Vampires, Assassins, and Romantic Angst by the Seaside: Takoma Reviews

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The Tempest, 1979

In this adaptation of Shakespeareís play, Prospero (Heathcote Williams) is a sorcerer who has been banished to an island with his daughter, Miranda (Toyah Willcox). When Prospero learns that the family who betrayed and banished him is passing by the island, his spirit assistant Ariel (Karl Johnson) creates a storm to drive the ship onto the island. Prosperoís brother, Alonso (Peter Bull) and Alonsoís son Ferdinand (David Meyer) are separated in the shipwreck and make their way to Prosperoís decaying mansion.

A captivating blend of Shakespeareís play and Jarmanís visual and thematic sensibilities makes for an engaging film.

I like a whole spectrum of approaches to adaptations of Shakespeare. Iíll sit down and watch whatís essentially a filmed version of a stage play, but just as easily enjoy an adaptation that plays a bit with the story/setting.

This adaptation is definitely one that pushes Jarmanís style to the front, but at the same time it highlights aspects of the play and gives time and space for the characters and the language of the source material. And thatís where this film won me over: it manages to present a distinct vision and show respect for the original text all at the same time. Itís a solid synthesis, and it never feels like the words are fighting the film around them.

About five films into Jarmanís filmography and Iím starting to get a sense for his vibe, and I quite like it. His eye for the composition of shots, and the way that heís willing to let figures linger in the frame so that itís more like a tableau. Shots that might otherwise feel labored, like Miranda delivering lines while perched on an old rocking horse, instead land because there is such care taken in the composition of it and it highlights rather than distracts from the language. And thereís a queer eye and energy to his movies that make them stand out, especially among films from the same era. Thereís nudity from both men and women, but it skews more toward the men and with a frank erotic gaze that is unlike anything else I can really think of. A boldly staged sequence with Elisabeth Welch is nothing short of fantastic.

The story here is one that explicitly includes magic, and Jarman integrates it in a way that is both playful and casual. Prospero shows Miranda their past in a magical staff. In a later sequence, he freezes Alonso and the others. Itís a good match for Jarmanís visual sensibilities.

The only downside for me with this film was that at times I didnít feel that I was 100% following the plot. But this is a film that coasts more on mood than on a literal understanding of whatís taking place, so this was not a big deal.

A fun adaptation.

I have vaguely positive feelings toward Batman and Batman Returns, but haven't seen either in over a decade. I generally liked Nolan's trilogy (and was an extra in the third one, good times) but don't consider any of them favorites. I haven't seen anything with Affleck's Batman. Do you have particular favorites or favorite portrayals?
Well, just regarding the theatrical live-action Batfilms that I've seen, I was very meh on '89, but I enjoy Returns a lot because it feels like the movie Burton really wanted to make, with more style, but more importantly, a lot more substance than '89, particularly with Selina's whole character arc, which is one of my favorite ones in a movie, to be perfectly honest. Besides that, the Schumacher ones were annoying (though Batman & Robin is funny in a so bad it's good way, of course), The Dark Knight Trilogy is very good (with TDK itself being an all-timer, at the risk of sounding like another cliched fanboy), and The Batman was good, if a bit overlong and derivative feeling at times.

Gone in the Night, 2022

Kath (Winona Ryder) and her younger boyfriend Max (John Gallagher Jr) have booked a rural cabin for the weekend, but when they arrive, the cabin is already occupied by Al (Owen Teague) and Greta (Brianne Tju). Uneasy, Kath agrees to spend the night, but in the morning both Max and Greta are nowhere to be found and Al claims the two ran off together. A disgruntled Kath returns home alone, but soon decides to find out why Max left her and ends up working with the cabinís owner Barlow (Dermot Mulroney) to get to the bottom of what happened.

No bueno.

Winona Ryder wears a scared, startled expression through 98% of this film, and itís like sheís perpetually caught in the moment of realizing the quality of the film sheís in. Iím a fan of Ryder, Gallagher, and Mulroney, but they cannot save the absolutely terrible story and far-fetched character behaviors.

The actions of the main characters dings the credulity of this film at every step, starting with Kath and Max agreeing to stay in the cabin after Al menacingly tells them they arenít welcome and all but spits in their face. Al and Greta wear matching teal rain slickers, even though theyíre inside, and it looks like theyíve been caught in the act of cutting up a body. Naturally they all decide to sit down to play a board game about sex. And when Kath wakes up the next day and Max has DISAPPEARED(!!!!!!!), she simply gets in her car and drives home.

The structure of the film is that it intercuts between the present and the past, slowly filling in the details of what happened before Kath and Max arrived at the cabin. And with every scene that gave more information about Kath, Max, Al, and Greta, the more I hated each and every one of them. The relationship between Kath and Max is grounded in so much open contempt that itís hard to believe that they were ever even in a decent relationship. Al and Greta, to stay spoiler free, are just super irritating. Max is as dumb as a box of rocks, and figuring out what happened to him becomes less and less compelling every time his character opens his mouth.

The movie is also built to ramp up to discovering the truth about what happened that night at the cabin. The answer is at once exactly what youíd guess and at the same time, much stupider than youíd expect. The very end has the distinction of being terrible and ambiguous.

Bad. And not fun-bad. Bad-bad.

The Angelic Conversation, 1985

Including only as dialogue Shakespeare sonnets read by narrator Judi Dench, a man goes on a quest to claim the man he loves.

