Friday, April 12, 2024

Weekend Screen Scene: The Greatest Hits, The Beast, Sasquatch Sunset

If you've gone through a heartbreak, and are of a certain age, there's a good chance you've made a mix-tape, or mix CD, or playlist, of all the songs you associate with that heartbreak. It's a kind of audible time capsule. Listening to those mixes can bring back the good and the bad memories, and are, in a sense, a sort of time travel.

The Greatest Hits, which is now streaming on Hulu, takes that concept, and makes it literal. Lucy Boynton stars as Harriet, a young woman in L.A. who is trying to get over the loss of her boyfriend, but is having a hard time of it because whenever she hears certain songs she associates with Max (David Corenswet), she is transported back in time to when they first heard the song together. But nothing she can do in the past seems to change the outcome of tragedy. Then a new man (Justin H. Min) enters her life....

The movie is brisk, and wastes no time setting up the concept, and while it's dealing with some heavy themes of loss and trauma, it's still fun, as many time travel movies can be. If I have any complaint it's that very few of the "transporting" songs, aside from a good Roxy Music needle drop, are memorable, but that just may be my Gen-X sensibilities speaking.

Bertrand Bonello's The Beast is another unique science fiction take on love and trauma, starring Léa Seydoux and George MacKay as star-crossed lovers in the years 1910, 2014, and 2044. In all of her "lives" Gabrielle (Seydoux) has interactions with a man (MacKay) who is sometimes a potential lover, and in others, a possible foe.

In 2044, Gabrielle (Seydoux) agrees to a procedure that "purifies" her DNA, relieving her of the trauma of her past lives so that her current life will be free of "strong feelings." She agrees to this, ostensibly as part of a job requirement. 

And it was just as I was writing this that I realized it all sounds very Scientology, though I am pretty sure that is not writer and director Bertrand Bonello's intent here, as it also seems to be critical of the Buddhist concept of past lives as well. In many ways, it feels very Lynchian, and Bonello fills the film with some remarkable imagery. Seydoux and MacKay inhabit all of their past and present lives with a sense of longing and the inevitability of that "beast" known as fate. I'm not sure I completely understood it, but it definitely left me thinking about it for days.

Sasquatch Sunset is like a nature documentary but with all the gross stuff kept in - screwing, puking, crapping, and pissing. The film follows a family of Bigfoots (Bigfeet?) in the densely forested hills of Northern California. The nameless Sasquatch (Sasquatches?) are an alpha male (Nathan Zellner), a female (Riley Keough), a beta male (Jesse Eisenberg), and an adolescent (Christophe Zajac-Denek). We watch as they sit in fields and munch on leaves, set up shelters, mate, frolic with fellow woodsy creatures...and get high as hell on things like fermented berries and magic mushrooms.

As the film is essentially a silent one, with no dialogue, there is a lot of physical humor, and some surprising moments of pathos. Riley Keough gives the best performance behind the (very good) prosthetics, using just her eyes, and sometimes, a complete lack of expression, to elicit both laughs and tears. But there's a reason your average nature show or doc is only an hour long - they can get a bit monotonous, and at 90 minutes, Sasquatch Sunset feels stretched thin. I definitely appreciated it (the final image is perfection), but came away wanting less instead of more.

Friday, March 29, 2024

Weekend Screen Scene: DogMan

I'll get this out of the way first: DogMan has a large cast of dogs, but none die in the film. There is some implied violence against dogs, but this takes place mainly off-screen.

With that out the way, I have to say, this is the most insane tribute to dogs ever put on screen. At times, I was absolutely howling with incredulous laughter, at others I was completely confused, and by the end, I'll admit, I shed a tear.

In cinema's craziest hero (or villain??) origin story, Caleb Landry Jones stars as Douglas, survivor of an abusive childhood where he was kept in a cage with dogs his religious father bred for dog fighting. This childhood appears to take place in the 1940's, for reasons not fully explained, since the majority of the movie takes place in modern times. Years in that cage left Douglas partially paralyzed, and really, really good with dogs. Like, really good. And he uses that skill for both good (protecting a family from a local gang) and evil (let's just say his dogs make good cat thieves).

Luc Besson does not make subtle movies, and he has, once again, gone completely gonzo here. I feel like it's best to go into this knowing very little, so I will simply add that DogMan also includes perhaps the best drag rendition of an Edith Piaf song every performed, if there were any justice in this world, Caleb Landry Jones would be getting an Oscar nomination come 2025, and leave it at that.

