[What Did Jaci Think? Early March]

First off, for International Women’s Day I participated in a women-in-film dinner party with Screen Queens. Find out why I want to have dinner with Alice Wu here.

Also, the month started off with the 10th annual Nordic Lights Film Festival, & I tackled some of those titles here.

Onward!

The Legend of the Demon Cat was about three different movies in one, but it was gorgeous and it featured a lengthy flashback with Hiroshi Abe doing a lot of brooding, which was an unlooked-for treat.

My review of Captain Marvel varied depending on who I was talking to. For straight people: “For a Marvel film, it’s a solid B. Better than Wonder Woman, because she wasn’t motivated by a man.” For queer people: “It was so gay. SO GAY.” My main issue with it is that “Just a Girl” was a bad call for scoring a fight. Get some Liz Phair in there for fuck’s sake. Also, I genuinely wonder if all the MRA-types who are pissed about it being *~political~* insofar that it centers women even noticed that it was political insofar as it centered refugees. WAIT one more thing. De-aged Sam Jackson was fine with me except when he ran, and then it was serious TFA Harrison Ford vibes. Lucky for Fury, there are better building standards in the MCU.

In between two sold-out opening weekend shows of Captain Marvel, we spent all day at the Egyptian for the SciFi Fantasy Short Film Festival, always a treat. My faves this year were 10 Minute Time Machine (for its humor, its humanity, and its perfect ending), Who’s Who in Mycology (for its gorgeous, clever design), Brian & Charles (for its deeply awkward friendship and home-grown robot), Final Offer (for its navigation of bureaucracy), and The Restrictor (for its Nordic as fuck premise). Pro tip to everyone submitting to SFFSFF: I never want to see the first episode of your webseries or your pitch to make a feature. I just want to see a self-contained short. Thank you.

I didn’t entirely buy the answer to the mystery in Everybody Knows, but it’s such a great cast & such a lived-in setting, that it almost didn’t matter. Everybody does know everything about everyone all the way back, and the undercurrent of what they are and are not talking about was palpable. Plus it’s always a treat to see Ricardo Darin on the big screen.

Vietnamese martial arts film Furie features a straightforward Taken-style plot (apparently, though I’ve never seen Taken), but with terrific action scenes and, to my delight, *lady* gang bosses. Hai Phuong has left the gang life behind and is scraping together a living in the country as a debt collector – never the most popular person in a community – but when her young daughter is kidnapped she fights her way to and through Saigon to save her. It was extremely my jam.

Unlike First Man, where I wished I had seen it on a smaller screen, Apollo 11 demands the largest screen you can find. Created from original footage of the Apollo 11 mission, including 65mm, it’s just gorgeous. Like They Shall Not Grow Old, it becomes more immediate by sticking to the past, by using only original footage and news coverage and eschewing talking heads. It honors the work of everyone who contributed to the mission, sometimes through split screens tracking multiple teams at work in a given moment. It is obvious in retrospect, but I had never thought of the astronauts also as filmmakers. Apollo 11 is a time machine in the best way.

Captive State, I’m sorry to report, was boring, which is kinda bullshit for a movie that opens with an alien invasion. I saw it because I figured you can’t go wrong with John Goodman and aliens, and because I had an A-List slot free, but I almost walked out twice and really, I should have done it. The aforementioned invasion starts us off, we get some background details via emails/message boards under the credits, and then we’re about a decade post-invasion, the aliens have taken over, and another uprising is on the horizon.

It’s frustrating because there are so many hints of interesting worldbuilding – the semi-organic tracking system, the grimy tech of the near-future setting, the idea of the aliens as legislators rather than explicitly dictators – but it just doesn’t work. We don’t see enough of the aliens (though I dug their character design), we don’t get to know any of the characters outside of their role as cogs either for or against the machine, and it flat-out wastes Goodman, Vera Farmiga (a scene related to her is the second time I almost walked out), and even KiKi Layne (I was so excited to see her, and then she had one scene and nothing to do in it!). Disappointing.