Another Jarman/Shakespeare fusion that absolutely works if the directorís style is your cup of tea.

For me, Jarmanís films are like a cinematic parfait where each layer holds up on its own, and the combination of them enhances the overall experience. In the case of this movie, itís the slow-motion photography, the exclusion of language outside the recitation of the sonnets, and the visual representation of longing and desire that fuse so marvelously.

The good news for anyone watching this movie is that the make-or-break moment comes in the first minute. Are you into watching 90 minutes of figures moving in slow-motion, at times abstractly, while an unseen narrator recites Shakespearian sonnets? If yes, welcome aboard! If no, youíve been shown exactly what this movie is and can quietly make your exit.

As Jarmanís style is right up my alley, I was on board. I am, sometimes to a fault, a narrative/story-centric viewer, but this film held my attention all the way to the end. Jarmanís visuals are so captivating that I find myself simply not caring as much whether Iím understanding the story, or if thereís even a linear story to understand in the first place. The slow-motion gives weight to every little gesture made by the actors, stretching a brief longing glance into an aching eternity. The lack of dialogue means that the filmís real language is look and touch and gesture.

This film is at once dreamier and more ďlow budgetĒ looking than the other films Iíve seen from Jarman. Thereís a very ďshot on videoĒ look to some of the sequences, but the composition keeps them from coming off as flat or cheap. Thereís a minimal story to be found here, but that is very much by design.

Recommended for anyone who thinks the first two minutes are pretty swell.

Alyce Kills, 2011

Alyce (Jade Dornfeld) is an off-kilter young woman working an unrewarding office job, whose only real relationship is the live-wire friendship with the outlandish Carroll (Tamara Feldman). After a night of drinking and heightened conversation, the two end up on the roof of their building where bad choices and an untimely stumble lead to Carroll plunging to the street below. Terrified that sheíll be blamed for the accident, Alyce implies that Carroll attempted suicide, and in the aftermath her sanity slowly starts to slip away.

A familiar story is elevated by a hilarious performance from Jade Dornfeld and a strong balance of horror and comedy.

The best part of this film are the first and last acts. The first act does a fantastic job of fleshing out the close but slightly demented relationship between Alyce and Carroll. Instead of merely a quick sketch of their friendship, the film gives us breathing room to get to know these women and their peculi ar dynamic. Alyce and Carroll are close, but there are layers of tension to it. Alyce is clearly the second fiddle in their relationship, and we learn about a previous incident in which Alyce was jokingly called ďSingle White FemaleĒ because she was trying too hard to emulate Carroll. When Carroll says that she and Alyce should have sex to get back at Carrollís cheating boyfriend, Alyce treats it as a joke before gently asking, ďAre you serious?Ē, only to have Carroll laugh and turn her back. Alyce seems to desire Carroll and desire to be her, and this dynamic adds weight to Alyce knocking Carroll off of the roof and the aftermath.

The middle act is a bit less successful. Alyce really starts to fall apart at work. She makes her way to a drug dealer who demands sex acts from her for drugs. She has visions of Carroll and nervously continues to cover her tracks even as her mental state deteriorates. It all feels a bit overfamiliar.

But the last act brings the film back to the good side of things. As Alyce becomes totally unhinged, she really lets loose on all those around her who she perceives as having done wrong. The character work that the film put into the first act really pays off here, as Alyceís violence is not indiscriminate. Even as it seems obvious who has a target on their back, the movie finds a way to show moments of empathy.

What really makes this film work is the balance of dark comedy and genuine horror. The star here is Dornfeld, whose physical mannerisms and line deliveries are fantastic. Thereís a scene where Alyce takes home a personal trainer, Karl (Max E Williams), and their sex quickly becomes physically aggressive. As Alyce torments Karl by squeezing acne sores on his back, Karl finally lashes out, punching Alyce in the face. Alyce flies backwards off of the bed, heels over head. Itís a pratfall, one that is funny because of the physicality and it is tense because of the violence itself and because of the violence we know it may trigger from Alyce.

A horror comedy worth checking out for a fantastic lead performance.

Turbo Kid, 2015

A young man known only as The Kid (Munro Chambers) survives on his own in a post-apocalyptic future. One day he is befriended by the strangely perky Apple (Laurence Leboeuf), and the two begin to pal around. The Kid and Apple soon become enmeshed in a battle of wills between a ruthless overlord called Zeus (Michael Ironside) and a freedom fighter called Frederick (Aaron Jeffery).

This madcap action-comedy charms via an endearing central relationship and knowing winks at the post-apocalyptic genre.

This film is a pretty great testament to the fact that a film doesnít have to be perfect if itís got a good pace and endearing characters. The Kid and Apple have a sweetly awkward relationship that stays perched between a friendship and a romance, all of it playing out in front of a more traditional storyline including a man standing up to a tyrant, pit fights, and horrific technology used to mine human bodies for drinkable water.

The film, for the most part, balances on the right edge between being a futuristic film and being a parody of a futuristic film. The whole world and characters are real enough to generate some emotional investment, and yet thereís just enough of a dose of parody that it doesnít bother you all that much when something doesnít quite make sense.

