Movies reviewed this week: A Trip to the Orphanage, Sorrowful Shadow, The Saddest Music in the World, Polite Society, Almost Human, Armour of God, Five Easy Pieces, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), and Odd Man Out.
8/7/2023: A Trip to the Orphanage (2004): **1/2
This barely stands alone as a narrative, and I can’t recommend it without The Saddest Music in the World as a precursor, but it’s a beautiful four minutes of film.
8/7/2023: Sorrowful Shadow (2004): ***1/2
I feel like there’s a secret history of Maddin’s relationship with professional wrestling, what with this plus that Kenny Omega bit. Anyhow, this is a lovely little bit of phantasmagoria.
8/7/2023: The Saddest Music in the World (2003): ***1/2
Guy Maddin wants his exploration of family dynamics to be layered with melodrama, period aesthetics, colonialism, the fraught American/Canadian relationship, and beer. Why not? Maddin cites Kirk Douglas’ performance in Ace in the Hole as inspiration for Mark McKinney’s American showman, Chester, who is of course not an American at all. I can see it in both the bravado and the sadness of a man lost in his own lies.
It seems to me like a very personal movie. I didn’t quite connect with it as strongly as I resonated with My Winnipeg. On the other hand, the catharsis of Chester’s ultimate return to his Canadian roots will stick with me for a while.
8/8/2023: Polite Society (2023): ***
I adored everything about this except the fight choreography, which is pretty important for a movie about someone who wants to be a stunt woman. The rest of it was exactly what makes me happy, though: Priya Kansara has all the presence in the world and excellent comic timing, and everyone else was solid too. (I can’t be the only one who thought of Turning Red the second Ella Bruccoleri showed up on screen.)
I firmly believe that if you’re going to take the kind of weird twists this movie took, you shouldn’t bother with a bunch of explanation. It’s just how things are. This did that. I also think it was pretty well foreshadowed — you know this isn’t taking place in our world after the first school fight, really. So that all worked well too.
8/12/2023: Almost Human (1974): ***1/2
My voyage down the River Poliziotteschi is getting pretty dark. I’m still mesmerized.
Here we have Method trained Tomas Milan as a twitchy, psychotic low level criminal who fucks up a robbery and goes increasingly off the wheels as he searches for the big score. Henry Silva plays the cop. I hope he was relieved to get away from his usual crime roles. Milan’s charisma is most of what this movie has going for it.
And that’s a heavy lift, considering that Lenzi doesn’t leave the audience any room to feel sympathy for Milan. He kills at the drop of a hat, he has no code whatsoever, and there’s no invented excuse for his actions. He’s just a very convincing hunk of id. I couldn’t look away from him, though. His face twitches every ten seconds, and his trigger finger twitches every time he feels disrespected.
This makes for a remarkably nihilistic movie. Henry Silva’s pretty much an angry cipher and he certainly isn’t the protagonist. You could call that final scene fascist, but I kind of think Silva’s going to pay the price for his actions.
The psychological and perhaps political depths are the reason to watch this. As an action movie, it’s lightly competent. The early car chase kind of disappointed me, since I’ve seen some good car chases in this genre, but the cuts from close to far shots don’t line up well enough to be great.
8/12/2023: Armour of God (1986): ***
That opening sequence is seared into my brain. Not in a good way.
Overall this is the usual Jackie Chan romp through Europe. The plot is too slight to carry the movie and Chan doesn’t have anyone physical to play off of, which is to the movie’s detriment. The middle act chase scene and the final fight sequences are excellent and at times unexpected. The bridge jump! So by no means a waste of time, just there’s a lot of better Chan out there.
8/12/2023: Five Easy Pieces (1970): ****1/2
It skewers two American Dreams at once. On the one hand, Bobby Dupea’s upper class family is a toxic sewer. It’s beautiful up there on the San Juan Islands, but Bobby’s the only person who’s been able to escape the gravitational pull of the family history, and his methodology isn’t terribly healthy.
On the other hand, Rafelson and screenwriter Carole Eastman don’t have much interest in mythologizing the working class either. There may be some authorial contempt at the root of Rayette and Elton’s characterization, but either way the oil field life is no real haven.
It’s a bit of a mirror of the British kitchen sink dramas. I’ve noted in other reviews that those tended to come with a subtext that lower classes can’t mix well with their “superiors.” Five Easy Pieces has that, but it’s less tolerant of the upper class. The toast scene isn’t meant as a celebration of rebellion, no matter how people wanted to take it. It’s about Bobby being a first tier asshole. Look at Palm celebrating: she’s happy that Bobby put the waitress in her place, even if he didn’t get his toast.
Bobby doesn’t get much of anything he wants, really.
Spectacular acting from Nicholson and Karen Black. Lois Smith was also quite good.
8/13/2023: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014): ****
Iñárritu is a technical virtuoso, of course; the rhythms of that artificial single shot are magnificent, ranging from claustrophobic to the very occasional relief up there on the roof — and that’s the same roof which is the location of Riggan Thomson’s final breakdown, so you can make something of that too; but if you do, you also have to take into account the fact that Mike Shiner lies to Sam Thomson on her very first call for truth, so are we to take it that actors are as much liars as critics (because wow, if I take one thing away from the bitter ending it’s that Iñárritu doesn’t like critics one little bit, and I suspect it’s important to remember that this was just as much a conscious attempt to rekindle a career for Iñárritu as it was for Keaton) and if so does it represent self-awareness… but no, surely not, because Iñárritu spends much more time skewering Riggan as an actor than he ever does critiquing his directing; at the most we can conclude that Iñárritu thinks actors should know their place and not step on his turf; which is a shame, really, because (let’s loop back to that ending) he could have used some of the brutal, effective, accurate criticism that Shiner delivered to Thomson when they start rehearsing the play — and man, it would have been so easy for both Keaton and Norton to play their roles as bad actors, or as pure satire, but one of the brilliant elements of this movie is that Norton’s performance convinces us that Mike Shiner really is worth all the hassle as an actor… which, um, validates the old saw that you have to put up with sexual harassment and tantrums and all the other crap to work with the best, and I can’t help but think Iñárritu believes in the myth of the tortured thus justified artist, alas… but I was talking about the ending, which broke down for me not so much because of the final shot but because it’s perhaps five minutes later than it needs to be; see my previous comment about Iñárritu and critics, which I wrote because I think he just had to get in that last critique of the critical, as it were: he could have ended on the final curtain of the play within the movie, which would also have been a tidy metatextual note, and holy god the metatext in this movie is exactly why I loved it despite all these flaws I’m bitching about — as michele_blue murmured while we were watching, most of the dialogue could have been written by Carver, just like the play, and I think the only person who calls that one out (there has to be someone calling it out, this is a formalist pile of layers on top of layers) is once again Sam Thomson, who doesn’t tell Shiner that he’s lying but at least she does tell him when he’s being pompous, which makes me annoyed again that she’s got to serve the brilliant monster trope, but Emma Stone’s performance was up there with Norton’s and Keaton’s which makes up for a lot — or in other words, five stars for the acting and intricacy and savage humor and the imaginary diagetic soundtrack, facepalm for the flaws, averages out to a rambunctiously delightful four stars.
8/13/2023: Odd Man Out (1947): ****1/2
A true noir despite the unimportance of the crime; if noir is about the fragility of man in desperate straits, you couldn’t ask for a better example than this. The chiaroscuro is here too, as James Mason wobbles helplessly down black and white cobblestoned alleys.
The characterizations are marvelous. You could tell a million stories about Shell, and it took a certain bravado to throw eccentric artist Lukey into the mix.
And all the while the snow is relentlessly falling.