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Movie Reviews: 8/28/2023 to 9/3/2023

Movies reviewed this week: Safe, Together, Mystery Train, Henry Fool, Pool of London, and Return to the 36th Chamber.

8/29/2023: Safe (1995): *****

Julianne Moore shoved off into the edge of the shot, over and over again, dwarfed by the sprawl of Los Angeles and by the emptiness of barely used suburban McMansions. Beyond her, there’s a hierarchy. Xander Berkeley often gets to hold center stage as her husband, except when there’s a medical professional in the scene, and then he’s shoved off to the side as well.

Later in the film, Peter Friedman’s New Age leader gets that center stage spot too.

There are so many layers to this. The story of environmental illness is powerful and still current. It’s also a metaphor for AIDS, of course, with the two diseases non-metaphorically entwined throughout. Beyond that, it’s a critique of capitalism. Moore’s petty complaints about a couch, early on, make it clear that she’s a participant in the system which hurts her.

Which in turn casts Friedman’s insistence that we cause our own illness — a direct quote from New Age health guru Louise Hay — as subtly accurate. Not directly, but sure; Moore and Berkeley are conspicuous consumers who do own a fractional part of the smog that dominates the 80s LA skyline.

Moore’s stunning performance preserved my sympathy for her. Likewise, the degree to which Friedman is accidentally correct doesn’t diminish my recognition of all the classic New Age huckster tricks. The delicacy of the film is in the way Haynes balances these competing, conflicting emotions and leaves us with a sad sense of comprehension.

8/31/2023: Together (2000): ****1/2

My parents met at a party in Greenwich Village in 1968, so a movie about a bunch of idealistic Swedish hippies trying to figure out life in a commune is likely to resonate with me. Like the children here, I plotted to return meat to my diet. Like the adults here, my mother did not have all that much willpower. I never lived in a commune but this movie rang true throughout.

This is my second Moodysson movie and I’m once again struck by how tender he is with his characters. As he says in the commentary attached to this Blu-Ray, some of them are quite unsympathetic. You still understand them all. I realized towards the end that I was cheering them on even as they made mistakes.

Which, I think, is the crucial truth of Together. It’s framed by the importance of community, which is the fabric of the film. Within that framework, the message is consistent: people are happiest when they’re actively trying to figure out what they want out of life, and they fail when they deny themselves experimentation. Those mistakes I mentioned are just inevitable side effects of the journey, and not to be feared.

At some point I’m going to get to Moodysson’s experimental work and be confused but right now I’m just basking in his empathy.

9/1/2023: Mystery Train (1989): ****

Let’s spend some time hanging out with the myth of Elvis Presley. The myth was already fading a bit while Elvis was alive — I said “decaying” at first but I think fading is more accurate. There are three stories in this film, all revolving around Elvis in their own orbits, barely disrupting each other.

Elvis means greatness to the Japanese couple, he’s the basis of a scam for an Italian woman, and he’s a nickname for a criminally minded Brit. In each case he’s reflecting the character’s preferred myth of America.

The Arcade Hotel holds most of the narrative; it may never have had glories, but whatever glories it had are fading now. Elvis (once again) is captured as a portrait on each room’s wall.

I really liked the serenity of it all.

Boofest 2023: connected to Mystery Men by the word “Mystery” in the title. We’re gonna spend some time with the King over the next few weeks.

9/2/2023: Henry Fool (1997): ****

That was fairly mesmerizing. As promised, Hal Hartley is the master of 90s indie hyper-stylized film. Two and a half hours of highly stylized toxic trash personalities is quite the experience.

Without that brutally dark turn towards the end, I’d take it as pure satire. The way it went, I wasn’t so sure. I suppose I’ll need to watch more of the trilogy; I’m kind of looking forward to it.

9/2/2023: Pool of London (1951): ****

Sharply grim noir that’s more or less about a pair of crewmates spending a weekend on leave in London. One of them is criminally-minded; the other would like to find romance, but it’s the 1950s and he’s Black. As with so many of the Criterion Channel British Noir collection films, Pool of London is a predecessor to British kitchen sink dramas. Ten years before A Taste of Honey, this film arguably does a better job of examining interracial romance.

It’s a really marvelous look at 1950s London, too. The dockside streets have all the character in the world. The glimpses of London landmarks — St. Paul’s, Greenwich — are great. A fair bit of the movie takes place backstage at a theater, and that’s a fun look at a specific demimonde as well.

9/2/2023: Return to the 36th Chamber (1980): ***1/2

The sequel’s shift from serious kung fu epic to goofy physical comedy is odd but winds up pretty gratifying. There’s a little extra zest when Gordon Liu’s ne’er-do-well grifter meets his previous character. It’s all in service of Lau Kar-leung’s loving depiction of the virtues of kung fu.

As is typical for Lau, the training montages drag just a little. He thinks they’re the most important part of the movie, so what can you do? They’re also a chance for Liu to show off an unexpected gift for physical comedy, so I can’t complain too much. He’s goofy as hell, launching himself into the part of an over confident scam artist with the same energy he devotes to a leaping kick. It’s pretty great.

You also do get a great payoff fight at the end. You also get Lau’s love for color. I strongly suspect that he used a dye shop as the core location just to have an excuse to unspool fluid lengths of color all over the place — also typical for him — and as always the colors bring a vibrant energy to the screen.

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