Film Reviews (in no particular order)

Licorice Pizza (2021)

On the whole, a perplexing (not in a good way), disjointed and seemingly random affair by a filmmaker who has little feel for actual human beings.  I should say up front, I’m no Paul Thomas Anderson fan.  I’m agnostic about Hard Eight, liked but hardly loved Boogie Nights, hated (hated hated) Magnolia, found Punch Drunk Love thoroughly mediocre, was fine but not thrilled with There Will Be Blood and fell asleep twice watching Inherent Vice (a shapeless mess), from a Pynchon book I did like.  Nothing felt organic in Licorice Pizza, it felt like a wholly artificial construction of someone not rooted in this world and lurched about to the point where it sometimes felt more like a collection of stories loosely connected than a cohesive whole. For example, I was fine with Cooper Hoffman as an actor, but his character felt like a bunch of ideas rather than a human being.  He’s 15, he has multiple businesses, every girl/woman he meets seems in some weird Bogart/Marlowe/The Big Sleep sexual thrall to him, but he’s also apparently an awkward kid who can’t get a date and is in love with someone uninterested in him.  Alana Haim makes more of an impression but for half the movie, I wasn’t sure if she was meant to be 25 or 18 pretending to be 25. I often struggled with the tone of the film, unsure how seriously we were supposed to take, for example, Hoffman’s character.  He’s an awkward, slightly chunky 15 year old, but hey, he’s also kind of a famous actor and seems to have several businesses that are making money.   And Bradley Cooper’s take on Jon Peters is so over the top, unfunny and mean-spirited, I wondered if Peters kicked Anderson’s dog when he was a child or something. And then there is John Michael Higgins’ character and his just plain bizarre Japanese pigeon-English thing that was so strange, off-putting and unfunny, it brought to mind Mickey Rooney’s Japanese neighbor in Breakfast at Tiffanys.  Like I said, perplexing narratively and character-wise, but also in how critically acclaimed it seems to be. 

X (2021)

I was fully on the side of Ti West’s X in a scene about a third of the way in when Mia Goth wearing only a pair of overalls finds a small lake, strips naked (in long shot) and swims.  We see her from high above, there’s a geometry to the way she heads out straight from the peer (it looks like a panel from a stylized graphic novel), and when she turns, we see (but she does not) a very large alligator coming after her.  Shot from above, it manages to have tension and a burnished, saturated beauty.  The rest of the film does too.  The outdoor day scenes set around a cabin purposely bring to mind The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a kind of desolate beauty, not because it’s flat and open and endless (a la Badlands) but because the landscape is lush and deserted.  It’s not scary exactly or even particularly gory and it handles the porno part of the movie exactly right (in a movie about a bunch of early 70s people making a porno, you have to show some nudity and simulated fucking, but you don’t want to push it into a place where it steps beyond good believable background and into exploitation).  At the same time, while there was a sly wit to the perversity of the killers’ reasons (the old woman just wants to get off with her very old and seemingly feeble husband, or really any one of either sex who might be willing), the body horror stuff of what are essentially elderly people is over the top and the same kind of gothic cartoonish that sunk West’s “House of the Devil” dominates here as well.

The Naked Spur (1953)

The best of the five Anthony Mann/Jimmy Stewart westerns, though all of them (Winchester 73, Bend of the River, The Man from Laramie, The Far Country) are first rate. This has one of the most sublime and hyper-romantic endings in all of film history.  Stewart and Janet Leigh spend much of the movie slowly getting to know and care for each other (including one scene where he’s out of his head with fever and she comes to learn stuff about him he wasn’t willing to give up when in his right mind).  Like all of the Mann/Stewart westerns, it was shot on location and the ending action sequence takes place over a raging river.  Stewart is a hard-bitten rancher chasing outlaw Robert Ryan who has taken Janet Leigh with him.  Leigh and Ryan have some sort of indeterminate romance and it seems most of all, Leigh’s character just wants out (Leigh looks fantastic in this, she has a boyish short haircut and dresses in pants and seems even more alluring because of it).  Ryan is funny, crude, charming and a bad guy all at once, and he has Stewart pegged from the start.  Stewart claims to be doing the law’s work in tracking him down, but there’s a reward and pretty soon Ralph Meeker and Millard Mitchell are in on it, they just have to get Ryan to the authorities to collect and Stewart will have enough money to get his ranch back.   In the end, over a raging river shot on location, Ryan drowns and then Meeker drowns trying to collect the body, leaving Stewart and Leigh.  Stewart drags Ryan’s body back to the pack mule and he owns up to all of it, it was always about the money, he’s going to take the body back and get the reward and get his ranch back, it was all about the money.

