Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

30 November 2019

Labyrinth of Passion (1982)

Labyrinth of Passion (Laberinto de Pasiones) is a completely outrageous sex farce. It's Almodóvar's second movie, and it's about a gay Arabian prince and a female Spanish pop star nymphomaniac who fall in love. They're both singing for punk bands, but there's also a princess, a group of terrorists, a laundress, two psychiatrists, and an insane drag queen. It really is a labyrinth of insanity. This is delightful fun, and many of Almodóvar's later themes (drug induced affections, plastic surgery, incest) are already on view here. Pedro himself also makes a cameo singing an insane song in a nightclub.

Shadow (2018)

Shadow (影) is quite a silly film.

I should start by saying that this film's costume design (by Chen Minzheng) and the film's production design (by Ma Kwong Win), are easily some of the best work this year. Both designers have already won the Asian Film Awards and the Golden Horse Awards in their respective categories for designing Shadow.

The film also has a few affecting moments; the performances by the two leads are excellent, for example. But, as usual, Zhang's impeccably gorgeous, slow, bloody spectacles are not to my taste. This felt empty and occasionally even totally nonsensical in its pageantry.

But this is how I always feel about Zhang's movies these days. They look beautiful, yes, but they're not about anything. They're not even really studies in aesthetics. Instead, they're melodramatic machines – they work like little clocks or puzzle boxes – and usually they work well, but once you've gotten inside, there isn't anything there.

29 November 2019

Knife+Heart (2019)

In French this movie is called Un Couteau dans le Cœur (a cut in the heart), but they're distributing it in the U.S. as Knife+Heart, which I think is quirky and pretty great. Knife+Heart is very gay, totally fucking weird, and occasionally violent (uncomfortably so) in the extreme. I was obviously into it.

A director of blue movies in 1979 has been abandoned by her lover, and then a psychopath begins murdering the actors from her porn films. The film is campy but also serious, and the second act takes place almost entirely in a forest, where the protagonist contemplates the questions of existence. This second act is paced differently, shot differently, and one almost forgets about the sexualized serial murders for a while.

But this is a movie about gay desire, violence, the violence adjacent to gay desire, and much more. It has three separate endings, and each of the endings cemented my affection for the film more than the last.

(I never saw Yann Gonzalez's other movie that was distributed in the U.S. – You and the Night – but I sure am going to now.)

25 November 2019

The White Crow

The White Crow is a film about Rudolf Nureyev's defection from the Soviet Union when he traveled to Paris to dance in 1961. It's fine. To my mind, though, this movie isn't gay enough, but it is based on a particular book, and maybe what I mean is that the book isn't gay enough. In any case, it's not gay enough.

Is Ralph Fiennes getting better as a director? Maybe. I don't know. I'm not sure he really has hit upon a vision of any real kind yet. I'm not sure what this movie is trying to be about except an appreciation for European art. Not that there's anything particularly wrong with that; it just feels rather old school.

Fighting with My Family

Oof. I thought Fighting with My Family was gonna be a comedy! Turns out, it's not. It's a sentimental picture that plays the same beats over and over again. I was decidedly bored. And the end makes no sense at all. (For reasons I don't really understand, everyone in the film acts surprised when – at the end of the film – the main character wins the WWE title, even though there's really no way at all that she could've won if she hadn't been told ahead of time that she would.)

Whenever the Rock is onscreen, he's great. But everything else in this picture is sentimental shite.

23 November 2019

Parasite (2019)

Constantly surprising, insane, and very smart. The title in Korean (기생충 / Helminth) refers to parasitic intestinal worms that are common in developing countries. Parasite itself is about money and labor and class, but it's also terrifyingly thrilling and very exciting.

19 November 2019

The Reflecting Skin (1990)

Oddly enough, The Reflecting Skin was not as weird as one of Philip Ridley's plays. But make no mistake, this is a very, very weird movie in which a young boy's friends and family all begin to die very mysteriously. First his friend is found dead, drowned in the family's well, and then his father lights himself on fire after fellating a gas pump. More deaths ensue. The script is actually pretty good, but it's directed (by Ridley) with almost total ineptness. One really has almost no idea what is going on, and the twist of the film is never really communicated to the audience, even at the very end. It's a strange, strange picture.

