“We met at Starbucks. Not at the same Starbucks, but we saw each other at different Starbucks across the street from each other.”
— Meg Swan
I’m an enthusiastic fan of sharp, quirky humor; the more biting, the better. I love stuff like Monty Python, Kids in the Hall, Strangers with Candy, The Office, Little Britain, and of course Christopher Guest’s This is Spinal Tap, one of my favorite not to mention most quoted films.
Best in Show, another “mockumentary” like the ones Guest has become known for, is right up my alley. It pokes fun at a culture many no doubt find strange: dog shows. Woof!
Best in Show follows five canines and their owners as they prepare for and travel to a dog competition, the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show — that title is perfect! — in Philadelphia. The characters are awesome and the situations they get into are fun. The cast, which includes then-minor stars like Jane Lynch and Jennifer Coolidge who would go on to bigger things, is stellar. Guest and Eugene Levy’s screenplay is deliciously mean. This is all good.
Unfortunately, I didn’t love it. I saw Best in Show a long while back, but this time it just didn’t strike me as funny as I remember it. I don’t know what it was — I had a long week and I had to travel the next morning, so maybe that explains why I wasn’t feeling it. Maybe it was the martinis. One of these days, I’ll give Best in Show another chance to redeem itself.
With Fred Willard, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, Jay Brazeau, John Michael Higgins, Michael McKean, Michael Hitchcock, Christopher Guest, Ed Begley Jr., Beatrice the Weimaraner, Winky the Norwich Terrier, Hubert the Bloodhound, Miss Agnes the Shih Tzu, Tyrone the Shih Tzu, Rhapsody in White the Standard Poodle
If her take on Marie Antoinette is any clue, Sofia Coppola loves postpunk ’80s British bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Cure, New Order, and New Romantic frontrunners Adam and the Ants and Bow Wow Wow. So do I. This in all likelihood is what drew me to Marie Antoinette: with three Bow Wow Wow songs (two remixed by My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields), big hair, and a real MTV sensibility, its appeal to me is, well, a piece of cake.
All that is only part of the story. What really makes me love Marie Antionette is the sympathetic angle Coppola takes with this infamous character. Based on Antonia Fraser’s biography Marie Antoinette: The Journey, the first half of the movie is about the difficulties Marie (Kirsten Dunst) faces adapting to her new French surroundings and getting her new husband, Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman, Coppola’s cousin), to consummate their marriage. She fails, and of course everyone blames her—even her mother (Marianne Faithfull). When she’s had enough, she says “fuck it” and becomes a full on rock star. This is where things get interesting.
Colorful and elaborate, Marie Antionette is not profound. So what? Lance Acord’s music video cinematography is perfect for what Coppola is going for; bordering on sensory overload, this film is busy, clever, and fun to watch. I know better than to take it as a history lesson.
With Judy Davis, Rip Torn, Rose Byrne, Asia Argento, Molly Shannon, Shirley Henderson, Danny Huston, Mary Nighy, Jamie Dornan, Steve Coogan, Tom Hardy
Production: Pricel, Tohokushinsha Film Corporation (TFC), American Zoetrope, Pathé, Commission du Film France, Commission du Film Île-de-France
“We rushed into the business with our usual disregard for a comprehensive political scheme.”
According to the promotional poster for Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum’s Letters from Baghdad, the so-called “Queen of the Desert” and “female Lawrence of Arabia” Gertrude Bell “was as controversial as the history she made.” Well, that certainly sounds promising!
Born into a wealthy family, Bell immersed herself in the Middle East in the early 20th Century and used her talents as a writer and a schmoozer to intimately acquaint herself with the area, its people, and their culture (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gertrude_Bell). Her contacts with influential expats and various Arab leaders combined with her knowledge of the culture led to an appointment as a British officer during World War I and a direct hand in drawing up the borders of modern Iraq.
Tilda Swinton gives Bell her voice, reading off camera Bell’s actual writings about events that occurred on her many trips and the people she met. In Bell’s own words, Swinton offers history, observations, and even some Victorian Era dish. Bell had at least as much influence as T. E. Lawrence a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia (played here by Eric Loscheider in a staged “talking head” interview made to look like old footage).
Bell’s life and the impact of her deeds a century later make for an interesting story. Painstakingly researched, Krayenbühl and Oelbaum pull from diverse source material—letters, diaries, photos—to show what cities like Baghdad and Damascus were like a hundred years ago. They do a great job humaninzing Bell, getting into personality flaws and personal disappointments. In both respects, Letters to Baghdad works really well.
