Review: Isle of Dogs

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To watch a Wes Anderson film is to enter his own peculiar world. Even though Isle of Dogs is set in Japan (for which he has taken some criticism), it is really his version of Japan. I suppose he chose that country because of its rigid cultural rules, although I’m only guessing.

In this version of Japan, in the future, there is a dog flu going around. The cat-loving mayor of Megasaki decrees that all dogs be exiled to a trash island off the coast. The first dog to go is Spots, who is the guard dog and companion the mayor’s ward, Atari. Soon all dogs are on the island, scrounging for scraps.

Atari, 12 years old, gets an airplane (I wasn’t quite sure how he did) and flies to the island, in search of Spots. He is aided by a pack of five alpha dogs, ostensibly led by Chief, who was a life-long stray. He is the most resistant to helping Atari, but the other dogs, who were pets, decide to help.

Those who know Anderson will recognize certain things–formal, stilted dialogue, labels (helpfully, he tells us the beginnings and ends of flashbacks) and bizarre, off-the-wall choices. For instance, Spots is able to shoot exploding teeth out of his mouth, and the trash island is mapped as completely as any real place.

This all makes for a pleasurable experience at the movies, but it’s not up to his last couple of films, Grand Budapest Hotel and Moonrise Kingdom. Dog lovers will appreciate it more (and cat lovers may be angry), as the film rests on the notion that dogs are our best friends, mainly because they are loyal.

As for the cultural appropriation claims, I suppose Shakespeare shouldn’t have written Romeo and Juliet because it was set in Italy. There can be no boundaries to the artistic imagination. That being said, I think he erred in making the leader of the revolt against the mayor an American transfer student with blonde hair and freckles. It is another in a long line of the “white savior” cliche.

Many Anderson regulars are on hand as voice actors: Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, F. Murray Abraham, Jeff Goldblum. Brian Cranston is great as Chief, and despite her being white, Greta Gerwig is wonderful as Tracy, the savior. Also in the cast is Yoko Ono, playing a scientist named Yoko Ono.

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Review: A Quiet Place

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A Quiet Place is getting great reviews, as it should–it’s a taut, well-constructed, intelligent horror film. But let’s not get carried away. Those who consider this some kind of landmark or instant classic may be reacting to the fact that the horror genre has been so poorly served in recent years. For those who love the genre, A Quiet Place should scratch an itch, but it does not transcend the genre.

Directed by John Krasinski, who also stars,  A Quiet Place thankfully spares us reams of exposition. A title card says “Day 59,” but we don’t know what that means. Presumably it is 59 days from the arrival of creatures with spindly legs and murderous intention. When we see Krasinski’s basement, a variety of newspaper headlines fill us in some more–the creatures are blind, but have superior hearing, so the way to avoid being eaten is, to quote Elmer Fudd, “be vewy, vewy quiet.”

A prologue shows us what happens when that rule is breached, as the family (wife Emily Blunt, daughter Millicent Simmonds, and son Noah Jupe) lose a family member. They live on a farm, and we have to wonder how Krasinski has built such an elaborate defense system without making a lot of noise. Blunt becomes pregnant, which means the couple made love without making a sound.

The tension exists around Blunt’s impending due date–how will she give birth without making a sound, and a nail in her foot is thrown in? How will they deal with a crying baby? Do the creatures have a weakness? (Yes, and it may remind some viewers of the Martians’ weakness in Mars Attacks!)

As mentioned, there are lots of questions, but these aren’t necessarily plot holes. We know, from the newspapers, this is a world-wide menace, but we don’t know if this little family are the last people alive. Krasinski tries to raise someone on his short-wave radio without success. Also, given the set-up the farm has, one has to wonder if the family were survivalists to begin with.

The acting is good. I’m starting to let go Krasinski has Jim Halpert from The Office, and Blunt is effective as showing pain without screaming. The star of the show, though, is Simmonds, who is actually deaf and playing a deaf girl (the reason why the family knows American Sign Language, which comes in handy). She was terrific in Wonderstruck. One can only hope there are enough roles for deaf people to keep her busy.

A Quiet Place is an effective thriller, but it’s insubstantial. It was out of my system by the time I got to my car.

Review: The Death of Stalin

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Who would figure a movie called The Death of Stalin would be the funniest film of the year (I doubt that over the next nine months that will be proved wrong). With script and direction by Armando Iannucci, who made the equally uproarious In the Loop, and created the U.S. series Veep, he has taken a momentous and presumably solemn event and turned into a scabrous free-for-all.

The film opens with a farcical set piece. Radio Moscow has just aired a Mozart concerto. Stalin calls and wants a recording of it. Problem: they didn’t record it. So, fearing for their lives, everyone recreates the concerto. However, the pianist (Olga Kurylenko) doesn’t want to. She has no love for Stalin, who had her whole family murdered. She does it for money, but includes a note in the record sleeve wishing for Stalin’s death. He obliges.

