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January 2018

film fatales #37: on body and soul (ildikó enyedi, 2017)

On Body and Soul marks the return to feature films for Hungarian filmmaker Ildikó Enyedi, who has spent the last 18 years working in television and on short films. Her prior features played at festivals around the world, and I can't find anything to explain her absence from the big screen. (She won a couple of Best Director awards for her last feature, Simon, the Magician.) This is her film ... she not only directed, but wrote it as well.

The IMDB description hints at the oddness of the setup. "When slaughterhouse workers Endre and Mária discover they share the same dreams - where they meet in a forest as deer and fall in love - they decide to make their dreams come true but it's difficult in real life." Enyedi never shies away from this oddness, but the movie and its actors underplay to such an extent that you don't always remember how much the plot resembles a fantasy. There is a suggestion of magic realism, but it's not like the deer show up in the slaughterhouse ... they stick to the dreams of the two protagonists, and the only real fantasy element is that they are sharing the dreams, and that the dreams are bringing them together.

It's actually a perfect setup for the budding romance of the two, who have a big difference in age (Endre is roughly twice as old as Mária) and share an awkwardness in public interactions (Mária is borderline autistic). You get the feeling the two would never find each other if they didn't share dreams about deer. The relationship itself is awkward, given their personalities and age difference ... in fact, for most of the movie, it barely qualifies as a relationship. The plot devices required to bring them together are rather clunky, and not at all magical.

Still, stars Géza Morcsányi, who had never acted on screen before, and Alexandra Borbély, by comparison a seasoned veteran (she won a Best Actress award at the European Film Awards for this film, joining a list of stalwarts such as Juliette Binoche, Isabelle Huppert, and Charlotte Rampling), are excellent. Throughout, On Body and Soul threatens to emerge as something great, but it never quite gets there.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


dunkirk (christopher nolan, 2017)

Dunkirk is a success in almost every way. I've liked every Christopher Nolan film I've seen (Dunkirk is my 7th), with Insomnia and The Dark Knight at the top, but here, I think he uses his bag of tricks not just to show off, but to help the audience along, which turns out to be an excellent idea.

There are three basic stories in this telling of the Battle of Dunkirk, land, sea, and air. The sea is the most famous part of the story ... the civilian boats coming to rescue the troops are iconic reminders of the event. The troops waited on land ... meanwhile, aircraft provided cover for the boats. Nolan's structure for telling those stories is fascinating and effective.

I tend to get lost in plots, and in something like Nolan's Memento, well, confusion was partly the point, wasn't it? But I never got lost in Dunkirk, despite the fact that Nolan diverges from "real" chronology. The soldiers were on the beach for a certain amount of time, the boats took a certain amount of time to arrive, and the planes had their own timetable. Nolan mixes and matches in order to emphasize the importance of each story, perhaps most clearly in the flight of the fighter pilot played by Tom Hardy. Nolan doesn't worry about making Hardy's story match up correctly with the others in terms of chronology. Instead, he matches the dramatic arc for the pilot with the dramatic arcs for the other stories, so that Hardy's adventures make dramatic and emotional sense, even if they are not "correct". This video from The AtZ Show does a fine job of getting at this:

Dunkirk is intense from start to finish ... I think it benefits from a relatively short running time (at 107 minutes, it's Nolan's shortest feature). And I'd like to give a shout out to Hans Zimmer, whose score got an Oscar nomination (the film got 8 nominations total, and all of them are reasonable).

A couple of notes I couldn't fit anywhere else. Tom Hardy is a favorite of mine, and when we first see him, almost his entire face is covered. All we see are his eyes, yet I immediately thought to myself, hey, it's Tom Hardy. And I didn't even know he was in the movie. Also, when I think England, I think tea drinking, and there is a lot of tea drinking in this movie.

Finally, here's another great video explaining something I couldn't come close to putting into words: how Zimmer and Nolan add to the intensity of the movie using something called ... well, watch this:

#269 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.


music friday: 1973

Stevie Wonder, "Living for the City". The single version was dark enough; the album version takes the hero to New York ("New York, just like I pictured it, skyscrapers and everything!"), where he almost instantly gets thrown in prison.

