Movies reviewed this week: Past Lives, Attica, Two-Lane Blacktop, Santa Sangre, Computer Chess, Paranoia, Wheels on Meals, Nimona, and And God Said to Cain.
6/26/2023: Past Lives (2023): ****1/2
It’s a delicate movie for something so sharp. Celine Song has a lot of ground to cover, so she just uses a few brushstrokes to imply a lot. Her actors are up for it. The end result is immaculate.
While it is achingly romantic, I think it would be a mistake to see it as a romance, regardless of which combination you’re thinking of. Consider the opening. A couple of people who we never see are telling stories about the three protagonists. There isn’t a moment of wasted time in this film; that opening has a point.
It’s that everyone’s telling stories. Nora and Arthur are writers! For the entire film, people are telling each other stories to justify their feelings, or to explain, or to persuade. They tell themselves stories too. Some of the stories turn out to be lies, even if Song doesn’t loop back and show you.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind indeed.
6/29/2023: Attica (1974): ****
Direct and forceful. Telling the truth and showing people telling lies is all you need for this story, but it’s not trivial to put all that on screen in the right measures. This is stark in the repeated contrast between what came out and what they said at the time.
6/30/2023: Two-Lane Blacktop (1971): ****1/2
By 1971, the 60s were well and truly over: assassinations, dead concert-goers, cult leaders, dirty politics, and Hells’ Angels. This, like many movies before and after, is about the death of the American Dream. Let’s look at the characters.
Warren Oates is playing us. He knows the country has changed, but he doesn’t know how to find his place. He lies to everyone, carelessly, just looking for a way to feel connected despite the decade of age between him and everyone he meets. If he ever did find a connection, it would be poisoned by the fruit of his falsehoods.
James Taylor and Dennis Wilson drive until the movie runs out.
Laurie Bird is one of the symbolic possessions the other three chase for most of the running time. She never stops being reactive, I don’t think, but her final reaction is repudiation. I always wonder if roles like this in the 60s and 70s were sexism or commentary; I can’t say that Taylor and Wilson were any more fleshed out than she was. But they do get to want things, which is more than she does.
7/1/2023: Santa Sangre (1989): ****
So that’s starter set Jodorowsky? Cool. I was not expecting a linear plot, given the man’s reputation, but that was totally comprehensible while still providing a massive load of surrealist storytelling. It’s striking.
I wish I knew more about Jodorowsky’s mysticism, particularly as it relates to the Catholic Church. The first act of the movie read to me as commentary on imperialism. Fenix’ father Orgo is an American, and there’s a ton of American flag imagery. Despite Wikipedia’s claims, the tattoo on Orgo’s chest is an eagle, not a phoenix. Most of all, that scene of the elephant burial couldn’t be more clearly about America allowing poorer countries to live on its garbage.
But that thread seems to me to be dropped when we move to the second act. Or is it? I don’t know what Jodorowsky thinks of the Catholic Church, or of Mexico. I can build a narrative in which the Church is an arm of Western imperialism, and thus the whole remainder of the movie is a story about inherited tendencies to abuse. That matches Jodorowsky’s psychogenealogy. Still feels like I’m stretching it.
Screw it, I’m ordering the Severin edition of this with all the commentaries and such, since they’re running a sale as I write this.
7/1/2023: Computer Chess (2013): ***
There’s a wonderfully soft, woozy warmth to this film, which is equally the result of the analogue black and white video cameras and the mumblecore naturalism of the filmmakers. It evokes the soul of the era in which it’s set. We’re watching in a format that sets us apart from the movie in the same way we imagine the protagonists — engineers and swingers alike — are awkwardly distanced from their world.
Maybe too much distance, though. I like a quiet movie, but I like knowing something about the characters. This doesn’t give me that. As much fun as it is thinking about the relationship between the encounter group birthing rituals and the birth of artificial intelligence, I’d also like the characters to be a window into those questions. It’s not that they’re ciphers here, but they’re hard to invest in.
7/1/2023: Paranoia (1969): ***1/2
I wedged this in to figure out if I needed to pick up the Lenzi/Carroll Baker boxed set during the Severin sale. I don’t, but it’s an amazing slice of sleaze and I imagine I’ll work my way through the collection on Shudder when I’m in the mood.
The politics are fascinating. I may be misreading it, but I think Carroll’s character wasn’t at all well off before marrying her now dead husband. She’s uncomfortable dealing with the inheritance and pretty much lost without her lawyer. In that light, the seductive siblings aren’t engaging in selfishly motivated class struggle — it’s more about generational conflict.
Which makes the movie strike me as almost conservative. You could read it as Carroll Baker getting what she deserves, particularly given that last twist. (I’m going to ignore the final few seconds, which are clearly tacked on for the sake of morality.)
Not that any of this is the point: the point is slapping Carroll Baker on the screen in a completely tawdry, shocking situation. Lenzi leans into that and in the end it’s exactly the movie you’d expect.
7/1/2023: Wheels on Meals (1984): ***1/2
Here, have a lightly amusing framework wrapped around a couple of truly incredible fight scenes! As a bonus, we also have a superbly destructive food truck race. Hal Needham, eat your heart out.
There’s just not enough story in this for it to be really great, but it is really fun.
7/2/2023: Nimona (2023): ****
Well that was a total blast. It’s about being alone, which is universally resonant, and it expresses the sadness of loneliness through a really triumphant set of LBGTQ+ themes. Chloë Grace Moretz was incandescent.
I did not adore the animation. The flat style worked, evoking the comic well, but there were too many times when I wanted more detail in the backgrounds — nothing photorealistic, but maybe cross-hatch in a hint of stonework. The setting was so damned cool, it’s a shame it couldn’t have been more lively. I assume this was the result of the hellish development, and I can’t blame anyone for it, but I’m wistful.
Everything else overcomes that minor issue, though. I think maybe my favorite sequence was the flashback, because I’m a sucker for joy. Nimona’s initial reveal is a very, very close second. Anyway:
“And now you’re a boy?”
“I am today.”
7/2/2023: And God Said to Cain (1970): ***1/2
You know that kind of crisp competence you sometimes find in directors who just crank out a couple of movies each year, nothing fancy, just that learned understanding of where to put the camera and why?
This is that, plus Klaus Kinski going heavy on the focused insanity. It’s a revenge Western that drifts into thriller territory as night falls and Kinski becomes even more of an avatar of vengeance. The wind is blowing through this little town with an implacable fury, and it brought Kinski with it.
Peter Carsten, playing the betrayer, wanders helplessly though a maze of mirrors that he bought and built with the riches he stole. He won’t get to keep anything. His wife says things like “I really didn’t get the time to get to know him. I only had the time to betray him.” Her time is also just about up.