[What Did Jaci Think? Late February]

In case you missed it, I spun off this year’s Noir City into its own post. Enjoy that bitter little world over here.

Onward!

There will be more Nordic film soon when I post my coverage of the 10th Annual Nordic Lights Film Festival, but Silent Movie Mondays provided a terrific kickoff to it with the Norwegian silent epic Laila. Based on a novel, it’s the story of a Norwegian girl who is raised from infancy in a Sami community & finds herself torn between the two cultures when she grows up.

Though it deals in some tropes about the Sami people, it is surprisingly empathetic for 1929. I was a little nervous about a nearly three hour long silent film, but it is consistently interesting, both in terms of the story and the cinematography of the snow-covered landscape, and it even includes multiple, highly effective action scenes shot with sled-mounted cameras. Obligatory gay note: Laila definitely had more chemistry with a shopgirl than with either of the male suitors; she went into the shop & addressed her firmly with: “I like your face. Let’s be friends.” And it worked!

This year’s snow-capped survival movie, Arctic, is tight and tense, and is carried entirely by a gently competent Mads Mikkelsen. He’s been eking out an existence on the ice after a plane crash, but when a helicopter crashes nearby, leaving one woman badly injured, he decides to risk taking action to bring her to safety.

It’s not remotely a romance, which is a refreshing change, and they do not have a language in common (though she is in little condition to speak anyway). He is very tender with her, displayed in many small moments that I appreciated. He holds her gently before he lays her down in his shelter, almost but not quite a hug, not creepy or exploitative, but just a brief moment of human contact for a man who has been without it for so long. He finds a family photo on the helicopter and repeatedly puts it in her line of sight. The softness in the character, beyond what would be hoped for basic caregiving, was a lovely touch.

Fighting with My Family, the biopic of the rise of WWE star Paige, was an entertaining while by-the-books sports movie with a highly likeable cast. Wrestling is still unlikely to ever be my jam, but this movie did give me a greater appreciation for the hard work that these stars put in and the degree to which the whole production is just storytelling. Storytelling I understand.

Greta is a hoot, but the vibe in my theater was that it was wasted on the apparently straight audience. Because here’s the thing: it was pretty gay. Aside from the near camp of it, there are no boyfriends, very few men, and maybe one scene where men talk to each other? And their topic is the women! Chloë Grace Moretz and her roommate (scream queen Maika Monroe) met at Smith. I mean. What more do you need? Isabelle Huppert repeatedly confessing her love? Okay, you get that too!

The set-up is Greta leaves handbags around the city to trick kindhearted young woman into returning them and thus getting lured into her orbit as …a friend? An object of her overbearing affection? A daughter substitute? Perhaps all three. And it quickly turns into a stalking story, where the NYPD is just as useless as anyone might expect. People are free to stand on the street, eat at restaurants, chew gum in the hallway, and eventually dance in stockinged feet as a sedative takes you crashing to the floor. The ending was perfection and I was thoroughly entertained.

In the world of TV I attempted a show that shall not be named that many love, but I quit in the middle of the third episode. I realized I didn’t care about any of the characters and in fact I was irritated by all of them. I am not even going to ask if it gets better. It’s fine. We don’t all have to like the same things. I’ll just keep pretending I’m going to watch it someday and you can pretend that you believe me.

But what makes a character irritating? Who knows. Because I also watched Crashing through twice this month, even though at least half of those characters are actively, intentionally irritating (“You’re quirky” “Thanks, I try really hard!”). Crashing is also infuriating because it runs only six episodes, it ends at a major pivot point for everyone, and then, cruelest of all, THERE IS ALMOST NO FANFICTION. For the love. Please someone write me some decent Crashing fic before I die of waiting. Thank you very much.

[Noir City 2019]

Noir City rolled into town last month with 20 movies in 7 days. I saw all of them which was a first (usually they have some repeats and usually I skip at least one, neither of which happened). It was also possibly a terrible idea from which my apartment will never recover.

