Playing a bit of catch-up as I’ve fallen behind in transferring these from tumblr to this site but I should be caught up in a couple of days, which means lots of capsule reviews coming your way.
225. The Way Way Back (2013, Rash, Faxon)
The Way Way Back gets the awkwardness of teenage male introversion, the kind where simple sentences and basic social interaction is debilitating and near impossible. It’s that time in their lives where some kids struggle to have a personality. BUT! That ends up being the problem, because turns out that our protagonist Duncan is a total blank slate. There is nothing to this character. He has yet to start having any kind of identity and the film tracks the beginning of that change. And so kudos for trying to go past the more put-upon attempts of awkward adolescent characterization. But what makes it all so much worse is the weak script, which is packed from start to finish with cliches that are not supported by much quality or strength. We’ve got the shitty stepdad, the angsty-but-beautiful romantic interest, the carefree male mentor, the summertime job, the kooky side characters, the caring but equally stuck mother, etc. If the film had a stronger script which worked with archetypes instead of lazily playing into them, this could have been a much better film. There is a scene where Duncan has to ask some hip-hop dancers to disburse and the only way they’ll comply is if he dances in front of all the waterpark patrons. It’s a scene that of course ends in applause and a nickname. It is without a doubt one of the worst scenes I’ve seen in a film from any year. The first and last scenes are strong and Carell and particularly Rockwell get a lot of mileage from their characters but this mostly annoyed and grated on me.
#226. The Iceman (2013, Vroman)
So much potential here. A hitman who kills because he likes it, who finds himself having a human connection for the family he helped create. Two ruthless hitmen (the other being Chris Evans) who start out as competitors and end up a freelance team. There’s a lot to like and Shannon makes the film largely compelling. But it’s too by-the-book, too focused on story when it purports to be a character study, losing sight of itself in the process. The one-scene Franco casting is incredibly useless and distracting. Winona Ryder is unforgivably wasted as ‘the wife’ though she is able to slip in some ambiguity as to what her character may know when she got the chance. It all comes back to what Kuklinski’s family meant to him and how they fit into his life yet they are too often shoved into the background in favor of the more immediately ‘crowd-pleasing’ antics of violent mob politics.
#227. The Hunt (2013, Vinterberg)
That a film like this is an easy potshot of ‘look how useless people can be’ in a herd mentality scenario doesn’t lessen its impact as heralded by Thomas Vinterberg and powerhouse star Mads Mikkelsen. I had been waiting to see this for quite some time and it did not disappoint. Links back to the director’s seminal Festen by looking at another accusation of sex abuse, this time a decidedly false one. Vinterberg never lets go of his grip on seeing the constant gears of the snowball effect setting up and going into motion. Standard narrative manipulation aside, everything about this feels like an eerily plausible train wreck you can’t stop from happening. Everybody is depicted as well-meaning individuals whose reactions are understandable (Fanny assailants aside) given the circumstances yet still avoidable. It reminded me of Beyond the Hills in that way. It’s one of the more successfully frustrating ‘audience-can’t-reach-out-and-set-things-straight’ experiences. Its study in mob mentality, importantly a mob mentality rooted in genuine search for justice borne out of rightly placed protection, offers no easy answers as it mourns the loss of innocent and pure interactions between adults and children. Those early scenes can’t even exist in their purity because we know what’s coming.
Mikkelsen is really who brings all of this home with his kind and giving character, his respectable stiff upper-lip slowly giving way. That church scene is UNREAL. Some of the best work I’ve seen from him, some of the best work I’ve seen from anyone in a long time. Vinterberg directs assuredly, constantly getting behind the eyes of characters, always tracking those gears. A highlight that comes to mind is the way with absolute clarity we come to understand how Klara comes to her made-up confession. This reminded me that I need to seriously re-watch Festen, a favorite of mine, and also see his supposedly failed English-language efforts which definitely have pockets of appreciators. Its ending is a far more interesting a place to leave off than where the depressing descent of the Danes would leave you to believe we’d land. Also giving really memorable work are Thomas Bo Larsen and young Anika Wedderkopp.
#228. Computer Chess (2013, Bujalski)
This is actually the only film I’ve seen from ‘mumblecore’ helmer Andrew Bujalski, and it’s an ambitious undertaking. In the simplest of terms it’s a lo-fi analog comedy (but it’s a lot of things, a muted philosophical curio) that sets itself up only to purposely deconstruct at every single turn. It strides off to little side streets, to seek out late-night wanderings. It goes full-on in its public access period piece look, using an old 60’s Sony video camera to catch a flat and fuzzy landscape, ugly and kind of eerie. Bujalski keeps this going with hiccups and a form that defies normal rhythms and expected framing. This is a film that could easily be of one-note existence but Bujalski has so many heady things on his mind and wants to touch on them. Looking back at the pioneers of late 70’s/early 80’s technology who are looking ahead, and not in a nudge-nudge way either. The oddness of the act of computer chess. Possible sentience. Conversations with creations. Cultural movements crossing paths. Getting stuck in filmic loops. Everything is slightly off and it’s hard to put your finger on its brand of off-kilter ‘reality’. It sifts through the steady monotony and looks for real meaning in a gently comedic and deadpan way. It’s sneaky and unexpected, a film that I liked quite a bit even if I don’t have the adoration for it that many do. Wiley Wiggins is just the most.