Not everything works as well as it could, though. Some important items are treated superfically. For example, they mention the tension between the Sunni, Shia, and Kurds even back then, but Krayenbühl and Oelbaum don’t delve into it. They touch on Bell’s reasoning for the borders she devised, but they don’t give much critical assessment to it. I left with the distinct feeling that I didn’t get the whole story. Another problem: the staged interviews give a lot of information, but they’re cheesy.
I found myself glancing at my watch about halfway through Letters from Baghdad. It’s a well made documentary, but it’s not as enthralling as it promises to be.
With Ammar Haj Ahmad, Helen Ryan, Rachael Stirling, Robert Ian Mackenzie, Christopher Villiers, Lucy Robinson, Elizabeth Rider, Michael Higgs, Joanna David, Michelle Eugene, Paul McGann, Pip Torrens
Production: Between the Rivers Productions, Letters From Baghdad, Missing in Action Films
Director Patty Jenkins aims to do for Wonder Woman what Christopher Nolan—and I suppose to a lesser degree Tim Burton—did for Batman: take an iconic comic book superhero that got campy over the years and return it to its darker roots, producing something dramatic, perhaps weightier, and far more artful. Jenkins doesn’t entirely pull it off with Wonder Woman, but she’s on the right track. I see a sequel or two in the near future, so she’s got time to get there.
To Jenkins’s credit, Wonder Woman is not what I expected. Aside from a nod or two—and that goddamned tiara—all the cut-rate kitsch of the ’70s TV series is gone. This Wonder Woman means business even if she’s still, shall we say, absurd.
Jenkins goes back to the beginning: young Diana (Lilly Aspell and Emily Carey) lives on Themyscira, a hidden island inhabited by war-ready buff goddesses. Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), Diana’s mother, shields her from the strident ways of her subjects. It all has to do with an old score Ares (David Thewlis) seeks to settle—yes, that Ares, the son of Zeus and the god of war. General Antiope (Robin Wright), Hippolyta’s sister and Diana’s aunt/mentor, isn’t having it: she recognizes Diana’s potential and trains her on the sly. Diana blossoms into a beautiful woman (Gal Gadot) with serious supernatural power.
Diana stumbles upon Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a drowning American pilot whose plane crashes off the coast of Themyscira. She rescues him, unwittingly exposing the island to an invasion by German forces. Persuaded by the awesome power of Diana’s Lasso of Hestia, Steve confesses that he’s a spy in the “war to end all wars”—World War I. Spider-sensing Ares is behind it, Diana embarks with Steve on a mission filled with romance, adventure, and espionage in an effort to track down the god and stop the madness.
Wonder Woman starts out all Xena: Warrior Princess, silly and weird in a geeky softcore straight guy “lesbian porn” way that no doubt would appeal to the likes of Wayne and Garth. Thankfully, it moves in another direction once Pine shows up about 40 minutes in. I found myself enjoying Wonder Woman more as the story got to Europe—that storyline is more believable even if it too is silly. The battle scenes are decent with some Hollywood excess and humor thrown in. I love how the theme of gender equality is the star of every scene—neither subtle nor heavy-handed, it’s simply a given.
For all its perks, Wonder Woman is ultimately a typical blockbuster that emphasizes form over substance. If nothing else, it surprises, which is always a plus. Frankly, though, I could’ve kept going completely oblivious to the fact that Wonder Woman is more than Lynda Carter. She was more a lot more fun.
With Danny Huston, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock, Lucy Davis, Elena Anaya, Doutzen Kroes
Production: DC Entertainment, Atlas Entertainment, Cruel & Unusual Films, Rat-Pac Dune Entertainment LLC, Tencent Pictures, Wanda Pictures
Distribution: Warner Brothers, Karo Premiere (Russia), NOS Audiovisuais (Portugal), Roadshow Entertainment (New Zealand), Roadshow Films (Australia), SF Studios (Norway), Tanweer Alliances (Greece)
Childhood is fertile ground for storytelling. Usually, the stories that sell are heavily nostalgic and sweet, but the more interesting ones tend to come from a darker past. French New Wave pioneer François Truffaut’s autobiographical film The 400 Blows is the latter.
Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a prepubescent boy experiencing an existential crisis. At home, something is bubbling between his parents, mother Gilberte (Claire Maurier) and stepfather Julien (Albert Rémy). At school, a contemptible teacher known as “Sourpuss” (Guy Decomble) has him pegged as a troublemaker.
Antoine and his friend René (Patrick Auffay) cut class one day. They walk around, catch a movie, and enjoy a carnival ride—the Rotor, a cylindrical room that spins and the floor drops out, causing the riders to “stick” to the walls due to centrifugal force. While they’re running around, Antoine sees his mother kissing some man on the street. She sees Antoine when it’s too late.
The next day, Antoine makes up an excuse for his absence: he says his mother died. It doesn’t work. After a few incidents involving Balzac, a fire, running away from home, and a stolen typewriter, Antoine winds up at a reform school.
Some New Wave films are hard to follow or just boring to watch. Not so with The 400 Blows, and for quite a few reasons.
The narrative is definitely loose. Like all New Wave films, what happens isn’t as important as what the director is showing us. Here, though, the plot is straightforward and sticks to a more traditional structure even if it doesn’t have a true “climax” or a single moment of reckoning. Truffaut gives us some really great scenes in this movie, not the least of which is this one:
The 400 Blows is realistic and personal; it unfolds like something literally happening right before us. The acting, naturalistic and unscripted, is probably the biggest boon to the film. That said, Henri Decaë’s camerawork is a major contribution as well. He shoots on the streets of Paris using hand-held equipment, which allows him to get right up in front of the action. It’s likely a product of an independent low-budget film, but intentional or not The 400 Blows is so much better as a result; this film would not work the same way without Decaë.
Truffaut makes us empathize with Antoine. He’s not a bad kid; his behavior is no worse than his classmates or the adults around him. He’s made out to be a bad kid, though. The sad part is that he believes it. What’s more, he clearly sees more to life than the little spot he occupies, but he’s no better off after he tries to be. At the end of the film, I want to be on the beach with him to tell him he’ll be okay.
As for the seemingly nonsensical title, I didn’t realize that it’s a literal English translation of the French idiom “faire les quatre cents coups”, which means “to raise hell.” Now that I know that, the title totally makes sense.
Nominated for an Oscar for its screenplay by Truffaut and Marcel Moussy (https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/1960), The 400 Blows is a movie that consistently ends up on many “must see” lists. It’s considered a landmark film for good reason. It’s hard to believe that this is Truffaut’s first film.
With Georges Flamant, Pierre Repp, Daniel Couturier, Luc Andrieux, Robert Beauvais, Yvonne Claudie, Marius Laurey, Claude Mansard, Jacques Monod, Henri Virlojeux, Jeanne Moreau, Jean-Claude Brialy, François Nocher, Richard Kanayan, Renaud Fontanarosa, Michel Girard, Henry Moati, Bernard Abbou, Jean-François Bergouignan, Jacques Demy, François Truffaut, Philippe De Broca, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Michel Lesignor
Production: Les Films du Carrosse
Distribution: Cocinor, MK2 Films, Janus Films (USA), Criterion (USA)
Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, now streaming on Netflix, is a lot of things; dull is not one of them. A slick, fast-paced, mesmerizing mix of fantasy, sci-fi, comedy, action, satire, and social consciousness, this film has a lot going on—and a lot going for it. I was lucky to see it on the big screen before its official release, and that’s how I recommend seeing it if you can. Sorry, Netflix, Okja is simply too good for TV.
The story begins ten years ago in 2007: in a desperate but brilliant attempt to rebrand a disreputable family business—to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, so to speak—Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) announces her master plan to breed an all-natural “superpig” that leaves a minimal footprint, feeds the world, and tastes great (https://superpigproject.com). Her company, Mirando Corporation, devises a competition, sending twenty-some piglets to real farmers across the globe to raise them; the company will monitor each pig over the next ten years and declare a “winner” based on the results. Mirando hires animal television show host Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), a zoologist whose star is fading, to lend credibility to the project as well as to generate public interest in it.
Fast forward to 2017: Mirando’s plan is coming to fruition without any hiccups, which makes her happier than a pig in…well, you know. Unfortunately for Mirando, a young South Korean girl named Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), whose grandfather (Byun Hee-bong) signed onto the project, threatens to derail the entire mission. Mija, you see, essentially raised her grandfather’s pig, Okja. They’ve become dependent on each other. He never explained to her what the deal really is—that Mirando’s silk purse is nothing more than lipstick on a pig.
