Friday, January 13, 2023

My Year at the Movies 2022


Here you have my review of the 2022 movies I saw this year, mostly the ones I saw in theaters with some notable films I saw on streaming – followed by my nominees and winners for Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Picture, as well as a list of best picture honorable mentions and a list of performance honorable mentions from which I drew Best Supporting Actor and Actress winners. The images above are not meant to hint at a particular nominee or winner. 

As usual, the B sci-fi and horror films come out during the movie doldrums of January and February. In Roland Emmerich’s latest disaster extravaganza Moonfall, another sci-fi epic that pays little attention to physical and scientific reality, our moon jumps out of orbit and heads toward Earth. Not nearly as good as 2012, my favorite Emmerich film. Rather unimpressive CGI though I loved it when the moon approaches so close that they can launch themselves out of the moon’s gravity right into Earth’s gravity without worrying about the space between! Also, in February – I saw the enjoyable romance-fantasy Marry Me in which a mild-mannered teacher played by Owen Wilson marries J. Lo. Yeah, right – but Wilson and Lopez are charming together. I followed this with Uncharted, an improbable, forgettable action movie based on a video game – a kind of cross between Mission: Impossible and Pirates of the Caribbean. I wrapped up February with Dog, the best of the lot this month. Not your overly sentimental dog movie, it’s about two individuals damaged by war – one a man (Channing Tatum) and the other a dog (played by three different dogs). 

 Along comes March and the semi-big movie is The Batman. Pattinson is fine as Batman. I’m not a Batman freak, but I enjoyed the movie. Took a while to get going. Nice brooding atmosphere. Don’t remember too much else about it. On Disney+ it was Turning Red, another Disney offering that focuses on another culture and gives the major roles to people of color. It’s an odd movie, and the “tiger” mom and grandma are scary characters! Back at the movies, I saw X. Gory, diverting, awesome man-eating alligator, with Mia Goth playing an aspiring actress performing in a porn film on a farm owned by a psycho old couple. 

In April I saw The Lost City - can’t say I liked it despite Brad Pitt’s part in this ridiculous rom-com. Also saw Infinite Storm with an admirable Naomi Watts performance and grueling episodes as a blizzard traps a jogger and Watts saves him, set in a mountain range that bears no resemblance to the White Mountains of New Hampshire where the true story took place. Finally, I saw Everything Everywhere All at Once which I enjoyed for its portrayal of a Chinese mother trying to accept the American acculturation of her millennial, lesbian daughter. All the alternate universe stuff kind of lost me. Jamie Lee Curtis gives a tremendous performance as an IRS clerk gone psycho. 

In May, when the movies usually get bigger, I saw Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, a suitable sequel with some suspenseful sequences, revelations about the Dumbledore family, and a fine performance by Jessica Williams - yes, BIPOC may go to Hogwarts too! Then there was Top Gun: Maverick, which has been very favorably reviewed and has appeared on a number of critics’ top-ten lists. I enjoyed it, but I thought that the plot was following a mold – young guy seeks to win the approval of older officer while struggling with bitterness toward him. Cruise gives a solid performance – but he always does so in the many action movies in which he as starred. The action is thrilling but standard and predictable. 
In June came a very different movie: The Northman, directed by Robert Eggers, the director who brought realism and period-appropriate language to stories about witches in colonial America and lighthouse keepers enduring the isolation and claustrophobia of a 1.33 aspect ratio. Here he deals with the often caricatured, inaccurately portrayed Vikings. The actors are given rich, poetic language that suggests the Germanic language spoken by Northmen of that time period, and they are appropriately violent – very violent – and engage in realistic looking rituals and bloody sacrifices. I like Eggers’s The Witch the best. Meanwhile, I had been anticipating the completion of the Jurassic World trilogy for months. In fact, I conducted a “Monster Mayhem Movie Marathon,” posting on Letterboxd on the monster movies I re-watched. When Jurassic Park: World Dominion finally came out, I was disappointed. Much attention is paid to the sale of pirated dinosaur clones on the black market – and to a rather tedious motorcycle chase. When the dinosaur encounters finally reach the jungle where they belong, the man-vs-dino and the dino-vs-dino action is a lot less memorable and spectacular than that of the first two movies, spending too much time reuniting the characters from Jurassic Park and giving them time for individual reaction shots as well as group looks of awe and terror with everyone deliberately spaced evenly apart so that everyone gets seen by the camera. Do people really stand that way in a group? June’s theater viewings ended with Disney/Pixar’s Lightyear the origin story for Buzz Lightyear, an exciting and sophisticated sci-fi story involving the theory of relativity – less of a kids’ film than it should have been perhaps. 

In a slow summer, July featured movies that are only mildly good. Minions: The Rise of Gru is sometimes funny but not nearly as satisfying or epic as Minions. The funniest sequence involves the yellow devils running the flight to San Francisco – but that was spoiled by the trailer I had seen multiple times. Where the Crawdads Sing is based on your typical romantic book-club-book contrivance, but it has picturesque settings and the presence of the delightful Daisy Edgar-Jones – but do crawdads really sing? On streaming I saw Ambulance, a thrilling but overdone action/violence movie with Jake Gyllenhaal commandeering an ambulance to escape from a botched bank job while his brother and a kidnapped nurse operate on a wounded policeman as they flee high-speed from the entire LAPD. 