This sets in motion a scrambling for power, as the ministers of his cabinet jockey to get on top of the other guy. The heir is Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) but he is extremely weak (he says at one point that he can’t keep track of who’s alive or dead) and has horrible hair (“did Coco Chanel take a shit on your head?” someone asks). The real juice is between Kruschev (Steve Buscemi), a whirligig of action (he shows up after Stalin’s attack in his pajamas), and Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the head of the NKVD (they put all the people to death), a sadistic rapist. On the sidelines is Molotov (Michael Palin), who has escaped death by the hair of his chin, and then finds out his wife is alive, thinking she was dead (depending on who he is talking to, she is a treacherous slut or his loving wife).

The movie reminded me of both A Lion in Winter, with its elaborate chess game for power, and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, for the farcical aspects–there is a prize at the end, and only one person is going to get it, and the others may well be shot.

After so many films using Nazis as de facto villains, it’s nice to see the Stalinists, who were every bit as brutal, get their due (the Russians are not happy with this film, as they apparently have not learned the lessons that Germans did). The Soviet leadership is completely corrupt, and Stalin puts out lists, given to Beria, for those to be eliminated. Beria dreams up ways for some to be killed–he once strangled to death the elderly mother of a man about to be executed right in front of him–and because of these lists every man is completely afraid of Old Joe, down to recalling their conversations with him with their wives, and noting what jokes he laughed at and those he didn’t.

Eventually Khruschev will work to oust Beria, his strongest competition, and enlists the aid of General Zhukov (Jason Isaacs) a raging erection of a man. The film is savage as it is funny, and some of the events hit like a punch to the stomach. If you are unaware of Soviet history I won’t spoil things for you, but the last shot is perfect, especially if you remember Leonid Brezhnev’s eyebrows.

The actors are all British and American, and use their own accents, thus Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) speaks with a Cockney accent. Iannucci forgoes everyone speaking like Boris Badanov. Everyone is wonderful, but Beale and Buscemi are the hearts that keep it beating. Buscemi has some great put-downs, calling someone a “camel cock” and “Slim Hitler.” As the ministers stand in front of Stalin’s coffin during the viewing, he tries to swap places with Malenkov, looking like the figure in a clock. “What the fuck are you doing?” Malenkov asks him. When Stalin’s imbecilic son (Rupert Friend) says he wants to speak at his father’s funeral, Kruschev says, “And I want to fuck Grace Kelly.”

Put it down now–The Death of Stalin will be in my top five for the year.

Review: Ready Player One

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Your enjoyment of Ready Player One may hinge on two things: your love of video games, and your willingness to be bombarded by pop culture references, specifically those from about 1975 to 1990. Because, when it’s all said and done, Ready Player One is a valentine to those two topics, and not much else.

Steven Spielberg, who grew up in the ’50 and ’60s, has fully embraced the period in which he reigned, the ’70s and ’80s, to direct an adventure film about people who are basically just standing still. You see, in 2045, the world is so miserable that in order to keep their sanity, people escape into the world of Oasis, a massive MPG where they can be anything and do anything. The opening scenes of the film, which is set in Columbus, Ohio in a trailer park where the trailers are stacked like Jenga pieces, show everyone wearing virtual reality goggles and gesturing to whatever they are doing in the game. Given that most people live life now staring into their phones, I don’t think we’re far from that destiny.

Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is a typical kid who spends all of his time in the game (we don’t hear about the employment of anyone–maybe they’re all on public assistance?). He has a few friends, such as Aech (Lena Waithe), and spends his time “gunting,” or Easter egg hunting. You see, (and the first five minutes or so of the film is all voiceover exposition, which really makes the movie start slowly), the inventor of the game, now deceased (Mark Rylance, channeling Garth Algar) put in an Easter egg that enables the finder to inherit his stock and control of the game.

Sheridan teams up with the sexy avatar of Art3mis (his name is Parzival, finder of the Holy Grail, hers is of the goddess of the hunt) and they set about finding all the clues necessary, all while the evil corporate guy (Ben Mendelsohn) employs hundreds so his company can take over the game. Mendelsohn played a similar character is Rogue One, in the long tradition of making guys in suits, or the Star Wars equivalent, being bad guys.

As I watched the film one thing became instantly apparent–most of it takes place in Oasis. In fact, Ready Player One is really an animated film (it would be eligible for the Oscar in that category, should the studio submit it). Like The Matrix, or Avatar, we spend most of our time with characters who are only representations of themselves. Though I don’t play video games (I bought a PS4 and then sold it because I never used it) I got used to this quickly. What I didn’t get used to was the barrage of pop culture references, which is dizzying. Some of them I didn’t know, such as Gundam, a Japanese robot of some sort. A deep knowledge of the history of Atari games is required for our intrepid bunch to solve the game.