Dr. Johnny and his television crew show up at their home in the mountains and marvel over Okja, now a magnificently enormous hippopotamus-like creature. He presents her grandfather with an award and takes Okja to Manhattan—actually, New Jersey—for a pig roast sponsored by the Mirando Corporation.
To put it lightly, Mija’s not having it—she takes off after Okja on a chaotic chase through Seoul, where she encounters the Animal Liberation Front, a group of inept animal rights activists led by idealistic but ineffective Jay (Paul Dano). They make a pact, but unfortunately she doesn’t speak English. Mija ends up at the world headquarters of Mirando Corporation in New York City, completely unaware of the cards she holds.
I went into Okja blind—the only thing I knew about it was that its central character is a big pig. I left more than satisfied: the cast is stellar, the effects are flawless, and the script is smart and strong despite its flaws. If that don’t beat a pig a-pecking, I don’t know what does.
Appropriately, the acting is hammy; I love that Swinton plays twins again. She looks like a deranged Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction. Gyllenhaal teeters on insufferable with his wimpy sniveling, but to his credit he manages to keep it in check. I’m usually unimpressed with computer animation, but here it’s amazingly well done; Okja looks as real as the humans. I think the trick is her eyes. Even with its Hollywood ending, Okja is definitely one of this year’s more interesting movies.
With Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Yoon Je-moon, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Choi Woo-shik, Giancarlo Esposito
Production: Kate Street Picture Company, Lewis Pictures, Plan B Entertainment
But where are the clowns? Send in the clowns. Okay, don’t bother, two of them are in this short by the great French director Jean-Pierre Melville. 24 Hours in the Life of a Clown [Vingt-quatre heures de la vie d’un clown] is just that: a day in the life of Beby, a clown who lives in Montmarte. A multitude of fedoras costar.
In between performances at Circus Medrano, Beby walks the streets of Paris, sleeps with his little dog (but not his wife), reads fan mail, drinks at a café, and puts on makeup with his friend and fellow clown Maïss. Interestingly enough, this is not the only short to feature Maïss, who later appeared in Rodolphe Marcilly’s Centaures et pastiche in 1953.
Who knew clowns pray?
24 Hours in the Life of a Clown holds historical and artistic significance as Melville’s first film. It highlights his style, albeit in its infancy, playing with light and dark. His approach is tongue in cheek, and his “narration” (this is not a “talkie”) strongly suggests Melville knew well that his hoary little film is silly.
Still, it’s interesting if only for the scenery, all 1940s drab and threadbare, and the documentary feel of it. Beby’s apartment reminds me of the one in Eraserhead.
Dear God the Father! Some movies are so terrible, you love them for everything wrong with them—what’s bad is exactly what endears them. Other movies…well, they’re just terrible. It’s a thin line. Sadly, Disco Godfather falls into the latter category.
J. Robert Wagoner and Cliff Roquemore’s screenplay stars Rudy Ray Moore as Tucker Williams, an L.A. cop-turned-DJ at the trashy-ass Blueberry Hill Disco, which looks like a repurposed Denny’s. The plot involves Williams’s nephew, Bucky (Julius J. Carry III), who’s gotten hooked on “angel dust.”
One word: YAWN! What were they thinking? Disco Godfather is so boring, I’d rather watch reruns of 2 Broke Girls. The only thing that saves it from total failure is the wardrobe—Felice Hurtes, Jimmy Lynch, and Kimberly Sizemore deserve major kudos for finding the cool Goodwill stores. Fuck this bullshit: watch Dolemite and call it a day. They could have tried a little harder here.
With Carol Speed, Jimmy Lynch, Jerry Jones, Lady Reed, Hawthorne James, Frank Finn, Julius J. Carry III, Bishop Pat Patterson, Pucci Jhones, Howard Jackson, Yetta Collier, Pat Washington, Doc Watson, Leroy Daniels, Melvin Smith, Ronny Harris, Dolorise Parr, John Casino, Keith David
The third time is a charm: after seeing Jean Luc-Godard’s first full length feature film, Breathless, I now understand the love-meh relationship I have with his work.
On one hand, he’s got a remarkable grasp of human behavior and what motivates it. He’s got a snarky sense of humor. He’s stylish. His technique is gutsy for a lot of reasons. His characters are flawed. His subject matter is cool. He knows how to make a film look pretty, and most of them might as well be deemed official historical documents of the places where they were shot. Seeing a Godard film is like traveling back in time, an incidental bonus he probably never considered. I love all of this.