Apple is an interesting character. To an almost absurd extent, sheís what people mean when they talk about the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Sheís cute and fascinated by the Kid, and mainly exists in the plot to further the Kidís character arc. (Thereís an aspect to her character that seems like an attempt to lampshade this element of the story, and I think it works to a moderate degree). But Leboeuf makes the character just weird enough that despite her more limited function in the plot, sheís very engaging. Chambers is solid as the Kid, someone who has been forced to grow up way too fast in this uncertain and dangerous future.

Ironside and Jeffery play their characters incredibly broadly, and for the most part it works. It gives the sense of the Kid and Apple being these real side characters behind an over-the-top futuristic soap opera.

A fun film, worth watching for the engaging central performances.

Not Quite Hollywood, 2008

This documentary recounts the shift in Australian film leading to a slew of unhinged, wild films coming out in the 70s and 80s.

This documentary gives a pretty thorough overview of the emergence of raunchy, horror, and action films from Australia, though it seems far more charmed by the films and their creators than I was.

ďRacism and homophobia can be charming,Ē remarks the straight, white interview subject, and this kind of sets the tone, for better or for worse, for the whole documentary. In short, all of these guys think theyíre pretty great, and their reminiscences and reflections make for a heady mix of fascinating background stories and eye-rolling moments. So many moments call attention to who is included and who is excluded in this historical retelling.

The positive side of this film is that they managed to get hold of many of the directors and actors who were actually in the films. The interviewees for the most part speak with very open candor about their experiences and opinions of the films. There are wild and wooly anecdotes, particularly in the section about action films. The film leans mainly on Quentin Tarantino, James Wan, and Leigh Whannell (credited as the ďstarĒ of Saw--how far heís come since 2008!) for commentary from a contemporary audience.

Probably my favorite conversation was around the way that Australian films gained popularity abroad. In particular, I was very interested by the split perception of the Australian landscape. As one interview subject notes, to many foreign audiences, the Australian outback looked alien, foreboding, and dangerous. But for an actual Australian audience, these scenes looked like they were taking place in their backyard. Itís an interesting exploration of the way that films that have a solid sense of place can be received in very different ways by the people who live inside of or outside of those spaces.

Unfortunately, much of the vibe of this movie is ďBoysí ClubĒ, and itís a dynamic that gets old pretty quickly. All of the directors, film critics, producers, writers, and contemporary interviewees are men. Quite a few actresses are interviewed, but with the exception of Jamie Lee Curtis I would say that 80% of their contribution is talking about the circumstances of them taking off their clothing. Thereís a lot of commentary about all the female nudity actually being feminist which, okay, but the directors just donít address the incredible amount of physical and sexual violence featured in the films. One of the actresses remarks that the men in a film about motorcycle culture were very aggressive toward the women during filming and after that remark the film simply moves on to another discussion point.

Likewise the film just doesnít address racism or homophobia after lampshading both of those topics in the first few minutes. Itís like the film wants to hold onto itís ďarenít these guys just such wacky characters?!?!?!?Ē attitude toward the directors it interviews and so it skirts topics that would damage that vibe. This feels at the least disingenuous and given the candor of the interview subjects, it also feels like a huge missed opportunity to frankly examine the ups and downs of outlandish independent filmmaking. The film only really seems to tackle this dynamic in discussing the injuries (and some deaths) incurred by stunt people on some of the action films.

I was also hoping that I might walk away with a little watchlist of undiscovered gems, only to find that Iíd seen most of the movies and had very little interest in the rest.

Well researched and nicely divided into chapters, but it chickens out when a topic doesnít fit with its desired tone.

Honor Among Lovers, 1931

Julia (Claudette Colbert) works as a secretary to a man named Jerry (Fredric March). Jerry is smitten with Julia and frequently offers to give her money, an apartment, a cruise, etc. Julia is also being wooed by Phillip (Monroe Owsley), who one night after some strong-handed pressure from Jerry, convinces Julia to get married. Julia agrees, and then must navigate Jerryís resentment and Phillipís insecurities.

A somewhat cynical look at trying to find love as a working woman, a mostly insightful story is let down a bit by an unnuanced conclusion.

Thereís something especially bleak about a film that centers romantic relationships but all of the options are terrible. Jerry and Phillip are both total creeps in their own way, and the great tragedy of the film is the idea that Julia needs to pick between them.

Even if you think that office romances, including between a boss and an employee, can be okay, there are still a lot of red flags in Jerryís behavior. He constantly talks about being together at work. What heís proposing---giving her money, getting her an apartment--is all side-piece stuff. At a nightclub later in the evening, he corners her and demands that she let him take her on a cruise. When she demurs, he grabs her arms, to the point that she has to tell him to let go of her. Julia doesnít seem charmed by Jerryís attention so much as afraid and overwhelmed.

And itís with this unrelenting pressure that Julia ends up with Phillip. This part of the film feels incredibly realistic. Julia isnít so much drawn to Phillip as she is being driven toward him by Jerryís uncomfortable and constant pestering. When Jerry finds out that she married Phillip, naturally he fires her. This means that Julia is even more reliant on Phillip because sheís now unemployed. Jerry immediately offers Phillip a job helping to manage his money, which sits in this interesting space where it looks like heís grudgingly supporting Julia, but really heís just putting himself in a position of power over her by controlling her husband and her financial situation.

Phillip is a total goober, and so itís only a matter of time before he messes up. When this inevitably happens, Julia has no choice but to turn to Jerry for help, which ratchets up the tension in the ďlove triangleĒ to incredible proportions.

