Friday, February 9, 2024

Weekence Screen Scene: The Taste of Things, Perfect Days

I watched the French film The Taste of Things on Thanksgiving morning. This was both a good and a bad thing. Good because it definitely made me hungry for the meal to come. Bad because nothing I was going to eat that day would ever taste as good as the food in this movie looks.

Juliette Binoche stars as Eugènie, a chef in 1885 rural France. She works with famed gourmand Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel) and has for over 20 twenty years. The film opens with an extended and almost dialogue free sequence that watches them (and mainly her) preparing a feast, from picking the vegetables in the garden, to the chopping, stirring, cooking and baking required. By the end of this scene you'll be craving more than popcorn, as director Trần Anh Hùng photographs all of this food prep with a hungry and admiring eye.

Food in the film is many things. It's a tool for teaching. It's the center of gatherings and celebrations. And ultimately, it's an act of love. There's an  romance at the center of The Taste of Things, and how it plays out is much like a good meal, and life. A lot of prep, rapturous enjoyment, and it's all over way too quickly.

The days lived out in Perfect Days may not seem so perfect on the surface. Kōji Yakusho gives a calm and almost silent performance as Hirayama, a toilet cleaner in Tokyo. His daily life doesn't vary much. He wakes up, folds up his bed, tends to his plants, grabs a coffee from a vending machine, listens to his favorite music on cassettes on the drive to his job of cleaning a variety of public toilets in Tokyo. After work, he eats at the same food stall every night, and then reads before bed. Sometimes he'll grab a steam and a shower at a bath house. On weekends, he does laundry. But all through this he exhibits a genuine appreciation for his quiet life, and the simple pleasures and beauty around him.

And yes, on the surface this may sound exceedingly boring. But director Wim Wenders is no stranger to making the mundane and repetitive hypnotic and soothing. The calmness in Hirayama may remind you a bit of Harry Dean Stanton's Travis in Wenders's1984 film Paris, Texas. In both Travis and Hirayama, still waters run deep. There are hints of trauma and possible addiction in Hirayama's past, lending a possible explanation for his structured day-by-day life. The definition of a "perfect day" may be subjective. But when you realize that in an entire lifetime, the majority of your days are going to be filled with the mundane, it's a good idea to makes those days as perfect as possible.

Friday, February 2, 2024

Weekend Screen Scene: Argylle

The studios really want to keep the twists in the new spy thriller Argylle heavily guarded secrets, but here's one thing I will spoil, for those who, like me, go into certain kinds of movies with apprehension: the cat lives. (Also, for the vast majority of the movie, that cat is pure CGI, so don't be too concerned by the fact that it gets tossed around an awful lot.)

The marketing ploys surrounding the film--that the movie is adapted from a book by someone named Elly Conway, an author that doesn't really exist, and is actually the protagonist in the movie, unless, of course this whole thing really came from the mind of none other than TAYLOR SWIFT!--are ultimately more intriguing than the actual movie, which is not clever enough to support the multiple twists and turns of its plot.

Bryce Dallas Howard stars as Elly Conway, author of a series of popular novels centered on a spy named Agent Argylle. There appears to be a movie within the movie, in which Henry Cavill plays Argylle, although as with most things in Argylle, the logic of that conceit does not make a lot of sense. Sometimes Argylle appears to be a figment of Conway's imagination. But does he look like Henry Cavill because of a movie? Or is this just how Elly imagines him to be? And if its that, then why does the ending include --

Whoops, nope. No spoilers!

Sam Rockwell also stars as a real life spy (maybe!) out to help Elly when she finds herself embroiled in some real life espionage (MAYBE!). If the film has anything going for it, it's the cast that includes supporting roles and cameos from the likes of Catherine O'Hara, Samuel L. Jackson, Dua Lipa, and Bryan Cranston, amongst many others. And Sam Rockwell and Bryce Dallas Howard both make the film at least tolerable when they're on screen together. (Also, Sam Rockwell gets to dance, which is always a bonus.)

Matthew Vaughn movies can usually be counted on to at least have enough outrageous action and violence to keep you engaged, but Argylle feels phoned in, and is too long by at least 30 minutes; some parts are downright boring. Movies like this are only rewarding when, in the end, all the seemingly crazy parts fall into satisfying place, and in this one they most certainly do not. But at least that cat always lands on his feet.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Best of 2023: Number One

I came out of my first viewing of Poor Things feeling much like its heroine, Bella. I wanted more of it and as soon as possible. I had to wait a few weeks for that second helping, and it confirmed what I had suspected, that this was my favorite movie of the year.