It’s then that Leigh says something extraordinary.  She says, okay, take him back, you can get your ranch back and I’ll marry you and live with you on that ranch, you take him back.  And Stewart is stricken, “Why?” he asks, on the verge of tears. “I’m going to take him back.”  But implicit in what Leigh says is, yes she’ll be with him and she’ll marry him, but if he’s the kind of person who can take Ryan’s body back for money, she’ll never love him.  And Stewart chooses love, he buries Ryan’s body and they decide to head for California together. When I showed in a film class I was teaching once, I got choked up and had to turn away.  I wasn’t sure the kids would understand. 

The Great Escape (1962)

There’s a story that when Spielberg and company were making Raiders of the Lost Arc in Mexico, there was one night where everyone was free of shooting the next day and the entire crew decided to go into town, get a drink, do whatever.  Spielberg was going to stay in, he had a video of The Great Escape, and one by one, the guys on the film crew and in the cast stopped, watched a bit and got caught and skipped going to town.

It’s such a boy movie, you have a large group of only guys (with a good reason why there are no women in the camp) bonding over a shared goal, they’re digging tunnels, which is just about the most boy thing a young Boomer lad might do. There’s drama and intrigue and Nazis. And the film drills down into the specifics; of how they get their tools, what they do with all that dirt, how they forge papers and create outfits, and figure out the geography around the prison.  God is in the details.

McQueen’s Hilts character is almost completely superfluous, he represents on a near textual level the heroic American iconoclast who eschews being part of the larger “digging tunnels” community, insisting on doing his own thing.  In a way, this split between the British planning community and McQueen’s heroic loner mirrors one of John Ford’s favorite themes, the split between the heroic iconoclast necessary to bring the violence and brute force necessary to subduing an entire continent of people and the larger community that is only possible because of the hero but also one that doesn’t want him around.

In many ways, seen from today, the stakes seem quaint.  Three people make it out, 50 are executed, but the reason it still works is Sturges’ insistence that this is important is infectious.  Sure, some 80 million people died** in WWII (says Wikipedia), but this is still a compelling and ultimately tragic story to tell, even gussied up in all its Hollywood finery.  And then there’s that Elmer Bernstein score…

**A quick shout out to Tony Judt’s amazing book “Post War: A History of Europe since 1945.” The opening chapter is a real eye-opener, detailing the post 1945 mass movements of people throughout Europe and how hundreds of thousands of people perished in this movement.   

The Batman (2022)  It was…uh…not good.  First off, Robert Pattinson is a disaster as Batman.  He just never finds the character or Bruce Wayne, mostly he stares into space a lot and doesn’t say anything.  His Bruce Wayne is a petulant emo dude who is shy, lashes out at Alfred and really makes no impression.  You could cut 20 minutes out of this (175 fucking minutes!) just by cutting in half the seemingly endless moments where Pattinson’s Batman just stares and doesn’t say anything. The story is the same old tired bullshit, some manic super villain wants to clean up the city of all the corruption.  Zoe Kravitz is a pre-villain Catwoman and somehow Pattinson has zero chemistry with her, all because he’s such a dead fish of a human.  I swear half the time, the scenes with Batman looked like test reels just to get the blocking right, Pattinson is so stiff, he’s like a stand in just blankly walking through the paces.  What action there is is almost all hand to hand combat stuff, which wasn’t terrible but not all that exciting either.

Godzilla vs Kong (2021)  Like “Kong: Skull Island” (a better film and a ton more fun), this is built around a “I can’t stand that your dick is bigger than mine” motivation, though at least Demian Bichar has money to throw at it in GvK. Jackson in Skull Island was a 70 year old colonel who couldn’t stand that Kong’s was bigger than his, it ends up going as well for him as it does for Bichar.  I didn’t much like the final fight, in those giant “the city is being destroyed” action scenes, I just can’t get past the idea that literally hundreds of thousands of people are dying. Though Kong got to channel a little Crank-era Jason Statham, jump starting his heart and honest to god using a building to pop his separated shoulder back into place (complete with Statham-esque howl of pain). And I’m all for Kong’s tendency to rip the heads off of things and hold them high. Even with all that, there were moments when it was so bat shit crazy, I could watch it. The modern Godzilla movies aren’t very good, the first one (with Bryan Cranston) had a couple of moments but looked like shit, so gray and dark I was squinting the whole time, the second one was so unmemorable I really don’t remember it other than putting front and center the character played by Three Name Millie who was deeply annoying in that one and this one as well. I guess she’s supposed to be the Godzilla whisperer, the counter to the deaf girl’s “signin’ with Kong” thing she has going for her, but hard to see Godzilla signing “home” with his flappers or staring lovingly into that kid’s eyes.

