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LEAST & MOST FAVORITE of the week...

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Last week I saw five movies, four in the "close, but no cigar" category, one that was much better.  You wouldn't expect Cecil B. DeMille to have a serious discussion of religion versus atheism in The Godless Girl.  And you don't.  But Lina Basquette has genuine charm as the title character, and the movie does become a tolerable prison movie.  One major flaw is why she is attracted to the male protagonist, since instead of having a civil conversation about religion, he caused a riot that put both of them in prison.  Veep was the most disappointing movie of the week.  Although Christian Bale and Amy Adams are very good as the unlovely Cheneys, the movie is too diffuse.  Instead of focusing on one target, it focuses on about ten or so thing Cheney was involved with in his four decades of public life, and doesn't really have any bite on any of them.

Devil in a Blue Dress is a competent mystery, and a case could be made that Denzel Washington is more interesting in movies with black directors.  Having said that, the mystery itself is not especially clever, and the murderer is less interesting than other cinematic criminals of 1995 as Robert DeNiro (Heat). Joe Pesci (Casino). or Kevin Spacey (The Usual Suspects, Se7en).  It also doesn't help that the most thoughtful relationship in the movie, Washington's with Don Cheadle's character, isn't the core of the movie, and we have to wait some time to see it.  The Hate U Give is better than Eighth Grade in the 2018 movies about adolescent girls.  But not a lot better.  There is a little too much ostensible balance, such as the white classmate who deserves the heroine's friendship, and the white classmate who doesn't.  Trying to balance condemnation of police violence with condemnation of criminal violence doesn't always work.  (Why is the drug lord trying to shut the heroine up?  All she knows is hearsay, which the police should know anyway, since her uncle's a cop.)  One climax too many and an over-reliance on rap lyrics also undercuts a strong cast, with Amandla Stenberg as the teenage hero, and Regina Hall as her mother.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like if L'Avventura were an actual mystery, and that at the halfway point instead of realizing that Michelangelo Antonioni had no interest in solving the mystery that attracted viewers into the theaters, the mystery actually began?  That is basically the idea behind Burning, a Korean movie that about an underemployed, unenthusiastic, insufficiently ambitious young man who would like to be a writer.  The movie opens with him encountering an old acquaintance who is now a much more attractive acquaintance.  She basically invites him on a date, and drags him back to her tiny apartment where they have sex.  After eagerly waiting for her to return from an African vacation, he finds at the airport that a minor emergency forced her into the company of the only other Korean at the Nairobi airport, a distinctly wealthier and more handsome man played by Steven Yeun.  And so our hero finds himself in an awkward situation, until the movie takes a turn it would be criminal to reveal.  Let's just say that the intelligent, thoughtful well acted movie is one of the best of 2018 I've seen so far, and I would be very surprised if any of the Best Picture nominees matched it.

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Last week I saw an unusually large seven movies.  Querelle, Fassbinder's last film, is complex, opaque and has little of the valedictory about it, since Fassbinder didn't know he was going to die of a drug overdose after making it.  It is structured in such a way that suggests that Fassbinder didn't have a surplus of faith in his lead, Brad Davis.  I can't say I paid it my full attention.  But I can say it would definitely bear rewatching more than Bohemian Rhapsody.  Patently superficial, it's the sort of movie that suggests that the surviving members of Queen were kinder, more creative, more forgiving and more sober than you or history would think, without actually doing a lot to keep them distinguished in the viewer's mind.  Muddling Freddy Mercury's sexuality in the interest of audience appeasement, it also muddles the facts to make the Live Aid appearance more climactic than it actually was. 

Here are two movies that are better than they have any right to be.  Salon Mexico is basically Stella Dallas with a sister instead of a child the beneficiary of attention, plus more prostitution.  It is well shot, with fairly good performances.  (It's notable that when the cop with a crush on the heroine challenges her pimp, the results are less than fully successful).  It's even odder that Carnival of Souls is as successful as it is, since it has perhaps the least surprising "surprise ending" in the history of movies.  Yet while in other movies, the underwhelming performances would be a problem, there is something in the surrounding lovelessness and coldness that makes it fit.  While some shots are unsuccessful, others are well done and show genuine menace.  It suggests that the most horrible part of suicide is what precedes it.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter had Alan Arkin getting an oscar nomination playing a deaf person "hearing" other people's problems.  Actually it is about a New York Jew listening to people's problems in 1960s Georgia.  It's not a bad trick, but there were more deserving performances in 1968.  Sondra Locke is pleasant and engaging, if not much more.  Fantastic Voyage is such a brilliant idea and the problems its crew faces are so reasonably and competently presented, and shot and designed so well, that one can ignore its flaws.  Among them, Edmond O'Brien, Arthur Kennedy and Donald Pleasance give bland variations of performances they've done dozens of time (Pleasance comes off best.)  The protagonist is strikingly uninteresting, and one is startled by how little Raquel Welch does to stand out.  Also, since minaturization clearly involves a reduction of mass, since the voyagers are easily carried to and from the patient, there's no way they can suddenly regain their mass in a hour.  I suppose you shouldn't worry about it too much.

