Red Joan is a spy thriller that mostly lacks thrills. It takes the not unusual trick of building the story around flashbacks, but in this case, the structure doesn't really do anything for the movie.
Judi Dench is an elderly woman arrested for being a spy. During interrogations, we get her story, with Sophie Cookson playing the young "Red Joan". The scenes of the past are engaging enough, and the arc whereby Joan becomes "Red" is fairly engrossing. But whenever the movie returns to Dench, all the momentum dissipates. At some point, I realized the entire movie could have been made without Dench, without the scenes in the present, and been just as good, just as intelligible. Better, in fact.
This is not to say that the flashback structure is never a good idea. But Cookson has an engaging flair, and while it's not Dench's fault, the old Joan is miserable and depressed. It makes sense for the characters, but the depressed Joan is never compelling enough that I don't wish to return to Cookson.
Red Joan is competent, and it will satisfy those looking to pass a couple of hours. But that's about all it is.
I didn't know what to expect from The Nightingale. I wanted to watch it because I loved Kent's debut as a director, The Babadook, but when a director only has one feature to their name, it's hard to construct any patterns. Now that I've seen her second feature, I'm not sure what patterns have emerged, because the two films are quite different. There is the obvious point, though, that Kent, who wrote her movies as well as directed them, brings a woman's perspective to her films. The Babadook was a horror story that focused on a mom ... The Nightingale is also horrific, but it's more reality-based. It's story is also seen through the eyes of a female protagonist.
The Nightingale is a brutal film, one that might play a lot differently with a man in charge (think Game of Thrones). Horrible things happen to the heroine, and Kent insists on letting us know what we are seeing and hearing. A look at the Parents Guide on IMDB (not recommended unless you've seen the movie) details enough events to warn off anyone with particular triggers. But it is never voyeuristic, never pleasurable. Kent takes us inside her heroine ... she doesn't shy away from what happens, but she always keeps her focus and ours on the character.
The movie is long and expansive ... it could stand to be a bit shorter (it's about 40 minutes longer than The Babadook). The length lends an epic feel to the film, and Kent uses the time to cover everything she thinks matters. The Nightingale is repetitive at times. But it overwhelms in the final analysis.
The conclusion is important. At its core, The Nightingale is a revenge drama, and the heroine gets some of the revenge she seeks. But Kent pulls back at the end, understanding that revenge is never going to completely fix what has come before. The finish is a bit anti-climactic, because we in the audience want the revenge. But it's an appropriate climax. And if you make it to the end of The Nightingale, you won't be able to shake its power. Special shoutouts to the leads, Aisling Franciosi and newcomer Baykali Ganambarr.
There is a famous tower on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. The official name is Sather Tower, but no one calls it that. We call it The Campanile. It is a landmark that helps as a reference point for new students who don't quite know their way around yet. But for most of us, it is known for its carillon, which can be heard over much of Berkeley (we live a mile from campus, and we can hear it just fine).
A pair of falcons live on the tower, and they recently had triplets. A few webcams are set up so people can watch the lives of the young ones. I've taken a peek ... doesn't do much for me ... but my wife has it running constantly on her laptop so she can watch whenever she gets a notion. She loves it, and tells me tales about what the birds are doing.
Robert Bresson's films, minimalist and contemplative, demand our attention. (My favorite is A Man Escaped.) I often appreciate his movies more than like them, but among other things he is the ultimate "I'll do it my way" film maker, and while I tend to complain about those directors, I always respect them. And with Bresson, I have at times felt more than mere respect. L'Argent is one of those I like.
At first, L'Argent ("Money") seems to be a movie that follows a counterfeit bill through various hands, but eventually, it becomes a story about the people who come into contact with the money. You wouldn't say that "nothing happens" ... in fact, quite a bit happens. But it is presented in a matter-of-fact manner. Check out this clip, properly named "Car Chase":
A bank is being robbed. We see the getaway driver. We see a man walking down the street reading a newspaper ... he seems important, yet this is his only scene and he's largely irrelevant. We see cops with guns, we see the robber with a hostage. Back to the driver, who hears a shootout that we don't see. Eventually, a cop car pulls up alongside him, and he tries to escape (this begins the "car chase"). Bresson switches between shots of the driver's foot on the gas pedal and views from his rear view mirror. He quickly crashes into another car. It's hard to think of another cinematic car chase with so few fireworks. Something happens, all right, but it's as if Bresson doesn't want to us to see that something.