But itís in this last act that the film lost me a bit. I read one review that argued that we the audience are meant to see that Jerry has masterminded this whole scenario, cornering Julia into a position where she is indebted to him and where he can be her savior. And honestly, Iím not 100% sure how I read the end of the film. The staging of the scene where Julia asks Jerry for help and a later scene between the two--the acting, the music score, etc--all seems to point more to an interpretation that Jerry has realized he needs to offer Julia a real relationship and that heís now the more mature choice for her to make. It makes me think of something like the ending of Gigi, where we are expected to cheer for a man deciding to offer a woman a real relationship instead of just making her his mistress.

I give the film major points for showing us just how sleezy Jerry is and how much of an absolute turd Phillip is. Itís self-aware enough in the first two-thirds of the film to feel like something of a subversion of the classic love triangle romantic drama. I think that itís let down a bit by the events of the final act and where it leaves the main characters.

Worth a look for sure.

I forgot the opening line.

Not Quite Hollywood, 2008

Unfortunately, much of the vibe of this movie is ďBoysí ClubĒ, and itís a dynamic that gets old pretty quickly. All of the directors, film critics, producers, writers, and contemporary interviewees are men. Quite a few actresses are interviewed, but with the exception of Jamie Lee Curtis I would say that 80% of their contribution is talking about the circumstances of them taking off their clothing. Thereís a lot of commentary about all the female nudity actually being feminist which, okay, but the directors just donít address the incredible amount of physical and sexual violence featured in the films. One of the actresses remarks that the men in a film about motorcycle culture were very aggressive toward the women during filming and after that remark the film simply moves on to another discussion point.
Although many countries can make an argument as to how misogynistic they were/are, Australian culture up to probably the 1990s holds a special place inasmuch as how normal it was in general. You can probably glean a pretty good appreciation for how it was from this documentary itself - and some of the things said by various filmmakers, and some of the experiences related by certain actresses, don't do us proud. Mark Hartley's hands-off approach lets some of that stand out, without being redressed, but at least it means we can come away from the documentary with our eyes open about it. I would have hated to have been a woman in Australia during the 1970s - you'd be constantly harassed and that harassment would be seen as normal. The objectification in the cinema of the time speaks for itself.

Fortunately, being the melting pot of different cultures and nationalities the place is, Australia is a completely different place to what it was back then. You'd have to travel to country towns to go back to those days - and I guess unfortunately those places haven't changed much. I spent some of my youth in one of those country towns, and there are dark undercurrents in those places that make them dangerous in general. In our more civilised and populated places, the country has become more progressive than I would have ever dreamed possible, and those awful elements of Not Quite Hollywood are sometimes hard to sit back and watch/listen to. So yeah, it's not great that none of the people involved address what they did back then, or show that they've learned anything at all in the interim.
My movie ratings often go up or down a point or two after more reflection, research and rewatches.

Mark Hartley's hands-off approach lets some of that stand out, without being redressed, but at least it means we can come away from the documentary with our eyes open about it.
those awful elements of Not Quite Hollywood are sometimes hard to sit back and watch/listen to. So yeah, it's not great that none of the people involved address what they did back then, or show that they've learned anything at all in the interim.
I just felt as if it was a missed opportunity, especially the lack of interviews with any indigenous actors.

Honestly, the interview subjects were so candid, I almost wonder if the filmmaker didn't want to ask some of those more pointed question for fear of outing some of the more vile racism and misogyny. The one actress talking about the mistreatment of the women by the male actors who were "in character" seemed to be as far as the movie was willing to go in that direction. There's something kind of funny about the idea of wanting to celebrate films that are daring and outlandish, but being afraid to ask genuinely probing questions about them.

Though you can't deny the film's power as a historical document, whatever your feelings about the interviewers or the interview subjects.

Even Pigeons Go to Heaven, 2007

A priest tries to sell an elderly man a contraption that he claims will transport the man to heaven.

This animated short has plenty of dark-edged whimsey, but fumbles in its conclusion.

The first half of the short is pretty solid as a critique of the way that some religions create a transactional dynamic by making the focus of the film a person literally selling a pathway to heaven. And thereís a great visual gag involving what the old man sees inside the machine versus whatís happening outside of it.

But despite a pretty solid premise, the film doesnít quite know how to end. It doubles down on being cynical, and just doesnít stick the landing.

Mikey and Nicky, 1976

Nicky (John Cassavetes) and Mikey (Peter Falk) are small time gangsters who set off on a charged odyssey through the city nightscape when Nicky becomes convinced that heís going to be killed by their boss and his associates. The two men cycle through periods of nostalgia and alienation as the dangerous situation brings out the depth and fractures in their relationship.

This is a fantastic film in which the plot is driven almost entirely by the revelations about the relationship between the two main characters.

The entire runtime of this movie forces you to witness relationships that demonstrate an uncomfortable truth: sometimes the deepest relationships are also the most poisonous. Iím not sure thereís any better way to think about Nicky except as a sweet dose of poison. Every interaction we see is colored with threats of violence, humiliation, and a donít know/donít care attitude toward the feelings of others. Nicky physically attacks or threatens to physically attack everyone who is even remotely an ally, whether thatís Mikey, his girlfriend Nell (Carol Grace), or his wife Jan (Joyce van Patten). And yet through some innate charisma, he always seems to turn them back to his side of things. Or does he?