#229. No (2013, Larrain)
A wonderful and consistently engaging film on many levels. Fuses form with the visual language at hand. Embraces the absurd humor inherent in the concept of selling democracy to people through advertising language and branding without ever feeling like it side-sweeps what is at stake. Hot diggity all that archival footage is gold. Tells story through assumedly fictional central figure Bernal who strides through the film freely aware that philosophy and political discussion sadly don’t have the market appeal of say, a jingle. The film’s very focus further supports this idea as does its aesthetic low-def 80’s form. Bernal makes his enigma of a cocky wunderkind full stop captivating. So yeah, I really loved this. Brings back vague memories of learning about Chile in my Latin American history class.
#230. Would You Rather (2013, Levy)
I hope someone remakes this someday because it has a deliciously gruesome concept that is just jackhammered into the ground by a redundantly unimaginative script and some of the worst and clunkiest direction I’ve seen in some time. Levy is at a loss with even simple camera blocking and there’s a jammed wheel-turning to the editing and framing that feels rudimentary. There are also desperate editing techniques that splice in earlier conversations with the present happenings that are meant to keep flow. Still, you’ve got Jeffrey Combs chewing scenery as if his life depended on it and it’s reliably enjoyable to watch him try to single-handedly make up for the entire cast. Oh Sasha Grey. I want to like you but you have maybe six lines and manage to give the worst performance ever with that little. You can tell she had a bigger part but that she’s been edited to shreds in hope to salvage something kind of convincing. But no. I did kind of enjoy Brittany Snow though. But yeah no, this is a big skip.
#231. A Band Called Death (2013, Covino and Howlett)
Another doc case of love the subject matter, not the delivery. It’s a more-than-worthy story blandly told. More concerned with surface-level narrative than actually going deep into anything. Which is a shame because deceased brother David seems a tricky figure worth further exploration. Then it spends far too much time on recollections of rediscovery. I don’t need countless people detailing their reaction to hearing this music to know it’s good. The last section is dedicated to that rediscovery and yes, it’s definitely fascinating to see how the internet brings people together and bridges these threads until it gets all the way to Drag City. But full circle with the next-of-kin is a point to hit, not to dwell on to the degree this does. Fabulous and vital music though.
232. À nos amours (1983, Pialat)
The first film by Maurice Pialat I’ve seen. This resonated with me a lot. The way time is handled and depicted reminded me a lot of another recent viewing, Blue is the Warmest Color; in both, time moves at an unacknowledged but somewhat speedy rate. Like a steady speed train through late adolescence filled with exploratory sex and a severe and almost perverse family dysfunction. The whole thing is held in by Bonnaire; resilient, removed, testing the waters, always looking for a way out of whatever the current situation. She is impossibly young here with a wholly distinctive set of features.
The last act and that show-stopper of a dinner scene is the highlight. What rises this above other coming-of-age sex dramas (complete with baby ingenue-of-the-moment) is how Suzanne grappling with who she is and what she wants is equally tied into a domestic situation where surreal hysterics, and other complex forms of familial desire and function, are brought together under one roof. She becomes a scapegoat of blame but is also trying to fill in an emptiness, to prove herself wrong. The brother character is one of the most awful lecherous creatures ever. The scenes between Bonnaire and father (played by the director himself) are particular highlights.
#233. Christmas in July (1940, Sturges)
Capable of igniting a ‘why don’t they make films like this anymore’ inner monologue. I tend to grapple with Preston Sturges quite a bit but this hit every checkbox of ‘things I enjoy’. Fuck ‘minor’; firing on all cylinders, this breezes by at 67 minutes as ambitious do-gooder Dick Powell is catapulted to false success by a simple prank that inspires reverence in all, simply because an advertising contest supposedly verifies a person’s importance and abilities. There’s quite a bit here about what success is predicated on and how it ties into capitalism and the American Dream. And there’s something striking about the image of a bunch of tired, smoking, arguing white guys pent-up in a meeting room sifting through shitty slogans while 2,947,582 hopefuls wait to hear their fate.
Powell’s slogan is something awful but he’s hedged all his bets on it and we are never allowed to forget it. It’s a zippy, biting riot of a film from start to finish. Powell is excellent but Raymond Walburn is the standout here. His initial conversation with Powell is a HOOT. “I can hardly wait to give you all my money” goes in the Line Deliveries Hall of Fame.
#234. The Clock (1945, Minnelli)
Proto-Before Sunrise (to be seriously reductive) as made through the studio system. Romance set in an urban landscape where an idealistic but heartfelt depiction of NYC reigns supreme. A city defined by and littered with chance encounters of whirlwind romance and milk runs. Robert Walker and Judy Garland sparkle through their (offscreen) mutually assured destruction. Minnelli’s camera glides through the masses to settle on the meant-to-be pair, further emphasizing how important setting is despite none of the film being shot in NYC.
A couple of the chance encounters fall flat such as Kenneth Wynn’s sloppy drunk and just how honeydew and on-the-nose the milkman and his wife are. And The Clock really loses something when it becomes all about the rush to get married. But it comes back around for a coy morning after sequence that is sexy, sweet, and dialogue-free. The wedding ceremony is an almost comically ugly affair and while my modern eyes wish that Garland’s tears had been about the aftermath of absurd decision-making instead of the makeshift ceremony, that’s nowhere near the kind of film this is, and The Clock remains an infectiously fated romance-drama all the same.