Bresson is also known for using non-professional actors. He doesn't want "acting" in his movies ... the blankness of the non-actor leaves the audience with nothing except the action (often as simple as a close-up of a face that moves slightly) and the dialogue (which is sparse at times). We don't, we can't be distracted. Action scenes without action, acting scenes without acting. It's easy to understand why my wife, who has no problem looking at a webcam of baby birds, would go stir crazy if she had to watch L'Argent.
Look at this scene, with the perfect YouTube title "Bresson eliminates acting". The driver is in prison. He gets a letter telling him his daughter has died. We see the letter, read by an anonymous mail checker whose face we don't see. In his cell, the letter is read by his cellmates. For a brief moment, we see him with his face buried in his pillow. He raises it for a moment, lowers it again. We never see him reading the letter. Bresson has "eliminated" any possibility of "acting" by shooting and editing it this way.
This is fascinating stuff if you want to delve in. Otherwise, it's not much better than the web cam of the baby birds. #164 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.
It's nice when you watch a movie and realize the people making the movie know what they are doing. For instance, Baby Driver was nominated for three Oscars: Editing (Paul Machliss and Jonathan Amos), Sound Mixing (Tim Cavagin, Mary H. Ellis, and Julian Slater), and Sound Editing (Slater again). Once you see it, you understand why. It grabs you from the start ... here is the second scene in the movie, after which I had that "they know what they're doing" feel:
Edgar Wright doesn't use his style to beat you over the head like Michael Bay, and he doesn't use his style to make things unintelligible (like Michael Bay). He gives us a heightened reality, where everything seems to fit together. Baby (yes, that's the name of Ansel Elgort's character) is locked into the music ... he walks to its beat. Everything that happens as he walks is part of that beat. The lyrics to the song turn up in the background. The movie is so connected to its music that Baby Driver plays like a musical as much as it does an action picture.
And it delivers on the action. For that matter, it does a decent job with the romance, too. It doesn't feel like a jumble ... all of the parts fit smoothly.
The casting is on target, and the actors seem to be enjoying themselves without preening. Baby Driver couldn't be more different than our Geezer movie from last week, The Gentlemen, which is far too proud of itself (without reason).
Cori Bush. Paula Jean Swearengin. Amy Vilela. I'm embarrassed to admit I knew nothing about these women before watching Knock Down the House. They all ran for office in the 2018 midterm elections as part of the attempt to make the Democratic Party, and thus the U.S., more progressive. All three women are interesting, and what we learn of their personal stories informs their politics. All three (spoiler alert) lost their elections, which is probably why I hadn't heard of them.
Rachel Lears chose her subjects via a process whereby she worked with progressive organizations to find women like the ones featured in the movie. When she starts, she doesn't know which, if any, will win, but she is there, fly on the wall, giving us an intimate feel for what a grass roots campaign is like.
The problem with Knock Down the House (and, let's face, it's not really a problem), is that none of those women are Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Since Ocasio-Cortez wins her election, which we know, and since she has become an instant attraction in Congress and in the country, her part in the film overwhelms the story of the other women. This is no one's fault. I doubt Lears could have predicted what happened.
But AOC (we've had FDR and JFK and LBJ ... they were presidents ... Ocasio-Cortez is a representative in the House, but she's known by her initials just like her predecessors) wins her election where the others don't. This results in an inspirational scene (one of many) that is guaranteed to make you get teary-eyed (I suppose if you are one of those people who hate her, you'd be crying about then as well): when AOC realizes she has won.
We know from her story, which Lears shows us effectively, that she wasn't born to be a politician. But she is so charismatic that she wins you over. And no matter how she was born, she seems like a natural politician in the best possible way. When she thanks the people who helped her achieve victory, it doesn't feel boilerplate, it feels real.
Of course, just as she has quickly become an icon for some, she personifies the enemy for others. But Knock Down the House isn't made for those people.
Bush, Swearengin, and Vilela are also vital progressives with big dreams. Like I say, this is no one's fault. But AOC is a star, and Rachel Lears is a film maker who knows what she's got. So of course she focuses most on Ocasio-Cortez.
I have liked the Olivier Assayas films I have seen (Summer Hours, Personal Shopper), especially the mini-series Carlos. And I love Maggie Cheung (fave: the must-watch In the Mood for Love). And Assayas recently said he was writing an Irma Vep television series. Since I've long been intrigued by Irma Vep, I decided to watch the movie.