Forrest Gump (1994)  A truly scary atrocity, a film that embraces the absolute worst in conservative values. Even apart from the insulting ways in which history is reduced to sound bites, or how the entire 60s counter-culture movement is embodied in a single character (Jenny’s boyfriend), who is also a hypocritical, monstrous creep, the film’s central message appears to be this: Shut up and do what you’re told and you’ll have a wonderful life. If history has taught us anything, it’s how not true that is. The movie’s take on women is deeply conservative and completely lopsided; we see Forrest in Vietnam surrounded by death and destruction, then his “thoughts turn to Jenny” and we cut to her shooting up and having sex with two guys at once. Jenny’s character is only given sympathetic treatment by the filmmakers after she’s rendered socially harmless by becoming a mother and almost immediately, the film kills her off and tosses in a cautionary AIDS bit about the promiscuous 60s to boot. In fact, Jenny’s character line reads like a Rush Limbaugh primer; 60s protest/ free sex hippie turns into 70s coke head who turns into 80s mother and finally into 90s AIDS victim (final, glorious retribution for all that sinning). If there’s a movie hell, Robert Zemeckis is going there for this one. 

 Badlands (1973)   Simply one of the great cinematic achievements; Terrence Malick isn’t interested in what might be considered normal character development, or rather, he allows his endless landscapes to say what he wants to say about the characters. There’s a sense of blank desolation at the center of this film and it’s both literal and emotional — the landscapes mirror the emotional lives of Sheen and Spacek — the characters are operating in a world where moral boundaries are beside the point; murder or drive on, there’s no difference. It captures some essential existential emptiness at the heart of the 50s specifically and Middle America generally. Sheen is purposely channeling James Dean here and it’s important that the film is seen from the eyes of a 15 year old girl. In ways, Badlands says everything “Natural Born Killers” tried to say about the way we objectify and fetishize killers and violence, but by showing that this conception comes from the head of a child, Malick is acknowledging the basic infantilism of this “hero worship” dynamic. The film is not only beautiful, it’s oddly and slyly funny and in some ways, the growing estrangement between the two characters reads much like the dissolution of any relationship. When, after he’s been caught, Sheen says to Spacek (about her father, who he murdered) “Too bad about your dad, we should talk about that sometime” he’s like every jilted boyfriend saying exactly the wrong thing to get her back. Stunning stuff. 

To the Wonder (2012) – Confounding in many ways, you can follow it much the way you might an opera, with the large emotional movements of people falling into and out of love abstracted and made lyrical, putting them at an emotional distance from us. In moments, it really did feel like Malick managed to make a modern silent film without resorting to The Artist-like trickery, a film you can sort of follow whether the words are on the screen or not.  And there’s almost no dialogue.  But I can’t help but think that Affleck was horrified when he first saw this cut; he’s in it as much as anyone but we hardly get a straight on shot of him in the entire film, he’s always framed from behind or the side, and he makes very little impression.  What’s interesting to ponder is whether this was Malick’s vague plan all along or whether he looked at the footage he had of Affleck and decided the best thing was to turn him into a non-character, a kind of abstraction more than someone real.  Affleck ends up being a problem because two luminous women who seem full of life manage to fall for him in a big way and he’s such a stone figure, it’s hard not to wonder why.  Affleck is a fine presence in the right thing, but here given a role that’s essentially silent, he just doesn’t register on screen and drags much of the film with him.   

Kurylenko comes out the best, she manages to look luminous, alluring and human at the same time, Malick takes great care to often frame her completely and you can see how small and human she seems, important because he easily could’ve shot her in such a way that she was always a goddess. It remains confounding on a narrative level and by the end,  I wasn’t sure what to make of it all.

One disturbing trend in post 70s Malick films is he seems incapable of conceptualizing the women in these films without a fair amount of cavorting.  Kurylenko has it the worst, she prances about in several scenes, showing her lively spirit I guess but seeming sort of infantile, at least as she does it over and over again.  And even McAdams does a bit of it, as though Malick only imagines woman are happy when they are accessing their pure inner child (see Rooney Mara in  Malick’s “Song to Song” for the apotheosis of this cavorting tendency). And it’s odd how  in his first film in 1973, Badlands, there’s a lot of sly humor but the post “Thin Red Line” Malick seems utterly humorless.   

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)  A stunningly expressionistic summing up of the western career of John Ford, full of audacious ideas. The casting of the elderly Wayne and Stewart as young men makes the entire long flashback section feel like the feverish remembrance of an aging man, which is what it is. Plus, the entire film is essentially shot on a set, a remarkable change of pace for a man known for his Monument Valley locations. There are funny visual jokes throughout, check out the dinner plates which are the size of a small table and the steaks still manage to hang over these huge plates. This is an overtly mythicized past.  It’s also a deeply ironic film.  Like in “The Searchers” Ford explores the idea that the very kind of personality necessary to “tame” a wilderness becomes anachronistic once that wilderness is tamed and civilization triumphs. This conflict is still in place today with the red states hawking the triumph of the iconoclast vs the blue states desire for cooperation and community values. There’s hardly a sadder (or more effective) image in all of film history than Wayne’s casket with a desert rose sitting on a top, a beautiful and complicated metaphor that perfectly encapsulates the film’s major themes, with a strong sense of not only what is gained by progress (Stewart’s senator is passing an irrigation bill that will turn the desert into a garden) but a deep feeling for what will be lost. It’s also a remarkably bitter film. When at the end of the movie, the train conductor says to Stewart, “Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance,” Stewart seems nearly as destroyed as he did at the end of Vertigo. He’s a moral man whose entire political power and existence is based on him having killed a man which is also a lie and at the end, he (and we) understand there’s no escaping that. Ever. 