It did turn out that I had seen two titles almost ten years ago, but I didn’t realize it until twenty minutes in, when suddenly the endings came rushing back to me. This is easy to do with film noir – many films have titles that bear little connection to the actual story. Plus, many films have similar titles, lots of “night” and “murder” and “dark” and “city”, and even this series had one day where three of the four movies had “kiss” in the title. So, considering how long I’ve been attending, only two surprise repeats was pretty good.

I’m not going to write about all twenty because who cares, but my favorites were usually the ones that were gay or the ones who had particularly great women, surprise surprise.

Private Hell 36 is one of a few dirty cop movies this time around, but the best one because a) Ida Lupino and b) it was pretty gay. Jack (Howard Duff) and Cal (Steve Cochran) are partners, they drink out of the same cup, they’re constantly referred to as boyfriends (and aren’t bothered about it), and when one decides they’re going to steal cash from a crime scene, the other isn’t thrilled, but also he doesn’t put up a fuss. Be gay, do crimes, amirite? Ida Lupino, who cowrote the picture, is of course terrific, a nightclub singer who jams her unused cigarette holder in her bra & complains about how this is her first time losing a man to another man. Also, there’s this poster:

In The Crimson Kimono, the murder of a dancer at the top of the picture is almost incidental to the love triangle. Again, the two men are partners, but also they’ve been together since the Korean War (where one gave blood to save the other’s life!) and not only do they live together, they clearly are planning on doing so forever: they put their money into their home & they talk about how things will be easier when one of them makes sergeant. The marketing angle on the picture is that one of the detectives is of Japanese heritage, with taglines playing up “an American girl and a Japanese boy!” and though the text of the film argues that race is the challenge they need to get over to be together, the emotions are clear: the true issue is the betrayal of falling in love with someone new, a witness in the case. Also James Shigeta is a dreamboat. This is my jam.

Based on a play by Sidney Kingsley, William Wyler’s Detective Story is nearly a bottle story of a film, spending the vast majority of a single night in a single location: the squad room. Lee Grant’s unnamed shoplifter stole the show and my heart from the beginning, but moved me most at the end when a guy is getting fingerprinted and she tells the young girl who’s sweet on him not to worry, that it doesn’t hurt. Bless.

The primary plot involves Kirk Douglas chewing some scenery as he pursues a butcher of an abortionist who turns out to have a connection to his wife, but the real gold is all of the side characters, from the shoplifter to the other detectives (especially William Bendix) to a pair of burglars.

There’s a lot happening on screen all the time, and the whole picture feels very lived-in, both in the characters relationships to each other and to the set itself. There’s a bit where an officer keeps catching the gate behind him with his foot before it hits him, and in the moment you believe that he’s worked in that station for years. It reminded me of how the characters in After the Storm instinctively ducked when others opened the refrigerator. A beautiful detail.

You can’t have a film noir festival without some femmes fatales, and the best this year were Barbara Stanwyck (of course!) getting her claws into Wendell Corey in The File on Thelma Jordon (tagline: “no man really knows a woman like her, but every many goes for a woman like her!), also Jean Simmons in Angel Face, hard to watch now knowing how poorly she was treated on set by Preminger. Art doesn’t justify abuse, but Simmons deserves all the praise.

Other favorites: The Well, not technically a noir, but with a noir vibe. A young black girl is missing. We know she’s fallen down a disused well, but the town thinks a white unemployed miner (Henry Morgan) might have harmed her. Biases lead to rumors lead to incidents that are blown up into bigger rumors that lead to more violence, ever farther away from helping the actual child and when, deep in the film, one character asked, “what little girl?” the entire house gasped. You don’t get that experience at home.

Odds Against Tomorrow, a nicely structured heist movie starring Harry Belafonte and Robert Ryan. They have parallel introductions, where you learn everything about each character by how they interact with children playing outside, the building staff (especially the elevator operator), and then the heist organizer (Ed Begley) himself. Extra points for young Cicely Tyson behind the bar, Gloria Grahame just in general, and Mae Barnes performing “All Men Are Evil”, which has yet to leave my head.

And a few classics: Pickup on South Street (always love me some Richard Widmark, and Thelma Ritter was perfection) and Pushover (Fred MacMurray, dirty cop!