In August, I enjoyed a number of good movies on the small screen, and one of the best movies of the year on the big screen. On Netflix, Dakota Johnson appears in yet another Jane Austen rendition - Persuasion, modernized in point of view, though not in time period. Here Johnson as Anne Elliot delivers her sardonic evaluation of human foibles and the silliness of interactions between male and female, addressing her comments at the camera with a fetching wink of her eye. In Ron Howard’s epic rescue drama set in Thailand, Thirteen Lives (Amazon), the two most famous rescue divers, played by Colin Farrell and Viggo Mortensen, devise a risky, radical plan to rescue a soccer team and their coach trapped in a flooded cavern. Very gripping from beginning to end. One of Howard’s best films. Meanwhile, Nope is Jordan Peele’s best film of the three he has made. With Daniel Kaluuya as a movie-horse wrangler and Keke Palmer as his sassy sister, it is a scary, suspenseful, quirky take on the flying-saucer-from-outer-space genre. The invader is an entity that looks like a classic flying saucer but is something else entirely. It also incorporates Western tropes, with the setting and with horse wrangler OJ (Kaluuya) riding hell-bent-for-leather like a cowboy hero. Finally, that month, on Hulu (which I rarely view), I discovered the best adventure/period piece of the year that takes you back three hundred years to a group of Comanche Indians living on the Great Plains. In Prey, however, the hero is Naru (Amber Midthunder) a young Comanche woman who wants to hunt with the boys instead of gathering food and weaving baskets with the girls, and she proves herself worthy when she sets out to kill a beast – SPOILER! that turns out to be that predatory warrior/hunter from outer space we have followed in a number of previous films. This satisfied my love for raw, outdoor, physical action. 

Releases usually peter out toward the end of August. Then, in the middle of September, you start to get a renewal of good releases. The Woman King. Wow! You get Viola Davis, half naked, in battle garb, wielding a sword, slashing away at her enemies. She is the warrior leader of Dahomey in the early 1800s – fierce and formidable – fighting rival tribes working for the pernicious slavers. Has she ever done any physical action? She is the best part of a film that follows the very stock pattern of a young warrior-wannabe (Thuso Mbedu) going through training, making friends among the men, I mean, women, tussling with rivals, and proving herself in battle. Don’t Worry Darling got poor reviews, but I liked it. It’s a chilling Stepford Wives-like thriller in which a housewife (Florence Pugh), new to the community, notices strange things about her husband (Harry Styles) and the other men living in perfect little houses with perfect little robotic wives. You know this is not reality! On streaming, I watched the ultra-violent, vibrantly filmed and edited drama - Athena - about Arab refugees in a French housing project rioting in reaction to the killing of a boy, supposedly by the police. The film’s opening sequence is one of the longest uninterrupted cuts I have seen that runs from a police station, through the station, outside, into vehicles, follows the vehicles full of protestors, runs through a housing development, and ends on a wall looking down at the approaching police. Amazing action choreography, editing, and cinematography. Finally came the Netflix release of Blonde, a fictional interpretation of the life of Marilyn Monroe. I had read the novel by Joyce Carol Oates, and I was ready! It has been strongly criticized for its fictional free-license (but it is clearly intended as fiction – as the presentation of a sort of alternate universe Monroe!) and its graphic sexuality (but Monroe was a very sexual person and sexuality was key to her rise to fame and a pervading force throughout her life). It is a shocking, raw, disturbing film about a person disturbed by haunting insecurities, a person who suffered mental anguish throughout her life yet was able to perform some of Hollywood’s most memorable roles. Ana de Armas becomes the embodiment of Monroe in a totally transformative performance. The film is visually remarkable for its use of different aspect ratios, color, and black and white to evoke the classic decades of Hollywood movies, and the year’s most memorable image is the dissolve from Marilyn’s long hair cascading over the side of her bed into Niagara Falls. 

In October came Fall, one of the best action movie/thrillers of the year, in a genre I call millennials in peril, in which millennials get into life-threatening situations and their cell phones are integral to the action. This thriller puts you at the top of a two-thousand-foot radio tower in the middle of the desert and traps you there with two thrill-seeking millennial women. The dizzying camerawork makes you cringe, as the two young women try to think their way down from their perilous perch – and their cells don’t get a signal up there! Nice commentary about those daring-deeds reels posted on Facebook and YouTube. In another example of millennials in peril, Barbarian, a young woman finds herself in the Airbnb from hell when she ends up bunking with a young man accidentally assigned the same rental. You expect he will be some sort of psycho – until they find tunnels leading down from the cellar into a nether region where they encounter a monstrosity far beyond what you might have been expecting. One of the best horror movies of the year! I had been yearning for a historical epic, something with battles, and out came the German film All Quiet on the Western Front a grim but beautiful adaptation of the novel. At first, I was disappointed because it strayed so freely from the novel, but once the action started, I was impressed with the set-piece battle, when rumbling tanks advance upon Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) and his German comrades in a remarkably intense and violent sequence. In contrast, the film goes pastoral as Paul and his buddies form close friendships in the natural beauty of the French countryside. Another historical film, Till, is a hauntingly unforgettable depiction of the inhuman racism of the Jim Crow South, in which a young Black teenager is brutally beaten and killed for flirting with a white woman, and his mother (Danielle Deadwyler) employs her intense anguish and deep love for her abused son to jump-start the kinds of protests that became the Civil Rights Movement. Deadwyler’s speech, in which she explains how she identified her son’s body despite the horrible mutilation and bloating, is one of the best monologues in a year trending lengthy monologues done as single cuts. 