Nicky is exactly the man we meet in the first ten minutes, with very little variation. We see the patterns of abuse and cajoling that make up his existence. He has stolen mob money. He cheats on his wife. Heís openly, provocatively racist. He laughs at the memory of Mikeyís dead brother. Itís against this force of personality that we are able to watch the slow reveal of the character of Mikey. Mikey starts out as the picture of concern, forcing Nicky to take stomach-calming medication and running out to a late-night diner to procure milk for his friend. Is this loyalty, or is this someone indulging the whims and needs of a dead man walking?

This tension---about what Mikey knows about the danger Nicky is in and his part in that danger---adds a compelling thrum of emotion to every single scene in the film. A hit man (Ned Beatty) in a car searches the streets, seeming to have a sense of where the two men have been. The threat is real, but where will it end. When Nicky forces Mikey to sit in the kitchen and listen while he has sex with Nell on the living room floor, you wonder if this is the act that will finally cause Mikey to give up on his friend. But you also wonder if these kinds of acts are why Mikey has already given up on him.

Making Nicky so overbearing and offensive is a genius move in this film, because Mikey as a character is utterly trapped. If he is loyal to Nicky, you find yourself thinking, ďWow, do you have no self-respect?!Ē. And if he is complicit in the hit on Nicky, you think, ďHow could you set your friend up to die?!Ē. Whether Mikey has betrayed his friend or is genuinely trying to help them, this is a friendship that is on its last, tottering legs. Up until the last minutes of the film, you donít know how it will all pan out. But in a great bit of parallelism, we can infer Mikeyís ultimate decision from the way that he speaks about his younger brother, who died of scarlet fever.

Cassavetes and Falk are perfectly paired, with Cassavetes bringing an overt, sprawling energy to Nicky while Falkís Mikey has emotions that are just as strong, but simmer dangerously under the surface. Grace and van Patten bring a kind of resigned despair to their roles as the women in Nickyís life. He is cavalier with their feelings and disloyal on multiple fronts, and yet they always soften when he begs forgiveness, even if heís threatened to punch them in the face just moments before.

Director Elaine May shoots the nighttime city as a place that is at once cozy and dangerous. There are diners, candy shops, and apartment living rooms. But the streets are dark, and itís easy for the characters to suddenly find themselves alone on a sidewalk in front of closed businesses. I liked the sense in this film that the city itself isnít inherently dangerous: the two men, and Nicky in particular, tend to make their own danger.

A great film anchored by great performances. The fact that May didnít direct another film for a decade after this is a travesty.

Two Trains Runniní, 2016

In this documentary from Sam Pollard, June of 1964 involves two groups arriving in Mississippi: college volunteers who are coming to help with the civil rights movement and voter registration, and young men who are interested in tracking down ďlostĒ blues singers. But the hostility toward the Northern outsiders applies whether they are there to register voters or track down old bluesmen, leading some of the college students toward violent and tragic events.

The revelations about the violence and intimidation in 1960s Mississippi wonít shock anyone who is even moderately familiar with the Civil Rights movement, but the unique combination of the events of the Freedom Summer and the search for musical inspiration makes for a story that mixes terror and joy in a heady, compelling way.

The film does a good job of establishing the political dynamics of 1964 Mississippi, including the complicated relationship between that state and the white college students who would arrive en masse to help with voter registration and other Civil Rights activities and advocacy. Despite orientations and practice in how to defend oneself from being beaten by the police, you can tell that the college students do not fully understand the scope of what they are getting into.

It is explicitly articulated by one of the interview subjects toward the end of the film, but the Civil Rights movement needed white people to go and stand on the front line. It would only be the deaths of the some of the countryís loved and cherished white children that would drive enough anger the the violent oppression to actually effect change and actually trigger the conscience of many Americans for whom the deaths of Black people were not a compelling reason to fight. Given the violence and the anger from those who oppose the voter registration drives, you know that itís only a matter of time before someone obliges with the requisite violence against the college students. Perhaps the only surprise is the direct involvement of the police, though I didnít find myself overly shocked at that revelation.

Where the plot about the hunt for the forgotten blues singers intertwines beautifully is in the way that it presents a different reason that people from out of the state/region would want to venture down to Mississippi. While the Civil Rights workers were driven by their sense of justice, the musicians are driven by a connection to the Delta Blues that they cannot fully articulate. Despite having origins in a life experience very foreign to young white men from New York, there are universal themes and a depth to the music that compels, among others, a young John Fahey, to drive cross-country. One of the most tense sequences in the whole film comes in an animated scene portraying a moment when the musicians and their Black local contact stopped to ask some white men for directions. Despite them having nothing to do with the Civil Rights activism, this whole scene simmers with the potential for a horrific outcome.

Narrated with warmth and urgency by Common, the film really features a great group of interview subjects for both the Civil Rights and the Delta Blues threads. Particularly moving is the testimony of David Dennis, one of the Freedom Summer organizers who expresses regret at not being able to protect some of the college students who were under his supervision.

A unique way to present and personalize a major historical moment by anchoring it to a highly specific personal quest.

The Last of England, 1987

Incorporating a mix of documentary footage from Derek Jarmanís youth and fictionalized sequences of a dystopian, authoritarian future, this film explores the degradation of decency and democracy in England.