Friday, March 22, 2024

Weekend Screen Scene: Carol Doda Topless at the Condor, Riddle of Fire, Late Night with the Devil

It's odd to think that there is not a time in my life when I was not aware of Carol Doda, even if it was just knowing there was a giant sign of a lady with blinking boobs to be seen any time the family ventured to North Beach. But that was just part of the joy of growing up in San Francisco in the 1970's and 1980's. 

The new documentary Carol Doda Topless at the Condor aims to expand that awareness past the City limits and decades past by centering Doda as a cultural revolutionary, even if she didn't necessarily see herself that way. Co-directors Marlo McKenzie and Jonathan Parker utilize previously recorded interviews with Doda herself (she died in 2015), along with commentary from fellow North Beach performers, and a few cultural academics, and pair it up with an impressive amount of archival footage and photos to help flesh out a portrait of Doda, who was notoriously cagey about her personal life. 

It's definitely entertaining seeing Doda's trajectory from cocktail waitress, to go-go dancing cocktail waitress, to featured dancer, to the country's first topless dancer (kind of), to topless and bottomless dancer, the uproar all of that caused, and her ultimate status as a San Francisco icon (the city's other "twin peaks"). But I actually found some of the stories shared by her fellow entertainers even more enjoyable. (I can't believe I was too young to check out the stripper with the pet monkey!) 

Carol Doda Topless at the Condor is less about Doda and more about the cultural shift she helped spearhead, intentionally or not. And while it left me wishing I could know a little more about the woman herself (the interviews they do include show she was a really witty woman), as a portrait of San Francisco in the late late 1960's and early 1970's, it's tops.

The 1970's were also brought to mind while watching the indie gem Riddle of Fire, even though the film is contemporary. Shot on 16mm, in gloriously yellowish tones, the movie looks and feels like a b-movie of that era, perhaps something that may have played as the second film in a double feature with a live action Disney movie in 1977.

When I tell you it is an epic fairytale about three kids on a quest to find a blueberry pie for their ailing mother, it probably sounds pretty saccharine, even though that is in fact the bare bones plot. But these adolescent kids also ride dirt bikes, carry paint ball guns, swear occasionally, and are in search of this pie because it's the only way their mom will give them the password to the TV so they can play the new video game console they stole. Along their quest they also run afoul of a gang of poachers, lead by a possible witch, who puts their lives in danger.

Not so saccharine!

I was enchanted by this oddball film, and director Weston Razooli's commitment to its unique tone. The rural Wyoming setting is photographed beautifully, and the soundtrack brought to mind scores by Tangerine Dream and Goblin (along with an actual needle drop from the film Cannibal Holocaust). Letting three actors under the age of 14 carry a movie is always a risky move, especially for a first time filmmaker, but I was really impressed by the performances Razooli got from Phoebe Ferro, Skyler Peters, and Charlie Stover. Sure, at two hours long, Riddle of Fire could have used a bit of trimming, but I was also a little sad to see the adventure of Alice, Jodie, and Hazel come to an end.

The 1970's strike again with the horror movie, Late Night with the Devil,  about a talk show that had one really, really horrifying Halloween special back in 1977. 

The film is presented as a mockumentary about a fateful episode of Night Owls with Jack Delroy, a late night talk show constantly competing against the success of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. After tragedy befalls host Jack Delroy (played to perfection by David Dastmalchian), he attempts a comeback with a Halloween episode featuring a medium, the author of a book about a demon possession, and the possibly possessed girl, and a former magician-turned-skeptic who's there to debunk it all.

The parts of the film that are the "actual" episode of the show are absolutely terrific, with the production design, late night style jokes, and performances completely nailing the tone. Which is why it's so disappointing that the movie doesn't stick with that, instead inserting "behind the scenes" footage supposedly shot during the show's commercial breaks. This footage makes absolutely no sense on a practical level (why was it shot? Why does it involve multiple cameras? Why do none of the performers ever acknowledge it's happening?) and also completely disrupts the realistic feeling of the TV show. 

The whole "mockumentary" set-up is also pretty much dropped for an ending that goes off the rails, but, ironically, could have worked perfectly had they stuck to the premise. Still, enough of the movie succeeds that I can forgive it its trespasses, even while hoping for an alternative cut that just features that Night Owls with Jack Delroy Halloween episode of 1977.

Friday, February 9, 2024

Weekend 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.