November’s big movie was the new chapter in the Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. It is a sweeping epic with a cast of people of color, and the best part of it is how it pays very emotional tributes to Chadwick Boseman: first by incorporating his sketched image exclusively in the ubiquitous Marvel comics montage at the opening of the film. Then there is the grand funeral procession for the deceased King T’Challa, and the montage of T’Challa memories when SPOILER! the beautiful Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) reveals that T’Challa is the father of her son. It’s a visually grand film, but I found the plot derivative, ultimately unsatisfying, and devoid of the kind of distinctive action sequences that have enhanced previous Marvel installments. In the well-meaning but lackluster She Said about the New York Times article that launched the #MeToo movement, well, you know what happens. 

At the end of the month, there was nothing to go out and see. I thought November was the prelude to the Oscar-hopeful releases of the holidays – but all we got was Wakanda. It came Thursday, my movie outing night, and I decided to see Bones and All. All I knew was that it was about a road trip and it had gotten good press, and I like going to a movie I know little about, so I decided to see it. The movie began. Oh, a high school movie. Boy, I was in for a big surprise! Then SPOILERS! Maren (Taylor Russell) goes to a sleepover, takes her friend’s finger, starts to suck it, and bites it out! Turns out Maren, like a minority of others, is an eater of human flesh. Yeah, then we get the road trip when Maren, joined by another eater, Lee, (Timothée Chalamet), searches for her mother to learn more about her eater heritage. This is the year’s best weird film. 

In December, my daughter and I watched an excellent foreign film on Netflix: The Swimmers about two Olympics-hopeful swimmers who escape the violence in Syria and embark on the dangerous and degrading refugee trail from Turkey to a Greek island on a sinking boat and at the mercy of sleazy transfer agents through an unwelcoming Europe to Germany where a coach trains one of the girls for an Olympics team made up of refugees from different countries. The depiction of what the refugees suffer is visceral and heart-rending! Also, on Netflix, I watched Emily the Criminal, a taut thriller with sharp social commentary, about a young millennial who engages in credit card fraud to pay off her exorbitant student loan. Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, the year’s best animated film (Disney/Pixar seemed to be taking a break this year), is a very different telling of the story made classic by Disney. With tremendous set design and stop-motion animation, del Toro presents a grimmer version of the story. Here Pinocchio is sometimes an unlikable pain in the ass, and Geppetto regrets making him. This retelling takes place in Italy, mostly during the Mussolini regime. Here the tubby dictator is a dwarf-sized bully mocked by Pinocchio’s shit-filled song – very unDisney. In contrast, Avatar: The Way of Water is totally in keeping with a Disney-friendly film. It’s about a family – Jake (Sam Worthington) Sully’s Na’vi family, with his wife, Neytiri (Zoë Saldana), and four children – one of them a Na’vi-looking clone of Sigourney Weaver (I was fine with leaving her behind in the first film). In this sequel, the family is imperiled when, no surprise, those dastardly Sky People (humans) return from their ruined planet to colonize Pandora – and in order to do that, they have to “subdue” the indigenous people with Custer-style attacks upon villages. Not taking the effort to think up an original villain, Cameron makes the big bad guy a Na’vi-looking clone of Quaritch (I was also fine with leaving him behind in the first film) played by Stephen Lang, with his voice perfectly suited for a militaristic SOB. When the refugee family flees to the water world, the film dazzles with its visuals. The film is long, but its world building and action move it along expeditiously. 

