fight scenes were chopped and slo-mo’d and generally abused until they couldn’t be followed. That’s a waste of Phillip Kwok‘s fight choreography.

And moment to moment, it’s a gorgeous film full of gorgeous people. Totally enjoyable, held up well to my memories.

3/25/2023: One Hundred and One Nights (1995): ****

That’s an absolute joy. It’s more playful than thoughtful, more joyous than deep, but that’s of course by choice. Varda loves cinema, that fluid slippery art, and in the final act of her career she spent a lot of time showing us why.

If there’s a message here it’s just that movies are worth celebrating. The cameos and extended visits are a chance to show off everyone’s charisma. Elizabeth Taylor is actually a stand-in to remind us that stars aren’t everything. It’s delightful.

The fluidity shows in the way Varda invites cuts and transitions into the “real” world. There’s a shot towards the end when Piccoli heads off to Hollywood and she cuts to a toy plane flying across the screen, then pulls back and it’s Mathieu Demy filming the plane for his own movie. Boundaries are for chumps, because this is cinema.

And at the end, she closes with my beloved running sequence from Mauvais sang. The quiet dialogue between Carax and Varda makes me wonder if they knew each other well. Holy Motors shares Michel Piccoli with this, and they’re both tributes to cinema… but who knows? What matters is that we can watch them.

3/25/2023: Estonia Dreams of Eurovision! (2002): ***

Dry as anything; I have to assume Marina Zenovich knew what she was doing. Eurovision is a symphony of excess that nevertheless serves as a load bearing structure for European national pride. By going serious, Zenovich can show us why this meant a lot to Estonia; by keeping her tongue in her cheek she can show us Estonia’s flaws without preaching. The shot of Dave holding up his passport was absolutely laden with unspoken commentary.

3/25/2023: Witchhammer (1970): ****

Phew, that’s a grueling ride. I’m imagining Otakar Vávra watching his Czech New Wave students get slowly stifled by the end of the Velvet Revolution; while he was always willing to go along with whatever regime was in charge, perhaps there was a bit of anger underneath? Because from the not so lofty perch of 2023, I can’t read this as anything other than a brutal condemnation of Communist show trials.

“No, no, comrades; it’s about the corruption of religion. Obviously.”

In fact, as I watch more of the movies in the Severin folk horror boxed set, I’m beginning to notice the additional common thread in Kier-La Janisse’s masterful curation. It’s not always the church (although it often is), but there’s always a tradition oppressing or threatening the protagonists. Witchhammer is no exception.

It’s got the feel of a movie made by a master craftsman who’d been making movies for a long time. Interesting depth of space, good black and white cinematography, and a sense of control over the medium. It’s slow at times, but that’s Vávra setting the horrific moments into context. Small men doing small things, and then occasionally torturing people half to death, right?

3/26/2023: The Last of Sheila (1973): ***

I can’t stop laughing about how seriously everyone took Christine’s reveal, and how blasé people were about Philip’s. This is a 70s show business movie and it’s made for 70s show business people and that’s that. There was a time when everyone in Hollywood could get together for a grand old party/film shoot, with James Coburn chewing up all the scenery. These days if you want to do that kind of thing you have to make a Marvel movie.

The dialogue is as piercing as you’d expect from Sondheim, but the third act drags tremendously. The end of the second act was so legitimately tense, it was hard to rebuild for another round of misdirection.

And yep, it’s core viewing if you’re curious about Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion inspirations.

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