Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
If you’re like me, you don’t get around to seeing “the year’s best movies” until several months into the subsequent year. In case you’re wondering (and I doubt you are), of the 2015 releases that I’ve seen so far, my favorites are Michael Almereyda’s “Experimenter,” a searching, unsettled portrayal of the life of psychologist Stanley Milgram, and John Magary’s “The Mend,” a dense, unnerving, and funny take on urban anxiety and alienation.
But since I’m perverse, I’m going to not write about those films, and instead present you with notes I made while watching some other recent movies. Some I liked, some I didn’t like, some I should have fast-forwarded through.
“Love at First Fight”
How to categorize Thomas Cailley’s sweetly stormy “Love at First Fight”? It’s a sort of non-com rom-com, and it has an almost reactionary edge. Female lead Adele Haenel is magnetic: Raw and coarsely pretty, she seems to have a hungry animal inside of her. (I’d love to see her in a Jean-Claude Brisseau movie.) The two kids at the story’s center reject both the drained-of-meaning safe space offered by Western society and the individual-denying collectivism of military bootcamp, but they find solace in a self-imposed exile in the French wilderness. The scenes showing the unlikely couple fishing and fucking in the woods are uncannily clarified, sensual, idyllic, like something out of one of the better Apichatpong Weerasethakul movies. But it can’t last: the world is literally burning around them. I find it weird that something about the movie made me think of Morrissey, and the featured IMDb commenter references Morrissey. Why does the movie evoke the English singer? I suspect it has something to do with its mix of the pugnacious and the tender.
This extravagant horror film has a terrific production design, impressive moods and tones, some nice performances, and a narrative that seems to diminish as it progresses. Director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro has the aesthetic predilections necessary for Gothic romance, and it’s clear that he loves 19th-century novels, but his story sense isn’t refined enough to generate the expanding feeling of involvement that you expect from a tale in the mode of the Bronte sisters. The background of protagonist Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is painstakingly drawn, yet nothing in it connects to her eventual predicament, and the mystery in which she’s involved turns out to have a mundane foundation — an inheritance scam. Ghosts pop up willy-nilly; all impart warnings, none of them more specific than “watch out!” Clues are either meaningless or over-emphasized relative to their significance within the plot. And a couple of big reveals — the brother-sister relationship, the meaning of “crimson peak” — are obvious and banal. Still, I enjoyed watching it for about an hour, at which point my hunch that it was going nowhere became too overwhelming to ignore. The movie contains some amazing evocations of Victorian America and England, and there’s a shocking murder scene that is worthy of Argento or Fulci.
“Witching & Bitching”
Spainiard Alex de la Iglesia is one of my favorite movie wild men. His work tends to be messy and unfocused, but he has a nose for social dynamics and wicked satire, and he’s an ace at investing his movies with raunch, heat, and flavor. “Witching & Bitching” is in the mode of his 2010 “The Last Circus.” That is, it’s an effects-heavy genre mash-up, which Iglesia uses as a launching pad for his wild ideas and observations. As a narrative thing it’s something of a botch: I don’t think it works as horror or suspense. Yet if you’re on Iglesia’s wavelength there’s plenty to enjoy. But be forewarned: this may be the most cheerily misogynistic movie ever made. Carmen Maura, as a dryly malevolent sorceress out to bring an end to the reign of men, is very amusing, as is Iglesia’s wife, the terrifically named (and terrific-looking) Carolina Bang.
“In the Name of My Daughter”
A very layered, controlled thriller arranged around the topics of class and family, which doesn’t reveal its melodramatic core until its final 15 minutes. (Is the end-of-film flash-forward prudent or necessary? I’m not sure.) I really liked Guillaume Canet as the chilly, ambiguous schemer. He provides the movie with its sense of mystery: Is he or is he not a Gallic Tom Ripley? And Adele Haenel (the girl from “Love at First Fight”) taps into something elemental in the psyche of the modern Western female: She’s so sure of her independence that she negates herself. (Catherine Deneuve is playing Catherine Deneuve. If you were Catherine Deneuve, wouldn’t you?) I took it as a tragedy of mother-daughter relations, with Haenel’s rebel against class, tradition, and ancestry representing a sort of inverse Antigone. Director and co-writer Andre Techine is only intermittently acknowledged by the folks who are wont to praise arthouse movies. I take him to be a master.