Finally, I’ve recently been added to the staff recs wall at the Egyptian (a tremendous honor, for real), so here’s my Noir City pick

[What Did Jaci Think? Early February]

Chinese film dominated the first half of the month for me, with genres from romance to screwball comedy to cop stories and a large-scale space story.

First up from Pang Ho-cheung, the writer-director behind the Love in a Puff series, was Missbehavior, a film that follows a group of once-close friends come together over the course of one afternoon to help a member in a crisis: she needs to replace her boss’s bottle of breast milk. It’s pretty dumb, but it features a well-known and enjoyable cast, and it has an earnest sequence that very nearly steps right out of the movie to make a case for marriage equality.

One weird question: the incessant use of the word “bitch” was very off-putting (in fact, I almost walked out because of it) and I’m curious what the original word was and if it is as harsh & misogynistic. If anyone knows, please tell me!

Integrity was a fine & forgettable cop thriller, and I was literally the only person in the theater. I managed to keep my phone in my bag for the entire movie, though, so fyi it can be done even if no one would be bothered.

The next morning, though, the same house was virtually sold out for The Wandering Earth, which is doing killer business in the States and will apparently be coming to Netflix. Finally people will be able to see that I did not invent wholesale a movie where the sun is expanding so folks deal with it by attaching ten thousand engines to Earth, moving into underground cities, and blasting the planet slowly out of the solar system in search of some unknown other place to live until! Horror! Things Happen which mean they almost crash into Jupiter. This is fine. Is it good? It’s okay.

I am a sucker for a non-US genre picture, especially one with Big Ideas, and this one takes a nutball premise and treats it Very Seriously. There are touching family moments and Lunar New Year celebrations despite there no longer being a moon, but there is also some very cool production design, from now-frozen Shanghai to small details of how everyday machinery has evolved. A headline I saw when I was doing a quick runtime Google called it gorgeous & goofy, and honestly I could have done with a little more goofy. It was gorgeous, though.

In the snowpocalypse gap I took myself down to the Film Center for the restorations of Police Story & Police Story 2. I’d somehow never seen either one, and it was a blast to catch them with a dedicated audience. They’re great fun both for the genius of Jackie Chan, of course, but also for the introduction of my girl Maggie Cheung as his character’s long-suffering girlfriend.

My Valentine’s Day viewing was Fall in Love at First Kiss, a young adult romance that didn’t work on me, though part of the issue was the lack of translation of on-screen text, an ongoing problem I’ve been encountering with Chinese films. Our heroine (Lin Yun, title star of Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid, a hoot of a film about environmentalism, no, really) winds up kissing the smartest guy in school on the first day of term and then basically imprints on him, engaging in a bunch of stalking behavior despite the fact that he’s flat-out cruel to her in response.

It almost works because she’s cute as a button (and his mom is for the match), but I did find myself hoping she’d wind up with the guy crushing on her instead. He was a wannabe bad boy who cooks! I’m sold. The film tries to retcon her crush’s bad behavior at the end with flashbacks from his perspective, but since so much of the sequence is dependent on untranslated onscreen text (social media captions & a lengthy letter) it left me completely lost. Ah well. But while you’re here, I can tell you one of my favorite recent Chinese romcoms is still on Netflix: This Is Not What I Expected, starring faves Takeshi Kaneshiro & Zhou Dongyu (I handwaved the age gap & you can too!)

The first feature from writer-director Marcelo Martinessi, The Heiresses is the story of an older lesbian couple who have financial difficulties which result in one going to prison. The other, Chela, is forced out into the world as she navigates life alone, falling into work as a private taxi driver for elderly women and through them meeting a younger, freer woman.

Some of the most effective scenes involve the sale of the couple’s assets, Chela peering through curtains and around doors at what remains of her life as people pick up, chat over, and put down an inheritance and a lifetime of trinkets, dishes, and linens. It’d be an interesting companion film to Outside In; Ana Brun as Chela was terrific & subtle, and reminded me a lot of Edie Falco in that film, opening up as a young person expanded the boundaries of her life.

Capernaum is a heartbreaking but ultimately a little hopeful story, one of those movies where I spent the whole film worrying about terrible things that didn’t happen. (To be clear, terrible things do happen, just… never underestimate the sheer number of terrible things my brain can come up with in any given situation.)