Point Break (1991)   A complete hoot. Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze meet cute and woo each other through the movie; Lori Petty as the nominal love interest is noticeably (and purposely) less attractive than either of her male co-stars, which is the point. This is a buddy movie where the homoerotic subtext is so blatant, it’s practically text. The action scenes are beautifully shot (a foot race through a neighborhood, shot mostly with Steadicam, is amazing), and the final skydiving scene where the two men hurtle through the air with their legs wrapped around each other, one with a (very large) gun in his hand, is a perfect little sex scene from foreplay (drop the gun, pull the cord, drop the gun, pull the cord) to orgasm (they hit the ground together hard, rolling and coming to a rest, both completely spent). If you look at the film as a love story between the two guys, it’s funny and has great action. 

The Matrix Resurrections (2021)  The new Matrix movie is not very good.  The worst part ultimately is the action sucks, like really poorly done in this generic ‘cut the shit out of every scene’ way.  It just seems a mess. In a lot of ways, it’s a remake of the first one (including an ending that is almost identical to the first movie’s ending, same music and all).  Reeves seems comatose and really the only character who has any life is Jessica Henwick.  There are some ideas here but they’re all so poorly developed, you’re not sure what to make of them.  At one point, it feels like it’s going to be a satire.  Keanu is in the matrix and is the creator of a video game called The Matrix and he doesn’t realize his game is history, not a game.  Later, there’s a discussion about how the powers that be are forcing a new Matrix game on the world simply to make money (like it’s a joke about the decision to make this particular movie), but this really doesn’t go anywhere and the movie plays things mostly earnestly.

Don’t Look Up (2021) is the Leo/JLaw movie about an approaching comet.  It’s at least a half hour too long.  It works best when it’s really really broad (the very ending where Streep’s Trump-esque president is eaten is just about perfect and that satirical tone is when the story works best), but it also is trying hard to be about climate change and they have to really twist up logic and common sense to make their points.  Leo is good as the main scientist who turns out to be totally neurotic and gets caught up in the giant lie and becomes part of it (Don’t Look up is the catch word of the far right because even after the comet appears in the sky, they say don’t look up, it’s all a lie, which does sort of capture the spirit of the far right on a lot of things). There’s a lot of intelligence here but also seems super preprogrammed to appeal to the already converted. 

Free Guy (2021), which I was shocked to discover was a medium hit of sorts.  It was awful.  The idea is relentlessly stupid (non playing characters in video games start doing stuff on their own — of course there is an explanation at the end but it’s still a massively stupid idea), it’s big and dumb and loud and cribs from a half dozen much better movies, often overtly (there’s even a Star Wars riff, though it also hits Matrix notes and is a lot like the Truman Show). It’s not funny, not fun, not smart, the kind of expensive, cameo-filled shite Hollywood likes to put out.  After I watched it, I was sure it was a huge flop, like who could like this thing, but no, it wasn’t and even the reviews mostly skew positive.  I have officially aged out of prevailing critical thought. 

No Time to Die (2021) Not terrible. It’s competent in a lot of ways, but it’s also really gloomy and there’s not much fun.  Most of the action is more in the John Wick vein and the villains are barely there.  Rami Malek makes no impression, and Blofeld is in prison.  And Malek’s bad guy has the most generic “I want to kill everyone on earth” reason possible, I never understood what the fuck the point was.  I admire that Craig’s Bond never sleeps with a bunch of “Bond girls” and really his whole romantic life across all the movies centered around two women. This Bond in particular seemed to have a lot of central women characters, a new 007, Ana de Armas for a great little 10 minute cameo, and Bond’s girlfriend who is central to the story.  So I’ll give it that. There was some world-weary humor that was so low key, it barely registered.  Weird Bond for sure.

Dirty Harry (1971)  A fascist classic that’s genuinely creepy; in particular the grainy night scenes have a nightmare quality to them. The film seems to reflect the dark turn our culture took in the late 60s. Andy Robinson is particularly effective as one of the most reptilian creeps in the history of film, but what differentiates this from later Dirty Harry efforts is that, despite an obvious right wing take on things, the director Don Siegel (who in retrospect seems to have been the biggest influence on the development of Eastwood the director) adopts an ambivalent view of Harry’s antics. He’s not the avenging hero he was in later films and the scene where he tortures Robinson on a football field is treated by Siegal as a screeching horror show that’s meant to turn our stomachs not only because the killer is such a monster, but because Harry is too. Such moral distinctions were lost in later years when Harry became a cartoonish action hero whose missions and methods were always righteous. 

