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Movie Reviews: 7/17/2023 to 7/23/2023

Movies reviewed this week: Yield to the Night, Mandy, Scenes from a Marriage, AKARI, Shin Kamen Rider, The First Slam Dunk, Sympathy for the Devil, Divinity, Ride On, Talk to Me, Uberlinks, and New Normal.

7/17/2023: Yield to the Night (1956): ****

What a somber movie this is. The opening is confused and disorienting, full of Dutch angles and sudden interruptions of movement and sound. Five minutes in, Diana Dors has killed someone. A moment or two afterwards, you see her face. The rest of the movie is spent with her, either in prison or flashing back to the events that led to the murder.

If this had been directed by Tony Richardson instead of J. Lee Thompson, I think it’d be considered part of the British New Wave. The themes of class are there: Dors’ Mary Hilton lost her man because of money, quite directly. There’s a consistent subtext about choosing money or love, embodied by older men taking younger women to nightclubs. Watch for the quiet moment late in the movie where Yvonne Mitchell explains why she’s a prison guard instead of being married.

Yvonne Mitchell’s whole role is quiet, but she’s excellent in it. A little sad, very human. Diana Dors has the flashy part, contrasting the raw emotion of her flashbacks with her surrender in prison, and she carries it off well.

The camera might be the real star here. I don’t think Thompson is known for his stylistic flourishes, so maybe cinematrographer Gilbert Taylor gets more credit here, but I was struck by the use of the edge of the frame and the constant obstructions: everything’s shot from below the edge of the table, or from around a pillar. It’s very striking, and it accentuates the off-kilter despair Dors feels.

7/20/2023: Mandy (2018): ***

Broadcast from an ultraviolet planet. I am pretty sure it should be illegal to see this on a smaller screen, but that’s how it went down for me. The reds should have been electric, but they were muddy. The slow build should have left me breathless, instead of restless.

The style was great. Cage was in good form, roaming around pretty much like that tiger but never quite going too far. I really loved the title sequences. I really do need to see what this is like in a theater.

Boofest 2023: connected to The Neon Demon by psychedelic horror.

7/21/2023: Scenes from a Marriage (1973): ****1/2

Kudos to Criterion for the sequencing on this; the boxed set opens up with a lot of early work, and the sudden leap forward into lo-fi 16 millimeter color is great. If you’ve been watching the set in order, as I mostly have, you’ve also seen the films that laid the ground for this one: To Joy, about a failed marriage, and A Lesson in Love, about rekindling love post-affair.

Scenes from a Marriage is purer. It’s as if Bergman distilled what he wanted to say down into as few interactions as possible. The story of Marianne and Johan belongs to the two of them, with minimal intrusion even from their children. I think it’s an affirmation of love by the end, intertwined with a deep cynicism about human nature.

The recap before episode six says “They thought their marriage was good because they never argued,” and then Marianne’s mother reinforces that by telling Marianne about the lack of love in her marriage. In episode five, Marianne tells Johan that “Being considerate killed our love.” In the end they come to a place where they can acknowledge their love, imperfect as it is — but they’re doing so while cheating on their current spouses. Funny but cynical.

The power of the acting is immense. Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann are both incredible. He has to play a brilliant man who’s angry and bitter for most of the film, and he has to let us see what Marianne sees in him; he pulls it off. He is spiky and lovable at the same time. It helps, of course, that Ullmann shows Marianne’s journey from love to hate to love — if we believe in her, then we believe Johan is what she thinks he is, and how can you not believe in her?

The supporting actors aren’t bad either. Marianne’s mother has this one long shot at the end of their conversation in the sixth episode, while she thinks about her marriage. Wenche Foss lets us see a traditional woman who isn’t sure if she’s wasted her life. It’s a lovely quiet moment.

I was also impressed by the structure. There’s a great rhythm to the episodes. The tight set of the first episode, just a couple of rooms, is followed by scenes in the second episode where the couple escapes the house, with even a couple of exterior shots. That claustrophobic/release sequence continues, although in episode four the freedom arrives in the form of a long sequence of Marianne’s childhood photos. Not only do we see more of the world in them, but the sudden shift from simple camera work is in its own way freedom.

All of it together is perfect humanistic drama.

7/22/2023: AKARI (2022): **1/2

More of an extended trailer than anything else: it was made as part of a master class about directing tokusatsu. It ends mid-scene. The character and monster design were cool.

7/22/2023: Shin Kamen Rider (2023): ***

Gorgeously violent and ridiculously philosophical. Building a reflective story about solitude, death, and freedom on a bunch of bug-human hybrids is a bit of a stretch but Anno takes a pretty good shot at it.

He also maintains his zany sense of humor throughout. “So, you’re fresh from the torture-oven?”

The lo-fi stylization is really interesting. It serves to help us stop worrying about all the concerns that we might otherwise bring to a superhero flick in 2023. It couldn’t be any more clear that we’re not watching anything close to reality once Kamen Rider starts exploding heads with his fist.

7/22/2023: The First Slam Dunk (2022): ****

I wasn’t expecting an all time great basketball movie, but insert cliche about underdogs here, I guess.