It was a year of films that pay homage to the medium of film. Spielberg’s The Fablemans is a sentimental tribute to filmmaking and Spielberg himself with some typically overdrawn sequences, much didacticism about the technology of film and Judaism, along with sometimes squirm-worthy overacting especially by Paul Dano as the father and Michelle Williams as the mother. Seth Rogen comes off better, but my favorite supporting character is Monica (Chloe East), the perky doe-eyed teenager who takes Sammy (Spielberg’s alter-ego played by Gabriel LaBelle) into a bedroom decorated with crucifixes and religious images and tries to induce him to let Jesus into his heart. With some nicely subtle sequences mixed in with all of Spielberg’s tendencies to overdo it, The Fablemans cannot fail to move the film lover in us, especially for me when it ends with a glowing tribute to John Ford set to the main theme from The Searchers. The epic Babylon works a wilder, more outrageous tribute to filmmaking, with wannabe filmmaker Manny (played by the very promising Diego Calva) acting as our eyes on the rise and fall of Hollywood stars during the monumental transition from the Silent Era to sound. Through Manny’s eyes, we follow a Clark Gable-like Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) and a hyperactive, profane ingenue, Nellie LeRoy (Margo Robbie), in the wild and woolly Hollywood of the late 1920s, a pagan Babylon of epic orgies, filmmaking excess (the shooting of the men-in-armor battle sequence is a tremendous episode in which poorly paid extras are left wounded and bleeding beside dead horses), and the perversions of the high and mighty with too much money on their hands. Making an impressive visual tribute to the Hollywood films of the 1930s, Pearl, the horror prequel to X, with Mia Goth as a forlorn girl (who grows up to be the psycho farm woman in X) yearning to escape the isolation and boredom of farm life to become a movie star, employs vivid technicolor and an old-fashioned musical score reminiscent of Gone With the Wind to allude to films such as The Searchers (the barn door opening to reveal the first scene) and The Wizard of Oz (the fences and the cornfield – oh, and the scarecrow!). 

In the critics’ favorite, The Banshees of Inisherin Colin Farrell offers a fine performance as a mild-mannered “nice guy,” living on an isolated Irish island, whose best friend, played by Brendan Gleeson, one day unexpectedly and inexplicably says he never wants to talk to him again. I loved the first half of the film with its location shots of the austere beauty of Ireland, the humor, and the unusual language, but the story lost me in the second half. Can’t say I share the critical enthusiasm. Steven Soderbergh’s spare character study, Kimi, examines a young woman (Zoey Kravitz) who has been turned into an agoraphobic recluse by COVID-19. She works at home examining customers’ dialogues on Kimi, a very advanced form of Siri, and her concern for a customer turns the film into a nicely executed Hitchcockian thriller. Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody is a standard bio-pic, but Naomi Ackie, who plays Houston, very convincingly performs to Whitney’s recorded vocals! She fooled me! The popular, highly praised, most-likely-to-be-Oscar-nominated Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery is a moderately diverting star-studded mystery, with Daniel Craig hamming it up, that left me cold as glass. In TÁR, Cate Blanchett is superb and chillingly arrogant as the egotistical symphony conductor, Lydia Tár, whose arrogance is her undoing. The film starts out slow but gains ominous momentum. At the end of the month, I finally saw The Menu which had been playing for weeks, and I especially enjoyed the talented performance of Anya Taylor-Joy as a rebellious, snarky millennial who finds herself invited to an exclusive restaurant where Chef (Ralph Fiennes) proceeds to exact punishment upon food snobs and immoral elitists with his uber-gourmet cuisine and elaborate presentation – and don’t say “eat.” On Netflix, I discovered The Pale Blue Eye with Christian Bale as a talented detective investigating murders and satanic rituals at West Point in the 1820s. With authentic, atmospheric locations, it is a substantial film worthy of the big screen, a gothic tale full of dark and disturbing gothic tropes, but the best part of the film is Harry Melling’s mesmerizing embodiment of Edgar Allan Poe, capturing his intellectual acuity and his almost creepy social awkwardness. (And, yes, this Harry Melling is the entirely trim and transformed Harry Melling who played the pudgy, bullying Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter films!). I watched Strange World on Disney+, a Disney animated film, featuring dazzling but dizzying visuals, about an adventurous family exploring a strange new world and trying to stem an ecological disaster (ah, global warming!) – but the most noteworthy thing about the film is how it fully embraces the new world of inclusion, something Disney has been doing faithfully with their Disney Channel films long before the Black Lives Matter movement. The film includes characters who are Black, Asian, Latino, gay, and lesbian. Finally, having missed it when it was released, I rented Elvis and found it an irresistible ride through multiple decades and the career of Elvis Presley, told here in a frenzy of fast cuts, intercuts, and montage as frenetic as Presley’s style. Austin Butler is wonderfully passionate in the title role – his stage performances are tremendous; Tom Hanks is simply bizarre. 
THE NOMINEES FOR BEST ACTOR ARE – Austin Butler for Elvis, Diego Calva for Babylon, Colin Farrell for The Banshees of Inisherin, Harry Melling for The Pale Blue Eye, Brad Pitt for Babylon. And the Award goes to – (Below) 

THE NOMINEES FOR BEST ACTRESS ARE – Ana de Armas for Blonde, Mia Goth for Pearl, Dakota Johnson for Persuasion, Keke Palmer for Nope, Margot Robbie for Babylon. And the Bellamy Award goes to – (Below) 
PERFORMANCE HONORABLE MENTIONS: Timothée Chalamet for Bones and All, Danielle Deadwyler for Till, Chloe East for The Fablemans, Colin Farrell for Thirteen Lives, Daniel Kaluuya for Nope, Barry Keoghan for The Banshees of Inisherin, Amber Midthunder for Prey, Taylor Russell for Bones and All, Anya Taylor-Joy for The Menu. 