For all his strengths, on the other hand, a Godard film can be so damned…boring. Merde!
Fortunately, that’s not the case with Breathless, which I enjoyed. Godard and François Truffaut developed the story—I won’t call it a script or a screenplay because they made up much of it as they went along. Plot is always a loose construct with Godard, but there’s enough of one here to follow along fairly easily. Ugly cute guy (or is he a cute ugly guy?) Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a drifter car thief who fancies himself a French Humphrey Bogart, steals a car and drives it through the countryside. He shoots a policeman who pursues him and kills him.
With nowhere else to go, he heads straight to his American girl, Patricia (Jean Seberg), an expat student who sells a newspaper, the now defunct New York Herald Tribune, on the Champs-Élysées—that’s kind of weird—and writes articles here and there. She brings Michel to her apartment, where he hides out. He doesn’t mention anything to her about what happened. They get it on, or at least it’s implied that they do. She’s tells him she’s pregnant. One extended scene involves them lying around, talking.
Michel becomes a marked man, which he discovers as soon as he leaves the apartment with Patricia and sees a newspaper with a headline about him. I won’t ruin the ending, but it doesn’t bode well for him—especially after Godard himself sees Michel.
Breathless is a psuedo noir thriller that’s low on action but loaded with morally vacant characters who lack any redeeming qualities. There’s a nihilistic sexiness to it. The narrative moves along in a jazzy free-form way, and the imagery here is every bit a part of the story as the characters. The ending is not a happy one. If nothing else, Breathless is a visual stunner—black and white cinematic candy. The restored digital version I saw literally glowed.
I can handle more films like this one.
With Daniel Boulanger, Henri-Jacques Huet, Roger Hanin, Van Doude, Liliane David, Michel Fabre, Jean-Pierre Melville, Claude Mansard, Jean-Luc Godard, Richard Balducci, Jacques Rivette
Production: Les Films Impéria, Les Productions Georges de Beauregard, Société Nouvelle de Cinématographie (SNC)
Distribution: Films Georges de Beauregard, Les Films Impéria, Société Nouvelle de Cinématographie (SNC), Euro International Film (EIA) (Italy), Pallas Filmverleih (West Germany), British Lion Film Corporation (UK), Cinematográfica Azteca (Mexico), Ciné Vog Films (Belgium), Wivefilm (Sweden), Films Around the World (USA), Rialto Pictures (USA), Criterion Collection (USA)
“Race and religion are irrelevant. If you’re a dickhead, you’re a dickhead.”
I don’t usually bother with “feel good” movies, which tend to be vapid, cheesy affairs. The basic plot summary of Dough caught my attention. Although it teeters dangerously close to full-on “feel good,” to its credit it doesn’t go all the way. Exhale. Still, not great.
Nat Dayan (Jonathan Pryce) has owned and single-handedly operated a Jewish bakery in London. It’s a family business that’s lasted for generations but has definitely seen better days. Nat’s livelihood is threatened by a grocery chain that wants to buy him out. The way things are going, the offer looks like the only way to stay above water.
Enter 20-ish African immgrant Ayyash Habimana (Jerome Holder), a Muslim who recently relocated to the neighborhood. Nat hires him to help bake, not realizing…well, that he gets baked. Like, smoking weed. Ganja. Marijuana. Somehow, Ayyash starts churning out muffins that sell like hotcakes.
Dough is a really cute comedy that works on many levels, at least from a narrative perspective. Director John Goldschmidt steers things in a realistic direction, showing that two disparate generational and cultural ideologies are not really all that far apart. The opening scene—at 4:00 a.m.—illustrates the parallels between Nat and Ayyash’s lives and gets Dough off to a great start. I was hooked. It looked like a winner.
Unfortunately, things go downhill fast. Dough quickly turns into amateur hour, with writing (Jez Freedman and Jonathan Benson) and acting that just doesn’t deliver on the potential here. The story is hamfisted, oversimplified, and predictable. Aside from a few sweet scenes, Dough is kind of a dud.
With Philip Davis, Ian Hart, Pauline Collins, Andrew Ellis, Malachi Kirby, Natasha Gordon, Melanie Freeman, Olivia Dayan
Production: Docler Entertainment, Three Coloured Dog Films, Docler DProd, Dough Film, Viva Films