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Movie Reviews: 8/14/2023 to 8/20/2023

Movies reviewed this week: Theater Camp, Adam’s Rib, Barbie, Zebraman, The Misfits, Starved, The Foundry, Ariel, and Phoenix.

8/14/2023: Theater Camp (2023): ***1/2

Firmly delightful. It hits that delicate mockumentary balancing point between laughing at its subjects and adoring them, which isn’t always something even Christopher Guest manages. It’s got all the “let’s put on a show” energy you could possibly want, and whoever made the call to cast a YouTuber in the YouTuber part deserves some kind of casting award. The clashing vibes are great.

8/15/2023: Adam’s Rib (1949): ***

It’s all Hepburn/Tracey banter and a plot that’s gotten somewhat threadbare with age. I liked Judy Holliday’s wide-eyed performance a bunch — that initial scene with her and Hepburn is kind of a perfect contrast.

And man, David Wayne is as queer-coded as it gets, which really takes the starch out of his role as Tracey’s rival. Weird choice.

8/16/2023: Barbie (2023): **1/2

There’s a dark, interesting movie lurking underneath the surface of this one. Michael Cera is in that movie. Kate McKinnon is too. I think Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling sneak into it from time to time. I’m not sure Greta Gerwig knows it’s there, but she might.

There were about ten minutes in the middle of the whole thing where I could tell myself that America Ferrera was the protagonist. It’s the bit where her daughter tells her that the weird, dark self she’s been hiding is awesome. Sort of a parallel there, in fact. Maybe Gerwig knew exactly what she was doing.

But then it fades away and Ferrera finishes the movie as the same executive assistant she was the first time we saw her. Or perhaps she isn’t, but either way we never see it because Barbie is the protagonist after all.

Barbieland is horrific and there’s no question about it. By the end of the movie it’s okay to be weird… but if you’re weird you literally wind up in charge of shit. That’s interesting and dark. By the time it really registers we’re back on Barbie’s journey.

Allen (Michael Cera, so that tracks) is very aware that Barbieland is horrific, and he still winds up stuck there. That’s also pretty interesting and dark, but it’s not Allen’s story. It’s Barbie’s story, which reifies the fact that she is special, despite a lot of lip service to the idea that she’s not. Did Gerwig know what she was doing?

I wish I thought so. The final scene is full of people cheering for Barbie, though, and it just doesn’t read as ironic. Early in the movie Barbie expects people to cheer her in the Real World; at the end of the whole thing she gets her happy ending, aided and abetted by some blatant corporate hagiography which elides the bit where Ruth Handler lifted Barbie’s design from a German doll.

Now that doll would have been a daring resident of Barbieland.

8/17/2023: Zebraman (2004): ***

It is soul-drainingly hot in Seattle today and I am not in the best headspace to give full attention to a Miike movie. I’ll need to come back to this one some day. That said:

I will always be delighted when Miike casually frames a shot perfectly, like the unbalanced conversation in the school hallway early on. Look at Show Aikawa flailing around at the edge of the screen, with Kyōka Suzuki confidently walking along dead centered. You know Miike spent a mere five seconds thinking about that because you can’t waste time if you’re directing that many movies.

The high concept is wish fulfillment. Kids scare Aikawa’s hapless teacher so he fantasizes baseball bats into their hands. He’s coping throughout the entire movie, aided and abetted by Naoki Yasukochi as Shinpei Asano. The kid has his own, relatively healthy fantasies, which reinforce the less healthy dreams of the teacher.

I found the ending somewhat out of control, although I shouldn’t expect Miike to wrap anything up in a nice little bow. I did notice that green is traditionally the color of radioactivity, and that neutron bomb had Made in the USA written on the side. Speaking of entities which are prone to wish fulfillment.

Boofest 2023: connected to Birdman by titles beginning with the name of an animal and ending with “man.”

8/18/2023: The Misfits (1961): ****1/2

There are two myths in this film: the myth of the American West and the myth of Marilyn Monroe. They’re both mirages. That’s the film’s strength and weakness; Monroe deserved better than to be an archetype powering everyone else’s story. She was great at it, though, drugs and perfectionism and all.