THE NOMINEES FOR BEST PICTURE ARE – Babylon, Blonde, Fall, Nope, Prey. And the Bellamy Award goes to – (Below) 

BEST FILM HONORABLE MENTIONS: All Quiet on the Western Front, Athena, Bones and All, Thirteen Lives, Pearl, Persuasion 


BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Barry Keoghan for The Banshees of Inisherin 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Chloe East for The Fablemans 

BEST ACTOR: Harry Melling for The Pale Blue Eye 
BEST ACTRESS: Ana de Armas for Blonde 


Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Hard Heels on a Hardwood Floor: The Three Days of Jeanne Dielman: An Experiment in Viewing

I recently learned that Jeanne Dielman, 23 quay du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles had been chosen by Sight and Sound as the greatest film of all time. 

I have seen a lot of movies of all kinds from popular blockbusters to experimental arthouse films, but I had never heard of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quay du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.

Googling, I learned that it is a 201-minute film by Belgian director Chantal Akerman, set mostly in a small apartment in Brussels, following the everyday routines a woman who takes care of her son and turns tricks when he’s at school in order to support them. Most of the film covers Jeanne’s sometimes obsessive-compulsive domestic chores, shot in real-time, most of them shot with a static camera capturing very lengthy cuts.

The soundtrack is all ambient sound – and much of it seems overloud – often brashly so. Somewhat unsettling is the constant clacking of the heels of Jeanne’s pumps on the wooden floor. Why does Jeanne wear these hard shoes all day long while doing chores? Doesn’t she have a pair of slippers? Rather irritating are the squeals of the cabinet doors and the loud mechanical operations of the old elevator. One of the loudest sounds – inordinately so – is the crinkling of the brown paper covering a package Jeanne opens with a pair of scissors just before the film’s climax.

The film encompasses three days, and superscript tells you when the first day and the second day end. The film starts on the first day in the kitchen as Jeanne makes dinner. She walks back and forth throughout the house, the heels of her uncomfortable-looking pumps constantly clacking. 


Jeanne is a sex worker making money to support herself and her son, but all we see of that is the man arriving and following her down to her bedroom door. Then the door opens. The job is done. They come out and go to the door. The man pays. Jeanne goes to the bedroom and takes the towel she has laid down to protect her bedspread and she puts it in the laundry basket. Nothing said. No emotion. She takes a bath, washes the tub. 

Sylvain, her coldly taciturn and aloof son, as detached as Jeanne’s customer, comes home. She hangs up his coat and scarf. Can’t he do that for himself? Jeanne serves her son meals, pampers him, ties his scarf when he leaves for school the next day. He doesn’t say much, doesn’t seem very grateful. She serves him dinner. Always aloof, he says nothing, reads his book until she tells him no books at the table – her only admonishment amidst all her uncomplaining service to him. In the morning, she gives him money for the day and he asks for more. He comes off as a cold asshole. 

On two nights, they eat real-time. The first night, it’s spoonful after spoonful after spoonful of soup until they are all done! Then it’s potatoes and stew. She washes the dishes. Later, they sit in the living room. He reads. She turns the pages of a slim newspaper, folds it, puts it away. She takes out knitting, knits a knot, puts it away. It all seems odd.

Realism or surrealism? She moves through her deliberately scripted, mundane routines like an automaton. She never hums or sings or listens to music or talks to herself. Her life and expressions are monotonously the same. Also, there is nothing quirky or interesting about what she does. It is all monotonous and mechanical.

On the surface, this is realism. On the other hand, none of it feels real. Is this allegory – feminist commentary about the lives of women?

On Day Two, Jeanne keeps going on – her heels forever clacking. Making the bed, folding clothes, washing the dishes, drying the dishes, everything done with OCD neatness and sameness.

But this day is different. Jeanne gets to go out! She goes to the post office. She is communicating with her sister in Canada. She goes to a café, sits at a corner table, and drinks coffee.

Then another thing happens differently. At home, the doorbell rings. Unseen, a mother passes a baby in a baby basket in to Jeanne with a simple “Bon jour.” Jeanne sets the baby down on the table and ignores it. The baby’s mom picks her up a short time later, talks extensively about buying meat for dinner, and leaves. When this baby exchange happens again for a short time on the third day, you wonder if the mother is turning tricks too!

Jeanne receives another client, and the sequence happens the same way as the previous day, all the same, but Day Two reveals more subtle differences. In the kitchen, she forgets something. She looks askance, seems irritated with herself. She does things more slowly. She doesn’t know where to place a hot pot. She carries it to the bathroom and back to the kitchen. She puts it in the sink and strains it. What was that all about? Oops! Only one potato! She has to go out and buy another bag.

Her life seems bleak. That evening, she once again glances at the newspaper for a very short time and then takes out her knitting, knits a few knots, and then stops and puts her knitting kit away. Does she have trouble concentrating? No book to read? The living-room is bare and bookless.

The most unusual moment in all this mundane monotony happens that night. There is very little dialogue in the whole movie, and Sylvain speaks very little until, out of the blue, he talks in a bland monotone about talking to his friend about sex, how his friend said a penis is like a sword, and how he hated his father thinking about him having sex with his mom and hurting her with his big sword,

On the third morning, she gets up and seems introspective. Will this day be different? In the kitchen, she kneads the ingredients for meat loaf for a long time! A very long time! Maybe she is thinking about how she is a slave to routines that serve her cold, aloof son and her cold, expressionless sex customers.