Well-paced, immersive, and rich in the sort of heat and anguish the material requires, this is a “Macbeth” that’s consciously atraditional — that feels like something Zack Snyder might enjoy. The human element is probably not strong enough (maintaining the human element is, I think, one of the difficulties of doing “Macbeth”), but newish director Justin Kurzel succeeds in bringing you into the characters’ frenzied psychologies. It’s expressionistic in a way that perhaps no other Shakespeare movie is — it seems to take place in your head. The early scenes are given to a battle sequence that employs a technique I don’t recall seeing in another movie. Shot in super slo-mo, with vignettes of violence called out so that they resemble the images on Greek pottery, it’s almost like an effects-movie variant of the battle in Welles’ “Chimes at Midnight” — a pile-up of images that suggests something bigger, of moving parts, that’s slowly atomizing and breaking down. Perplexingly, Michael Fassbender makes almost no impression. You’d think he’d make a great Macbeth, but he seems lost, puny. This may be Kurzel’s fault: He undermines the actor at serveral key moments, shooting him from a distance, and employing what sounds like dubbing. But Marion Cotillard’s Lady M is consistently involving — she’s soulful, surprising, and always in the moment. (Is there a greater actress than Cotillard working in movies?) This “Macbeth” is likely to annoy anyone who goes into it expecting traditional dramaturgy. Kurzel and his writers don’t seem particularly interested in that: They’re doing a big splashy mural on the topic of “Macbeth,” and they know that you know the story. I wonder: How many movie versions of “Macbeth” succeed as drama? The most renowned, Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood,” strikes me as dramatically inert. It’s remembered for its mood, violence, and imagery, but few are moved to anything but excitement by the spectacle of Toshiro Mifune being turned into a human pin-cushion. If we can accept “Throne of Blood” for its style and intensity, why not this version? That said, I had trouble buying into some of the decisions made by Kurzel and his team. For example, in this adaptation, Birnam Wood doesn’t move, it burns, and its embers waft to Dunsinane. I can appreciate novelty, but this is novelty for its own sake, or perhaps for the sake of misguided realism. It deprives the play of its great image, and it left me feeling cheated.
This messy, zesty piece of agitprop from director Spike Lee is a riff on “Lysistrata,” but its scattershot approach owes more to wild political satires of the ’60s, like “Wild In the Streets” and “The President’s Analyst,” than to Greek drama. Ideologically, I often wasn’t sure how to take it. Lee doesn’t seem sure either — he’s directing by the seat of his pants, and he’s slinging indictments like a kid engaged in an uproarious food fight slings potato salad. But then Lee has never been much of a narrative filmmaker: He’s best in spurts and chunks, where his gifts for texture, tone, and rhythm, and his love of exclamations, can be loosed from the restrictions imposed by themes and stories. (“Do the Right Thing” is full of bracing and memorable moments, but as a high-minded call for understanding, it’s hard to take seriously.) I laughed a lot while watching “Chi-Raq” — sometimes right after scoffing derisively. The movie is a turn-on, too: I haven’t seen a sexier picture this year, or a gutsier, earthier depiction of male-female relationships. In particular, Teyonah Parris is an erotic delight — a luscious, fiercely sculptured doll with teeth like gleaming monuments. It’s a shame the screenplay eventually pushes her aside to make room for…jeez, what doesn’t it make room for? I love the musical bits (I still think Lee should do a musical) and the use of the Chi-Lites’ “Oh Girl,” one of my favorite songs. And for once Samuel L. Jackson’s over-familiar schtick is given a context that raises rather than lowers it. He’s playing a jive-talking one-man chorus, and he delivers some of the movie’s best lines, such as: “How can those females give up the long D and the downstroke? This must be some bulllllllshit!”
Like watching hermit crabs plan a tea party.