Sudden Impact (1983), the only Dirty Harry movie directed by Clint Eastwood, it’s a strange mix of buffoonish comedy and brutal, rape-revenge story line that feels audacious without actually being good. All the Harry Callahan stuff is the broadest comedy. This includes:

  1. An early scene of a murder where one of the techs eats a bouncing hot dog while describing how the victim had his dick shot off.  Harry’s only response is to tell him what really sickens him is anyone who can eat a hot dog with ketchup
  2. Seemingly endless dick jokes and imagery, ranging from a scene where he and his African-American partner compare their guns in terms of size and effectives to the final part where we see Harry in silhouette holding a huge phallic gun (and the main big bad ends up impaled on a very phallic merry-go-round unicorn).
  3. An actual close up of Harry’s dog farting in response to a neighbor’s complaint.
  4. A moment late in the story where Harry returns to his motel to find his partner dead which sort of troubles him until his dog limps out. Only then does Harry get really mad. Kill my partner, okay, not good, but make my dog limp? You fuckers are so dead.

All the Sondra Locke stuff is decidedly unpleasant and Eastwood the director never shies away when she first shoots her victims in the groin and in the head, he shows it every time like he’s doing a public service, showing rapists nationwide what awaits them.  And it suffers from Eastwood’s long obsession with rape (in High Plains Drifter, the movie opens with him dragging a woman into a barn and raping her, though the movie suggests despite her complaints, she enjoyed it, and after that, in film after film, his character is someone who either prevents or avenges rapes). So fun to talk about conceptually but much less so to actually watch.

Dracula (1979)  John Badham’s masterpiece, which isn’t actually saying very much, given his pallid career, but this is a completely worthy attempt at an old fashioned vampire movie. The sets are appropriately gothic (everything has a dusty bones feel to it), the landscapes are of the brooding English hedgerow sort, the women are of the heaving bosom kind and Frank Langella is still thin and sexy here. Laurence Olivier chews scenery as Van Helsing, but that’s pretty much intrinsic to his late career as a character actor and when he says dramatically that if Dracula survives, “there is no God”, you can’t help but think that Badham’s raised the stakes a bit (the great late Robin Wood made much out of this moment), especially considering that the Count, well, does make it (Welcome to a Godless universe). The final image has a kind of hopeful, perverse beauty to it as the Count, free from his body, floats off on the wind and Kate Nelligan’s Lucy smiles her little smile as she realizes she and the Count may be opening that joint bank account together after all. 

Heat (1995) No director working today has a stronger visual sense than Mann, or a more precise way of laying out an action sequence (each of the three major action sequences in this film are stunningly shot and edited). The problem with Heat is twofold. For one, the gimmick of the DeNiro/Pacino pairing is a non-starter. Their one scene together is contrived and pointless with cringe-worthy dialogue. And secondly, though it’s obvious Mann was attempting to make a “relationship” crime drama, where every character is struggling with the realities of the day to day maintenance of being a couple, he fails because Mann is not a particularly gifted observer of the idiosyncracies of male/female relationships. The DeNiro/Amy Brennaman coupling is an embarrassment, I didn’t believe it for a second and Pacino and Diane Venora resort to a lot of screeching and hair-pulling. Only in the Val Kilmer/Ashley Judd relationship is anything interesting allowed to play out, significantly, he’s the only guy who goes back for his woman and Kilmer’s the only one who gets away.  DeNiro’s character is free and clear with Amy Brennaman but ends up rejecting the feminine to indulge in male violence, a big picture idea that works wonderfully well. A worthy failure. 

Saving Private Ryan (1998)   Hardly worth the praise it has received; apart from the opening and closing actions sequences, this is standard stuff, a compilation of moments and ideas from a dozen other war films, infused with that self-important (even self-righteous) tone that colors everything Spielberg does anymore. The characters in particular are so stock, they barely register. Only Hanks makes any impression. The vaunted opening scene is mostly smoke and mirrors; why a filmmaker thinks the way to show chaos on-screen is to shake the camera a lot is beyond me, but the final tank assault is well-done and has that Spielbergian attention to quirky detail (like the sticky bombs). The whole thing is nearly ruined by truly awful bookend sequences where we see the real Spielberg; Ryan’s lived a valuable life because he’s managed to spit out a gaggle of pasty faced white kids who appear respectful; it’s enough to send a diabetic into convulsions. 