Iggy and The Stooges, "Search and Destroy". Originally mixed by Bowie ... Iggy did a remix that purposely sounded even more distorted. The YouTube link is to the Iggy version.

Ann Peebles, "I Can't Stand the Rain". Peebles working the Hi Records sound.

Pink Floyd, "Us and Them". Antonioni said it was too sad.

Bob Marley and The Wailers, "Get Up, Stand Up". Marley and Peter Tosh wrote it. The Wailers recorded it ... Marley and the Wailers recorded it ... Tosh recorded it ... Bunny Wailer recorded it.

Gladys Knight and The Pips, "Midnight Train to Georgia". Songwriter Jim Weatherly says this song was inspired by Farrah Fawcett.

Aerosmith, "Dream On". Rolling Stone writer in 1976, regarding Steven Tyler: "He's the mutant bastard offspring of Jagger and Iggy Stooge." Aerosmith manager's reply: "Only he's better than both of them."

Roberta Flack, "Killing Me Softly with His Song". Since I'm quoting old rock critics, here's Christgau's complete review of Flack's Killing Me Softly album: "Q: Why is Roberta Flack like Jesse Colin Young? A: Because she always makes you wonder whether she's going to fall asleep before you do. C"

Paul McCartney and Wings, "Band on the Run". Paul remains the only Beatle I've seen live. The video is from the same tour we saw him on.

The Rolling Stones, "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)". Goats Head Soup was the end of the great Stones run, but this song stands with those great ones. From Billy Preston's clavinet to the horns to the "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo" chorus, everything about the song embodies the catchiest pop music. The lyrics tell a different story, taking us back to Stevie Wonder's New York City:

The po-lice in New York City
They chased a boy right through the park
And in a case of mistaken identity
They put a bullet through his heart
 
Heartbreakers with your forty four
I want to tear your world apart
You heartbreaker with your forty four
I want to tear your world apart
 
A ten year old girl on a street corner
Sticking needles in her arm
She died in the dirt of an alleyway
Her mother said she had no chance, no chance!
 
Heartbreaker, heartbreaker
She stuck the pins right in her heart
Heartbreaker, pain maker
Stole the love right out of your heart
Oh yeah, oh yeah
Want to tear your world apart
Oh yeah, oh yeah
Want to tear your world apart
 

by request: three billboards outside ebbing, missouri (martin mcdonagh, 2017)

It's easy to point out what is great about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, as is evidenced by its 7 Oscar nominations (and not in categories like Special Effects ... the film got 3 acting nominations, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Picture, among others). The acting nominations, in particular, are worthy ones. Frances McDormand is the emotional core of the movie, while Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson will likely cancel each other out for Best Supporting Actor. McDormand's Mildred Hayes is fired up, at times unlikeable, in just the ways that resonate today when women are fighting battles that should have been won long ago.

While I was unimpressed by McDonagh's first film as a director, Six Shooter (which won an Oscar for Best Live Action Short), I liked his feature debut, In Bruges, which was also carried by the acting, especially Brendan Gleeson. After that, Seven Psychopaths was a terrible disappointment, not because McDonagh emulated Tarantino but because he emulated bad Tarantino. Three Billboards is better than all of these.

A lot of people seem to have been transformed by the movie. I feel a bit funny, because I liked it quite a bit, but my reaction wasn't really emotional. So I'm puzzled by the reactions of others that I read on a Facebook thread I started. "Loved it but took me awhile to get my brain back." "Great movie, rough movie, and still working through the reactions/thoughts/feelings engendered by it. We talked about it much of the night last night and again several times today discussions have been triggered." "It definitely brings up complex emotions." "It blew me away!" "Startling and fine film."

None of these people mentioned the backlash that has formed against Three Billboards. Several writers have written powerful essays on the topic of the movie's approach to race, including Alison Willmore and Alyssa RosenbergHanif Abdurraqib was especially eloquent, speaking of Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a racist and abusive cop. Dixon's character arc is unique in the film, since it's pretty much the only such arc. As well-written and acted as Mildred Hayes is, she doesn't change much over the course of the movie, nor does Woody Harrelson's sheriff. But Dixon's character achieves the beginning of redemption. Yet, as Abdurraqib notes,

The first thing we learn about Dixon is that he was responsible for the torture of one (or more) of the town's black residents while questioning them. There are no details given, and the viewing audience doesn't actually see the torture, but the understanding is that Dixon has tortured black people and kept his job as a police officer....