These references, while one day providing the stuff for a drinking game (there’s Beetlejuice, take a drink!) take the film away from an exciting adventure and bog it down in nerdgasm trivia. Instead of relying on Gen X nostalgia, why not invent new things that surely would exist in the years from now until 2045? For kids of that year to be knowledgeable of Saturday Night Fever would be like kids today being attuned to Glenn Miller.

But still, Ready Player One is decent entertainment. The cast is okay (I will steal A.O. Scott’s line about Sheridan–“Agreeably bland, blandly agreeable”), with Waithe stealing her scenes. The performer that shines brightest is Olivia Cooke as Art3mis, who possesses a kind of stolid charisma–you’d be ready to follow her anywhere.

This is Spielberg’s biggest hit in a decade, so I suppose we should expect more trips into the Oasis. I’m okay with that, just show a bit more originality.

Opening in Las Vegas, March 30, 2018

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The big opening this Easter weekend is Steven Spielberg’s foray into the world of video game fanboys with Ready Player One (64). I saw this today and will have a review up over the weekend.

Tyler Perry keeps busy making films primarily for the black community. It remains to be seen if he can break through to the mainstream, without wearing a dress. His latest is Tyler Perry’s Acrimony (tbd), which based on the trailer seems something like Fatal Attraction. I suppose putting your name in the title of your films is a marketing decision, but it also seems the move of an egomaniac. I’ve never seen a Tyler Perry film, and I doubt I’ll start now.

We have another faith-based film this weekend, God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness (31), and another one getting panned. Shouldn’t this be called God Is Still Not Dead?

In limited release is The Death of Stalin (88), from Armando Iannucci, who gave us the gleefully scabrous In the Loop and created Veep. It’s about the maneuvering of Soviet ministers after the title event. I can’t wait to see it.

Also in limited release is Flower (45), with Zoey Deutsch as a girl trying to get the goods on a pedophile. It seems like another in a long line of teenage-girls as vicious personalities. I’m interested, but given the lackluster reviews will probably wait for home video.

Godard: America Uber Alles

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weekendhermesJean-Luc Godard, like most of his contemporaries in the French New Wave, as enamored with American movies. As shown by several of his early films, including Breathless, Band of Outsiders, and Alphaville, he reshaped American movie genres into his own work. But by the late ’60s, along with most of the world, he saw the danger of U.S. imperialims, particularly in regard to the war in Vietnam, and his films reflected this (though he still had a soft spot for American movies, especially those

Loosely, and I mean loosely, based on a Donald Westlake novel, Made in U.S.A. was unavailable in the U.S. for a long time because Godard, typically, did not bother to get the rights. It’s not great Godard, but it’s silly fun for fans of his.
It would be the last time Anna Karina, at the time his ex-wife, would star in one of his films, and it is kind of a valentine to her. One of the first scenes of the film is a close-up of her, and the film is full of them, close-ups that show her luminosity. I believe she’s in every scene of the movie, wearing colorful dresses and pointing guns and looking like she’s having a great time.

She plays Paula Nelson, a journalist who is investigating her lover’s death (his name is Richard, but every time his last name is mentioned there is a cartoon sound effect). To describe the plot more than that would be impossible. She meets a very short man named Edgar Typhus who ends up dead; a pulp writer; a few cops; and some characters I can’t say what they were. They are given names from cinema and other walks of life–Richard Widmark, Robert Aldrich, David Goodis (a pulp writer who was often adapted by French film directors), and Don Siegel. There are also characters named Richard Nixon and Robert MacNamara.

The film is set us a noir, but is really more an homage to cartoons. Karina says early in the film, “I found myself in a Walt Disney film, but Humphrey Bogart was in it so it was political,” which pretty much sums everything up. In addition to cartoon sound effects, the colors are from the pallete of pop art. Often Karina is featured against a wall of bright color, whether it blue or red, or wearing a yellow dress or one that looks like a painting by Mondrian.

The film is diverting enough to stay interesting, as it is only 84 minutes. As to whether it has anything to say, I can’t be sure. The title is Made in U.S.A. but it doesn’t directly reference the U.S., though it set in the fictional city of “Atlantic-Cite,” which looks nothing like Atlantic City.

According to Wikipedia, the film is also based on The Big Sleep, but I didn’t see any similarities. Clearly Godard is enamored of Raymond Chandler, though, who once said that to make the plot move on have a man enter the room with a gun. Godard seems to agree, as characters pull out guns several times.

From 1967,  Two or Three Things I Know About Her revisits his themes of consumerism as prostitution, but I found it dreary and boring. Many disagree, especially Amy Taubin, who considers it one of the great achievements in film history.

The film stars Marina Vlady as a bourgeois woman who has taken up prostitution, and as these things usually go, the sexual aspect of it is quite banal (very similar to Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour, which came out the same year).  It follows a typical day in her life, and she seems pissed off by something, maybe that she’s prostituting herself.

She drops off her kids at what seems to be a day-care center for hookers (there’s even some sex going on in one of the rooms). She visits a few clients, the most memorable being a man who is wearing a t-shirt featuring an American flag.