Jesus’ Son (1999)   Worth a look, but really, it’s mostly a total failure. As an adaptation, it’s pointless since the beauty of Denis Johnson’s writing is in his use of the language. The film takes a mostly light, episodic tone, and since it doesn’t bother to get at the emotional core of any of its characters, it becomes a quirky freak show that’s hollow. What’s worse, it never captures Johnson’s brand of absurdist, gallows humor and Crudup is awful, a collection of shuffling jiving, and shoulder-hunching tics rather than a performance. At one point, he channels Ratso Rizzo to such an extreme, it reads like a SNL parody. Johnson himself gets a small cameo as a man with a knife stuck in his eye, taken from Johnson’s story “Emergency” but the casting of Jack Black in a key role is so misguided, it sinks this entire section of the film.  It’s beautifully shot in the kind of Midwestern landscapes you rarely see on film, but it was still a disappointment. 

Isle of Wight Festival (1970)   If Woodstock is traditionally seen as the last wondrous gasp of hippie idealism and Altamont the culmination of a decade of bad karma, the Isle of Wight concert seems in retrospect, the perfect beginning of the age of cynicism, aka the 70s. The film documents an angry crowd’s (one of the highlights, reducing Joni Mitchell to tears) insistence that the concert be free and the promoters desperate attempts not to lose everything. Both sides are angry, joyless and strangely pinched; it’s a bunch of creeps hassling a bunch of creeps. But because this was only one year after Woodstock, the musical guests straddle a fence, with The Who (in top form), Hendrix, the Doors, Joni Mitchell, 60s icons all and also 70s art rockers like Jethro Tull and ELP. The music sounds great and is gorgeously shot with a steadiness that seems revolutionary in today’s quick-cutting world. Great stuff. 

The Night of the Hunter (1955) An expressionistic masterpiece, full of dream imagery that has a looming, banshee quality. Mitchum’s brand of virulent menace is truly unique; his first appearance as a huge hatted shadow falling across the two children’s beds is one of the great moments in film and that shot of Shelley Winters sitting in her car at the bottom of the pond with her hair floating around her one of the great nightmare images, it has a way of giving you the under-the-skin crawlies. Even with its gothic funhouse feel, Charles Laughton (his only film as a director) manages to find emotional warmth and even humor amidst all the shadowy menace and he gets two solid kid performances in a time when good kid performances were rare. If you have any interest in film as an art form, this film is essential. 

Romance (1999)  The title is certainly meant ironically and there’s the husk of a first-class black comedy here — the men involved are all types. The main character’s boyfriend is a closet case, her Italian lover is a dream stud, her third man is a father figure who ties her up in curiously asexual bondage sequences. But the director infuses her material with that particularly French brand of romantic angst. How anyone in France manages to procreate without deciding it’s way too much trouble is one of life’s enduring mysteries. Romance is certainly not without value or insight about male/female interactions and the curious disconnect many women feel between their bodies and their heads, and even though it flies a bit off the rails in the last third, I was never bored. 

Frances Ha (2012) – Painful to watch for much of the movie and in the end, it really doesn’t add up to much, it seems lighter than air, and because of that, is dependent upon Ha/Gerwig’s charms and here we hit an interesting snag.  On the one hand, Gerwig is a lively and compelling screen presence, there’s a pleasing impulsiveness that feels real. And the movie does a good job of capturing a character who in her frustrations and awkwardness and kind of goofy, speedy charm, talks and talks, saying whatever pops into her head. Her emotions are always right there on the surface.

But I can’t help but think there’s a subtextual narrative running alongside where Noah Baumbach is making a vanity showcase for Gerwig, his partner. The film often reads this way, there’s an arrogance about Baumbach’s assumption in specific moments that she’s utterly charming, which often elicits the opposite reaction in this viewer.  It doesn’t help that Baumbach loses control of the last third of the movie. He awkwardly gets all the characters together fast, as if to wrap it up, and that takes away from the naturalistic feeling of the film that was its greatest strength.  And not only does not much happen to her, she ends up in a great place with a job, an apartment and choreographing dance performances that people come to and clap after.  It feels like Baumbach has shied away from anything but a generic happy ending in deference to the vanity project aspect of this.    

American Hustle (2013) Is it possible to be entertained and also think bullshit?  Of course it is and this is how I feel about a whole range of movies.  With American Hustle, I felt this but in trying to put words to my feeling about the film, I can find little room for this ambivalence.  Bale was as good as I’ve seen him, more human than is typical of him, and in a way, the moral center of the film. Amy Adams manages to do sexy and vulnerable quite well, Bradley Cooper is the most obvious 80s character as he seems coked up much of the time, and Jennifer Lawrence just makes everything she’s in feel lively and alive.  Oh, Renner is great as well and manages to exude a kind of humanity and morality that makes what happens to him painful.   Yet it all doesn’t add up to much, not really, and seems strangely inert and forgettable. 