The failures of the film are not in the performances of the actors, but rather in the script, which presents a conclusion that left me frustrated, given the way it turns a portion of its focus from a grieving and determined mother to the redemption of a racist and abusive police officer....

It is asking a lot of people to watch a story in which we root for a racist and abusive police officer in the name of his own redemption, but it is asking even more of the audience if Dixon himself does no actual work in the name of earning that redemption.... 

Black people in this movie largely exist as victims, seen and unseen, of the town's violence, and as I watched I found myself wondering why they existed there at all.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri absolutely crushes the things it is good at. McDormand is as good as she ever has been, and while there are problems with the character of Officer Dixon, it must be said that Sam Rockwell does wonders with the part. For many, the movie will elicit a strong emotional response. Whether that response is positive or negative depends on what you think of Dixon and the black characters of Ebbing. #485 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

 


music friday: 1972

Stevie Wonder, "Superstition". The early-70s were a great time for conscious R&B/soul. Stevie's playing pretty much everything you hear except the horns.

Lou Reed, "Walk on the Wild Side". Lou makes the pop charts, singing about transgender actresses, drugs, blow jobs, and Warhol's Factory.

Carly Simon, "You're So Vain". The big mystery was who Simon was referring to. Meanwhile, Mick Jagger proves to be a very hard-to-conceal backup singer.

The Rolling Stones, "Rip This Joint". A classic in the tradition of "She Said Yeah". It was at least 30 years before I had an idea what the lyrics were to this song.

Curtis Mayfield, "Freddie's Dead". Just how good were the early-70s for soul? This track missed the Best R&B Single Grammy because "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" was the same yea'.

Joni Mitchell, "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio". According to the all-knowing Wikipedia, she wrote this after her label asked her for a hit record.

Wings, "Hi, Hi, Hi". Sadly, I can understand the lyrics on this.

Al Green, "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart". The best thing anyone ever did for The Bee Gees.

Gladys Knight and the Pips, "Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)". This one did win a Grammy.

The Carpenters, "Goodbye to Love". Me, a long time ago, on Tony Peluso's guitar solos: "It's as if John the Baptist suddenly showed up in Target and grabbed shoppers by the throat, saying 'there's something going on here!'"


by request: star wars: the last jedi (rian johnson, 2017)

As I once said about The Empire Strikes Back, "It’s time to admit that I am not the audience for these films." And that's one of the series that I liked.

The Last Jedi is 2 1/2 hours, and I won't say that's too long, but it's too long for a non-fan like me. The Last Jedi didn't stink, and the supreme annoyance that is C3PO thankfully didn't get much screen time. But I don't really care about these characters, and not a lot of effort is made to convince me otherwise. Adam Driver is a very fine actor, and his face lends itself to tortured emotions that live just under the surface. But it was him that interested me, not his character. It's nice to see John Boyega of Attack the Block, and Daisy Ridley's spunky Rey is a good idea, although I wish the franchise wouldn't be so self-congratulatory about featuring an ass-kicking female character when there are many other good examples (Starbuck, Buffy, Furiosa). Hell, the original Leia is a more important cultural landmark than Rey.

So I don't care about the characters, and the plot is too obviously serviceable in the way so many second-in-a-trilogy movies are. That leaves the action, and if CGI is your thing, this is some great stuff.

As I watched The Last Jedi, I found myself thinking of several other productions. Two were television series. Battlestar Galactica had its space battles, and it had its archetypal characters. But the battles were always secondary to the rest of the show, and the archetypes quickly offered depth, more so as the series progressed. Battlestar Galactica was about identity, and politics, and religion, and the military ... Star Wars is about parent-child relationships and space battles. I also thought about The 100, which doesn't really have the budget for a space opera, so they concentrate on other things, regularly surprising us with how far they are willing to go to blow past whatever stereotypes you might have about a series on The CW where the title refers to teenagers. As showrunner Jason Rothenberg said, "Remember, you signed up for a post apocalyptic nightmare. Don’t be surprised if that’s what we give you."