We see her first major expression of dissatisfaction when she pours coffee from a thermos into a glass and adds milk. She doesn’t like the taste. She dumps it. She tastes the milk. It seems okay. She makes café au lait again and adds two lumps of sugar – two lumps that she places side by side on the table and scrutinizes. Still, it’s not good. She dumps the coffee. She grinds fresh coffee, boils water, makes drip coffee. She moves around the apartment, clack, clack, clack.

When the shocking climax comes, it’s almost as if she’s driven insane by her OCD routines and clacking of her heels. Her whole life is doing things – mostly in the kitchen.

After making fresh coffee, she sits in the living room and stares. Then she jumps up and goes to the dining room cabinet and dusts things.

The baby is delivered to her apartment again, and now the most discordant thing happens. The baby fusses and cries when she picks her up and the sound of the baby’s crying is sharp, screeching, the volume disturbingly loud. She leaves the screeching baby, goes into the kitchen to eat something, and the doorbell rings. She ignores the ring for a while. Then she gets up and brings the baby to the door. 

She goes out again, this time in search of a button for a coat for Sylvain given to her by her sister. She goes to a number of shops, but fails to find the right button. Is Jeanne’s world crumbling? When she goes to her café this time, someone is sitting at her favorite table and she is taken aback. When she gets her coffee, she doesn’t drink it, pays, and leaves.

At the entrance to her apartment building, she finds a package by her mailbox. She takes it upstairs. She takes the package into her bedroom where the towel on the bed awaits her afternoon sex client. She tries to untie the string, but can’t, so she gets scissors from the kitchen and cuts the sting and opens the box to find a blouse.

When the doorbell rings, announcing her daily client, she puts the package under the bed, the crinkling of the brown paper excessively loud, and she puts the scissors on her dressing table.

We see Jeanne lying under her customer. There is nothing sexy about the whole thing. He is hardly moving, coming very slowly to a climax, and now we see the first dramatic change in Jeanne’s temperament. She’s feeling uneasy. She wants this to be over. She twists the bedspread with her hand. She is trapped. She struggles and the guy comes.

When she is putting on her blouse, the man lies on his back, making no move to leave. Jeanne goes to her dressing table, picks up the pair of scissors, and stabs him in the neck. He gasps and dies – too quickly for a stab to the neck – the whole thing staged very unrealistically – no choking, slow, blood-spurting death.

Finally – cut to the film’s last and perhaps longest cut, shot with a static camera. In dim light, Jeanne sits at the dining room table. She doesn’t seem distressed – as though she hasn’t just killed someone. Shouldn’t she be realizing that her life is ruined? Will Sylvain notice when he comes home? Most likely, he won’t notice anything is wrong as long as she hangs up his coat and scarf and makes dinner. Not worried, she just sits in the dining room, blood on her hand, blood on her blouse, staring and thinking for a very long time, though it isn’t clear what she’s thinking about. She seems spent, at peace, fulfilled. She’s not upset. We hear the traffic noises accentuated. Street lights are reflected in the glass of the china cabinet. 

The choice of this film as the greatest film of all time seems reactionary. The white, male filmmakers have ruled top positions on many greatest-films lists for too long. Here’s a film by a female filmmaker that is one of the first feminist films. People might scoff at the choice of this film for the eminent top ranking. When I learned that the film is largely everyday routine for 201 minutes, I was certainly wondering at the choice, so I had to see the movie in order to judge it.

Do I think it’s the greatest film of all time? It’s certainly interesting – more interesting than I thought it could be – and thought-provoking, but not the greatest film for me. It’s a good, clever, artistic film and provides a lot to talk about. I am totally sympathetic with Jeanne’s plight, her slavery and entrapment, her service to men, and it got me thinking about the oppressive nature of daily routine, especially when you think about doing those routines over and over and over again. I found her world somewhat compelling – what Jeanne does is inherently boring but you are compelled to watch. 

Still, I never felt much of an emotional connection with Jeanne. She doesn’t reveal much of herself; she doesn’t invite an alliance of feelings. She simply does things until she reaches critical mass and breaks out of routine in a shocking way that seems excessive and out of character. I had been exposed to THE big spoiler before I watched, but knowing what was going to happen probably compelled me to have patience and watch the whole thing, and it allowed me to trace the signs that seem to lead to her dramatic act. I wonder how I would have reacted to the ending if I hadn’t known what was coming. I might have thought it was absurd, especially since it happens without any sort of realism. It is an inherently dramatic act that is portrayed without drama. Her violent act comes off as bland and routine as making meat loaf.



Thursday, September 29, 2022

Disturbing Beauty

Blonde is a beautifully disturbing film. The story is hard to watch, but you can't take your eyes off the film's images. Alternating use of color, black-and-white, and various aspect ratios that hearken back to the American film industry’s classic era make this a stunning, visual feast – while the story is emotionally exhausting. 