Mama (2013) Up and down for most of the running time until going fully down in the last third.  On the plus side, Chastain is fantastic and is in fact the kind of character you don’t often see as a lead; someone meant to be edgy without maternal instincts trapped in a situation not of her making.  And when the movie just goes with suggestion and shadow, it can be quite creepy.  There’s a scene early in where it’s framed so that we can see the hallway and the girls’ room and we see the youngest playing with a blanket, someone on the other end pulling, her sister we assume, until we see her sister standing in the hallway and realize she’s playing with Mama.  At the very end of the scene, as the sister goes into the room, we see the younger daughter’s feet levitating up near the ceiling.  All those kinds of suggestive moments were effective. The problem is, we see the CGI Mama in the very opening and we see her a lot along the way and it’s not scary and it’s not effective and when the film turns into a CGI monster movie, it completely loses its way.   

 The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) A real slog and beyond tiresome about three quarters of the time. As a morality tale, it seems hopelessly programmatic and 25 years behind the times.  As a dark comedy, it occasionally works but most of the time simply is not funny. The (now) famous quaalude scene left me cold, it seemed like frat boy Hunter Thompson, though I chuckled when it turned out the next day he’d hit basically everything with his car rather than nothing.  It didn’t help that this guy next to me in the theater was laughing loudly at a lot of it (he guffawed the loudest at the scene where the gay guy gets his nose broken and Jonah Hill pukes) in between bitching to his girlfriend about how terrible the seats where, which was mystifying since for me, I was sitting where I would’ve sat had the theater been completely empty, but it was clearly too close to the screen for this dude.  The movie is also freaking endless and to my eye on the doddering side.  Greed is bad?  Really?  1990 called and wants its insight back.  I also found myself annoyed by the scenes with his wife and kid at the end; it was such a cartoon to that point that to suddenly ask us to give a shit about this guy was jarring.  And I hated that final dolly through the expectant crowd at his post jail seminar in NZ, as though the film was capturing something essential about the human condition.

Blue Jasmine (2013).  I was surprised and a little appalled by how bad this was. Not that I’ve ever been a fan of Woody Allen’s 21st Century films but this script was terrible and Allen’s directing doddering. It never felt like it took place in the real world, making Allen as a writer seem out of touch. His conception of working class people was absurd and a little insulting, it meandered all over the place, it often went out of tone, and by the end, I had no idea what I was supposed to think about Jasmine.  I really didn’t expect to dislike it that much, even the background music in scenes set my teeth on edge. 

The Harder They Fall (2021) A black-directed and written western with an all black cast (I can’t remember even one significant white character, which was one of my favorite things about it) and it’s got some style and verve, though tonally it’s all over the place.  It’s often brutal and bloody, but also they mix in rap soundtracks and even the characters sometimes break into song (which mostly worked), but then out of nowhere, the director will have a 45 second shot of characters riding their backlit horses in slow motion in a moment so hackneyed, I was sort of embarrassed to be watching it. The film doesn’t really work as a whole, but I appreciate that black filmmakers are trying to do something with the western since black cowboys have largely been written out of our popular culture western history. Idris Elba is the bad guy and he’s scary and majestic, but he in the end doesn’t have all that much to do. He glowers a lot and I suspect his whole appearance was shot in a few days tops, it feels like a cameo. The biggest problem is the film is often boring. Long sections of a lot of pointless talking and even the final shootout which goes on for a full half hour or so is full of talk and stupid visual ideas and somehow is just as boring as all the talky parts. So I’m on its side in theory but the reality is not pretty.

Halloween Kills(2021) Uh…not good. The earlier David Gordon Green/Danny McBride Halloween didn’t exactly encourage me to seek this out, but then it was just sitting there for free on my TV set. The script sucks and the ending is so perfunctory (because there’s one more planned), I read it as a dream sequence or a fantasy or some such bullshit. Jaime Lee Curtis’ bad ass survivalist is barely in it and the whole idea of an evil creature killing dozens of people has never felt so pointless or played out. It was a lot bloodier than the original and a couple of the murder set pieces were okay (there was one where a character ends up shooting herself by accident which was literally the only inkling of wit in the entire movie) and there were moments where it looked good (long shots of a saturated night in deep focus, the killer in long shot moving through the landscape) but other parts were so badly directed, it looked like it was digitally panned and scanned in post.

Riders of Justice (2020),  a Danish film with Mads Mikkelsen is an odd piece of work all around. Mads is some badass military dude whose wife is killed in what seems at first a train accident. Three nerdy guys with serious mental health issues approach him, certain she was killed as part of a larger hit by a gang called the Riders of Justice. They have arcane proof they’ve gotten via hacking and other computer related things. At the same time, Mads’ daughter really wants to talk to someone about her trauma but Mads is a stoic motherfucker who puts the kibosh on that. In the meantime, the three nerdy dudes are around all the time and form a kind of defacto therapist for the daughter. Mads goes Mads on the gang and basically offs like thirty of them, the action scenes are cleanly done and brutal in their efficiency. Much of the nerdy guy stuff is comedy (though dark, this being a Danish film, it doesn’t back away from how mentally ill a couple of these guys are), the action is all fast and hard and in the end, it has some of that “Outlaw Josey Wales” narrative – you know, stoic unstoppable killing machine slowly and against his will becomes a tiny bit more human as he collects this exceedingly offbeat family (besides the nerdy dudes, there’s a guy who had worked as a prostitute who settles in nicely with the group).

