Movies reviewed this week: Le Bonheur, Vision Quest, The Night of the 12th, Opponent, 20 Days in Mariupol, My Animal, Ajoomma, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, Irati, Chile ’76, and Free Money.
5/8/2023: Le Bonheur (1965): ****1/2
Scintillatingly savage. There are Varda movies where she’s open and thoughtful and takes you along with her down the dizzyingly complex roads of her artistic vision, and there are Varda movies where she maintains this perfect deadpan all the way through. “Oh, you want to know what I was thinking? I put in several picnics because I like picnics and my husband Jacques did not, that’s what I was thinking.”
It’s a movie about stories. There are movie references throughout, from pinup posters to discussions about film. At the end, in one montage, there are long loving shots of books. (One of them written by Jacques Prévert, the poet and screenwriter.) François, our protagonist, is telling himself a pretty story about the consequences of his actions, and even when it turns out that he’s wrong, the overarching direction of the story stays the same.
Roles matter here as well. Again, in that ending montage, most of what we see of the wife is just her hands. These hands — always doing the work traditionally assigned to women — could be anyone. The important thing here is that there’s a woman doing the cooking and cleaning, rather than the specifics of who it is. François’ story is about tropes, not people.
And man, that makes the casting of Jean-Claude Drouot’s real wife and family as François’ wife and children rather daring. Claire Drouot was not otherwise an actress. There’s a great interview with her on the Criterion disc, and it sounds like the Drouots still laugh about the movie, but there’s also a bit where they all acknowledge it was an emotionally risky move.
It’s also worth noting that it’s a stunningly skilled movie. The way Varda uses fast edits and montage is every bit as good as any Godard, if not better — there’s more purpose to it with her. More control. Her use of color is likewise perfect, as yet another indication that we’re watching a fantasy version of François’s life.
5/11/2023: Vision Quest (1985): **1/2
Other than some flashes of existential awareness from Matthew Modine, this wound up being a generic high school sports movie from the 80s with a killer soundtrack. Hi, Madonna. If the writer or director had taken the time to develop Modine’s opponent a bit, they might have had an interesting movie about why kids compete on their hands, but that wasn’t the assignment.
5/12/2023: The Night of the 12th (2022): ***1/2
Little bit of Memories of Murder, whole lot of David Fincher, just enough originality to make it worthwhile. I wouldn’t call the reflections on gender subtle but that’s okay.
5/12/2023: Opponent (2023): ***
The physicality of the film was so good for the first two acts. Payman Maadi uses his body to convey anguish, fear, yearning: it’s a superb performance. That’s necessary, because one level of the story is about Western countries using refugees for their bodies, one way or another. Midway through, Marall Nasiri sits down at a piano and it becomes clear that if Maadi is a good wrestler, she’s an equally good pianist. But that’s not what Sweden wants from them, so it doesn’t matter.
As I said: so good. But there is almost too much there. I can’t in good conscience say any of the plot elements should be removed; I just think it’s overstuffed enough so that nothing gets enough spotlight. And then there’s a sudden act of traumatic violence and suddenly we’ve lost the situations that director Milad Alami spent so much time constructing. The third act fizzles.
5/12/2023: 20 Days in Mariupol (2023): ****1/2
Early on, a furious doctor orders Mstyslav Chernov to keep filming while he tries to save a four year old child. He wants Putin to see what he’s done. It won’t be the last time you see dead or dying children in this movie, and it won’t be the last time someone tells Chernov to keep filming. To tell the world.
The raw force of the images makes it clear why this is necessary. Chernov keeps showing us global media reporting, using the same footage we’ve just seen him and his crew shoot. It’s a powerful statement about journalism.
At the same time, he’s frank about effectiveness. Thinking back on the last eight years of rebellion and war: “I kept filming. But everything stayed the same.”
Chernov’s likewise honest about war’s effects. There are heroics. There are looters. I was watching for glorification of the Azov Battalion, and there’s not even the ghost of a hint of it. I admire his integrity.
Difficult movie. Worth your time if you’re able to handle the trauma on screen. This is war, whether it’s in Ukraine or Syria or Myanmar.
5/13/2023: My Animal (2023): ****
This is just lovely. Jacqueline Castel goes deep with the reds and purples, and it’s meaningful rather than just saturated, varying throughout the film to convey emotional states. The red is set against the bitter whites of a Canadian winter. The pain of first love is written on Bobbi Salvör Menuez’s face, and the whole thing is set into a gem of a set of troubled family dynamics.
Yeah, yeah, queer Canadian teen romance werewolf movie set in the 80s. It’s not original to use werewolves as a metaphor for queer awakening sexuality, but Castel handles it well, and the 80s setting is more than just an homage to John Carpenter. As she noted during the Q&A after the movie, she wanted to heighten the isolation, and that means no cell phones. The snow is also a barrier. There is quite literally nowhere to escape.