For several minutes in the middle act of this film, a naked man consumes a plucked-from-the-field raw cauliflower while standing next to a barrel fire. Absorb that. Appreciate that. Are you in, or are you out?

Iím definitely in. Jarmanís eye for dramatic staging, willingness to mix film speed and camera movements speaks to me, and Iíve realized that I enjoy it whether itís framed in a highly personal context or in service to a more conventional narrative.

Jarman can certainly compose one hell of an image, something that the internet mainly seems to celebrate in the is-this-a-Vogue-cover images from a sequence featuring Tilda Swinton as a bride who, in mourning, cuts up her wedding dress with a huge pair of scissors.

But the film is full of other images that are disquieting in less conventional ways. (Though the Swinton sequence is fantastic.) My remark about the man eating the cauliflower may have seemed glib, but itís an uncomfortable viewing. Not so much because of the nudity or the frequent abrupt close-ups of the manís mouth, but because the sequence lingers on for a long time, taking away the buffer period where you might giggle a bit at the staging and forcing you to sit with this man. Feel relief as he slings a blanket around his shoulders, only for the blanket to eventually partly fall away. Wonder how aware he is of his existence, and what heís feeling in this moment.

Thereís also a scene in which a young man has sex with a soldier whose identity is entirely concealed by his uniform and mask. Like the other sequence, it goes on for a duration that exhausts the jolt instinct and leaves you to focus on the men and the enormous, inexplicable flag on which their lovemaking takes place. The staging is so allegorical as to risk absurdity, and yet itís so visceral and goes on for so long that it defies just being a shocking image.

The home movies themselves are also interesting. Frankly, itís intriguing to see someone ostensibly pining for a very middle-class upbringing with very suburban, heteronormative trappings. Youíd imagine that a gay person who was raised in the 1950s and 1960s would have some complicated feelings about their childhood (and I really donít know enough about Jarman as an individual to know about his upbringing or the relationship he had with his family as a child/teen). The film operates only at extremes: the idealized youth and the terrifying future.

I think that this is one of those films that just purely is what it is. If Jarmanís style is your thing, itíll be a hit.

Random Acts of Violence, 2019

Todd (Jesse Williams) is the writer-illustrator of a successful series of comics based on a real serial killer who was active when Todd was a child. Fretting over how to find an appropriate ending to his work, Todd and his friends find themselves being stalked by a mysterious figure. Is this someone who has taken their fandom of Toddís work too far, or could this person be related to the original killer?

This horror-thriller raises some interesting questions about the ethics of true-crime content and the focus on victims versus perpetrators, but never quite interrogates those questions with enough zeal.

While overall this film didnít rise above somewhat typical slasher stuff, there was one exchange that I thought was pretty great. Todd is arguing with his girlfriend, Kathy (Jordana Brewster), about his choice to make the killer the protagonist of his series. Kathy has a side project of her own where she is collecting stories about the victims of the killer. As the argument heats up, Todd finally asserts, ďPeople care about people who do things, not people that things happen to.Ē Itís a frank justification for the fascination--and even borderline hero-worship--of people who commit terrible violence against others. As we start to learn more about Toddís own past, his fascination with such violence takes on a different dimension.

But even as the movie tries to confront some of these cultural issues, it only does so in fits and starts. In many other respects, it tries to have its cake and eat it, too. The murders committed by the killer--both in the comic books and in reality--are salacious, like two young women and a young man who are killed and sewn/lashed together into a ďtriptych.Ē The killings are incredibly outlandish and the film itself revels in the fear of the victims and the horror of the violence. The opposing dynamics of raising ethical questions and then flaunting those ethics is certainly a choice.

Like a lot of horror films, this one withholds information about characters and their pasts in order to save up for a big twist at the end. A twist has to be very strong to be worth such contortions, and unfortunately the one in this film is merely okay, and also pretty predictable. And of course the side effect is that we are held at armís length from the main characters and the killer, to the point that itís hard to know exactly how weíre meant to feel about any of them.

The concepts here are worthy of a horror film, but the exploration of those concepts ends up being disappointingly superficial.

Brotherís Keeper, 1992

This documentary follows the murder trial of Delbert Ward, an older man who has been accused of killing his brother. The film focuses on the lives of the brothers, the events of the trial, and the community response to the whole affair.

A fascinating look at the social politics around major events in small communities, brushing up at times against its own exploitative desires.

There are three major strands to this documentary: the lives of the Ward brothers, the progression of the trial and questions about the propriety of the investigation, and the reaction of the community.

The most exploitative element of the film is definitely the view into the lives of the Ward brothers. There are constant references from other interview subjects to the brothers living in a different time. The brothers run a small farm, raising poultry, pigs, and cattle. They live in a small house, sharing bedrooms and beds. Their property is a sprawl of derelict vehicles and scrubby farm cats. Maybe this says more about me than it does about the Ward brothers, but I wasnít all that shocked by what I saw. The film keeps trying to raise the stakes here, such as by including an overlong sequence of the brothers killing and butchering a pig. But the secluded, low-tech living is not atypical of what you get in very rural areas, and this was a place where I felt the film leaning toward an audience that doesnít know what people are like past the suburbs.