It’s told in flashback, as 12 year old Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) is in front of a judge for committing an assault. His parents are in court, and through the flashbacks we see the wide void between the faces they present in court and the way they treat their children when no one else is watching. It handles a lot of hard subjects, including child abuse and neglect, child marriage, extreme poverty, and exploitation of undocumented immigrants, but it does so in a clear-eyed, organic way. I can see why people called it depressing, but it ends on such a gut punch of an up-note that I can’t reduce it that way. Incredibly sad, but still hopeful. I’m glad I saw it.

Finally, we’ve been all over this on Twitter, but you’ve all watched Russian Doll (#whatweowetoeachother) & the new season of One Day at a Time, right? Good. Because I promise they will both make your life better.

[What Did Jaci Think? Late January]

Ben Is Back, while another unnecessary sad-white-boy-drug-addict movie, worked much better than Beautiful Boy by improving on (or at least acknowledging) many of the issues I had with that story. Rather than trying to encompass the whole complicated arc of an addiction narrative, writer-director Peter Hedges focuses on two (fraught) days – Christmas and Christmas Eve – in the life of a family with a teen son (Lucas Hedges) in recovery with an opioid addiction.

It does not waste the women of the story (a low bar Beautiful Boy did not clear), and much of the conflict of the story is between …ah, I just got this. Between Holly & Ivy (Julia Roberts & Kathryn Newton), the mother wanting to believe her son and the sister wanting to protect the rest of the family. A few other points I appreciated: it acknowledges the financial privilege of the family in their ability to afford treatment, they say explicitly that if Ben were a black teen he would be in prison, it is clear about the role the pharmaceutical industry plays in addiction, and it doesn’t give us a sunny Christmas morning ending.

While I had low expectations for Mary Queen of Scots, and thus liked it better than I expected, it has not stuck with me across time except as a tragedy of men always getting in the goddamn way. Saoirse Ronan is always worth watching, but the movie is a mess of motivations and consistently unclear about the passage of time. Somehow Mary is exactly the same age when she’s beheaded as she was when she returned to Scotland. Also, it wastes Gemma Chan.

Peter Jackson’s WWI documentary They Shall Not Grow Old moved into regular release this month, but when I caught it it was still a Fathom event and included an introduction by Jackson and a post-film making-of featurette. Among other things, he discussed other stories he found in the footage from the Imperial War Museum, and honestly, I’d love to see any and all of them.

I saw the documentary in 3D solely for scheduling reasons, and while I don’t think it’s necessary, it also wasn’t distracting (a relief to me, generally not a fan of 3D). The strength of the documentary is its other uses of technology – colorizing the film and adding sound, both period-correct environmental sounds and regionally-correct voices – to bring the past into the present. The use of lipreaders to determine the on-screen speech to be delivered by actors, plus voices of veterans interviewed years later, minus any use talking heads means that we’re getting this story of the war from men who lived it, not analyzed or at a distance. It’s very effective.

I went to Ralph Breaks the Internet on a bit of a slow A-List week whim, but I enjoyed it a lot, more than the original. It is just as relentlessly branded, but in the way my actual life is, I guess, depressing but true. It’s a smart movie about the challenges to a friendship when one person is ready to grow and the other is comfortable with how things are. It’s hard being both of those people, and Ralph does a lovely job of taking that motivating tension and paralleling it with computer viruses and bullying (both seeking out and exploiting insecurities!) Also the Disney princesses were great, and luckily for my wallet, Disney doesn’t believe fat girls deserve sassy princess sleepwear.

Mirai, an animated film about a small boy & his struggles with the changes in his family with the arrival of a baby sister, is a lovely series of vignettes of daily life with a splash of the magical: from time to time in the garden, he encounters various family members from across time. It is strongest in its Ghibli-level naturalism about the behavior of small children and the quirks of family life, but it lost me a bit at the end when it attempted to explain the encounters. I didn’t need that; I was happy to enjoy them as they were.

A small note: I particularly enjoyed the use of transitions without cuts. Here, the open terrace design of the home (the father is an architect) allows pans up from floor to floor as a way to move across time, showing the rhythms of the day in a single shot. I see it more in live action: first in Lone Star and most recently in The Haunting of Hill House. It’s nice to see it being used for forward, positive motion!

