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Movie Reviews: 5/29/2023 to 6/4/2023

Movies reviewed this week: Winners & Sinners, The Green Ray, Papillon, Smokey and the Bandit, Scarlet Street, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, Yes, Madam!, Dreams, and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.

5/29/2023: Winners & Sinners (1983): ***

Sammo Hung and a bunch of other people including Jackie Chan make this one worthwhile. I can’t say I’d prioritize it very highly, though. It’s pretty much a non-stop barrage of slapstick with a very thin plot, plus one great Jackie Chan chase scene and one Sammo Hung fight scene that should have gotten an extra five minutes.

During the opening sequence, there’s a quick throwaway gag that Soderbergh reused decades later, so that’s fun too.

5/29/2023: The Green Ray (1986): ****

There are two books at the heart of this movie. The first is The Green Ray, by Jules Verne, which is not about a French woman casting about for the right summer vacation. The second is Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, which shares that characteristic. But Dostoevsky’s Myshkin is seen as an idiot despite being intelligent and empathic, and in the Verne novel, Oliver and Helena sacrifice their quest to see the green ray in favor of seeing each other clearly.

Draw the Venn diagram of those two books, and there’s the movie. Like Myshkin, Delphine has her thought out convictions and a sharp wit, even if nobody ever notices it:

“Must make eating with others difficult.”
“Like right now.”

She stands in contrast to everyone who tells her that she should settle for simulacra. One man asserts that the Seine is as good as the sea. Everyone’s constantly explaining what’s good for her. In Biarritz, it takes Léna all of five seconds to explain how Delphine is screwing up her tan.

Her independence in no way prevents her lonely sadness, but that’s the point of the movie. To dislike her would be to think there’s something wrong with trying, something wrong with being picky, as she lays out quite clearly in the final scenes. I like that the ending is ambiguous as well. Is Jacques the guy? Is she even going to accept his invitation? She’s reversed Verne’s protagonists and pushed aside romance for the sake of the green ray.

And boy, that echoes the risks Rohmer took. He wasn’t willing to accept a simulation either. He spent months trying to capture the green ray on film before finally getting lucky… or, come to think of it, before finally earning the rewards of persistence.

6/1/2023: Papillon (1973): ****

Sometimes the imperfections are overwhelmed by power, you know? I didn’t love the ending sequence — not the very last bit, that was great, but the whole oddball interstitial scene. I didn’t think it added to the plot, except for that religious betrayal, but I still didn’t need the idyllic interlude.

Doesn’t much matter. McQueen put himself on the line to make us believe, and young Hoffman was a marvel. And the whole painful drumbeat of subjugation and helplessness had so much weight I could almost physically feel it.

I was also struck by the empathy. McQueen’s manly, Hoffman’s rich, but Robert Deman’s queer orderly is the most competent prisoner in the whole movie.

The lepers don’t get to dream of escape.

Boofest 2023: connected to The Wicker Man by imprisonment on islands.

6/2/2023: Smokey and the Bandit (1977): ***1/2

For a cobbled together excuse to celebrate truckers and have a few chase scenes, this is pretty fun. The chase scenes aren’t great but the car crashes sure are. Sally Fields and Burt Reynolds carry this on charisma, which is just fine, and Jackie Gleason puts just enough sincere malevolence in his performance to keep the buffoonery in check.

6/3/2023: Scarlet Street (1945): ****

There’s literally one character in the entire thing who isn’t obviously despicable, and I’m not too optimistic about the moralist reporter. It’s just laden with sleaze. Watch for the early shot of a sink full of dirty dishes and assume it’s symbolic foreshadowing, because it is.

It’s fun seeing peak slimeball Dan Duryea, it’s nice seeing Edward G. Robinson playing against type, and Joan Bennett is on point with her blithe, guiltless avarice. Lang, as always, knows what chiaroscuro is for.

6/3/2023: Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023): ****

That was spectacular. Kinetic with quiet spaces for the emotional bits; complex without making the answers easy. There’s a late scene where someone makes an emotional speech, and it would have been easy to just have it be convincing, but nah: the desired outcome requires a sacrifice, as the movie has been telling us all along.

The necessity of sacrifice is the core of the movie. This is an incomplete review, because the final installment is going to have to square that circle and I don’t think either side of the argument is correct. There’s a way through the dilemma, maybe, but I have no idea if Miller and Lord will take it.

Regardless, we’re going to have gotten animation like this and cultural joy like this. That’s not nothing. We also got something I never would have imagined, because this is as much a Spider-Gwen story as a Miles Morales story. How likely was that? How good was that?

6/3/2023: Yes, Madam! (1985): ****1/2

It holds up.

Rothrock and Yeoh are great together, particularly in the final fight scene. They’re two highly skilled athletes working with Corey Yuen, who knows how to direct an action scene and get the best out of everyone. It’s notable for how brutal it is, despite the relatively comedic tone: the hits are jarringly hard for everyone.

But there’s more to the movie than the legendary ending. Yuen had a good eye for shots, particularly transitions. There’s a fluidity to his camera work that stands out for the time; these days the cool angles are routine but not so much then. There are also a handful of clever transition cuts that’d hold up against anyone’s work.

Tsui Hark gets a special shout-out for his performance as a pure agent of chaos, and for holding down his end of the dizzying chase scene in his ACME brand apartment. He’s clearly having so much fun; makes me wish he’d spent more time acting, but I wouldn’t want to lose his directing career either.

The new restoration on the 88 Films box set is delightfully crisp, and the supplements are a blast. I could listen to Cynthia Rothrock reminisce during action scene commentary all day.

6/4/2023: Dreams (1955): ***

There’s a certain conservativeness in this which disappointed me. It’s an eloquent movie, visually impressive and well-acted, but Susanne and Doris go an awfully long way just to return to the haven of domesticity. It’s more Crisis than Smiles of a Summer Night.

6/4/2023: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002): ****1/2

My experience with the Vengeance Trilogy is shaped by the way I saw Oldboy: in the middle of a 24 hour movie marathon alongside such easy watches as Haute Tension and The Passion of the Christ. I have a high transgression threshold but that night pushed me right up against it. I saw the other two Vengeance movies soon afterwards but I was predisposed to squirm.

That’s a fair place to be for Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, but with my eyes half-closed from the beginning I didn’t pick up on Park Chan-wook’s chilly empathy. He goes deep into the squalor of South Korean poverty but as always, he’s not just rubbing our face in it for the sake of extremity. It’s important that we understand why Ryu is making horrible bloody decisions: he doesn’t have half a chance in the face of South Korea’s turn of the millennium neoliberal success story.

Equally, Park Dong-jin (a magnificent Song Kang-ho performance) is part of the problem — class warfare is pretty key here — but also helpless to fix anything. He tries to save the one child; it doesn’t work. I’m oddly reminded of Fassbinder’s critique of post-war Germany. It’s good to escape dictatorship, but civilian control isn’t a guarantee of freedom.

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