The trial itself is just a hair short of a farce. All of the Ward brothers are hard of hearing, and several of the witnesses are the same. The prosecutor frequently shouts his questions over and over, followed by the judge shouting the question. The Ward brothers are also illiterate, and so can only respond with a shrug when presented with documents to read. A medical examiner takes the stand, spelling out his very long name for the record without being asked, and then talks to the jury as if heís lecturing a group of ten year olds. What does swirl around the whole thing is a controversial confession signed by Delbert that he smothered his brother. The defense asserts that Delbert, due to being illiterate, was tricked into signing the confession without understanding what it said or the implications of such a signature.

But itís the response of the community that is the most interesting. Having not cared one bit about the Ward brothers before, the town suddenly mobilizes around them, holding basically town meetings in a local diner. Different townspeople have different theories, some of them incredibly outlandish. The dead brother, William, had a variety of medical and mental health issues. When a cow is disoriented, you sometimes plug its nose to make it move. Thus, reasons one person, Delbert must have been trying to help his brother by treating him like a cow. It seems as if the people are more united by a cause than by actual concern for Delbert or for the truth about Williamís death.

Fundamentally, the film somewhat dances around the idea that Delbert did kill William, but that it would not be justice to lock him up for that crime. Further, there seems to be a sensibility that all of the brothers were implicitly involved with the decision to commit what might be thought of as a mercy killing. Just left to hang out there in the breeze is the bizarre detail that semen was found on Williamís body, with the salacious suggestion that the brothers were having sex when Delbert killed him. (One interview subject explaining why no one should care if the brothers were/are all having sex with one another is an exemplar of ďthatís their businessĒ rural thinking that I miss from the Iowa of the early 2000s).

A wild ride that ends up somewhat tarnished by the filmís insistence on seeing the brothers more as an exhibition than as real people.

Parallel Mothers, 2021

Janis (Penelope Cruz) finds herself unexpectedly pregnant after a relationship with a married colleague (Israel Elejalde). Deciding to have the baby, Janis meets pregnant teenager Ana (Milena Smit) when the two share the same maternity ward. As complications arise in both of their lives, Janis ends up inviting Ana to live with her. But complications around the babies and the womensí relationships to the children and each other take many unexpected turns.

At once meditative and chock full of plot and character revelations, this is a breathtaking and moving film.

In a movie this strong and also this full of plot developments, itís hard to talk about it in any kind of specific way for fear of giving things away. But there are still some things that can be safely said without revealing key plot points.

The first is the fierce lead performance from Cruz, as a woman who decides to have a baby despite knowing that she will be going it alone. Deciding to have her child carries a particular weight, as Janis is also in the middle of a quest to find the location of her grandfatherís body. Having promised her mother and grandmother to locate her grandfather, who was executed by the fascists during the Spanish Civil War, the awareness of what it means to become part of a generational chain weighs on her. Janis has a dedication to the truth and integrity, and these aspects of her character will test and turn on her in ways she could never imagine later in the film.

Smit is also very good as Ana, a young woman grappling with the direction of her life, her complicated relationship with a mother (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) who is up-front about the ways that being a mother derailed her life, her sexuality, and the traumatic context around her own pregnancy. Ana is the more impulsive character of the two, and certainly at times more annoying. Smit is actually in her 20s, and she does a lot to create a vulnerability in her character to ground Ana as a teen.

The supporting cast is strong as well, including Elejalde as a man who is clearly enamored with Janis, but is starkly brought to the realization that he doesnít have a say in how she lives her life. His overt attempts to distance himself from the pregnancy--first trying to push Janis into an abortion and later questioning the babyís paternity--are pretty gross. But the character is given some dimension by his involvement in the quest to locate Janisís grandfather. The splendid Rossy de Palma is on hand as Janisís closest confidant.

Visually the film is very engaging. The stylistic choices are at times in-your-face and at times more subtle. A repeated motif of people or items framed in red permeates the whole film, from framed pictures to the stitching on the pillows in a hotel room. Cruz has such an interesting face, and Almodovar always frames her to the best effect.

I had very few qualms with this one. There was one development in the ever-evolving relationship between Janis and Ana that I didnít totally buy, either realistically or thematically. For the first half of the film, the plot about searching for the grandfatherís grave didnít feel entirely connected, but by the last act it strongly cohered with the rest of what happened in the movie.

A fantastic, moving film.

Dog, 2022

Briggs (Channing Tatum) is desperate to be redeployed after having been sidelined due to a traumatic brain injury. Barely coping with his injury and his restlessness, he jumps at a chance to get someone to sign off on his readiness for service. This chance involves escorting a war-traumatized dog named Lulu down the west coast in order to attend the funeral of Luluís handler, a man who died after suffering some serious mental health issues of his own.

Engaging, moving, and sweet when in its simplest moments of man-dog bonding, this one is totally bogged down by cringe-worthy comedic set-pieces.

There are plenty of films out there about the redeeming experience of caring for a troubled animal. And thereís a good reason for that: the formula works! Many people know exactly the healing dynamic of caring for an animal, and the particular bond that can form.

In its best moments, this film captures exactly that. Two damaged souls starting out from a place of frustration and anger and mistrust, developing a mutual affection and grudgingly coming back to life and joy. The parallels between Briggs and Lulu are pretty overt, and in Luluís eventual fate--after the funeral she is to be killed because of her lack of control--Briggs sees the futility of his own attempt at a comeback.