Interspliced throughout our scenes of fashion magazines, a particular interest of Godard, and construction sites, perhaps symbolizing the changing face of Paris from all the suburbs that have been built. Godard stated that during the film he wanted “to include everything: sports, politics, even groceries.” I found the film’s excitement level at that of groceries.

Godard’s 1967 film, La Chinoise, of all his films, fits the zeitgeist of ’60s revolutionary thought most accurately. It seems incredibly dated today–are there any Maoists left in the West?–and thus is more a curiosity than a good movie. Most of it is simply sloganeering, but does have a vibrant color palette.

The film concerns a cel of revolutionaries in Paris who speak in slogans, listen to Radio Peking, and idly speculate about mass murder. Jean-Pierre Leaud is an actor and vocal participant. It’s as if his character from Masculin Feminin quit trying to get laid and seriously took up the cause. He is involved with Anne Wiazemsky, the most serious-minded of the group (the actress would become Godard’s wife). There is also a young woman (Juliet Berto) who had been a prostitute, a Russian (Lex de Bruijin) and a bookish young man who is kicked out of the group for, among others, expressing admiration for an American movie (Johnny Guitar).

It’s hard to tell if Godard is in sympathy with the revolutionaries are mocking them. A long scene toward the end has Wiazemsky on a train debating Francis Jeanson, real-life philosopher and revolutionary during the Algerian conflict. She suggests closing the universities, and if students and professors don’t stop going they should be bombed. He tells her violence is not the answer (Leaud says that the two qualities necessary in a revolutionary are “sincerity and violence”) and wonders if she knows what to do after the violence. It made me think of John Lennon’s “Revolution”–“When you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out.”

The film is beautiful, though. Working with Raoul Coutard, the film makes especially good use of red, as one might expect in a movie about Red China. The revolutionaries wall themselves inside forts made of Mao’s Little Red Book. One image that sticks me with me is a corruption of an Esso ad, with the tiger-in-the-tank, but the word “napalm” is put on the gas tank. Berto stands nearby, wearing an Asian conical hat, is under attack by U.S. bombers suspended on strings.

The film ends with a comically disastrous attempt by Wiazemsky attempting to assassinate a Russian official. It further reinforces the idea that Godard doesn’t particularly think that Maoists are the answer to American influence in the world.

Weekend is Godard’s most powerful statement, an anarchic representation of the West run amok, with parallels to both Alice in Wonderlandand the Marquis de Sade. It is a kind of summation of his career up to that point (we’re still in 1967), and very much of its time. It’s the cinematic equivalent of “Burn the motherfucker down.”

It stars Mireille Darc and Jean Yanne as two horrible bourgeoisie. They need to get to her father’s house before he dies so they can assure themselves of his inheritance. But they get stuck in a huge traffic jam, and then find themselves on foot, running into a variety of different characters. Eventually they are kidnapped by a revolutionary group that are also cannibals.

It’s interesting to note that the word “weekend” is of American provenance, and there is no French equivalent, so just by the title Godard is condemning American culture and politics. There are also many destroyed cars, and people hitting each with other cars, and fighting over cars. If we think of America as being a culture of automobiles, again we can see the effects of the “American century.”

Weekend is also drolly funny. There are a lot of great lines. A car explodes, and Darc exclaims, “My Hermes handbag!” Trying to catch a lift, an old woman stops and asks Yanne if he’d rather be screwed by Mao or Johnson. “Johnson, of course,” he says. She sneers and says, “Fascist,” and drives off.

The most famous scene is an extremely long tracking shot, more than five minutes, of the traffic jam. There are many cars, and also wagons, people playing cards on their hoods, and animals (a cage full of lions, a llama, some monkeys). This is not the only long take–another has the couple fighting Jean-Pierre Leaud for a car, and another has them interacting with Emily Bronte, whom they set on fire. Everywhere they go they find wreckage and dead bodies lying around. It’s like a post-apocalyptic landscape.

Weekend was very much of its time, but it also works today, unlike many films about the counterculture of the ’60s. Consumerism is only worse today–even Godard could not have envisioned things like Black Friday.

 

 

Opening in Las Vegas, March 23, 2018

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The likely box-office champ, and the first to knock Black Panther off the top spot after six weeks, is Pacific Rim: Uprising (44). I saw the first one and thought it was meh, so I have no interest in this one. I suppose it will find its niche.

Of more interest to me is Unsane (63), the second feature (plus one TV movie) that Stephen Soderberg has put out since his “retirement.” It is the second, after Side Effects, that deals with someone being involuntary committed to a mental hospital. Perhaps this is Soderbergh’s greatest fear, like Poe was afraid of being buried alive. Anyhoo, this was shot on an iPhone. I might see this if I get bored.

Another faith-based film, Paul, Apostle of Christ (48) opens this week. Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, plays Luke. How many  Biblical characters will he end up playing? Not for me.