Watching Vox Lux, and seeing Natalie Portman play a rock star who moves from America's Sweetheart to a monster of vanity and selfishness, I thought surely I've seen this before.  And then I remembered.  I saw the exact same movie five days earlier with Bohemian Rhapsody, complete with triumphant concert.  But this time the movie, while hardly successful, was onsiderably more tough minded

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Last week I saw four movies.  Milford Graves Full Mantis is a documentary about a jazz drummer.  It contains a lot of music, which is neat to listen to.  It also includes of him talking about things, some of which is less interesting if you didn't really know who he was before you saw the movie.  Widows, or "the heist movie that takes the fun out of heist movies" is professionally directed and shot.  Personally I found Michelle Rodriguez more interesting that Elizabeth Debicki, who got all the oscar buzz.  Unfortunately, as critic Glenn Kenny pointed out, "there are plot holes and there are plot canyons.  Here are several fatal ones, so SPOILERS, though I'll try to reveal as little as possible.  (1) The first point isn't so much a spoiler as the basic premise of the movie.  Viola Davis is informed one day that her husband and three other men were killed in a criminal scheme gone wrong.  She is told by the person robbed, who wasn't able to retrieve the money from the bodies, that she must repay $2 million, or else.  Finding a notebook of her husband's that gives details about another job that would pay the amount and leave a nice surplus, she tracks down the three other widows, gets two of them to agree and eventually meets a fourth to round out the quartet.  Here's the problem.  Davis doesn't know these people at all, and female empowerment notwithstanding, has no reason to think they would be remotely qualified for the task she is ordering them to do.  Nor indeed are they very promising.  (2) Eventually the heist does take place, and Davis is assisted by a fortuitous reappearance who conveniently serves as a fall gender neutral noun.  The problem is that this person, far from distracting people away from Davis, is precisely the person who would attract unwelcome attention to her.  (3) Moreover, two other characters die suddenly about fifteen minutes apart.  There are both prominent people and for some reason people take their deaths as a complete coincidence, which even granting that they didn't just watch the movie, makes no sense.  (4) Also, the events I've alluded in 2 and 3, far from solving Davis' basic problem, would make it much, much worse.

The Favourite is a more satisfactory movie.  I didn't like Lanthimos' three previous movies.  This one benefits from superb cinematography, art direction, costume design and classical music scoring  It probably also helps that Lanthimos didn't write the amusing script.  It also helps that the three women give good performances, though I would not only consider Olivia Colman a supporting role, but would consider her character too stupid and pathetic to be a really first rate great acting turn.  Emma Stone is much better, and Rachel Weisz is better still.  The one problem with this otherwise admirable movie is the ending.  It's not giving too much away that since the premise of the movie is about Stone challenging Weisz's position at court, it wouldn't be much of a movie if she didn't eventually succeed.  But whereas Weisz showed herself supremely efficient and competent, conceivably acting for the greater good and even possibly genuinely caring for Queen Anne, Stone is now just selfish, deceitful and self-indulgent with a growing sadistic streak.  This isn't meant to be a result of the shabby treatment she experienced for most of the film.  We're just supposed to believe she's contemptible.  It's not hard to disagree with Glenn Kenny again when he calls this a "misanthropic con."

If Beale Street Could Talk is better still.  Just as beautiful as Moonlight, it is aided by being more nuanced.  Although the suggestion that the protagonist might be conceivably be guilty is not one of those nuances, since it's done more to suggest we're not doubting rape victims rather than cohering with what we see as his character.  Granted you never can tell with rapists...but really he's clearly not guilty.  More convincing is the conduct of the protagonists' parents, who are perfectly willing to cut moral corners for the good of their children,  A confrontation between the families affected, along with the protagonist's rage when the heroine is accosted by a white creep, is also notable.  The movie doesn't really present a coherent picture of economic devastation, segregation and discrimination and a malicious justice system.  (One might object that would be too didactic.  I would reply, first All the President's Men showed that you can portray complex malignancies with cinematic skill.  Second, many Americans are slow learners, many willfully so.)  But overall this is a film that shows considerable craft and artistry, which we see when the protagonists first have sex, or when the heroine works at a perfume counter, or in too many beautifully shot and scored scenes to count.  Regina King may get an oscar as the unjustly imprisoned man's mother, but Kiki Layne is more important, playing an underwhelming character overwhelmed by events.