All of that is good stuff. Even when it borders on being overly-obvious, itís good stuff.

And then thereís the comedy. Dear lord, the comedy.

Every time Briggs and Lulu interact with someone on their journey down the coast, the film absolutely goes into the toilet. Thereís the encounter with the hippie women in Portland, energy workers who want to have a tantric-themed healing threesome. And wouldnít you know it, that dang dog and another meddling hippie get in the way! Whomp whomp. Thereís the encounter Briggs has with marijuana farmers he stumbles across in the woods. (What are the odds?!). And youíll never guess the wacky (and racist!) hijinks that ensue when Briggs pretends to be blind in order to get a free night at a swanky hotel!

This stuff is bad. Itís bad stuff.

And enmeshed in all of this is the weird line that the film tries to walk in regards to its main character and the idea of the plight of veterans.

An uneven mix of tones thatís worth a watch, but with really tempered expectations.

War Requiem, 1989

The memories of an elderly soldier (Laurence Olivier), being cared for by a nurse (Tilda Swinton) play out to the strains of Benjamin Brittenís War Requiem. A British soldier (Owen Teale) is slain by a German soldier (Sean Bean), but the interaction between the two men carries on into the afterlife.

Very much in keeping with Jarmanís style, this film is full of visual interest but doesnít ring quite as unique as his other movies.

Of the Jarman films Iíve seen, this was the first one that didnít totally grip me. I think itís mainly to do with something I donít really associate with Jarman, namely imagery that is familiar without being subverted.

This isnít to say that itís bad by any means. Jarmanís eye for composition is incredibly strong, so even the images that ring familiar--a soldier stretched out on barbed wire, mud covered soldiers, wounded men covered in grime and blood--are beautifully presented. And what takes it into a different realm than most films is the eerie sequence in the afterlife, where the German soldier is given the chance to atone for his actions.

The film has no dialogue, and the only audio is a reading of Wilfred Owenís poetry and then the music and lyrics of War Requiem. At times, this is incredibly effective. Real war footage or Swintonís nurse howling in agony over the loss of a soldier are accompanied by the dramatic strains of the opera. Any notion that the fanfare of the music might lend the sequences a celebratory note are quickly dismissed by the misery and gore on display.

At the same time, the use of the music had a distancing effect for me. The intensity of the score required a bit of endurance, and I felt my attention flagging in the middle third of the film. The afterlife sequence in the last act is very strong and so the film ends on a high note.

Recommended for Jarman fans, less so for those who donít strongly vibe with his style.

Men, 2022

Harper (Jessie Buckley) has decided to rent a house out in the country in a small village as she tries to cope with the traumatic death, most likely a suicide, of her husband, James (Paapa Essiedu). But the village itself is strange, seemingly populated only by men, all wearing the same face as the man, Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) who rented her the house.

While built on a really neat premise, this one doesnít quite bridge the gap between its interesting ideas and the specifics of its characters.

In a film as clearly symbolic as this one, a viewer canít help but decide what they think it all means. For me, this was an examination of the way that a person, and especially someone with whom we have a complex, intimate relationship, can have different dimensions to their persona. Escaping an unhealthy relationship becomes difficult because itís easy to get tangled up with the different versions of someone, navigating their shifts in persona rather than finding a way to break things off.

The moments in the film where this is most effective is when the different men play off of one another, with one man offering protection or relief from the stress caused by another. The moralizing priest invites sympathy when he speaks kindly to Harper after a young man swears at her. Geoffrey diffuses Harperís fears when she becomes convinced that sheís being stalked, bravely investigating the house and yard when she says that she thinks someone is there.

I think that the film gets at an uncomfortable truth about relationships that are unhealthy or even overtly abusive (as is the relationship between Harper and James): very rarely is it all bad. There is almost always laughter or tenderness or a little act of kindness. And those bright spots are what sow doubt and guilt when it comes to wanting to end things. Harper is kept just on the edge of wanting to leave, and in her isolation she must rely on the cues of the men around her to decide if she is safe or not. Harper shares physical space with other women for only about a minute or two in the entire film. With no friendly faces around, she begins to lose her bearings.

The performances themselves are good, with Buckleyís Harper arriving as a woman already somewhat unraveled, fighting against having her week of rest and healing derailed. Kinnear does a good job of giving the various characters enough of a distinctive personality that it lifts itself out of just being a gimmick.

Where the film doesnít work quite as well is in the lack of context of the relationship between James and Harper. The James that we see in the film is pretty monstrous. He is verbally and physically aggressive with Harper. He is cruel and manipulative, telling Harper that if she leaves him he will kill himself so that sheíll have to live with the guilt of his death. The function of the film is to allegorically show us the way that Harper has to fight through the different ďmenĒ that her husband was: caretaker, moralizer, impulsive, mentally unstable, protector, etc. But we are only shown the bad sides of James, and so Harperís conflict over his death doesnít land very well. Five minutes of watching James berate, punch, and threaten Harper and I felt like his death was probably in her best interest in some ways. The allegorical village is meant to hold a mirror up to James, but weíre shown only a superficial and unflattering picture of the man to go off of.

There are some pretty gnarly visuals, and the film was more gruesome than I expected. I found myself appreciating the imagery and gore, and was also surprised at how much I liked the overbearing score.

This one doesnít quite nail the exploration of its themes, but is worth checking out for good performances and satisfying visuals and mood.