It’s also deftly crafted. Those family dynamics have everything to do with the hereditary werewolf curse, and while there might not be a fully fleshed out mythology here, the rituals and the necessities of the family hold together seamlessly. Of course that’s what you need to do when certain things happen. I also adored the hockey subplot. Without hitting you over the head with it, Menuez’ Heather has to try to break into a man’s world if she wants to play hockey at all, and that’s the whole movie in miniature, in a way. (Pay attention to how she has to repeat her father’s line in the closing scene: she picks up his burden.)
Finally, the acting is excellent. Menuez carries the emotional load of the movie, and they really do it well. It’s an arc from ennui to hope to — no spoilers — and it’s convincing. Stephen McHattie also stands out as the father, weathered by his own curse. Amandla Stenberg kind of lives in a different world than everyone else, but that’s the point, right?
I think that while the historical setting is justified, it is also a bit limiting. Cool psychedelic transformation sequences aside, there’s not necessarily a ton of new ground here. Not that there needs to be, and it’s good to tell this story, but the tropes here are so strong it’s hard to be completely surprised by anything.
Still really loved it, though.
5/13/2023: Ajoomma (2022): ***
It’s a perfectly serviceable comedy/drama about lonely people. Interestingly minimalist, without as much resolution as I’d have liked for characters who I thought earned it. On the other hand, I appreciated the empathy for Hong Huifang’s middle aged woman, and there’s something to be said for avoiding the assumption that she needed a big upheaval in her life.
5/13/2023: John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019): ***1/2
Held up better than I thought it would. Going back to this after watching the fourth installment, it’s striking how much more martial arts there is — IV relied really heavily on gunplay, which is a step back even though those scenes were very good. The mythos is also fully developed without being overdone.
Alas, the whole central Morocco loop is fruitless. It’s hard to accept that John Wick would lie to avoid a bad situation, since that’d be the only time in the entire series that he doesn’t rely on his ability to fight his way through anything. And either way, it’s a full half hour of movie that could be cut out with zero impact on the plot.
5/14/2023: Irati (2022): ****
Not more than fifteen minutes into the movie and we’re watching a river spirit seduce and drown a French warrior, and that’s not even the most gonzo thing that’s happened in those fifteen minutes. It’s not a high fantasy epic, but it’s distinctly fantastic. The whole thing draws on Basque folklore to excellent effect.
Paul Urkijo Aliko has a head start with the landscape he films in. The Pyrenees are significantly gorgeous and he knows how to capture the mystery of the forest and the grandeur of the mountains. The acting lives up to the scenery: everyone’s suitably primeval and earthy, and they take the slow decay of the pagan gods seriously enough to bring us along for the ride.
Basque chieftain Eneko’s journey into the underworld is the centerpiece of the movie. Aliko uses the darkness of the caves to good effect with his presumably limited special effects budget, and it’s all suitably mythic and elemental. The use of cave paintings really grounds the movie with a sense of a history that extends way past what any of the characters remember. Excepting of course Mari, the pagan goddess who is slipping from the memory of Eneko’s people.
Easily the best sword and sorcery movie since the original Conan. Aliko said before the movie that he wanted to bring the myths of his people to the screen, and yep, he sure did that.
5/14/2023: Chile ’76 (2022): ***1/2
Satisfying historical paranoid thriller. The plot wasn’t twisty to speak of, but the motivations of the protagonist were opaque as anything. Possibly even to herself. I really enjoyed the quiet commentary on class — there’s an entire story lurking behind who gets in trouble and who does not.
I am not normally a huge soundtrack person, although I appreciate the greats, but I can’t go without mentioning Mariá Portugal‘a amazing work here. Her score is discordant and jagged and merciless, and contributes substantially to the slow patient burn and the tension.
5/14/2023: Free Money (2022): **
I believe in the importance of UBI and boy this movie pissed me off. It’s not necessary to open with a sequence of Africans expressing superstitious fear of free money; as the documentary later notes, NGO efforts in that part of the world have been damaging more than once. Maybe make that connection.
By the end they sort of pulled back from the brink with the painful story of Jael, who was unfairly passed over for the UBI experiment. Her anger alternates with snippets of Michael Faye interviews, in which he tries to explain that it’s not really an experiment, it’s an A/B test. So that was good, but not sharp enough really.
It’s not an A/B test, for what it’s worth. For a valid A/B test you need to have cohorts on both sides of the test from the same groupings, demographic or otherwise. So you’d need people from Kogutu who were and were not getting the UBI. Which would be awful.
The most interesting thing in the movie was the intermediary, whose name I’ll edit in if I can find it. She’s Kenyan, I think, and she’s intensely superior and critical of the people she sees as potential cheats. At one point she threatens to cut off the entire village if people lie. She tells everyone this is their one chance. I wanted to hear more about how she wound up in a position of power.
At least they managed to avoid any SBF cameos; the most embarrassing celeb advocating for UBI is Elon Musk.