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Last week I saw four movies.  Green Book has no shortages of problems, starting with Viggo Mortenson playing a simple minded Italian-American stereotype half his age.  The whole premise is regressive in many ways.  There's the basic idea that friendship can heal racial animus, when white Americans since 1965 have been opposing the housing, school and job desegregation that would make interracial friendship likely in the first place.  There's the idea that the best way to achieve equality and basic dignity is to be patently superior to everyone else.  There's the idea that Mortenson's bigotry and Mahershala Ali's stand-offish quality are problems equally deserving of criticism.  It's largely because of Ali's performance that the movie isn't more insufferable than it is.

The Divine Lady is the silent version of the Lady Hamilton/Admiral Nelson romance.  Frank Lloyd got an oscar for directing (there are some nice shots of naval battles for 1929) but as I was watching it, I kept forgetting the name of the actress who got nominated for playing Lady Hamilton.  Night Train to Munich is an early Carol Reed movie.  It shows some of the skills Reed would show later, but the somewhat implausible plot (it involves Rex Harrison basically bluffing his way into the Gestapo) shows that he has a lot to learn.  Certainly future endings would be less optimistic and more successful.

So Shoplifters is the movie of the week.  For a start this movie about a family living in the marginal world between precarious work and shoplifting certainly shows how false The Florida Project was.  Gradually we learn more about the relationships which become deeper as it becomes apparent that there are not what they seem.  The movie takes a subtle anecdotal approach which slowly develops the plot.  One problem is that the ending could perhaps be more succinct, as the basic point is somewhat diffused.

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I saw three movies this week.  South Pacific is one of the most admired of American musicals.  The Hollywood version, not so much.  I wonder how much of the problem comes from the choices Hollywood made, such as stars who pale compared to the original version, so that it's we're seeing an off Broadway version.  Or the way director Joshua Logan uses strange filters which hampers the whole point of taking a musical off the stage and putting it on film.  One wonders how much the problem might be with the original musical, with the stars in the movie taking half an hour to show up.  The plot might be a bigger problem with the heroine quickly getting over the fact the hero killed someone back in France, but goes into a major crisis when she learns the he married a Polynesian woman.  That the miscegenation involved is white male/Polynesian female and not the other way around loses points for courage, as well as the pidgin English the Polynesians use.

The High and the Mighty is basically a more tasteful version of Airport.  As such it is a fairly competent film that works reasonably well.  One thing is that while I noticed Jan Sterling as a faded beauty queen, I paid little attention to the other oscar nominated role, Claire Trevor as an actress past her prime.  Did you Wonder who Fired the Gun? gets its title from a Phil Ochs song.  It's an interesting documentary about an Alabama born documentarian who discusses how his great grandfather murdered a black man in his store.   The operative word is "murdered," according to one of the man's granddaughters (another one, an active secessionist, claims it was justifiable).  We see the great grandfather, who seems to be a real creep, in a couple of home movies, photographs and his grave.  We later learn his victim is buried in an unmarked grave while his family seems to have vanished into thin air.

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Last week I saw four movies, two from last year, two from decades earlier.  The latest A Star is Born starts off with Lady Gaga being surprisingly engaging and charming.  Unfortunately the movie concentrates on Bradley Cooper, who basically spends the entire movie reminding us that he's neither George Cukor nor James Mason.  Indeed, since he spends much of the movie in a drunken stupor it's not even clear why Lady Gaga falls in love with him.  You might ask why should see this movie instead of simply rewatching the 1954 version.  Cold War is another love story whose characters are mostly miserable.  Supposedly this is the result of communism, but this strikes me as a bit facile.  For a start, it's not clear why the man even loves the native folk singer, rather than just looking for a quick fling.  (Nor is it clear why she reciprocates.) There are several other twists in the relationship which are more depressing than logical.  Nor is it clear why they treat other people so shabbily, and why those people let them.  This is a movie that put more thought into the cinematography than the central relationship.  The dancing isn't bad.

King's Row has a rather oppressive and ostentatious Korngold score, and a nice performance for Claude Rains in a sanitized supporting role.  The other cast members are less impressive.  Charles Coburn is not really convincing as a sadistic moralist, and Ronald Reagan is least impressive of all.  He's rather bland, especially his voice which doesn't have the charismatic resonance it had when he was a politician.  There are other underwhelming aspects, such as the last minute romance for Robert Cummings, who supposedly plays the lead.  The Great White Hope at least is better than Guess Who's Coming to Dinner on interracial marriage.  Given the Hays code, it would have been hard to make it earlier, and Jones and Alexander are reasonably competent.  But in retrospect, it's not much more than that.

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The week before was disappointing: but last week the six movies I saw were more pleasing.  First name: Carmen is Godard's version of the Carmen story.  It is an interesting version.  It starts with one of the most desultory bank robberies in film history.  The central relationship is interestingly bitter.  And, somewhat perversely, the music is not by Bizet, but from Beethoven and Tom Waits.  King of Jazz is certainly the first good live action colour film, with many striking sets and ideas.  One weakness is that it's hardly jazz at its most innovative, with the exception of "Rhapsody in Blue" and a version of "Happy Feet."  The movie even has a tribute to the American melting pot where African Americans are noticeable by their absence.