This is not a standard bio-pic that chronicles famous episodes in a celebrity’s life with bland fidelity to the facts and what everyone said. This is a bio-pic of internal rather than external events. It is a nightmarish, stream-of-consciousness, inner biography of a troubled woman’s descent into painful crisis. 

The cinematography makes the disturbing elements beautiful. Images float and melt and focus into awesome vividness like the stream-of-consciousness images of a Terrence Malick film. 

Pay attention to sound. The use of ambient background sound and white noise fixes you in sometimes mundane moments in the story. Harsh, alien sounds destroy any moment of peace or beauty. 

Meanwhile, the camera focuses on objects – a box, a glass, a black phone - drawing your attention to the scene, making them vivid players in the story. 

Ana de Armas invests herself in Marilyn so deeply that there is no taint of self-conscious artifice. Norma Jean battles with being Marilyn Monroe, and de Armas shifts touchingly and convincingly between the schizophrenic sides of a disturbed individual haunted by a harsh past who is trying to survive in a world of vampiric, rapacious males – the many jeering, catcalling, twisted, open-mouthed, ugly faces of men watching Marilyn making an appearance - feeding off Norma/Marilyn’s delicate vulnerability.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Nouveau Western Surrealism

The release of the Netflix film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), written and directed by the Coen brothers, contributes to a Western film renaissance marked by what I call Nouveau Western Surrealism, a recent sub-genre that blends classic Western realism and romanticism with touches of surrealism, cruel irony, dark humor, and sardonic manipulations of standard tropes into something entirely new. Though I prefer more traditional Westerns (Open Range and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford have been the best Westerns of this century’s first decade), I love Westerns and I gladly embrace this millennial sub-genre.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, an anthology of six Western tales, presented as stories from an old book, offers some gritty scenes of realism: burying a deceased traveler along the Oregon Trail; panning for gold; setting up a traveling show in grungy mining towns – along with large doses of absurdity and grim irony: a singing cowboy; a bank robber rescued from hanging by an Indian attack; an armless, legless poet reciting Shakespeare in a traveling show; a stagecoach acting as Charon’s boat to the kingdom of the dead.

Scruggs comes to us not long after the wide theatrical release of The Sisters Brothers (2018), directed by Jacques Audiard, another realism/surrealism hybrid starring Joaquin Phoenix, the perfect performer for Westerns of this ilk, and John C. Riley, whose style fits wonderfully into the film’s realism. The opening scene – a classic trope – stages a gunfight at a cabin, but we see it only as flashes of gunfire in pitch blackness. The film waxes surrealistic as the Sisters brothers are tasked with appropriating the invention of a scientist (Jake Gyllenhaal in memorably quirky style): a gold-finding method that involves adding chemicals to a stream to illuminate the gold nuggets - and it works with grim results. When the Sisters brothers strive to change their ways and hang up their hired guns, they must evade constant pursuit by bounty hunters, but the film ends with an amazingly touching moment of homecoming and motherly love that is one of the best sequences I've seen this year.

Shortly before The Sisters Brothers came the limited release of Damsel (2018), directed by David and Nathan Zellner, starring Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska. In this case, the story is more surrealism than classic realism as Samuel’s quest to wed his damsel in distress leads to strange irony and a grim look at life in the Old West. The opening scene – out in the middle of nowhere - in which a preacher, broken by hardship, plans to abandon the West - is pure surrealism portraying the harsh truth about life on the frontier. The straight cut to Robert Pattinson as he zealously engages in a boot-stomping dance with the girl that he loves is a beautiful moment. Indeed, Pattinson’s oddball performance is engaging throughout, and Wasikowska aptly portrays a strong damsel who needs no rescue from distress. While the film includes humorous bits of Western deconstruction, it also includes quirky interludes that are nothing but ludicrous and disappointing. The film ends with an enigmatic metaphor.

Bone Tomahawk (2015), directed by S. Craig Zahler, makes a point of distinguishing itself as a different kind of Western that blends action-oater tropes with a bizarre story. Here a traditional quest to rescue a rancher’s wife leads to a desperate struggle with stone-age cannibals. Thus, traditional Western tropes, carried along by the performances of Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins, and Patrick Wilson as traditional Western character types, meet elements of horror and absurdity. Watching this film, with its very disturbing scene of cannibalistic butchery in preparation for the feast, it was clear to see that the Westerns had undergone a distinct metamorphosis.

Although most of the new Westerns make grand use of classic Western locations, Slow West (2015), directed by John Maclean, makes one think, “Whose woods these are, I think I do not know.” These woods sure don’t look Western - the film was shot mostly in New Zealand and Scotland. This ironic film features Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Ben Mendelsohn is the tale of a boy who comes all the way from Scotland in search of the girl he loves – only to meet violent characters and a tragically ironic end. In most of these Westerns, the West is a cruel place. This film, however, ends with the kind of twist typical of the sub-genre. Ultimately, the West is good to Michael Fassbender, the opportunistic bounty hunter who has protected and come to love the boy, - and he ends his elegiac narration with "O, for the West."