So we get three men chasing two dreams. I think one reason this is so powerful, besides of course the powerhouse acting, is that both dreams used to be real. Arthur Miller’s script postulates that the West really was a land of opportunity for loners, once, and John Huston’s camera makes you believe that Monroe could fall into your arms if you were only decent enough. For the most part, it’s clear that none of that is going to happen now.

Every set piece in this is going to stick with me. There are a lot of them. Monroe cradling Montgomery Clift in her lap with a backdrop of empty beer cans is a thesis statement if I’ve ever seen one. Later, Clark Gable showed us a man reaching way back to what he once was, proving he could still be that man for a few necessary minutes.

There’s a whiff of sentiment at the end that prevents this from being as pure a story as I wanted. It doesn’t prevent it from being great.

8/19/2023: Starved (none): ***1/2

This is a strikingly vulnerable, personal film that doesn’t just rely on emotion for its impact. The craftsmanship here is excellent; Shawn Nova’s got a very strong sense for editing and flow, bringing his protagonist’s stress front and center with jucidious quick cuts and some subtle sound design. It’s high quality period, not just good for a newer artist.

That said, the core of this is the emotion Benji (also played by Nova) feels. Speaking as a heavy guy — yeah, those scenes of Benji trying to figure out if his belly is covered enough are really strong. As I said at the start: striking.

8/19/2023: The Foundry (2007): ***

It’s too brief to be much but factory workers are factory workers, then and now.

8/19/2023: Ariel (1988): ****

Melancholy son of a bitch. Kaurismäki takes us from the despair of a closing coal mine to the hope of a new city to the despair of poverty to the hope of a relationship to the despair of prison and I’ll stop there; but there’s more, and it’s still just 70-odd minutes.

Part of what makes it work is the rhythm. Kaurismäki balances sorrow with humor very precisely, so that you understand the unspoken truths simply by understanding that it’s the right time for Taisto (Turo Pajala) to meet a friend.

It’s so pared down. I want to quote the whole scene where Taisto and Irmeli (Susanna Haavisto) decide they’re going to fall for each other, because it’s just ten lines, but the scene doesn’t work without the nearly deadpan expressions. The whole movie is the absolute minimum needed to get us through the plot with the desired emotional (and political) impact.

8/20/2023: Phoenix (2014): ***1/2

Last year I watched Tar and I thought to myself, hey, who’s that actress holding her own opposite Cate Blanchett? And then I watched A Most Wanted Man and I thought hey, there she is again holding her own with Philip Seymour Hoffman. So I figured I should check out some more of Nina Hoss’ work and it seemed like Christian Petzold was the right director for that and here we are.

It was awesome seeing her in a lead role, especially one where she’s not just the cautious sane person in the room. Nelly Lenz is the kind of part you can really chew on. She has to be vulnerable, but if it’s not convincing that she can maintain her — is impersonation the right word? Either way, she has to seem both a bit fragile but sure of her path, and she does that.

I’m also going to have to watch more Petzold, which will be a pleasure. Phoenix has a sort of a sparse, stripped down affect, on top of that traditional brown and grey historical movie color palette. That contrasts with an almost overly blatant use of symbolism: look, the woman standing in the ruins of her former house with a ruined face sees herself in a shattered mirror! The bar where she goes to seek out her husband is called Phoenix — but will she rise again with her new face?

I think it works here because the whole movie is somewhat of a fable. It’s not realistic, and the characters do make some weird decisions. Since the movie is a fable about reclaiming your own identity, those choices are fine and the heightened reality elicited via the symbolism helps drive the feeling Petzold wants.

That said, I’m not entirely sure what to make of Lene (Nina Kunzendorf). She gets rather cruelly relegated to being a mere plot device in the third act, which is a shame because I liked the way she was pulling Nelly towards her Jewish identity. It feels like some richness of theme was sacrificed for the sake of the central relationship between Nelly and her ex-husband Johnny, played by an also excellent Ronald Zehrfeld.

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