This half of the month also included a handful of repeat viewings: The Favourite (still filthy & hilarious – laugh, people!), Shoplifters (still beautiful & heartbreaking), Can You Ever Forgive Me? (still too achingly close to home), The Muppet Movie (still pure joy), The Adventures of Prince Achmed (still delightful, especially with a live score), & Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse (still almost perfect – let’s pass that Bechdel Test next time!)

[What Did Jaci Think? Early January]

Welcome back! For 2019 we’ll attempt a regular posting schedule of two weeks out from the block in question, on the 1st & 15th. Let’s get to it!

On the Basis of Sex is an affectionate superhero origin story about the young Ruth Bader Ginsberg, covering her time in law school through her first historic case. It’s better than the pop documentary RBG, but still more simplistic than I would have liked. I do keep being tempted to see it again for supportive-partner!Armie Hammer alone. Look, sometimes what a girl needs is to watch a disconcertingly symmetrical man get it done in the kitchen. No shame.

Minding the Gap had been on my radar as “another skateboarding movie”, mentioned in concert often with Skate Kitchen & mid90s. While skateboarding is how the subjects of the documentary are connected, it’s more accurately a documentary about cycles of family violence and access to opportunity. The director, Bing Lui, is a subject himself, and his long-standing relationships with the other subjects gives us access to a privileged intimacy on difficult topics. (The skateboarding scenes are also pretty sweet, excellent work by Lui.)

It’d make a great (but intense) double feature with Hale County This Morning, This Evening. I was grateful for the opportunity to see this in the theater, because I know myself, and at home I would not give its pacing the attention it deserved. Hale County is a beautiful documentary about a black community in rural Alabama, lightly focused on two young men, and while wholly its own piece of art, it is also the sort of constellation-of-moments, impressionistic picture we rarely if ever see about black people. There is no narration, only the occasional name or intertitle, and it is on us to do the work of considering why two scenes have been placed together, or to find the story in a lengthy shot. That work is well worth it.

Becoming Astrid was fascinating, both specifically about the late childhood, early adulthood of author Astrid Lindgren, but also generally as a Swedish biopic. I found it difficult to imagine a similar film being made about an American children’s author. It introduces Lindgren to us as a clever teenager, taking a job at a newspaper where she is, frankly, groomed into a …let us say wildly inappropriate relationship with her older, married editor. Though the film is bookended by elderly Lindgren reading messages from children on her birthday, the bulk of the film is Lindgren’s struggle with this relationship, with the inevitable pregnancy, reclaiming her child, and single motherhood. Alba August is terrific as Lindgren, taking her from the charismatic energy of her teens through her growing independence and struggles as a single mother.

And then, then there was Replicas. Look. I went to see this because it stars Keanu Reeves and I have an A-List subscription. It’s a ridiculous movie and I have no regrets. But I have a good deal of confusion. Keanu is a father and a scientist, and when his family is killed in a car accident he…downloads their memories and clones them. YES. It’s absurd. It raises a lot of questions and doesn’t answer any of them. We would be here all day if I tried to list them all.

Plus, Replicas drops hints that it might turn into one of many different films, and then it does not (maybe a clone horror movie where his family turns on him? or there’s a scene that hints at a Flowers for Algernon situation?). There are also robots, and how it jumps from robots to human cloning is unclear. There’s a scene where cops stop by and they’re like “Oh, you’re the only person who was not a victim of this random crime? How lucky for you! Clearly this does not make you a suspect in any way! Have a nice day!” I could go on and on, but most importantly, the montage of Keanu crying and scrubbing the kitchen table is why cinema was invented. Thank you and goodnight.

Oh, but wait. Did I talk about Shirkers yet? It’s on Netflix, and you should definitely watch it. It’s a documentary about an indie film that the documentarian made in the early 90s as a teen in Singapore. I loved it for the throwback to early 90s indie film & zine culture, the mystery of what happened to the film, the peeks at the film itself and the making of it, and the terrific personalities of the three women who made it (I would like to be friends with all of them but I am definitely not cool enough.)