Right off, I was surprised. It's a French film, and it stars a top Hong Kong actress, so I was prepared for subtitles. Except Cheung plays "herself", and the real-life Maggie Cheung spent ten years of her childhood living in England and thus speaks perfect English. It is said by the French people in Irma Vep that the "Maggie" of the movie doesn't understand French (the real Maggie does speak French, and I guess it's unclear if maybe "Maggie" just pretends not to speak French). Cheung speaks only in English in the movie, and so whenever anyone else interacts with her, they speak English, and she's the star of the movie and in a lot of scenes, so ... suffice to say, Irma Vep has some subtitles, but much (most?) of the movie is actually in English.
All of which is probably irrelevant, except it's hard to avoid the complications of Maggie Cheung playing "Maggie Cheung". It's the real Maggie ... at one point, we see a brief scene of her in The Heroic Trio, as if to prove this. All of the characters react to "Maggie" as if she were real. Some don't seem to know her work, but many do, and while the actual Cheung hadn't quite become an international star (actually, Irma Vep was probably when this happened), she's already a cult figure to some of the characters.
It gets more complicated. The plot, or at least the story that drives the movie, is that a fading French director decides to remake the early silent French serial, Les Vampires, the main character of which is named Irma Vep. For reasons that are never explained, he demands that Maggie Cheung play Irma. So, you have Maggie Cheung playing Maggie Cheung in a movie, Irma Vep, that is a remake of a serial with a character named Irma Vep. The words "Irma Vep" thus have multiple meanings here: there's the title of the movie itself, there's the hero of the serial, and there's the character Cheung plays in the movie within a movie.
In obsessing over all of this, I am missing a lot of important things about Irma Vep. It's a commentary on the state of French film making at the time, and Jonathan Rosenbaum, in a excellent essay on the film, keeps bringing up capitalism. And the way the film is shot (Eric Gautier, cinematographer, but also Luc Barnier, editor) often feels like a Maysles Brothers documentary, which further blurs the line between Cheung and "Maggie Cheung", since "Maggie" seems like a "real" person being caught by an unobtrusive camera. But for me, the way Maggie Cheung is used is the most interesting part of the picture. The "Maggie Cheung" of the movie is fetishized (and since the real Cheung plays herself, the movie by extension also fetishizes that real Cheung). "Cheung" as Irma Vep wears a latex catsuit that is extremely right, which invites viewers of the Assayas film to gaze at the Hong Kong actress. (The director of the movie's Irma Vep gets the idea for the catsuit from pictures of Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman.) The real Maggie Cheung is one of the screen's great beauties (she was named Miss Photogenic in the 1983 Miss Hong Kong pageant), but she is also one of our greatest actors, fully capable of playing "herself" playing "Irma Vep".
Irma Vep is a lot of fun, and it's also smart. You might watch it and get some entirely different, deeper reactions than I had. But, while not wanting to dismiss the other fine actors in the movie, or the work of Assayas, for me, Irma Vep is driven by the performance of Maggie Cheung.
Trivia question: What was the movie where a nose was nominated for two Oscars? That's right, it was Foxcatcher. Steve Carell got a Best Actor nomination for wearing the nose, and Bill Corso and Dennis Liddiard got a Best Makeup nomination. (Neither won.)
Carell's fake nose was the kind you often see in movies where an actor is made to resemble the real-life person they are playing. In this case, Carell was playing John du Pont. Carell is terrible, but I can't blame him ... it looks like he was just giving director Bennett Miller what he wanted. I liked Miller's Capote (with a great performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his Moneyball was a crowd-pleaser. But I didn't connect with Foxcatcher, and I can't help thinking that I wasn't supposed to.
It's the true-life story of three men, a rich guy (du Pont) and two Olympic-gold-winning wrestlers who are also brothers. One of the brothers, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), is presented as the sane one, and Ruffalo actually deserved his Oscar nod. The other brother, Mark (Channing Tatum), is the disturbed one ... he has problems deep in his soul, and du Pont knows how to play him. His story in the movie is tragic, and Tatum does his best, but his torments are mostly interior, which means we get a lot of scenes of Tatum trying to show us Mark is hurting. The film's concept of John du Pont is the real problem here, though. It may be true to life ... I have no idea. But Carell (directed by Miller) spends most of the movie staring down his big fake honker, acting odd without ever giving any insight into what bothers him beyond he doesn't get along with his mother. When he loses it at the end, you can believe he'd gotten that low, but it still comes as a surprise (if you don't know the real story) because du Pont is such a cipher. It's too big a hole for the film to survive. I ended up feeling like I'd just wasted 134 minutes.