Not disappointing, however, was Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase, as long as you go in with expectations of cheese. It’s a teen Hallmark mystery, by which I mean it’s very white middle class, it fetishizes small-town living, and it’s overall pretty goofy, but it’s also damn fun and centers friendships between the girls. Also important: this Nancy is the soft butch detective of all our childhood dreams. She’s introduced while skateboarding! She’s often in flannel, plus there’s one scene where she’s in disguise as a plumber and another where she wears her dad’s suit coat! And at the end she talks about how she’s excited to have a break from detecting to talk about Instagram, nail polish, and boys, and everyone laughs because obviously she is not interested in any of those things. Bless.

I haven’t read a Nancy Drew book in twenty years (at least), so I have no interest in attempting to critique it as an adaptation, but as a teen girl centered mystery? Yes, this is my jam. Bring on Nancy Drew and the Mystery at the Lilac Inn, thank you very much.

[Nordic Lights Film Festival 2019]

In its tenth year, the Nordic Lights Film Festival made the jump from the Film Center to Uptown 2, a welcome change! It meant moving the festival off of MLK weekend to a post-award season date, but it also meant not turning anyone away, and, most thrilling to me, *leg room*. I’ve enjoyed seeing this festival grow, and I hope it will start drawing in some younger attendees as well.

The opening night feature, Woman at War, was the best of the series, and I’m glad to see it’s getting a regular run. It’s an Icelandic film about Halla, an eco warrior fighting against an aluminum smelting plant in her community. It opens with a great action sequence where she takes down the power source with an arrow and a cable, then flees the law with the assistance of a sheep farmer who may or may not be her cousin.

Though it deals with serious issues, it takes the tone of a fairy tale. Halla sees herself as a hero, and so she is, even at one point cueing her own score. All music turns out to be diegetic, causing a lighthearted moment right away when the action score heightens… and Halla runs past the band, sitting in the countryside, playing as they watch her go. They and a trio of Ukrainian folk singers both underscore and undercut her self-importance.

Halla’s heroism is also called into question by Juan Camillo Roman Estrada’s “foreign national”, a character who is repeatedly detained under suspicion of everything Halla’s done. I think the film intends this as a criticism of her lack of awareness of the unintended consequences of her actions, but it veered too close to being played for laughs for me to be fully comfortable with it.

In the end, though, it’s a clever, moving, beautifully shot film that features a 50 year old woman as a complicated action hero (and also as her own twin sister). We are blessed.

Wonderland was remarkably un-Christmas-y for all it was set at Christmas. Two friends – one of whom’s marriage may or may not be ending – spend the holiday on a farm, which is run by a young family presenting a Christmas experience as a way to earn more money. It’s messy, ultimately safe, but not too tidy, basically a rougher, Nordic Nancy Meyers movie.

I spent most of the runtime of Handle with Care desperately hoping that someone would get this guy into therapy. It’s a Norwegian film about a couple who adopts a young boy from Columbia, and when she dies in an accident, neither father nor son handle it well. But, you know, I’m Norwegian. I get it. Repress repress repress!

It stars Kristoffer Joner of The Wave, who reminds me of a leaner, Norwegian Norman Reedus. Kristoffer Bech, Cutest Child Alive, plays his son Daniel, and since we only see them after the death of the wife & mother it’s hard to tell if the strained connection (and often outright rejection) between them is a mourning issue (see above re therapy) or indications they had never really bonded. Basically, it’s very stressful and everyone should be in therapy, thank you.

East of Sweden should have been my jam, but it was deeply frustrating because the majority of the plot hung on two men lying constantly to a woman about what happened to the father of her child. While I get that, sure, one might not want to confess to either committing or witnessing accidental manslaughter while also dealing drugs or trying to get out of one country and into another without papers for either, but then! Maybe do not get involved with the dead guy’s girlfriend! Just don’t do it.

[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.