18 November 2019

Why So Serious?

Joker is pretty good at what it wants to do. Joaquin Phoenix's performance is chilling and very scary, and the movie itself is quite scary too. The thing is, though: I didn't really enjoy this very much at all. Even the third act triumphant revenge sequences were joyless to me. The first act is so relentless in its beatdowns of this poor man. It's one-note, almost (dare I say it) comedic (although it never really is this), in the pain it delivers at this man's doorstep.

I don't, for the record, think the movie is irresponsibly violent or anything like that. Joker is fairly careful about its violence. Consider, for example, the sequence in the non-girlfriend's apartment. The film actually works to make us afraid for the young woman and her daughter. We will for nothing to happen to them. We hope he doesn't hurt them. I felt this same way with his diminutive coworker who comes to visit and witnesses him killing the other guy they work with. Please don't kill this guy, I thought. And of course he doesn't.

It's clear in these moments that Joker is a sentimental movie in its own way. It doesn't wish death and destruction on everyone, or at least not quite everyone. Little people and mothers with young children are spared this film's wrath. The rest of the universe, however – as we find out at the end of the movie – can simply burn, and society itself should be utterly destroyed. But save the children and the co-workers who smile at you.

If only any of this had been pleasurable. But the relentless of the first act of Todd Phillips' film set me up, as a viewer, only for more of the same. For me, Joker never really let up from this tone, and I had trouble enjoying any of the film after act one, even if I knew we were sort of supposed to take pleasure in the finale. I found the whole thing off-putting.  It's just not any fun.

Oh! One more thing that I can't get out of my head. When the three guys come to beat him up in the subway – the guys he kills, I mean – they're singing a song from Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music: Isn't it rich / Are we a pair / Me here at last on the ground / You in midair. They even seem to know the second verse. Now, these are supposed to be young businessmen who work for Thomas Wayne, and given that this film is supposed to take place in a version of 1976 (I infer this from the numerous references to Lumet & Chayefsky's Network and Scorsese & Schrader's Taxi Driver throughout the film) and Sondheim's musical premiered in 1973, I suppose it's possible that these young businessmen might have committed "Send in the Clowns" to memory, but I find this improbable. Perhaps it is simply much more likely that the joker is psychotic and that the scenario the film shows us, in which he kills the three men, is just as fictional as the sequence two scenes later when he kisses his neighbor. My point is that we can't even trust what we see in the movie. What I guess I hope this means, after all, is that this joker is misinterpreting the ugliness and brutality of the world around him and that it just ain't all that bad. Either way, the joker's read on the world is not a perspective I have the ability to enjoy. I need a few more jokes.

Update. My friend George reminds me that "Send in the Clowns" was actually a pop-crossover hit. Witness this appearance by Judy Collins on The Muppet Show in 1973:

13 November 2019

The Lighthouse

I would like The Lighthouse better if it weren't all so obviously supposed to mean something. Thomas (Robert Pattinson) is a younger man doing a few weeks of work on an island, working at a lighthouse doing gruntwork and laboring in the service of an older, craggy former sea-captain also named Thomas and played by Willem Dafoe. They both begin to go insane – or maybe it is just Pattinson's character who goes insane and Dafoe's character is the cause of it. The older man is also keeping the younger man from accessing the shining light at the top of the long, winding staircase inside the lighthouse. It is clear from the beginning of The Lighthouse that the younger man wants to behold the light, to tend it and care for it in the way the older man is able to do, but the older man locks the grate and keeps the younger man out.

Robert Eggers' newest film, then, is about a descent into madness – fine; I think that's super interesting, and it makes for an intriguing follow-up to his earlier film The Witch, also about madness and an inability to trust what one sees. 