Still, it did get five Oscar noms, it's #541 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century, and some people think highly of it. Put it in the Your Mileage May Vary category, but I didn't like it.
This will be short. I am not a fan of Guy Ritchie. That's not fair ... this is only the third movie of his I've seen, and I liked Sherlock Holmes a bit. But I really didn't like Snatch. The Gentlemen falls somewhere between the two.
The Gentlemen has a nice cast, although none of them are seen at their best. I laughed a couple of times, and I think I was even supposed to. The movie jumps around, there's always something happening, so you probably won't get bored. But seriously, so fucking what. The Gentlemen is the kind of movie where one character (played by Hugh Grant) narrates most of the goings-on. Apparently, Ritchie doesn't believe in show-don't-tell. When you need a character to explain everything as it happens, you haven't done a proper job of setting up those happenings. I don't watch movies to listen to someone read me the script.
Someone put together a YouTube video (it stinks, no reason to link to it) titled "The Gentlemen 2019 - All Best Scenes". It runs 12 minutes and 12 seconds. The actual movie runs for 113 minutes. If that seems like an enjoyable ratio to you, by all means, check out The Gentlemen.
The Florida Project is a fairly remarkable movie for one reason, and her name is Brooklynn Prince. I always say, when a film features a top-notch performance by a child actor, the director deserves at least some of the credit, and there are a lot of children in The Florida Project, so give it up for Sean Baker (Tangerine). The adults who co-star with child actors are also crucial, so give it up for Willem Dafoe, who was nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar. Dafoe was particularly important here because almost all of the rest of the actors, adult and child alike, were first-timers. Dafoe interacts believably with the others ... he's skillful, but he doesn't stand out, doesn't make the others in the cast seem like amateurs.
Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch also deserve mention because they were willing to allow improvisation from the actors. Improv can be tricky, and it fails as often as it works. I imagine it's especially hard when your actors are new to the profession. And you can multiply that exponentially when some of your improv actors are little tykes like Brooklynn Prince.
Like Tangerine, The Florida Project is more slice-of-life than plot driven. Things happen, but a lot of the movie is given over to Prince and her friends wandering around having adventures. I was reminded of Zazie dans le Métro with Catherine Demongeot, who largely disappeared from movies after her debut as the title character in that film:
Brooklynn Prince as Moonee was a few years younger than was Demongeot as Zazie, although Prince is already building quite an acting resume. I was taken by the following blooper reel, because while like all such examples, Prince is screwing up, it's as if she is never out of character. Between her screen presence, her clear improv skills, and her overall precosity, Prince is basically the same in these bloopers as she is in the material that made the final cut:
The Florida Project is more serious than I'm suggesting. Dafoe's character has depth, and newcomer Bria Vinaite as Moonee's mom gives us a character who is equal parts heartbreaking and annoying. It is entirely believable that Moonee is her daughter.
Fail Safe was released in the same year as Dr. Strangelove, and the connection has never been broken. Both tell Cold War stories about the threat of nuclear war. Fail Safe is a solid film, but the word "safe" is relevant here, because the straightforward presentation of the movie compares poorly to Kubrick's film, which understood the absurd lunacy of the times. Fail Safe was perhaps unfairly maligned, or at least largely forgotten, because it paled in comparison to Strangelove (Kubrick's last great movie).
Watching it again (it was my wife's Mother's Day choice, as she had never seen it), I appreciated it on its own terms. It works the way good movies did, then and now. Lumet was generally good with actors, and he had a fine cast to work with (Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Dan O'Herlihy and more). It ratchets up the suspense ... the old "edge of your seat" kind of story, well-told. It presents a timely situation, and creates a crucial moral dilemma. The ending is startling (and the editing by Ralph Rosenblum was perfect in that ending). It's not quite by the numbers, but to the extent it is, that just means it uses tried and true methods to satisfy. If there was no Strangelove, Fail Safe might be remembered more as the fine movie that it is.
But we live in a world with Dr. Strangelove, and the lunacies of that movie make Fail Safe seem almost mundane. Fail Safe is as serious as its subject matter; Dr. Strangelove is a comedy. And it's Strangelove that does the better job of addressing the outrageous craziness of the Cold War in the nuclear era.