Movies reviewed this week: The Limits of Control, Green for Danger, Biosphere, The Neon Demon, Five Dolls for an August Moon, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, and Jane B. by Agnès V..
7/10/2023: The Limits of Control (2009): ****1/2
“Sometimes I like it in films when people just sit there, not saying anything.”
Then they just sit there, not saying anything. And people say Jarmusch movies aren’t hilarious.
Also, before I dig in, I will indulgently note Jarmusch’s nod to Aki Kaurismäki, his friend and colleague. “There was an oddly beautiful Finnish film some years ago based on [La Boheme].” Such sentiment! Anyhow.
The Burroughs essay is the heart of it. Not just the essay itself, but the artistic myth of Burroughs. At the end, Murray’s American rants about hallucinogenic drugs and Isaach de Bankolé‘s Lone Man explains that reality is arbitrary. It’s the radical freedom of Burroughs vs. the control of the state. Interzone is just across the Straits of Gibraltar from here.
At the very end, de Bankole sheds his suit, or as I read it his skin, and exits the liminal terminal into the sunlight as the camera shudders and falls out of control. As the credits roll, we hear the helicopter in the background, the symbol of control. We’ve been hearing it all through the movie. The conflict doesn’t end.
7/11/2023: Green for Danger (1946): ***1/2
Can’t resist a Criterion Channel noir collection! This is a bit more of a mystery than a noir, but the love triangle and dark secrets as good enough for me. The wartime tension is ratcheted up to the breaking point. All the acting is good, especially Alastair Sim as Inspector Cockrill.
The really great thing about this is the sharp turn into darkness in the final five minutes or so. Sidney Gilliat subverts the omniscient narrator trope in a delightful way.
7/13/2023: Biosphere (2022): ***
Mkay, gonna talk about the movie as a movie first, then get political, which is weird but in this case I think necessary.
It’s cute! Mel Eslyn is of course a first time director but she’s been around movies forever, and it shows. I liked her sense of rhythm, and there’s a ton of raw charisma on the screen between Sterling K. Brown and Mark Duplass. The latter doing his best hangdog Owen Wilson.
The two actors do a solid job of walking the line between whimsy and realism. I don’t think this would have worked if the movie forgave Duplass for destroying the world. Brown came pretty close to being the liberal with secretly regressive views at one point but didn’t go over the brink; it’s still an overused trope but meh, nobody’s perfect. And that’s important to this movie.
The ending didn’t satisfy. I felt like Eslyn thought she needed external pressure to make the situation boil over. I would have been fine with a slow burn in which time is the enemy. If nothing else, the two men are getting older.
I liked the room. I always like single room settings; this one was cleverly constructed to leave just enough space for texture.
So, you know, cute and touching movie and I believed that those are two men who love each other.
So: this is all from my perspective. I am aware that this movie had a trans producer. But as a cis straight guy, that was the absolutely straightest movie about gender fluidity that I have ever seen in my life. It didn’t strike me as appropriative, is the thing — it just struck me as deeply fundamentally straight.
Which, I don’t know, maybe that’s a good thing. A couple of months ago I saw a bunch of very queer movies at SIFF, and that was awesome. If this was the only movie this year that touched on trans issues I’d be pretty unhappy. As a… weirdly mainstream perspective on changing gender? Among others? Maybe? It certainly validates some concepts.
7/14/2023: The Neon Demon (2016): **1/2
It’s gorgeous but it’s awfully vacant at the core. As my wife noted, it follows many of the forms of folk horror, yet I don’t find myself caring about Jesse. It’s pure symbolism. The symbolism is great but by 2016 we all know that Hollywood eats its young and this doesn’t bring anything else to the table.
If Jesse was real, then there’d be a story to fuel the horror. She’s not, though, she’s just saying lines that prove the point that Hollywood is all consuming. Sure, you’re dangerous.
I did appreciate the warped echos of Rebel Without A Cause: a character named Dean and an abandoned mansion with an empty pool. There’s even a bit of queer desire, but Nicholas Ray gave us empathy instead of revulsion.
7/15/2023: Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970): ***
Mario Bava made this on a few days notice without much of a chance to put his own stamp on it, so there’s only so much potential here. It realizes most of it: the rich get eaten, as they should, and most of the murders are well staged. I was particularly fond of the bit with the glass balls. Thus, as unofficial Agatha Christie remakes go, this one is fine. The little savage sting at the end was all Bava, and it’s probably what I liked most.
7/15/2023: Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One (2023): ***
As a spectacle this has everything I need, which is not faint praise. Cruise and McQuarrie put together excellent action sequences. It held me for three hours.
That is in large part thanks to the acting. Obviously everyone is wildly charismatic, but Cruise is making some really interesting choices around vulnerability and loneliness. If he was able to let go of this role, there’s a great story about how he dragged a new agent into the IMF for no better reason than to pretend he’s not alone in the world.
As a story, this was a spectacle delivery mechanism. I’m going to be nit picky here, but if your plot revolves around an AI who can predict the future well enough to guide human behavior, you should avoid gaping plot holes.
There’s a point where Gabriel does something despicable to push Ethan Hunt into trying to kill him, because the AI doesn’t want Hunt extracting knowledge from Gabriel, and then it turns out Gabriel doesn’t know that particular critical piece of information anyhow. And in retrospect, there’s no reason why he should.
And what’s with the whole broker plot? There are a million reasons to do that final deal, you know, somewhere else. Somewhere that every other interested party doesn’t know about.
I’m just annoyed now. It’s fine to make a big dumb movie, but if they put half as much attention on the script as they did on the stunts, this coulda been great.
7/16/2023: Jane B. by Agnès V. (1988): ****1/2
So far, every time I’ve watched a Varda film I’ve found new insight into her mind and her process. I hope that doesn’t end before I’ve worked my way through her entire filmography. I suspect it won’t.
This time, it’s the way she makes metaphor concrete as a way of examining the meaning lurking within. Jane B. par Agnès V. is concerned with the way we frame ourselves. In one scene, Birkin turns her eponymous handbag out, spilling everything onto the steps. She’s showing us the detritus of her life, and “Find anything out after seeing what’s in the bag?”
The bag is a frame, just as the literal picture frames are frames. There are dozens of different Jane Birkins framed in this film, and — as Varda says — it’s a jigsaw puzzle. You can’t tell someone’s story without asking them to show you all the pieces. Spilling the fragments of Birkin’s life out of her bag is, in fact, revealing.
It’s Varda’s life too. In Birkin’s interview on the Criterion release, she mentions that the casino scenes were filmed in the casino where Varda’s father lost all his money. When Varda lifts off her necklace in those scenes, it’s a recreation.
I watched this to honor Jane Birkin’s life on the day she passed away. She was a quicksilver talent. This movie captures her soul.