For the kiddies is Sherlock Gnomes (40), and while this looks torturous for adults, I’m on board with anything that might get kids interested in reading Sherlock Holmes. Fun fact: I’ve read all of Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories, but I am missing one of his novels: The Valley of Fear. Seems like I could take care of the easily, doesn’t it? As I have no children, I will never see this.

Finally is Midnight Sun (36), a disease of the week movie (girl can’t go in the sun) which only interests me because it stars Bella Thorne, who is very easy on the eyes. I may see this someday when I want to see every movie she’s ever made (I have even seen the Netflix film You Get Me, but not The Babysitter (not yet).

 

Review: A Fantastic Woman

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Winner of the 2018 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, A Fantastic Woman is pretty fantastic, but is also on the cutting edge of changes in society, as it is about a transgender woman, starring a transgender woman.

From Chile, it concerns Marina (Daniela Vega) a waitress and singer, who has moved in with an older man (Francisco Reyes). He is fully aware of her past, but they have a sweet relationship. He takes her out for her birthday, they tie one on, and go home to bed.

But he awakes in the middle of the night feeling strange, and will die of a brain aneurysm. Vega is not technically family, so is pushed aside by his ex-wife and son, who state in no uncertain terms that she is not to attend the memorial or funeral, and to leave them alone.

This echoes a problem that longtime partners had in the U.S. before recent court decisions–someone who had been with someone for fifty years or more couldn’t make health decisions, requiring a family member who may have been estranged for years. As far as we have come in recent years, there is still a long way to go, as evidenced by bathroom laws in North Carolina and this film, which shows a shocking level of ignorance about transgender people (she is assaulted by her lover’s son’s friends, calling her a “faggot.”)

More than that, A Fantastic Woman is about identity, and how much we invest in sexual parts to define who someone is. Vega is often seen looking into reflective surfaces, and in one striking moment is naked in bed, a mirror between her legs. In another clever scene, she must masquerade as a man to get into Reyes’ gym so she can open his locker. She was born a man, but her awkwardness pretending to be one is palpable.

A Fantastic Woman was directed by Sebastian Lelio with some restraint. Vega, a nonprofessional actor, brings the qualities that sometimes only amateurs can bring, as at no point do we see overacting–we just see truth. This is a very fine film. I haven’t seen all five nominees yet but I’m fine with this one winning.

Opening in Las Vegas, March 16, 2018

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The big new opening this week is a reboot of Tomb Raider (46), with Alicia Vikander taking up the role previously played by Angelina Jolie. I believe I saw both of Jolie’s Tomb Raider films, but I remember almost nothing about them. It seems that may be a problem with the new one, too, but Vikander is an appealing performer. I’m just not sure she’s an action star. I’ll see this on home video.

Love, Simon (73) is a mainstream teen comedy about a gay kid, something of a historical occasion. Will straight teens go see it? Estimates show it getting 12 million for the weekend, so it seems the answer is sort of. I’ll probably wait for home video.

A suprise hit may be I Can Only Imagine (27), a faith-based film about a Christian musician. It remains to be seen when one of these Christian-themeed films will actually be any good. Not for me, I’m afraid.

When I first saw the trailer for 7 Days in Entebbe (49), I thought, “Hasn’t his film already been made?” Indeed, including TV movies, this is the fourth cinematic look at the Israeli raid on Entebbe, Uganda. I don’t know what gave anyone the idea we needed another one. I doubt I’ll ever see this.

Finally, the movie I plan on seeing this weekend is A Fantastic Woman (87), the Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Language film. It centers around a transgender woman, which means it is pushing the zeitgeist, but hopefully it also a good film. I’ll let you all know.

Godard: The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola

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alphavilleContinuing my look at the films of Jean-Luc Godard (from the 1960s, at least), I turn to four films from 1964 to 1966 his eighth through 11th features. They  mostly dealt with his themes prostitution and consumerism, and how they were the same thing.

A Married Woman, from 1964, is Jean-Luc Godard’s eighth feature. It begins with two sets of hands playing against a white background. The female pair belongs to Charlotte, Macha Méril, and the male to her lover, Bernard Noël. She is, as the title suggests, married to someone else, and asks him if he will marry her if she gets a divorce. The film ends with those hands disappearing off the screen.

The scene is something like that of the opening of Contempt, as we see her a series of parts–no shots of her as a whole. Hands, feet, eyes, belly button (this when talking about if she will bear him a child). It’s very sexy, but also suggests that she is not a complete person without a man.

Charlotte is married to Pierre (Phillipe Leroy) and has a step-son. She is concerned that he has hired private detectives to spy on her (she was caught once, and he thinks the affair is over). As she goes about her day, she and we are inundated with images from fashion magazines. Godard would go on to use this theme throughout the ’60s–he seemed to be obsessed with ads for bras. Indeed, one funny scene has Charlotte using an article to figure out if she has perfectly shaped breasts. It seems that perfection is an equilateral triangle from the base of the neck to each nipple.