I also saw two late Satyajit Ray films.  The Stranger was Ray's last film, about a prosperous family who learns that a long lost uncle has announced a visit.  Indeed, so long lost is he that they're not sure whether he actually is their uncle.  Much of the movie consists of conversations between the family, the uncle and neighbors subtly probing who the stranger really is.  As the title character, Utpal Dutt gives a good, subtle performance.  The Home and the World can be compared to Charulata.  Both are based on Tagore works, both deal with a young wife living in colonial India living with a relatively liberal husband who encounters a friend of his.  And in both movies that friend is played by Soumitra Chatterjee.  The Home and the World is not as good as Charulata, partly because the novel it's based on is not particularly good.  But it is still a worthy, intelligent movie with Swatilekha Sengupta good playing the wife, and Victor Banerjee as the thoughtful liberal husband.

The contrast between David Cronenberg's Rabid and the next movie of his I saw chronologically Videodrome is striking in terms of the quality of performances, professionalism, cinematography, central conceit and larger significance.  And there are some gaping holes in the movie (two characters' car trip takes considerably longer coming back than arriving, and Marilyn Chambers' final actions are inexplicable).  Yet there is something genuinely creepy about the way Chambers grows a vagina near her armpit, from which a phallic something attacks her victims.  And the movie becomes more tolerable as the plague spreads and the rather cursory presentation of the characters becomes less important.  Finally Claire's Camera asks what would happen if you had Isabelle Huppert and Kim Min-Hee in a movie together.  Personally, I prefer the director's previous movie On the Beach Alone at Night.

 

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Last week I saw six movies.  Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is an early Miyazaki film.  As such it shows considerable beauty and ingenuity is what is basically an ecological Mad Max movie, only this time the heroine spends much of her time arguing with the other characters to calm down and not bash each others' brains in.  And while that is a valuable and underappreciated message, the movie strikes me as sort of a rough draft for Princess Mononoke.  Unlike future films less care has been given into developing the characters, while in Princess the complex ecological battles were even more beautiful and better developed.  Irreversible vaguely resembles Memento in its structure, in a series of scenes that go backwards in time, the centerpiece being the brutal rape and beating of Monica Bellucci.  The movie isn't a puzzle like Memento, it's more an exercise in portraying violence.  And one might wonder if it's truly necessary.

I also saw two movies from 2018.  Everybody Knows was, alas, one of the most disappointing from last year.  Like several other Asghar Farhadi movies this one deal with the aftermath of an alarming act.  Whereas in previous movies, it was a disappearance (About Elly), a violently induced miscarriage (A Separation) or an attempted assault (The Salesman), Everybody Knows deals with a kidnapping.  Unfortunately the secret that is eventually revealed, a secret I suspect Iranian censors probably didn't want him to show because of its sexual nature, is extremely easy to guess if you know anything about Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem.  Moreover, Cruz, who is very lively and effective when the movie begins, is so sad and distraught when her daughter is kidnapped that her performance suffers.  The Image Book is the third of Godard's hermetic meditations on film this decade.  This is a collection of film clips, spliced with Godard's gnomic, recondite and hermetic narration.  Much of it deals with the Arab world, as contemporary crisis and subject of cinema.  The clips are often shown in distorted or oversaturated form.  One of the more simple allusions, for example, is a clip from Young Mr. Lincoln where Henry Fonda finds a law book for the first time and settles down to read it.  Then there are clips from Freaks and Salo.  I liked it.  Parts of it are very beautiful, it is uncompromising in its integrity and it is motivated by genuine and lifelong feeling for film.

Hawaii is an odd film.  One imagines the studio wanted a tempestuous, passionate epic and then after looking more closely at the subject, found that the discovery of Hawaii was followed by the death of most of the original inhabitants and the exploitation and marginalization of the remainder.  And yet the studio persisted.  The arc of the movie has Max von Sydow moving from his evangelical prejudices as a missionary to someone who genuinely tries to help the Hawaiians from their enemies.  Unfortunately for most of the movie von Sydow is the most insufferable and bigoted missionary imaginable, and most viewers could be pardoned in thinking that the main problem Hawaiians faced was from this dogmatic killjoy.  The transformation is too poorly developed and with too little time left for it to remotely work.  Julie Andrews has too little to do as Von Sydow's wife.  And when the Hawaiians themselves speak they spend much of their efforts defending sibling incest.  High School is an early Frederick Wiseman documentary rom 1968 about a very unimaginative Pennsylvania high school whose reactions from the teachers help to explain why Nixon won the presidential election that year.  Later documentaries would be much longer, and much richer.

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