Movies reviewed this week: Judas and the Black Messiah, A Lesson in Love, In the Line of Duty 4, Le Mans, The Lovers on the Bridge, Asteroid City, and In the Earth.
6/19/2023: Judas and the Black Messiah (2021): ****
it’s fascinating how straightforward this movie is. Like, it’s a biopic about an admirable figure who was assassinated by the government: if these events hadn’t happened in Chicago, it’d just be another prestige drama. We’re so distant from our own history sometimes.
Well, okay, the title is a bit provocative, but the parallels are valid.
I didn’t know the Rainbow Coalition history and I thought Fred Hampton’s pitch to the Young Patriots was mesmerizing. Daniel Kaluuya was mesmerizing throughout. Um, why did the Academy slot him into the Best Supporting Actor category again? What was I saying about history?
Lovely evocation of the 1960s on top of it all. Shaka King nailed the period feel without going over the top with filters and such.
6/19/2023: A Lesson in Love (1954): ***1/2
It takes Bergman to make a perfectly good screwball comedy into a melancholy meditation on love. I found the ending to be a touch too contrived; Eva Dahlbeck deserves better than to be outsmarted, even if she figured it out along the way. The flashbacks also don’t completely add up to a coherent thesis.
Nevertheless, Dahlbeck and Gunnar Björnstrand are wickedly funny and Åke Grönberg is a marvelously egotistical giant of a gremlin. I enjoyed this one a lot; it’s a good finale to the first stretch of Criterion’s boxed set.
6/19/2023: In the Line of Duty 4 (1989): ***1/2
The series returns to form under the competent oversight of Yuen Woo-ping. Impossibly young Donnie Yen has a rooftop fight scene that’s right up there with anything else in the series, and his motorcycle duel is also painfully good. He overshadows Cynthia Khan to a degree but what can you do?
For a movie with a couple of hero cop protagonists, it’s surprisingly ACAB. There’s a scene with a Seattle cop beating the crap out of an innocent suspect plus a pithy summary of the entire Iran-Contra scandal. So I suppose it’s actually just All American Cops; the Hong Kong police are upstanding.
Oh yeah! The Seattle and Vancouver-posing-as-Seattle opening is a lot of fun.
6/22/2023: Le Mans (1971): ***1/2
The trick to great car scenes isn’t that hard: you attach a camera to a real car and drive it really fast. People keep forgetting it, though, so we’re always delighted when Frankenheimer or Miller remember it. This movie has great car scenes.
Lee Katzin never did all that much as a film director, and the parts of this movie which are completely his are somewhat pedestrian. The plot is sparse, although not thin, with a few moments when McQueen and Elga Andersen have a quiet conversation away from the racing. Those are Katzin’s. They don’t excite, except in the one monologue when McQueen explains that there’s no reason to live outside the race.
But man, when we get to the race itself? Spectacular. I think the editors probably did a lot of the heavy lifting there, along with McQueen himself, since it was his movie and his passion project. Right at the beginning, before you’ve even realized that there’s going to be like half an hour with no dialogue, we cut from McQueen’s arrival in Le Mans to a night time race scene that’s conveyed by just headlights, flashing almost abstractly against the dark background. It’s good. All the race scenes are good. The last five minutes of the race are tremendous.
I was pleased to see Michel Legrand in the opening credits. It’s not a good movie for his style — the sound we care about is the whine of the engines — but I’m never sad to hear that swelling romantic jazzy sensibility. And over all the sound design is pretty solid, with occasional pockets when the sound cuts out for maximum impact.
6/23/2023: The Lovers on the Bridge (1991): ****1/2
I had to have a good long think about the ending. On the surface, it’s unearned, because Alex’s jealousy is never resolved. He throws Michele off the bridge, falling with her, and they sink. How can those twelve seconds of staring into each others eyes, deep underwater, redeem his obsessive need for control?
It can’t in the real world, of course, but we’re in Carax’ Paris and if he can gracefully show his homeless protagonists waterskiing down the Seine, he can take some other shortcuts. Still, it’s not enough. There has to be symbolism of change.
In the end I realized there was. For the majority of the movie, Alex is trapped on the bridge. He’s afraid to leave. His drugs are there. It’s his home. It’s in the title.
But at the very final moment, on the barge which is itself an homage to a classic French movie about love, Alex and Michele give up the bridge. The barge is going to the Atlantic, and so are they, and I think that’s the symbolic pivot point. I can understand why it might not be enough for anyone — Alex is really badly obsessive, and a breathtaking shot of fire in the Metro doesn’t mitigate how poorly he’s behaved. I’m a Carax fanboy, however, and Binoche in particular convinces me to believe it.
And on a side note, for a wildly fantastic movie, this film is a gritty portrayal of living without shelter. Carax is unflinching, while Binoche and Lavant are brave in their commitment. That obsession with place? There’s an alley behind our house, and a guy named Charles used to live there, because he’d lived there for a decade and it was his home. This movie gets that completely right.
Anyhow. It’s 2023. Perhaps someday Carax and Binoche and Lavant will get together and make the third movie in the trilogy about obsessive love; until then I’ll settle for the two we have.
6/24/2023: Asteroid City (2023): ****
Sometimes you can deal with grief by telling stories. (Time does not heal all wounds.)
Aesthetically among his very best. I cheered when the black and white scenes had a pop of color. It’s also deeply murky. A while ago I said:
The sole question that separates a good Wes Anderson movie from a great Wes Anderson movie is this: does he make it clear that his characters are living in a fragile mythic soap bubble?
It’s pretty clear in Asteroid City, which is a framing device inside a framing device. I just don’t have a handle on what the artifice is saying about the reality. At one point the documentary about the play makes it very clear that Jason Schwartzman (as the actor within the documentary) isn’t falling in love with Scarlett Johansson (ditto) even if the characters in the play in the documentary are, just to eliminate any chance of assumptions that the whole thing is about bleed between actors and characters. But where does that leave us?
“You can’t wake up if you don’t go to sleep.”
The more I think about it, the more I think it’s simply about the power and the importance of story. There are a whole lot of stories in here. Characters tell stories for no particular reason. June the schoolteacher and Montana sneak a pretty good story in there, without any connection to anything our protagonists are doing. There’s a whole cops and robber story happening on the road through Asteroid City, and it is never explained.
I’m going to need to see this again.
6/24/2023: In the Earth (2021): ****
That’s the esoteric Ben Wheatley psychedelia I know and love. He assumes an awful lot of prior knowledge and worldview in this movie. I’ve always been nervous about mushrooms, let alone vast interconnected plant intelligences, so I was predisposed to like this kind of thing. Others may justifiably differ.
There are layers here. I liked how Wheatley tilted the COVID-19 pandemic to accentuate the lack of human connection we all felt. It’s worse in this world. That’s enough to make the need for connection with Parnag Fegg feel very real. You can draw a through line from pandemic isolation to a few truly insane decisions.
The visuals are unsurprisingly excellent throughout. Trust Wheatley to create an atmosphere of rising dread.