“The Big Short”
Director Adam McKay may be incapable of maintaining a tone the doesn’t mimic over-caffeinated, nudgy discomfort, he’s too pleased with his own cleverness (which is really a kind of exaggerated sarcasm), and I’m not convinced he has a sense for how movies work visually. But his sensibility and talents are so amenable to the jittery crassness of Wall Street that his “The Big Short” nearly comes off as an exercise in style. Unlike Scorsese’s Wall Street movie, it has ideas and a bit of idealism. These contribute to your investment in the material, and help the story build momentum, until — perversely — you’re rooting for the inevitable catastrophe. (Like “Margin Call,” it borrows liberally from the disaster genre.) I thought it was about 20 minutes too long, and I didn’t care for the interludes in which celebrities elucidate financial gobbledygook, but I really enjoyed Carrell, Bale, and Gosling, who are aces at embroidering on the gnomic, retardo-frathouse rhythms that McKay has perfected in his films with Will Ferrell. (Brad Pitt, on the other hand, is a drag.) The screenplay is canny in the way it keeps you right on the edge of understanding the housing mess of the 2000s. The semi-confusion this generates is heady, stimulating, compulsive. I went from being somewhat annoyed by the movie to having a pretty good time. The moralistic voiceover at the end, solemnly condemning us for blaming the financial collapse on poor people, is the movie’s most clanking note. Not only is it untrue (bankers and politicians were blamed, though they weren’t punished), it’s contrary to the us-against-them dynamic the movie has nurtured up to that point, and it diminishes the picture’s most scandalous suggestion — that those in the string-puller class thrive by preying on American taxpayers.
A few months ago I made a joke on Facebook about the overblown reaction by critics to Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s “The Assassin.” Something like: “I’ve always pretended to like Hou Hsiao-Hsien, but now I really like him, because his latest movie has ninjas and shit.” As a moviegoer with a high tolerance for slow Asian movies, and for Hou Hsiao-Hsien in particular, I didn’t expect my joke to strike so close to the mark. “The Assassin” strikes me as a dud: negligible as an action movie, impenetrable as a story, and weirdly devoid of Hou’s warmth and sensitivity towards his characters. In fact, the central character, played by Shu Qi, is a virtual non-entity. Her presence is so slight, and Shu’s performance so neutered, that Hou ends up depriving himself of the prerogative of venerating her — a weird thing indeed given that his earlier films, “Three Times” and “Millennium Mambo,” were records of his infatuation with the actress. The basic narrative contains some fertile ideas: It’s about an apparatchick of the ruling class who betrays and walks away from her masters. But the melodrama inherent in that premise (derivative of Besson’s “Nikita”) is rejected by Hou in favor of a series of scenes in which imperious personages solemnly talk at each other about court intrigue and political maneuvering, none of which is fully explained in the text. (Is this material more aptly likened to the ponderous trade-and-treaties talk of the first “Star Wars” prequel, or to the discombobulating opacity of David Lynch’s “Dune”?) The cultural eunuchs who comprise the bicoastal movie commentariat have lauded “The Assassin” as an arty wuxia movie. They’re kidding themselves: Hou has zippo interest in wuxia, martial arts, or fantasy, and he doesn’t even try to direct an action sequence. Perhaps he can’t direct an action sequence. In order to mask his ineptness in this area, he jump-cuts within closely staged skirmishes. The technique is interesting the first time you see it, but it quickly comes to feel like a cheat — the art-film director’s version of shaky-cam. I’m not a fan of Ang Lee, but his “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was a much more successful arting up the martial-arts film. Lee at least has an affection for the genre, and he was able to bend its basic elements into a form that suited his sensibility and style. Hou, either lacking a taste for the material or realizing partway through that he’d made a mistake, uses the genre to…do a series of pretty landscapes. It’s a sad commentary on the commentary that this is exactly what critics have praised in the picture. “It’s a landscape movie,” they exclaim, “Hou is a poet of the wind in the trees!” Let’s call this what it is: A steaming pile of bullshit. Hou is a great filmmaker who has given us terrific images for over 30 years. But he’s focusing on landscapes here because he doesn’t know what else to do. You know what also has great landscapes? My screensaver.