Later she will find out she is pregnant but is not sure which man is the father. Needless to say this was pretty scandalous for 1964, even in France. The censorship board banned it, as they said it suggested all married woman were adulterous.

Also per usual for Godard, there are many references that can be explored. The lover is an actor who is performing in Racine’s Berenice, and the two meet at a movie theater playing Night and Fog, the holocaust film. This is not the only time that subject pops up, as Pierre and a friend are watching the Auschwitz trials. Linking an affair by a bourgeois woman and the holocaust left me scratching my head.

A Married Woman is provocative while at the same time seeming light, an interesting balancing act. It was followed by the outlier of the bunch, Alphaville. As usual with Godard, the concept is more interesting than the execution. He mashes two genres: film noir and science fiction. Eddie Constantine, an actor who was a star in Europe playing a secret agent called Lemmy Caution, plays that role here, trapped in the manner of American noir heroes: hard-boiled, a cigarette frequently dangling from his lip, wearing a fedora and trench coat. It’s as if a director had used Humphrey Bogart to play Philip Marlowe in a sci-fi film.

But the sci-fi angle is oblique. Alphaville is a city run by a computer, who speaks in a croaking voice that sounds as if it’s on a respirator (I wonder if George Lucas remembered this when he created Darth Vader?). Emotions and original thought have been eliminated, along with poetry and art. Citizens are not to ask “why?” but only say “because.” Those who express emotions, such as weeping for a dead wife, are considered illogical and executed (shot standing on a diving board, their bodies retrieved by synchronized swimmers).

Constantine comes from the “outer countries,” where love and conscience are still allowed. Though there is no love in Alphaville, there is sex. When he checks into his hotel, he is escorted by a “Level 3 Seductress,” who offers to share a bath with him. I’ll admit that feature would get me to a hotel chain.

The plot is a little fuzzy–Godard was never much interested in plot–but it appears Constantine was looking for a scientist (Akim Tamiroff, looking very out of shape) and then to dispose of the creator of the computer, Professor Von Braun (a nod to rocket science Werner Von Braun). The latter’s picture is on the walls everywhere, like a Big Brother (there are several connections with 1984) and his daughter, Anna Karina, both assists and bedevils Constantine. He, of course, falls in love with her, even though she does not know what the word “love” means.

Though science fiction, the film is set in the present (1965 is when the film was released), as Constantine refers to himself as a veteran of Guadalcanal. There are no futuristic sets–it was all shot in Paris, though some of the buildings were modern architecture, full of cube shapes and glass. The photography is the chiaroscuro of noir–we even get the old swinging, naked light bulb effect.

Alphaville can be enjoyed in a meta way, seeing where Godard got his ideas (there are references to Borges and Celine, and other writers), plus the amusing use of cliches from private eye films. Constantine has a showdown with the computer, in a precursor to HAL 9000–Constantine trips it up with a poetic riddle.

Even though this film is weird (there are frequent jump cuts, and insertion of random images, along with scientific formul’s such as E=MC2) Alphaville is the most accessible Godard film I’ve seen. If you’ve never seen a Godard, this might be a good place to start.

I think my favorite among all Godard films is 1965’s Pierrot le Fou, because it is laugh-out-loud funny. It is certainly not a traditional film, but it makes a certain sense, and has a ridiculously absurd ending. It also shows off the beauty of Anna Karina.

Jean-Paul Belmondo plays a recently laid off television executive, who is bored with his life. He goes to a party with his wife, and the babysitter is a woman (Karina) whom he had been in affair with some years earlier. The party scene is hilarious. Shot with color filters, the characters speak in ad copy, whether about shampoo or cars. Some of the women are topless.

Belmondo decides to take up with Karina, who is apparently being chased by spies. Her apartment is stockpiled with guns, and there is a corpse on the bed. The two take off, pursued by the law, and find a temporary idyll on the French Riviera, but Karina becomes bored and there is a suitcase full of money involved.

Pierrot le Fou (Karina calls Belmondo Pierrot, who was a sad clown, and every time she does he corrects her–“My name is Ferdinand”) sort of reminds one of Monty Python, with over the top images and a breaking off the fourth wall (it only happens once, when Karina asks who Belmondo is talking to–“the audience,” he says, and Karina looks at the camera, as if just noticing she’s in a movie). The title literally means “Pierrot the Madman,” and the film’s anarchic style is very winning.

Godard does have some serious things to say, but in a comic manner. The two fugitives meet some American sailors and decide to put on a play for them, which they call the “Vietnam War.” The American sailors hoot like demented sadists (this would begin Godard’s disdain for America, which would surface in the late ’60s). He did still admire American filmmakers, though, giving Samuel Fuller a cameo.