But in The Lighthouse, Eggers gives us a descent into madness that is supposed to be symbolically weighted with meaning: The man who sees the sun must die, and Prometheus, who steals fire from the gods must have his liver eaten by eagles (seagulls in this film's final tableau).

I thought this movie was fun (and actually quite funny) to a certain extent. But I found most of its attempts at a depth of profundity to be shallow. The real depth in the film is in its beautiful photography and excellent production design – in other words, on the film's surfaces.

As for deep meaning, one could try to suss some out, and the movie itself seems to prompt this. You can google and find webposts that say things like "the end of The Lighthouse explained! – maybe the two Thomases are really the same man, or perhaps the two Thomases and the seagull are all the same person, or perhaps the younger Thomas is haunted by demons he brings to life himself, or maybe the whole thing is an intense allegory à la Mother! – but the surfaces of The Lighthouse are always more interesting than its purported depths.

I'll be honest: Willem Dafoe isn't really my cup of tea. I think he's really fun in comedy, but as a serious actor, for me, he overdoes things. I think Pattinson is great; that's not really up for debate. But the movie as a whole... eh.

12 November 2019

Las Herederas (2018)

The Heiresses is an intriguing character study with a very good central performance. Ana Brun plays an older lesbian whose partner gets incarcerated. She then needs to build a new life on her own and figure out how to live. This takes her in several unexpected directions as she begins to work as a taxi driver for older, wealthier ladies. I do wish this script had been just a bit flashier, but I really liked this movie.

A Moment in the Reeds (2017)

A Moment in the Reeds is very interesting and beautifully shot. I loved the two main actors in it, too. But... this film's explorations of gay immigrants to Northern Europe felt unfinished or underexplored. What the film is really interested in is how stories like those of gay immigrants to Finland might put the stories of gay Finns into relief. This seems to me a less-than-careful approach to an interesting and important topic. The end of the film, too, leaves a lot to be desired. All of this isn't to say that this film isn't quite good. It's just not everything I wanted it to be.

05 November 2019

The Castle of Terror (1964)

This Sergio Corbucci–Antonio Margheriti horror movie, which is titled Danza Macabra or The Castle of Blood or The Castle of Terror, is pretty stupid and fairly boring. It also, quite disappointingly, does not have a vat of blood in which people drown. This put me to sleep.

02 November 2019

Blackboard Jungle (1950)

Well... Blackboard Jungle is about teaching high school in the inner city – I think we're supposed to be in Chicago. Glenn Ford plays the protagonist, and I love watching Ford at all times, so Richard Brooks' movie definitely has that going for it.

But I am hung up on the title, and if you look at this poster and combine the title with the poster, you get a series of images that are designed to communicate an old message. White woman, torn dress (or is it just hanging off the shoulder?), inner city kids, jungle... well it becomes fairly clear that we are in race-baiting territory.

Blackboard Jungle, to its credit, looks like it's selling one thing (a story about black students being unruly or unmanageable), but it's selling something altogether different. This is a film where race is everywhere and constantly being discussed, but this is not a film about race, and I'm not sure it has anything to say about race, either. Sidney Poitier plays the most important black kid in Ford's classroom, and it's hard not to love Sidney Poitier no matter what you're doing. Poitier's character turns out to be all right, as the kids in the '50s used to say.

This movie has good intentions, I think. But it takes a kind of colonialist or parochial tone that I found annoying, upsetting, and ill-advised. In many ways, Blackboard Jungle sees juvenile delinquency as a problem with the kids themselves and not their environments. The film's script attenuates this at certain points, but mostly Blackboard Jungle understands this to be the kids' behavior to be the kids' fault. I am skeptical.

01 November 2019

Devdas (2002)

Devdas is one of my housemate's favorite movies. It felt to me like a fairly standard Bollywood melodrama that was enlivened by some great performances by Madhuri Dixit, Aishwarya Rai, and Kiron Kher. I dunno, though. This didn't really have quite enough singing and dancing for my taste. And the sad ending was no fun. I firmly believe that if it's gonna be a melodrama it might as well end happily.