Nobody (2021) If you were to tell me that Bob Odenkirk of Mr. Show fame (oh yeah, and Breaking Bad but still…) would play a “John Wick adjacent” ass kicker, I’d laugh out loud.  But against all odds, he mostly pulls it off.  He’s a family man with a secret who backs down during a home robbery (eliciting his son’s disgust) and later in a triumph of the repressed moment, starts a fight with five clearly bad guys on a bus. This is one of the best scenes in the movie, it’s shot straightforwardly and Odenkirk gets the shit kicked out of him, but gives better than he gets. There’s a fine, almost humorous moment after they’ve tossed the old man (Odenkirk) out the bus window and they sit around and look at each other and they’re completely fucked, broken arms, busted heads, the whole thing. Then the bus door opens and the old man reappears and things only get worse for them from there. There are a lot of action scenes in this, most of them well staged, even if the baddies are the ever present Russian evil dudes. It goes a bit flat near the end when Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) as Odenkirk’s father kills like a dozen of the bad guys with a shotgun, the bad guys doing the time honored movie thing of standing still in the open waiting for the geriatric to shoot them, but still, as a whole, I was on this movie’s side in a way I would’ve never imagined when I started it.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019).  I had to look up the title, so generic are these late era Star Wars movies.  I have to say, for having such a large cultural footprint, these are some serious shit movies.  The first one is an embarrassment, The Empire Strikes Back is the only one of the original three that has anything going for it, the three Lucas directed are abysmal, and the most recent trio of movies are all…okay I guess, but not much more. I’m often mystified as to how much people go crazy for Lucas’ shit world. I’m trying to think of a good analogy.  Lemmings to the cliffs?  Salmon heading up stream?  A pimply teenager trotting out his disturbingly well-worn issue of Oui magazine for the 25th night in a row?  This particular movie was mostly a dis-spirited affair with a lot of callbacks to the other movies (including what seems like a lot of ghostly talking presences, though where Carrie Fisher’s character fits into that is not clear, her being ostensibly real in context of the movie but, you know, dead in real life), including wheeling out the same exact villain and giving Driver the Darth Vader ending.

The Irishman (2019) Man it took me a long time to finish this thing. I stopped it like four different times and when I looked, I was only an hour and 20 minutes into it, which is a full two hours from the end. I remain perplexed the praise has been so universal. The CGI stuff seems a real mistake to me, the old man movement is one thing (and in the scenes where age-appropriate actors like Bobby Cannavale and Stephen Graham go physically ballistic, it only highlighted how frail seeming DeNiro and the other “young-made” oldsters were), but I found myself looking at every closeup and trying to see past the facade. And while there are undeniably some good moments, I didn’t give a shit about these people and DeNiro seemed like an empty cypher at the center. And what the fuck is up with Anna Paquin’s character? It’s like Scorsese realized there were no women in his movie but he couldn’t actually be bothered to write a female character. So she just stares and doesn’t speak? Look, I could see the attempts at a sometimes subversive humor (that didn’t work for me at all but that’s another thing) so I’m not surprised the movie has gotten a smattering of good reviews. I’m just amazed there are no vocal naysayers at this point.

Free Solo (2018) is something. Just the footage Alex Honnold climbing makes it worth seeing. And the filmmakers do a good job in detailing how tenuous his foot and hand holds are. There are great details throughout, including moments where he cleans a potential hand hold with a toothbrush. The camera people find ways to get in close to him throughout the final climb.

And the filmmakers manage to lay down multiple narratives throughout. The level of preparation surprised me though it makes perfect sense,, Honnold mapped out every part of the route while on a rope over a period of weeks, and wrote it all down in a journal. There’s a boy/girl narrative as well (they lucked out here, she seems sane and is almost distractingly gorgeous) and the film never romanticizes their romance. Often it barely exists, even when it is  obvious she’s living with him in a van or looking at houses with him. She clearly wants more from him than he wants to give (which is a classic boy/girl construct and here it makes some sense – seems like if you climb smooth rock walls thousands of feet high without ropes, you’re going to have a developed sense of fatalism that doesn’t play well with a relationship), we can see the difficulty of being with a guy like that, though the film never overplays it.

How the climb plays out fits easily into a recognizable narrative shape; you have about an hour of preparation (think of it as a prison break or heist movie, where planning takes up the first hour and the break/heist comes in the last half hour), a small setback, a couple of problems to solve (parts of the route that are particularly difficult) and of course the final triumph. It really is a well-constructed film on a narrative level. And for a movie where everyone knows he makes it, the final climb is surprisingly tense and in the end, strangely moving, I didn’t expect to get choked up at the end but…