I mean, the movie is almost a Stefon worthy collections of things I love! Slapstick comedy; Emma Stone; huge sleeves on dresses; retro-futuristic cityscapes; Mark Ruffalo; a BULLDOG GOOSE.

There really is too much visual spender in the movie to catch in a single viewing, and I also found a second viewing really helped me appreciate Emma Stone's tour de force performance as Bella Baxter. Just what Bella is, is laid out slowly in the film, by watching it a second time, with that full knowledge, I was able to really understand just what she was playing, and it's simply brilliant.

My favorite take, which I read on Letterboxd, is Poor Things is Barbie, if Weird Barbie were the lead. And indeed the films do offer similar journeys of self-discovery for its two leading ladies, though Poor Things is in no way for kids; if I have any complaint about it, it's that there is maybe, just a little too much sex. Although, I think that ultimately works well to illustrate the journey Bella is on. Like all good things, too much can actually lead to displeasure.

And because this post has been delayed way too long I'll end with three more things that made me love Poor Things.

- That Bella, who for the first part of the movie is essentially a toddler, dresses how a toddler would dress herself, with no regard to what is "right," but only what she likes. And if that means a huge frilly top, tap pants, and boots, so be it.

-  When Bella is annoyed by crying at a table next to her and says,  "I must go punch that baby."

- When Max (Ramy Youssef) does not get angry about Bella's stint at a Parisian brothel and instead says, "It is your body, Bella Baxter, yours to give freely." I know it's kind of an obvious line, but it absolutely made me tear up.

And with that said, let me end with some of the films that did not make my top five, but would definitely be in my top ten:

The Zone of Interest


The Taste of Things 


Past Lives

Friday, January 5, 2024

Best of 2023: Number Two

I braved the almost three and half hour running time of Killers of the Flower in a theater, and I will say, I was never bored; didn't even take a bathroom break. And that's coming from someone whose chief complaint about movies these days is they're too damn long. But Killers of the Flower Moon almost didn't feel long enough. I could have watched Scorsese align the crimes committed by these early twentieth century white men with crimes committed by his later twentieth century white men for two more hours. At least!

By making changes to the structure of the story, versus how the story is relayed in the book, he turns it into a classic Scorsese set-up. It is no longer a whoddunit. It is a "these assholes did it" story, and that makes it all the more horrifying and heartbreaking, especially in the context of the central "love story" between Mollie (Lily Gladstone) and Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio). How could he do what he does to her? But then again, how could we do what we did to the natives of this continent?

Lily Gladsstone's Mollie is the heart of the film, and her performance is so luminous, the film would not be as good without her. And that comes back to my wanting even more of it, and especially her.

I know there have been some complaints about how this story perhaps should not have been told by a white man, and how the story centers more on the whites, and not the Osage. I get that. But Scorsese is also our greatest living filmmaker, and his making this movie means that many, many more people will now learn about this horrible history.

If I have any complaint about the film it's that the Ernest character is so evil, and so dumb. It was at times difficult to watch that for over three hours. And Scorsese is no stranger to centering his films on dumb, bad men! But in all of those other films, I've found something to identify with, or sympathize with, or even root for. But not here. Ernest's crimes, this nation's crimes, are just too horrible.

Killers of the Flower Moon will begin streaming on Apple TV+ on January 12th.

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Best of 2023: Number Three

I'm someone who cries at the movies a lot, but I'm also someone who can be pretty cynical when it comes to films that are manipulative tearjerkers. But every now and then, a movie can be both manipulative and feel completely heartfelt, and All of Us Strangers is one of those movies.

I mean, it centers on a lonely man who reconnects with his parents....who died when he was twelve. Like, "pause for audience tears" can basically be written into a script with a concept like that! Add to that a burgeoning romance with a slightly mysterious neighbor, and the fact they these two men are played by Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal, two actors who just ooze charisma and soulfullnes, and you've got a movie that earns its tears.

I'll also have to admit one other factor that contributed to my absolutely dissolving into a teary mess at the film's end, and that's the use of a song I listened to obsessively when it came out in 1984; "The Power of Love" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. (Side note: I do NOT remember them--the band behind "Relax"!--releasing a Birth of Jesus-themed video for the song! That's a plot twist!) Hearing that song during the film's finale brought up a TON of feels, and I was an absolute sobbing mess. I didn't think I'd ever emotionally recover from it.

And then a week later I just had to watch the movie again. That says it all.

All of Us Strangers is currently playing in theaters.