The ending has Belmondo, after Karina steals all his money and runs off with another man, wrapping dynamite around his head and lighting it. He changes his mind, but too late! Boom!

Finally is 1966’s Masculin Feminin. I saw this film back in college and remember it being bubbly and pleasant, two words you don’t often associate with Godard. It stars Jean-Pierre Leaud as Paul, a 21-year-old who is both political and horny. He is in love with a singer (Chantal Goya), who is kind of vacuous, but because he, like everyone else around him, is inundated with commercialism (much of it American) he can’t help himself. In a title card near the end of the film, Godard states that the movie could have been called “The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola.”

Masculin Feminin (while of course that translates as “Masculine Feminine,” I prefer to think of it as “Boys and Girls,” which is nearer the mark) is made up of fifteen scenes. Paul talks with a friend at a cafe, he rides the subway (and sees racism in action), he watches Goya cutting a record, and in perhaps the most telling scene he interviews a young model who has been named “Miss 19.” He asks her questions like “Does socialism have a future?” while she smiles vacantly.

The film was banned in France for those under 18, which Godard claimed was who the movie was for. I think it may be the best film about the ’60s counterculture ever made, and doesn’t have one set of beads or a fringed vest. It name drops some of the icons of that decade, such as The Beatles and Bob Dylan, and even has a cameo by Brigitte Bardot, but instead of exploring what those those people mean, they are just symbols. What seems true to life is that a young man is concerned about the war in Yemen but also about getting laid.

It has some typical Godard touches, such as the title cards, which contain phrases that sound profound: “The mole has no consciousness, but it burrows through the earth in a specific direction.”

Review: Thoroughbreds

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I don’t know if I’ll see a more unsettling film this year than Thoroughbreds. A lot of people are comparing it to Heathers, but they’re off the mark in that Heathers was intentionally funny. Thoroughbreds is as about as serious as an autopsy, which one character will require.

I was amazed I was watching it in a multiplex, as it is certainly not a crowd pleaser. It doesn’t seem to have a CinemaScore grade, but it did manage to make over a million dollars last weekend. I have a feeling it will drop precipitously, and that’s not because the film doesn’t have merit.

Two affluent Connecticut high school age girls (Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke) used to be friends. Taylor-Joy went on to be popular and go to Andover, while Cooke is a sociopath (she admits she has no emotions) has been removed from school while being charged with killing a horse, but if I heard the film right, she performed a mercy killing (which doesn’t make sense if she has no feelings). Cooke’s mom hires Taylor-Joy to tutor her daughter for the SATs, and the girls forge a new friendship based on Taylor-Joy’s hatred of her step-father (a very good Paul Sparks).

What’s unnerving about the film, which was written and directed by Cory Finley, is the vacuum in which the film takes place. We see the girls’ mothers, and Sparks, but that’s about it. Taylor-Joy’s spacious mansion serves as a kind of heated bubble in which no air escapes. There seems to be no outside world. The use of music is just one example of this–there are long stretches of no ambient music, but when the score does kick in, it’s very eerie (it’s by Eric Friedlander).

Also, Cooke’s performance is scary good, so good that I don’t know if I’ll be able to shake it when I see her next (probably in Ready Player One). At one rare instance away from Taylor-Joy’s house, Taylor-Joy visits Cooke’s house. Her new friend is standing in the backyard, staring into space. There’s also a wonderful scene in which Taylor-Joy and Cooke are talking while Cooke plays herself in a game of chess with very large pieces. I’ll admit I found myself paying attention to her moves, which were all correct.

Thoroughbreds does have some humor. Taylor-Joy impulsively loosens the wheel on her step-father’s bike. The film cuts to him in bandages, which is drolly funny until he abusively dresses down his wife for asking about his welfare.

The movie’s ending is not completely satisfactory, as it doesn’t add up, but it will stick with you. Whether you want that or not is another question.

Review: Red Sparrow

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Red Sparrow is a hot mess, a lurid adolescent boy’s fantasy, dressed up as a feminist empowerment statement. Manohla Dargis called it “preposterously entertaining,” I just call it preposterous.

Jennifer Lawrence plays a Russian ballerina who, after an injury, is desperate to keep her frail mother in good health. Her uncle, a deputy minister of some sort of secret service, offers her a chance to become a Sparrow, a spy who is trained in the art of seduction and assassination. She accepts, and is assigned to get to know an American CIA agent in Budapest (Joel Edgerton), who is being given information by a Russian mole. Her mission: find out who the mole is.

We haven’t had a good old fashioned cat and mouse spy thriller in a while, and we still don’t have one. I put the fault mostly on the director, Francis Lawrence, who doesn’t seem to have a point of view. If the film had stuck to being completely over the top, it might have been fun, but instead takes itself too seriously and becomes deadly boring at times. He might have followed the lead of his star, who gives a performance of strength and cunning, but I fear Francis Lawrence doesn’t have the chops that Jennifer does.