Ethan Hawke and John Travolta recently donned Western duds to play in Ti West’s In a Valley of Violence (2016), an enjoyably gritty and atmospheric Western featuring standard tropes and some tense action. Filmed in New Mexico, the film is an attempt at pure Western classicism though it falls short of achieving significance. Nevertheless, the locations are bleakly rugged and the action is tense. What I appreciate is that here is a film that came about because of its risk-taking director and a versatile actor, Ethan Hawke, willing to throw himself into any kind of project.

Even the Danes have gotten into the act with the violent The Salvation (2014), directed by Kristian Levring, in which a Danish settler (Mads Mikkelsen) goes on the vengeance trail after the murder of his wife and son. Although filmed in South Africa, the film features ample Western action and the performance of Eva Green.

Hostiles (2017), directed by Scott Cooper, is another attempt at a straightforward Western for the new millennium. The film is modern revisionist in its apology for the treatment of Native Americans – though it goes further by pointing out the cruelties perpetrated by both sides of the conflict. Somewhat slow and ambling like a Howard Hawks film, but majestic and violent like a John Ford film, Hostiles features Christian Bale as an Indian-hating cavalryman ordered to escort a Cheyenne family back to their homeland. Along the way they rescue a frontier woman (Rosamund Pike) whose family has been killed by renegades. As a reflection more of millennial, wishful-thinking tolerance than nineteenth century attitudes, the two Indian haters ultimately embrace the Cheyenne as humans and end up protecting them from violence.

No matter the anachronisms, the surrealism, the cruel ironies, the sardonic humor, the downright weirdness – the new Westerns embrace much of the classic Western spirit. These films make the best of their outdoor settings. They employ a musical score that is often traditional. They acknowledge the raw violence and the ruggedness of everyday life out West. They appreciate the drama of a well-staged shootout. And they make effective use of that picaresque style of many Western stories in which men and women on horseback head down the dusty trail toward whatever they might encounter over the next rise. “O, for the West.”

Saturday, April 21, 2018

My Post-apocalyptic Movie

Enjoy Solus, my post-apocalyptic film. Catch the film allusions!

Sunday, October 8, 2017

God's Lonely Replicant: Blade Runner 2049


Blade Runner (1982) moves at a slow pace through its perfectly established film noir construct, but the story carries a sense of brooding, ominous dread that makes this hour-and-fifty-seven-minute a compelling experience throughout. This gripping, ominous dread comes primarily from the performance of Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty, the advanced model synthetic human who strives to be a real human, and the film’s dark, congested setting,

Blade Runner 2049 (2017), however, strolls along throughout its two hours and forty-five minutes without much that I found very compelling. Sure, there is mystery, but the mystery seems nothing newer than the questions established in the original film, and I felt no sense of ominous dread.

I love science fiction films, so I tend to be lenient in my critique of flawed sci-fi films that I like, but I felt little enthusiasm for this film beyond its visuals. The opening sequence in the desert establishes the mood and K’s character well. Then K flies over the low-lying outskirts of the metropolis, and as the buildings get taller, I felt a modicum of thrill, but then the high-rise cityscape is not nearly as dazzling or interesting as the city in the original. I loved Joi, K’s holo-girl friend, and I was very sorry that she gets deleted. In my favorite scene in the film, Joi melds her image with a prostitute’s body so that K can imagine holding and kissing Joi as though she were a real girl.

I get the heady philosophical questions posed by the film, but none of them seem any more compelling than the original film’s rather basic quandary: if you have feelings, are you real? The whole Pinocchio syndrome works well in the original film. We especially feel Roy Batty’s urge to live and be a real boy.

In 2049, this paradigm is inherent in the story as K, a synthetic programmed for obedience, searches for Deckard and Deckard’s mysterious offspring. Ooh, ah, is K a sci-fi Ethan Edwards on an existential search - God's lonely replicant? Okay, that's cool, but lets get down to some compelling obsession or lust for vengeance. Instead, the conflict seems flat. Where are the shocking revelations? This slow, tedious search seems directed toward the same questions we already know.

In the end, nothing happens with the revelation of Deckard’s daughter, even though there is an underground movement of replicants raring for rebellion. Unfortunately, rebellion never comes. Instead, we arrive at a flat climax. Deckard had a daughter, and K finds her.

Rachael gave birth to a daughter? How? Well, I guess that makes her as real as robots can get though I guess if Tyrell can create Roy to be the strong, emotional, philosophical being he is, then I suppose he can create a female synthetic who can get pregnant. The technology can be pushed to the limit; it's all fictional.

Meanwhile, not much is done with this premise, and it’s not very compelling – nothing more than the whole belabored question about the point at which a synthetic being becomes human (even though the answer seems simple: no matter how real technology gets, it’s still technology and not human). I guess you can go a step further - if you accept Rachael as human, then I guess you don't believe in God, so what's the worry about a soul? In a sense, perhaps we are all soulless fabrications.

Yep, I get all the great questions posed by this film but, even though I love to worship at the altar of Denis Villeneuve and Roger Deakins, I guess I need a film to be more than just a thought experiment.