I also thought about the Mad Max movies. Compared to Fury Road, the action scenes in The Last Jedi aren't all that. And face it, lightsaber fights are boring, especially when you consider what is being done in movies like The Raid films.

I realize there is an audience for the Star Wars franchise, which is why the only relevant point here is that I am not that audience.

Here is the trailer from my favorite John Boyega film:

 


the square (ruben östlund, 2017)

The only other movie I've seen by Ruben Östlund is Force Majeure, which I liked, although I had no idea there was humor until I read reviews. So it's progress of a sort that I laughed a few times during The Square.

You might call The Square smug ... at the least, it is quite proud of itself. Some of the set pieces (and there are several) seemed to exist solely to have something to show off, and I imagine they'd work out of context ... one notable scene with a monkey man (or whatever he was ... he was played by "animal movement specialist" Terry Notary, recently seen as the title character in Kong: Skull Island) might be interesting if you watched it on YouTube without knowing any context. I loved lead actor Claes Bang, who I had never seen before. He was perfect in the part, and reminded me of many other actors that I liked ... maybe like a Danish Sebastian Koch. And Elisabeth Moss is always surprising, plus she has that ability to look odd and completely beautiful, often at the same time. (That she had a pet chimpanzee was a bit much.)

The Square has a lot to say about the art world, and the people who live in that world, and most of what it says is pretty cutting, if not quite mean enough. None of the characters come off well, although they are pleasant enough on the surface and not exactly evil underneath. It's too long at almost 2 1/2 hours, but you knew I'd say that. I wasn't bored, so it didn't really matter.

And as for Oscars, it's the first Best Foreign Film nominee I've seen, but I much preferred First They Killed My Father, which didn't get nominated.

Here is one of the more talked-about scenes in the movie:

There is also a funny scene featuring a person with Tourette's, and I am crude enough that I am a sucker for Tourette's jokes. Partly because of that scene, I was reminded of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which also relies on cringe humor. So I'll leave you with this, a restaurant opening where the chef has Tourette's:

 


music friday: 1971

Marvin Gaye, "What's Goin' On". Great video with Marvin on piano and the incomparable James Jamerson on bass, from the movie Save the Children.

Led Zeppelin, "Stairway to Heaven". Overplayed, to be sure, and not even their best, but you couldn't avoid it in 1971, or 2018 for that matter. Video is from a live 1975 performance. As usual, I have no idea what Robert Plant is going on about, but this band was never about lyrics, and Plant's vocals were the perfect sonic match for whatever Jimmy Page was doing.

Janis Joplin, "Me and Bobby McGee". Great song, great performance, but I still think Big Brother was the best fit for her.

The Who, "Won't Get Fooled Again". Like "Stairway", another song that is past its sell-by date, and the lyrics don't hold up. But what a band they were, and it's always fun to watch Keith Moon "lip"-syncing on drums. Another great bass player, although John Entwhistle and James Jamerson couldn't be more different. Entwhistle plays bass like a lead instrument ... Moonie does the same with drums, for that matter, which may explain why Pete Townshend was so good at rhythm guitar ... he needed to be the rhythm section.

Joni Mitchell, "A Case of You". Not as overplayed as the other songs here, but just as good.

Sly and the Family Stone, "Family Affair". #1 hit from one of the greatest albums ever, by one of the greatest bands ever. The album title, There's a Riot Goin' On, was said to be a reply to the question Marvin Gaye asked on the first song from this list.

David Bowie, "Changes". His most famous song?

Isaac Hayes, "Theme from Shaft". "You see this cat Shaft is a bad mother (Shut your mouth) / But I'm talkin' about Shaft (Then we can dig it)."

Carole King, "It's Too Late". Speaking of inescapable, this Grammy winner for Record of the Year comes from Tapestry, which sold 25 million copies.

John Lennon, "How Do You Sleep?". An answer record. To "Imagine".