In this form — I hear the manga and anime were fairly different — it’s a story about how sports are a refuge and a source of comfort. Point guard Ryota Miyagi is mourning the death of his older brother, a more natural player. His high school team makes it to the national finals, as huge underdogs. Can they come back against the dominant Sannoh?

Maybe not. The movie is structured around that final game, and the game contains the emotional beats, but the story is in the flashbacks to Ryota’s life. The game isn’t important because it’s nice to win; it’s important because of the emotional weight the players have put on it.

It’s also a real sports movie. The animation (man it’s nice to see hand-drawn animation) plays out like a real game. Someone spent a lot of time understanding how basketball players move. The game just about works too — there are big scoring swings, but that’s high school basketball for you, and the style of each player makes sense. A point guard who makes up for his poor shot with great dribbling and speed? Yep, that makes sense.

Sannoh wasn’t just a bunch of cyborgs, either. Their players are also real, and they feel emotions even though we don’t get their backstory. It’s just a really grounded movie.

7/22/2023: Sympathy for the Devil (2023): **1/2

Nic Cage does an excellent Nic Cage. For real, I mean: it’s a controlled burn, there’s a character behind it, and I accepted his Boston accent. Otherwise, well, we didn’t get enough time with Joel Kinnaman to really feel sympathy for him. By the end of the movie there’s nobody to like at all, and while I’m fond enough of nihilism you gotta have an underlying point.

7/22/2023: Divinity (2023): **1/2


Literally star children come to Earth to save us from the body horror of late stage capitalism. At face value, it’s a pro-fertility movie but I’m going to have to sleep on it before I settle on anything. As a sixteen millimeter black and white science fiction apocalypse, it’s got style to spare.

Edit: slept on it and if you put a immortality drug in your movie, and if that drug is made from fetal tissue and causes sterility, and if the last shot of the movie is someone giving birth, you probably made an anti-abortion movie. Even if you did it by mistake.


7/23/2023: Ride On (2023): ***

This is just a huge sprawl of sentiment, almost completely unmarred by plot. There are two people who want the miracle horse? Why does the rich guy want the crippled horse anyhow? What —

Shut up. It’s here to make us feel all emotional about Jackie Chan. I didn’t count but I think the horse gets more screen time than his daughter Bao. Liu Haocun gives her winsome all to forgiving, rejecting, and forgiving Jackie regardless. Call me a sucker but I was fine with all of it.

The scene that really did it for me is the one where Bao discovers the old footage of her dad, and it’s all old Jackie Chan stunts. Conceptually none of this is original; Michelle Yeoh did it ages ago. Still, he’s got enough charisma to make it work.

7/23/2023: Talk to Me (2022): ****

Pretty immaculate. If you make a bunch of horror shorts for your YouTube channel year after year and you take it seriously, I guess you get pretty good. This is a debut film but the Philippou brothers know what they’re doing.

It’s not groundbreaking: this is a supernatural horror movie about a bunch of teenagers messing with spirits they shouldn’t ought to be messing with. Kids will be kids. It doesn’t need to be more than it is, it just needs to be executed well.

The scares are good. It’s bloody but it’s only really gory once, and that’s pretty early on. That scene serves as the marker for the awful shit. Watching the movie, you know things are going to get bad really soon, and once the terrible thing happens it’s clear there’s no hope. Excellent pacing.

The Philippous use humor as leavening — ease the tension, dial it up. The actors are up to it, which is impressive given that they’re mostly pretty new. I think it probably helps that the directors get teenagers; they talk like kids and they’re dumb like kids and they’re scared like kids.

The movie also gets the dark side of teenagers. Sophie Wilde’s Mia is an outsider, because she’s not white and because her mother is dead. It’s never explicit but it’s there; only one family really likes her, most of her friends aren’t really friends, and so on.

Kids are sometimes dumb because they’re desperate. The hand of glory makes them feel something. That’s the real strength of the movie, I think. None of these characters are in any kind of in-group, which is the real weakness that the spirits exploit. It’s got an uncommon characteristic for a horror movie: it’s sad.

Trigger warning, related to the above: there’s some suicide in this movie, both metaphorical and not.

7/23/2023: Uberlinks (2022): ***1/2

That’s a deeply clever 14 minutes. It kept surprising and delighting me till the very end. The script must have been a total bear to get right.

7/23/2023: New Normal (2022): ***

Magnolia, but about the despair of ordinary life — no, sorry, strike that. Magnolia, but with more stabbing. There we go.

Alas, not every director is Paul Thomas Anderson, and this fails to completely cohere. There’s an overall desire to connect in an impersonal city, which is Seoul rather than LA, but the pieces don’t really fit. In the end you’ve got a couple of segments which are appropriately interrelated, and one or two which are tangentially related, and a bit about a kid who decides to do a good deed and pays for it. Dropping that last one would have helped a ton.

It’s at least funny in a cheerfully nihilistic kind of a way. It also has Ha Da In in her debut role, and she’s excellent. It’s nice that her segment was longer than anyone else’s. Best convenience store role since Dante.

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