It’s interesting that the Russians are bad again (we can probably have Trump to thank for that), and I never noticed before how much Matthias Schoenaerts looks like Vladimir Putin. Other Russians are played by distinctly non-Russians such as Ciaran Hinds and Jeremy Irons, and thankfully they don’t sound like Boris Badanov (the use of language in Hollywood films is always oddly done–these characters are presumably speaking in Russian when they speak amongst themselves, but also speak English, but they do in a Russian accent).

Charlotte Rampling plays the “Matron,” who is the head of the Sparrow training, what Jennifer Lawrence calls “whore school.” It is very similar to the school shown in The Handmaid’s Tale, where women are trained to leave all their individuality behind.

Most of the second half of the film is wondering whether Jennifer Lawrence has become a double agent or not. I’ll admit this makes for good suspense, especially in a scene in which Edgerton is being tortured by a guy who likes to peel the skin off of people.

Red Sparrow is ludicrous. For one thing, great ballerinas don’t have the build that Jennifer Lawrence does. And much of the Twitter-verse is complaining about a scene in which she dyes her hair platinum blonde without using gloves and then goes swimming in a chlorinated pool.

The film is also extremely violent. I usually don’t care, but the violence was too much for even me.

I found Red Sparrow to be mostly unpleasant and unfortunate.

Godard: Band of Outsiders

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Many years ago I was attempting to chronicle the films of Jean-Luc Godard, and left off after Contempt, because the films just weren’t available. But now, due to Filmstruck (I can’t recommend this streaming service enough for fans of older films) I am able to catch up. Later I will cover some of his films from the mid-’60s.

After the Cinemascope and Technicolor of Contempt, Jean-Luc Godard made the much more gritty and black and white Band of Outsiders in 1964. Like his debut film, Breathless, it’s something of an homage to American B-pictures, with numerous references to pop culture, both high and lowbrow, from T.S. Eliot to Loopy de Loop.Based on an American crime novel, the story, what little of it there is, concerns two criminals, Arthur and Franz (Claude Brasseur and Sami Frey). They are in an English class with Odile (Anna Karina), and she tells them that a man staying in the house with her and her aunt has a large stack of money. The two men get the idea to steal it, but before they do they each try to romance Karina.

Band of Outsiders is considered by many to be Godard’s best film; or at least his most accessible. It’s the only one of his films to be on Time’s list of best 100 films. It has a certain cache among filmmakers–Quentin Tarantino named his production company after the French title, A Band Apart. One can certainly see the influence the film had on subsequent movies like Pulp Fiction.

The first time I saw Band of Outsiders I was charmed, but this second viewing left me a little bored. Maybe it was the cold medication I’m on, but I got frustrated with the way Godard dithered. The plot moves in herks and jerks, filling in the space with little moments that are fine unto themselves but don’t really add up to much. There’s a long scene in which the teacher of the English class reads from Romeo and Juliet, and there’s a funny moment when Franz suggests they have a moment of silence, and the entire soundtrack goes silent for a while.

The two most famous scenes are probably the dance number, pictured above, when the three do an improvisational “Madison,” which certainly influenced Tarantino, and a scene in which the three of them attempt to set the record for running through the Louvre.

When Godard finally gets around to the robbery, it’s comic, as these are two inept bandits. Watching them move around in their fedoras, black stockings over their faces, kind of upends the notion of “cool,” and one suspects that Godard is having himself a laugh at this characters’ expense.

Still, Band of Outsiders is an iconic film, one that has a breezy kind of charm and insouciance.

 

Opening in Las Vegas, March 9, 2018

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The big opening this weekend is A Wrinkle in Time (52), based on the popular children’s novel (I read it some fifty years ago, but can only remember that the dog’s name was Fortinbras).  It is so important, but not well received by critics. Maybe if they it weren’t so important. I’ll probably catch up with this on home video.

The Strangers: Prey at Night (48), is a masked-murderer film set in a trailer park–those can be scary. Will probably do great business and then sink like a stone. I’ll never see it. Stars Christina Hendricks. Question: what Mad Men star will end up being the break out film star (if any). Jon Hamm doesn’t seem interested.

Gringo (44) has a good cast, including David Oyelowo, Charlize Theron, Thandie Newton, and Paris Jackson, but has the old “regular guy gets caught up in crime caper” plot. Maybe I’ll see this on VOD, but certainly not in a theater.

What a pitch: it’s bank robbery, during a hurricane! (not availabe for screening, but of three reviews on MetaCritic none are above a 50). It’s The Hurricane Heist! One of the reviews says it’s utter excrement from start to finish. Directed by Rob Cohen. Question for those who know: why did Cohen only get to direct the first Fast and Furious film? I’ll never see this.

The best reviewed film this week is Thoroughbreds (76), which a blurb on the poster reads, “Heathers meets American Psycho,” but reading the summary, sounds more like Heavenly Creatures. Stars Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch), and Olivia Cooke (Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl). I may see this today.